I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.

William IV (1765-1837)

This article was written by John Knox Laughton and was published in 1900

William IV the king of Great Britain and Ireland, was the third son of George III and of his queen, Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He was born in Buckingham Palace on the morning of 21 August 1765, and was baptised by the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Secker, as William Henry. On 5 April 1770 he was nominated a knight of the Thistle.

His early years were passed for the most part at Kew, where he was educated under the charge of Dr. John James Majendie and Major-general Budé, a Swiss with a commission in the army of Hanover. While William was still a child, his father determined that he should serve in the navy, and on his visit to Portsmouth in May 1778 had arranged with Captain Robert Digby that he should, in due time, go to sea with him. He also talked the matter over with Sir Samuel Hood, then commissioner in the dockyard, to whom he wrote, 12 July 1778, asking him ‘to write down what clothes, necessaries, and books he ought to take... He has begun geometry, and I shall have an attention to forward him in whatever you may hint as proper to be done before he enters into that glorious profession.’ In May 1779 it was arranged that the boy should embark on board the Prince George, Digby's flagship, and on the 27th the king wrote to Hood that he had ‘sent an hair-trunk, two chests, and two cots done up in one mat to be delivered unto you for the use of my young sailor. ... I flatter myself you will be pleased with the appearance of the boy, who neither wants resolution nor cheerfulness, which seem necessary ingredients for those who enter into that noble profession.’

On 11 June the king wrote again, introducing Mr. Majendie, ‘who is to attend my son on board of the Prince George, to pursue his classical studies. The young midshipman will be at the dockyard between one and two on Monday (14th). I desire he may be received without the smallest marks of parade. I trust the admiral will order him immediately on board. ... The young man goes as a sailor, and as such, I add again, no marks of distinction are to be shown unto him; they would destroy my whole plan.’ It had, however, been provided that he should be allowed ‘a small place made with light sufficient for following his studies.’

As soon as he arrived he was sent on board the Prince George, on whose books he was borne as an ‘able seaman;’ Henry Majendie being borne as a midshipman. In the Prince George he took part in the August cruise of the Channel fleet under Sir Charles Hardy (1716?-1780), and in the relief of Gibraltar in January 1780. On 18 January 1780 he was rated midshipman. The familiar story of his having been seen doing duty as a midshipman by the Spanish admiral, Don Juan de Langara, belongs to this time. Langara, who had been taken prisoner in the action off Cape St. Vincent was, while at Gibraltar, paying a visit to Digby on board the Prince George, and is said to have exclaimed, when the prince reported his boat ready, ‘Well does Great Britain merit the empire of the sea, when the humblest stations in her navy are supported by princes of the blood’. The broad facts of the story are probably historical; but it may be doubted if any Spanish admiral in 1780 would have spoken of Great Britain as meriting the empire of the sea. Other stories told of the same time — the prince's quarrel with a midshipman named Sturt, and his fight with Lieutenant Moodie of the marines — are probable enough; that Sturt and Moodie were his shipmates is shown by the Prince George's pay-book.

Rodney's success of itself was sufficient to excite the popular enthusiasm, which was much increased by the young prince's share in it, and by his return to London bringing to his father the flag of Langara and a plan of Gibraltar drawn by himself. When he visited Drury Lane Theatre a tremendous crush welcomed him; but when the king found that he was being initiated by his elder brothers in the dissipations of the town, and had been carried off to the watch-house for brawling at Vauxhall or Ranelagh, he promptly sent him back to his ship, in which he was present in the cruise of the Channel fleet under (Sir) Francis Geary . In August Geary retired from the command, and in doing so gave a farewell dinner to the captains, to which he invited Prince William, who is said to have surprised both host and guests by replying to the toast of ‘The King’ in a long-winded, rambling speech, the first of a very great many similar speeches which he made during a long life.

In a visit to London after this he is said to have fallen deeply in love with a Miss Fortescue, described as a girl of sixteen, whom he would have married but for ‘the iniquitous Royal Marriage Act,’ for which the king was entirely responsible. That his father thought the boy was behaving like a young fool and cut short his holiday by sending him back to his ship is extremely probable. In the Prince George, William was present at the second relief of Gibraltar under Darby, and afterwards went out to New York, where, in March-April 1782, he narrowly escaped being kidnapped by an agent of Washington's. After this it was probably thought that he would be safer in a sea-going ship, and he was lent to the Warwick, then commanded by Captain George Keith Elphinstone . On 19 April he was nominated a K.G. On 4 November. he was moved to the Barfleur, the flagship of Lord Hood, with whom he went to the West Indies.

It was at this time, while still at New York, that he made the acquaintance of Nelson, then captain of the Albemarle, whose intense loyalty gave him, it may be, a too favourable opinion of the son of his king. In the West Indies they saw a good deal of each other, and the prince even then formed a high opinion of Nelson's character and ability. On the other hand, Nelson wrote of the prince:

He is a seaman, which you could hardly suppose. He will be a disciplinarian, and a strong one. He says he is determined every person shall serve his time before they shall be provided for, as he is obliged to serve his. A vast deal of notice has been taken of him at Jamaica; he has been addressed by the Council, and the House of Assembly were to address him the day after I sailed. He has his levees at Spanish Town. They are all highly delighted with him. With the best temper and great good sense, he cannot fail of being pleasing to every one.

In the end of April 1783, when the Barfleur left Jamaica for England, it was thought well that the prince should accept the invitation of the governor of Havana and visit that place. He accordingly went on board the Fortunée frigate, and, in company with the Albemarle, arrived off Havana on the forenoon of 9 May. The prince immediately landed, under a royal salute, and was received on shore with royal honours. On the morning of the 11th Prince William re-embarked in the Fortunée, and before noon rejoined the Barfleur, which arrived at Spithead on 27 June, when the royal midshipman was discharged to the shore.

After this for nearly two years he travelled in Germany and Italy, getting into many scrapes, quarrels with gamblers, and entanglements with young women, till, on his return to England in the summer of 1785, he passed his examination, and was at once, 17 June, promoted to be lieutenant of the Hebe, carrying the broad pennant of Commodore John Leveson-Gower , and commanded by Captain Edward Thornbrough , who had the reputation of being one of the smartest seamen in the navy. In the following March he was appointed to the Pegasus frigate, and on 10 April was promoted to be her captain. In the Pegasus he went to the West Indies, where he was again associated with Nelson, and formed a considerable degree of intimacy with him. The two were constantly together. When Nelson was married the prince gave away the bride, and Nelson's affectionate and loyal nature was completely won. ‘In every respect, both as a man and a prince, I love him,’ he wrote to his brother on 9 February 1787; and to Captain William Locker , on the same day: ‘His Royal Highness keeps up strict discipline in his ship; and, without paying him any compliment, she is one of the first ordered frigates I have seen. He has had more plague with his officers than enough; his first lieutenant will, I have no doubt, be broke’. The prince's quarrel with his first lieutenant was perhaps a natural result of appointing an officer of experience to control or keep out of scrapes a self-willed and opinionated young captain but Schomberg was not the only officer of the Pegasus who found the prince's rule intolerable. So far from considering it an honour and a privilege to serve under his command, the lieutenants made what interest they could to get out of the ship. They said openly that ‘no officer could serve under the prince but that sooner or later he must be broke.’

In consequence of the prince's dispute with his first lieutenant, Nelson sent the Pegasus to Jamaica, where the commodore smoothed matters by appointing Schomberg to another ship; after which the Pegasus went to Quebec and thence to England, where she arrived in the end of December. ‘I returned from Plymouth three days ago,’ Nelson wrote on 27 January 1788, ‘and found Prince William everything I could wish — respected by all. ... The Pegasus is allowed by every one to be one of the best disciplined ships that ever came into Plymouth. But the great folks above now see he will not be a cipher, therefore many of the rising people must submit to act subordinate to him, which is not so palatable; and I think a lord of the admiralty — Gower, presumably — is hurt to see him so able, after what he has said about him’. On 1 March 1788 Prince William commissioned the Andromeda, attached to the Channel fleet during the summer and afterwards sent out to the West Indies; she arrived at Port Royal on 15 November. At this time the prince assumed more of the state of royalty than he had hitherto been allowed. On 25 November he held a levee on board the Europa, Commodore Gardner's flagship, the royal standard being hoisted, the ships firing a royal salute, manning yards and cheering. On 6 December he landed at Port Royal with the standard in the bow of his boat, and was received on shore ‘as a prince of the blood.’ His order-book, too, is very precise and detailed as to dress, conduct, &c.; and though the several instructions were not uncommon, taken all together they give the idea of a more stringent etiquette than was customary, especially in a frigate. On 20 May 1789 the prince was created Earl of Munster and Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews.

On 3 June the Andromeda was paid off at Portsmouth. In the following May the prince was appointed to command the Valiant in the fleet got together in consequence of the dispute with Spain relative to Nootka Sound. The Valiant was paid off on 27 November, and on 3 December the Duke of Clarence was specially promoted to be rear-admiral. The promotion marked the end of his service afloat, successive admiralties and the king being determined that he should not be employed. That during the eleven years since he had entered the navy, nine of them in active service, he had learnt his business, there is no reason to doubt; but, notwithstanding the eulogies of Nelson, there is great reason to doubt his ability as an officer, nor does anything in his whole history suggest that he could possibly have made an efficient admiral. That the admiralty recognised this would seem certain; but to the king they probably represented it as unfitting that a prince of the blood should be exposed to the risks and dangers inseparable from naval warfare.

The period of his command of the Valiant, and the certainty thus afforded that he was in England or in English waters during the summer and autumn of 1790, are interesting as establishing the falsehood of a romance published in Leipzig in 1880; this purported to be the confessions of Caroline von Linsingen, of an amour with William beginning in April 1790, continued, with much sentimental love-making, through 1790 to August 1791, when the love-sick pair married, and till August 1792, when the marriage was consummated. It was shown at once that the whole story, which has been received in Germany as historical is utterly unsupported and incredible; but a reference to the dates shows that it is impossible, and that, whether intentionally or an hysteric hallucination, it is wholly untrue.

It was in the end of 1790 or the beginning of 1791 that the Duke of Clarence formed the connection with Mrs. Jordan, which continued for rather more than twenty years and gave rise to much scandal and public ill-feeling. The duke was appointed ranger of Bushey Park, and at Bushey Mrs. Jordan lived in the intervals of her theatrical engagements, and was there recognised as the mistress of the duke's household, taking the head of the table at dinner parties, with the Prince of Wales — when present — at her right hand. The duke is said to have allowed her £1,000 a year, and Mrs. Jordan spoke of his unfailing liberality; but the facts that during these years she continued on the stage, in receipt of large sums (£7,000 was named as her professional income), and that on separating from the duke in 1811 she was reported to be in very needy circumstances, gave rise to the popular belief that the duke had been living on her earnings; that she kept him, not he her. This appears incorrect, but the matter was and still is veiled in mystery. It was, however, admitted that want of money led to the separation. There was no quarrel; and, indeed, Mrs. Jordan's letters refer to the duke as generous and affectionate, but obliged, much against his will, to leave her. It was said that he intended to marry an heiress — any heiress; two were particularly named; and his supposed rejection by them formed the subject of numerous ballads, more or less scurrilous, by ‘Peter Pindar’ and others.

But it was only when some scandalmongers could make capital out of the duke's errors or eccentricities that he appeared as a public character. In the beginning of the war he earnestly desired to serve afloat, if only as a volunteer; but his applications for employment were ignored or refused. Later on he resided pretty constantly at Bushey ‘and brought up his numerous children with very tender affection; with them, and for them, he seemed entirely to live’. He is said also to have been well read in naval history, even in minute details and his correspondence with naval officers — Nelson more especially — is a proof that he continued to take very great interest in the navy, and followed the course of events with attention. These letters tell of professional intelligence, but on other matters his incapacity was often painfully apparent, the more so as then and throughout his life he had a mania for making speeches without any regard to the fitness of things; as when in 1800-1 he delivered a course of lectures on the wickedness of adultery to the House of Lords; and in presence of his elder brothers, described an adulterer as ‘an insidious and designing villain, who would ever be held in disgrace and abhorrence by an enlightened and civilised society’. There was, indeed, very often a rude commonsense in his remarks; but the rambling manner in which they were tacked together and uttered made them sound like foolishness; and the total disregard of times and seasons and the feelings or prejudices of his hearers excited an antagonism which took its revenge in nicknaming him ‘Silly Billy.’

In such circumstances his promotions in the navy were little more than nominal. He was made a vice-admiral on 12 April 1794; an admiral on 14 April 1799; and, on the death of Sir Peter Parker (1721-1811), admiral of the fleet on 24 December 1811. This last promotion, though to the Duke of Clarence little more than an empty honour, was a material wrong to his brother officers; for the rule was then, as it always had been, that there could be only one admiral of the fleet, or, as he was called in his commission, commander-in-chief; so that, the post being filled by the duke, it could not reward the services of any other admiral. It was not till 1821 that George IV remedied the grievance by introducing the apparent anomaly of two commanders-in-chief, and promoted the Earl of St. Vincent. As admiral of the fleet, however, the Duke of Clarence, with his flag on board the Jason frigate, commanded the escort of Louis XVIII on his return to France in April 1814; and in June, with his flag in the Impregnable, commanded the fleet at Spithead when reviewed by the prince regent and the allied sovereigns.

The death of the Princess Charlotte in 1817, the flutter among the king's younger sons, and the duke's marriage on 18 July 1818 to Adelaide, eldest daughter of George, duke of Saxe-Coburg Meiningen, brought him momentarily before the public eye. The year after his marriage he spent in Hanover; but in 1820 he returned to Bushey, where he continued to reside in social obscurity till the death of the Duke of York in January 1827, which left him heir to the throne (the joint income of the duke and duchess, which had hitherto been £26,500, was after considerable opposition raised by parliament to £38,500), and his acceptance in April of the office of lord high admiral in the Canning administration again brought him into notice.

In making this appointment there was no intention to revert to the government of the navy by one man, vested with all the power and prerogatives attached to the office of lord high admiral, and this was clearly stated in the patent. The Duke of Clarence, with no individual authority apart from his ‘council,’ was to be virtually first lord of the admiralty, under a different name, and with an exceptionally strong board, now called the ‘duke's council,’ at the head of which was Sir George Cockburn. It was supposed that the duke, who had not been in active service for nearly forty years — years, too, of great events and changes — would readily acquiesce in this arrangement, but this he absolutely refused to do, just as when a young captain he had refused to be dry-nursed by an old lieutenant. He wished to be lord high admiral in fact as well as in name, with the result that between him and his council there were continual differences which could not always be quietly settled. It does not, indeed, appear that he ever acted counter to the decisions of the cabinet on questions of policy, though the freedom of his speech and the eccentricity of his conduct gave rise to many reports; such as that in September 1827 he wrote to Sir Edward Codrington in three words, ‘Go it, Ned,’ or at greater length, ‘Go in, my dear Ned, and smash these damned Turks,’ a story which a knowledge of the duke's correspondence is sufficient to refute, even without the specific contradiction given it by Sir William Codrington. It was out of matters of detail and administration that difficulties arose. He refused to be bound by the limitations of the patent. He ordered departmental commissions without consulting his colleagues; if he acquainted them with it afterwards, it was rather as a matter of courtesy than of obligation. He ordered promotions on the whim of the moment, and expected them to be made. ‘You're a damned fine fellow,’ he said to one lieutenant who had spun him a yarn of adventure; ‘go and tell Sir George he's to promote you at once.’ Cockburn refused. ‘We know quite as much about you,’ he said, ‘as his royal highness does, perhaps more, but if we were to promote all the “damned fine fellows” in the service, we should be very short of lieutenants.’

On comparatively small points like these there was a great deal of friction; but matters came to a head in the summer of 1828, when the duke went on board the Royal Sovereign yacht, hoisted the lord high admiral's flag, and assumed military command. Cockburn remonstrated in a letter which the duke pronounced ‘disrespectful and impertinent.’ The Duke wrote to Wellington, who had succeeded as prime minister, desiring him to ask the king to remove Cockburn from the council and appoint Sir Charles Paget in his room. Wellington and, afterwards, the king both took Cockburn's view, that the duke had no authority to exercise military command; and the duke seemed to yield the point; but a few days later he went round to Plymouth in the yacht, again hoisted the lord high admiral's flag, and put to sea in command of the Channel fleet. This brought on him very strong letters from both the king and the prime minister, and on 11 August he resigned, ‘conceiving that, with the impediments thrown and intended to have been thrown in the way of the execution of my office, I could not have done justice either to the king or to my country’. During his short term of office he had ‘distinguished himself by making absurd speeches, by a morbid official activity, and by a general wildness which was thought to indicate incipient insanity’.

For a time he dropped back into something like his former obscurity, but George IV died on 26 June 1830, and the Duke of Clarence succeeded as William IV. He is said to have expressed a wish that the ‘old-fashioned’ and expensive coronation ceremony might be pretermitted; it took place eventually on 8 September 1831, the outlay, which amounted in the case of his predecessor to £240,000l, having been cut down by laborious economy to £30,000. The new king ‘threw himself into the arms of the Duke of Wellington — who was still prime minister — with the strongest expressions of confidence and esteem.’ Wellington, who had not been able to tolerate him as lord high admiral, was delighted with him as king, and told Greville ‘that he was so reasonable and tractable that he had done more business with him in ten minutes than with George IV in as many days.’ He presided at the council ‘very decently, and looked like a respectable old admiral’. ‘He began immediately to do good-natured things, to provide for old friends and professional adherents. There was never anything like the enthusiasm with which he was greeted by all ranks; though he has trotted about both town and country for sixty-four years and nobody ever turned round to look at him, he cannot stir now without a mob, patrician as well as plebeian, at his heels. But in the midst of all this success and good conduct certain indications of strangeness and oddness peep out which are not a little alarming, and he promises to realise the fears of his ministers that he will do and say too much, though they flatter themselves that they have muzzled him’. He had, in fact, all his life, when on shore, affected the manners and language of the rough and hearty tar; and this, added to much natural bonhomie, led him to do kindly things, and to set the etiquette of the court at defiance. ‘The king's good nature, simplicity, and affability to all about him are certainly very striking, and in his elevation he does not forget any of his old friends and companions. He was in no hurry to take upon himself the dignity of king, nor to throw off the habits and manners of a country gentleman. When Lord Chesterfield went to Bushey to kiss his hand and be presented to the queen, he found Sir John and Lady Gore there lunching, and when they went away the king called for their carriage, handed Lady Gore into it, and stood at the door to see them off. When Lord Howe came over from Twickenham to see him, he said the queen was going out driving, and should “drop him” at his own house’. Greville is full of stories of a similar kind, and adds, ‘he ought to be made to understand that his simplicity degenerates into vulgarity, and that without departing from his natural urbanity he may conduct himself so as not to lower the character with which he is invested, and which belongs not to him but to the country’.

But he never did learn this, and continued to the end the same garrulous, homely, kind-hearted old man, fond of making speeches, which were generally uncalled for, and frequently absurd; fierce in his dislikes but not vindictive, and liable to wild bursts of passion, when what little dignity remained was thrown utterly to the winds. One of the most extraordinary of these happened within a year of his death. He had always disliked the Duchess of Kent, who, on her side, had not endeavoured to conciliate him. Of the duchess's daughter, the Princess Victoria, he was extremely fond, and one of his grievances was that her mother would not allow her to come to see him as often as he wished. The dislike came to a head in August 1836, when he discovered that the duchess had appropriated a suite of rooms in Kensington Palace, which he had categorically refused to allow her; and at Windsor, on the 21st, at a dinner of over a hundred people, to celebrate his birthday, he broke out in one of the wildest and most outrageous speeches that even he ever uttered; and that, with the duchess sitting next to him, in the post of honour, at his right hand. The Princess Victoria, who was present, burst into tears; the company broke up in dismay, and the duchess ordered her carriage. A sort of reconciliation was, however, patched up, and she consented to remain till the next day.

Politically the conduct of affairs was, of course, in the hands of the successive administrations; and though it might have been supposed that he would resent the control which they exercised, quite as strongly as he had resented interference on board his frigate or at the admiralty, he did not do so. It would appear that in this case he really understood that the control was, in the very essence of the thing, inseparable from the position. He had, too, lived so long apart from politics that he can scarcely have had any very strong feeling, even on reform, which was the engrossing question of the early years of his reign. It would indeed appear that his personal opinion was in favour of it; he had, from his youth, interested himself in the condition of the poor, and parliamentary reform may very well have seemed to him a step towards its amelioration. Thus, when, in November 1830, the Duke of Wellington resigned, the king accepted Lord Grey and the whigs, and their stipulation that reform should be a cabinet measure The Reform Bill, brought in on 1 March 1831, passed the second reading in the House of Commons by a majority of one (302 to 301) on the 22nd; and when, in committee, a hostile amendment was carried by a majority of eight, 19 April, Grey proposed an appeal to the country. The opposition, assuming that the king must be adverse to reform, deplored his weakness in ‘neglecting the opportunity to emancipate himself from the thraldom of the whigs.’ The king, however, considered that in calling on Grey to form a ministry, he had pledged himself to accept reform, and that the virtual dismissal of them would be a dishonest violation of an implied compact.

Parliament was dissolved on 22 April, and in the new House of Commons the Reform Bill was passed by a large majority on 22 Sept. It was, however, thrown out by the lords on 8 October; but was brought in again and passed by the commons early in the next session, 22 March 1832. It was again rejected by the lords, and on the king's refusal to swamp the hostile majority by the creation of a large batch of peers, Grey resigned. The king appealed to Wellington, who was unable to form a ministry, and Grey returned to office on the understanding that the king would make the new peers if it should be found necessary. A circular letter from the king to the tory peers did away with the necessity; a hundred of them absented themselves from the divisions, and the bill became law. In other points in which, at the time, the king was blamed as having shown weakness or ignorance, it appears by later lights and, in particular by his own ‘Statement of his majesty's general proceedings, and of the principles by which he was guided from the period of his accession, 1830, to that of the recent change in the administration, 14 January 1835’, drawn up for Sir Robert Peel, that he was really guided by constitutional principles and the feelings of an honourable gentleman; while his exposition of foreign policy and his forecast of the course of affairs in the east, which was pretty exactly verified in 1840 — three years after his death — serve to show that though unused to public life, unversed in courtly etiquette and the conventionalities of London society, and grievously wanting in reticence and self-command, he had still the instincts of a statesman, and was very far from the fool, or imbecile, which it became the fashion to reckon him.

He had repeatedly expressed a wish, dictated by his hatred of the Duchess of Kent, that he might live till the Princess Victoria came of age — 24 May 1837 — so that the duchess might not be regent. His wish was just accomplished. He was taken seriously ill on 20 May, and — though with occasional rallies — grew gradually worse, till his death on the early morning of 20 June 1837. He was buried at Windsor on 8 July.

By the queen he had issue two daughters, both of whom died in infancy; his niece, the Princess Victoria, thus succeeded to the throne. By Mrs. Jordan he had ten children, whom from the first he recognised, and to whom he gave the name of FitzClarence. He regarded his connection with Mrs. Jordan as fully sanctioned by custom, and society made no difficulty about accepting the numerous ‘bastards,’ as Greville always calls them. His eldest son was George Augustus Frederick FitzClarence, earl of Munster. Once settled at Bushey, he led a regular life which — at any rate in comparison with that of his elder brothers — might be called moral. In old age, and influenced, perhaps, by the queen, he was certainly impressed by a feeling of religion which comforted and sustained his dying hours.

Meet the web creator

These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.

Last modified 12 January, 2016

The Age of George III Home Page

Ministerial Instability 1760-70

Lord North's Ministry 1770-82

American Affairs 1760-83

The period of peace 1783-92

The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815 Irish Affairs 1760-89

Peel Web Home Page

Tory Governments 1812-30

Political Organisations in the Age of Peel

Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel

Popular Movements in the Age of Peel

Irish Affairs
Primary sources index British Political Personalities British Foreign policy 1815-65 European history
index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind