William IV of the United Kingdom

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1750-1900; Monarchs of Great Britain

William IV
King of the United Kingdom; King of Hanover (more...)
Reign 26 June 1830 — 20 June 1837
Predecessor George IV
Successor Victoria
Consort Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen
Princess Charlotte of Clarence
Princess Elizabeth of Clarence
Full name
William Henry
HM The King
HRH The Duke of Clarence
HRH The Prince William
Royal house House of Hanover
Royal anthem God Save the King
Father George III
Mother Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Born 21 August 1765
Buckingham House, London
Baptised 18 September 1765
St James's Palace, London
Died 20 June 1837 (aged 71)
Windsor Castle, Berkshire
Burial 8 July 1837
St George's Chapel, Windsor
Occupation Military (Naval)

William IV (William Henry; 21 August 1765 – 20 June 1837) was King of the United Kingdom and of Hanover from 26 June 1830 until his death. William, the third son of George III and younger brother and successor to George IV, was the last king and penultimate monarch of the House of Hanover.

During his youth, he served in the Royal Navy; he was, both during his reign and afterwards, nicknamed the Sailor King. His reign was one of several reforms: the poor law updated, municipal government democratised, child labour restricted and slavery abolished throughout the British Empire. The most important reform legislation of William IV's reign was the Reform Act 1832, which refashioned the British electoral system. William did not engage in politics so much as his brother or his father, though he did prove to be the most recent monarch to appoint a Prime Minister contrary to the will of Parliament (in 1834). He gave a liberal constitution to the Kingdom of Hanover, his other kingdom.

William had two legitimate children, Princess Charlotte and Elizabeth; both of whom died as infants. He had ten children out of wedlock, George FitzClarence, 1st Earl of Munster among them. Though nine of his illegitimate children survived him, neither legitimate daughter did, thus, William was succeeded by his niece, Queen Victoria.

Early life

William was born on 21 August 1765 at Buckingham House, the son of George III and Queen Charlotte. He had two elder brothers (Prince George, Prince of Wales and Prince Frederick, Duke of York), and was not expected to inherit the Crown. He was baptized in the Great Council Chamber of St James's Palace on 18 September 1765 and his godparents were the Duke of Gloucester, Prince Henry and Princess Augusta Charlotte.

At the age of thirteen, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, and was present at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1780. He served in New York during the American War of Independence. While the prince was there, George Washington approved a plot to kidnap the prince, writing "The spirit of enterprise so conspicuous in your plan for surprising in their quarters and bringing off the Prince William Henry and Admiral Digby merits applause, and you have my authority to make the attempt in any manner, and at such a time, as your judgment may direct. I am fully persuaded, that it is unnecessary to caution you against offering insult or indignity to the person of the Prince...." The plot did not come to fruition; the British heard of it and doubled the prince's guard.

William became a Lieutenant in 1785 and a Captain the following year. In 1786, he was stationed in the West Indies. Horatio Nelson wrote of William, "In his professional line, he is superior to two-thirds, I am sure, of the [Naval] list; and in attention to orders, and respect to his superior officer, I hardly know his equal."

William sought to be made a Duke like his elder brothers, and to receive a similar Parliamentary grant; but his father was reluctant. To put pressure on him, William threatened to run for the House of Commons for the constituency of Totnes in Devon. Appalled at the prospect of his son making his case to the voters, George III created him Duke of Clarence and St Andrews and Earl of Munster on May 16, 1789, supposedly saying, "I well know it is one more vote added to the opposition."

Service and politics

The newly created Duke ceased his active service in the Royal Navy in 1790. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral upon retirement. When the United Kingdom declared war on France in 1793, he was anxious to serve his country, but was not put in command of a ship. Instead, he spent time in the House of Lords, where he defended the exorbitant spending of his brother, the Prince of Wales, who had applied to Parliament for a grant for relief of his debts. He also spoke in favour of the abolition of slavery (which, although it had virtually died out in the United Kingdom, still existed in the British colonies); he used his experience in the West Indies to defend his positions.


After he left the Royal Navy, the Duke of Clarence had a long affair with an Irish actress, Dorothea Bland, better known by her stage name, Mrs. Jordan (the title "Mrs" was assumed at the start of her stage career to explain an inconvenient pregnancy). From 1791, the couple had ten illegitimate children, who were given the surname "FitzClarence." The affair would last for twenty years before ending in 1811. In that same year, Clarence was appointed Admiral of the Fleet. When Princess Charlotte, Clarence's niece by the Prince Regent died in childbirth in 1817, the King was left with twelve children, and no legitimate grandchildren. The race was on among the Royal Dukes to marry and produce an heir.

William had a great advantage in this race--with his two older brothers both childless and estranged from their wives (both women were probably beyond childbearing anyway), he would almost certainly become King, if he lived long enough--which was likely, as the former sailor took more care with his health than either older brother. However, William's first choices to wed either met with the disapproval of the Prince Regent or turned him down. His younger brother, the Duke of Cambridge, was sent to Germany to scout out the available Protestant princesses, and, after coming up with one whom William laughingly turned down when it became clear that the Duke of Cambridge was in love with her himself (and shortly thereafter, married her), came up with one who was amicable, home-loving, and loved children (important, with William's ten children, most of whom had not yet reached adulthood). On 13 July 1818, Clarence married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, a woman half his age. Though he had been able to father at least ten illegitimate children by Mrs Jordan, Clarence had only two short-lived children by his wife.

The marriage, which lasted almost twenty years until William's death, was by all accounts happy. The new Duchess took both William and his finances in hand. Soon, the couple were living in economical fashion in Germany, William's debts were on the way of being paid (especially once he accepted the lower-than-requested allowance Parliament had passed for him and his wife), and William is not known to have had mistresses.

Lord High Admiral

Clarence's elder brother, the Prince of Wales, had been Prince Regent since 1811 because of the mental illness of their father, George III. In 1820, the king died, leaving the Crown to the Prince Regent, who became George IV. The Duke of Clarence was now second in the line of succession to the Throne, preceded only by his brother, Frederick, Duke of York. When the Duke of York died in 1827, Clarence, then more than sixty years old, became heir presumptive. Later that year, George IV appointed Clarence to the office of Lord High Admiral, which had been in commission (that is, exercised by a board rather than by a single individual) since 1709. While in office, Clarence attempted to take independent control of naval affairs, although the law required him to act, under most circumstances, on the advice of at least two members of his Council. The King, through the Prime Minister, requested his resignation in 1828; the Duke of Clarence complied.

Despite the difficulties which the Duke experienced, he did considerable good as Lord High Admiral, abolishing the cat o' nine tails for most offences other than mutiny and requiring regular reports of the condition and preparedness of each ship. He commissioned the first steam warship and advocated for more. William's biographer, Phillip Ziegler, points out that holding the office permitted William to make mistakes and learn from them - a process that might have been far more costly had he done so as King.

As king, he would maintain his interest in the Royal Navy, in matters great and small. As a former sailor, well aware of the limited headroom on the vessels of the day, William gave the Royal Navy the privilege of drinking the sovereign's health sitting down while aboard ship.

William spent the remaining time during his brothers' reign in the House of Lords. He supported the Catholic Emancipation Bill against the opposition of his brother (and eventual Hanoverian heir), Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, describing the latter's position on the Bill as "infamous", to the younger Duke's outrage.

Accession and the Reform Crisis

William IV
William IV
British Royalty
House of Hanover
William IV
    Princess Charlotte of Clarence
    Princess Elizabeth of Clarence

When George IV died in 1830 without surviving legitimate issue, the Duke of Clarence ascended the Throne, aged 64, as William IV - the oldest man ever to assume the throne. One legend has it that when informed, in the early morning, of his brother's passing, he stated his intent to return to bed, as he had long wished to sleep with a Queen. Unlike his extravagant brother, William was unassuming, discouraging pomp and ceremony. In contrast to George IV, who tended to spend most of his time in Windsor Castle, William was known, especially early in his reign, to walk, unaccompanied, through London or Brighton. Until the Reform Crisis eroded his standing, he was very popular among the people.

Upon taking the throne, William did not forget his nine surviving illegitimate children, creating his eldest son Earl of Munster and granting the other children the precedence of a younger son (or daughter) of a marquess, except where a daughter had attained a higher rank by marriage (as one daughter had by marrying an earl).

At the beginning of William IV's reign, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister. During the general election of 1830 (the death of the monarch then required fresh elections), however, Wellington's Tories lost to the Whig Party under Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. When he became Prime Minister, Lord Grey immediately announced that he would attempt to reform an electoral system that had seen few changes since the fifteenth century. The ineqities in the system were great; for example, large towns such as Manchester and Birmingham elected no members (though they were part of county constituencies), whilst minuscule boroughs such as Old Sarum (with seven voters) elected two members of Parliament each. Often, the small boroughs—also known as rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs—were "owned" by great aristocrats, whose "nominees" would invariably be elected by the constituents--who were, most often, their tenants--especially since the secret ballot was not yet used in Parliamentary elections.

Monarchical Styles of
King William IV of the United Kingdom
Reference style His Majesty
Spoken style Your Majesty
Alternative style Sir

As monarch, William IV played an important role in the Reform Crisis. When the House of Commons defeated the First Reform Bill in 1831, Lord Grey's ministry urged an immediate dissolution of Parliament and a new general election. At first, William hesitated to exercise the power to dissolve Parliament, elections having just been held the year before. He was, however, irritated by the conduct of the Opposition, which formally requested the passage of an Address, or resolution, in the House of Lords, against dissolution. Regarding the Opposition's motion as an attack on his power, William IV went in person to the House of Lords, where debate on the Address was raging, and prorogued Parliament. Had he sent commissioners on his behalf, as was (and still is) normally done, they would have had to await the end of the debate, whereas the arrival of the monarch ended all debate. This forced new elections for the House of Commons, which yielded a great victory for the reformers. But although the House of Commons was clearly in favour of parliamentary reform, the House of Lords remained implacably opposed to it.

The crisis saw a brief interlude for the celebration of the King's Coronation on 9 September 1831. At first, the King wished to dispense with the coronation entirely, feeling that his wearing the crown while proroguing Parliament answered any need. He was persuaded otherwise by traditionalists. He refused, however, to celebrate the coronation in the expensive way his brother had, dispensing with the banquet, and budgeting less than a tenth of what had been expended ten years previously--and the event was brought in well under budget. When traditionalist Tories threatened to boycott what they called the " Half Crown-nation", the King retorted that they should go ahead, and that he anticipated greater convenience of room and less heat. They did not do so.

After the rejection of the Second Reform Bill (1831) by the Upper House, people across the country began to agitate for reform; some grew violent, participating in several "Reform Riots". The nation saw a political crisis greater than any since the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

In the face of popular excitement, the Grey ministry refused to accept defeat in the House of Lords, and re-introduced the Bill. It passed easily in the House of Commons, but was once again faced with difficulties in the House of Lords. Bowing to popular pressure, the Lords did not reject the bill outright, but were prepared to change its basic character through amendments. Frustrated by the Lords' recalcitrance, Grey suggested that the King "swamp" the House of Lords by creating a sufficient number of new peers to ensure the passage of the Reform Bill.

When William IV refused, citing the difficulties with a permanent expansion of the Peerage, Grey and his fellow ministers resigned. The King attempted to restore the Duke of Wellington to office, but first heard of an official resolution of the House of Commons requesting Grey's return. On the Duke of Wellington's advice, the King agreed to reappoint Grey's ministry. The King also agreed to create new peers if the House of Lords continued to pose difficulties, but did not have to resort to such an extraordinary course of action when the bill's opponents agreed to abstain. Consequently, Parliament passed the bill, which became the Reform Act 1832. Parliament proceeded to other reforms, including the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire and the restriction of child labour, but William IV had little to do with their passage.

Later life

Half-Crown of William IV, 1836. The inscription reads GULIELMUS IIII D(ei) G(ratia) BRITANNIAR REX F(idei) D(efensor) (William IV by the Grace of God King of the Britons, Defender of the Faith)
Half-Crown of William IV, 1836. The inscription reads GULIELMUS IIII D(ei) G(ratia) BRITANNIAR REX F(idei) D(efensor) (William IV by the Grace of God King of the Britons, Defender of the Faith)

For the remainder of his reign, William interfered actively in politics only once, in 1834; when he became the last Sovereign to choose a Prime Minister contrary to the will of Parliament. Two years after the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, the ministry had become unpopular and also lost the King's support due to its support for the reform of the Church of Ireland. In 1834, Lord Grey resigned; one of the Whigs in his cabinet, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, replaced him. The Melbourne administration, for the most part, included the same members as the Grey administration; though disliked by many in the country, it retained an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Some members of the Government, however, were obnoxious to the King.

In October 1834, the Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, inherited a peerage, thus removing him from the House of Commons to the Lords. Because of this, he was forced to relinquish his posts—a member of the House of Lords could, of course, not hold a position in the House of Commons, and traditionally, a member of the Commons was Chancellor of the Exchequer. All agreed that this required a partial reconstruction of the Cabinet, but William IV claimed that the ministry had been weakened beyond repair. He used the removal of Lord Althorp—not from the Government, but from one House to the other—as the pretext for the dismissal of the entire ministry.

With Lord Melbourne gone, William IV chose to entrust power to a Tory, Sir Robert Peel. Since Peel was then in Italy, the Duke of Wellington was provisionally appointed Prime Minister. When Peel returned and assumed leadership of the ministry for himself, he saw the impossibility of governing because of the large Whig majority in the House of Commons. Consequently, the King dissolved Parliament and forced fresh elections. Although the Tories won more seats than the previous election, they were still in the minority. Peel remained in office for a few months, but resigned after a series of parliamentary defeats. Lord Melbourne was restored to the Prime Minister's office, remaining there for the rest of William's reign.

While William was King of Hanover as well as the United Kingdom, he never visited Hanover as King. His brother, the Duke of Cambridge, acted as regent throughout his reign. In 1833 Hanover was given a constitution which gave political power to the middle class, and some limited power to the lower classes. The Constitution also expanded the power of the parliament of Hanover. The constitution was revoked after William's death by the new king, William's brother, HRH Prince Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland on the grounds that his consent, as heir presumptive to the Hanoverian throne, had not been asked.

Both the King and Queen were fond of their niece, HRH Princess Victoria of Kent. Their attempts to forge a close relationship with the girl were frustrated by the conflict between the King and the Duchess of Kent, the young princess's mother. The King, angered at what he took to be disrespect from the Duchess to his wife, publicly expressed his hope that he would survive until Princess Victoria was 18--the age at which she would no longer need a regency. He would survive to that point, and surpass it by one month.

William IV died from heart failure in 1837 in Windsor Castle, where he was buried. As he had no living legitimate issue, the Crown of the United Kingdom passed to Princess Victoria. Under the Salic Law, a woman could not rule Hanover; thus, the Hanoverian Crown went to William IV's brother, HRH Prince Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. William's death thus ended the personal union of Britain and Hanover, which had persisted since 1714. Although William IV had no legitimate children, and is, therefore, not the direct ancestor of the later monarchs of the United Kingdom, he has many descendants through his illegitimate family with Mrs Jordan, including Conservative leader David Cameron, the TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis and author and statesman Duff Cooper.

Titles, styles, honours and arms


  • 1765- 1789: His Royal Highness The Prince William
  • 1789- 1830: His Royal Highness The Duke of Clarence
  • 1830- 1837: His Majesty The King


William's official style as King was, "William the Fourth, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith".


British Honours


His arms were:- Quarterly, I and IV Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or (for England); II Or a lion rampant within a tressure flory-counter-flory Gules (for Scotland); III Azure a harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland); overall an escutcheon tierced per pale and per chevron (for Hanover), I Gules two lions passant guardant Or (for Brunswick), II Or a semy of hearts Gules a lion rampant Azure (for Lüneburg), III Gules a horse courant Argent (for Westfalen), the whole inescutcheon surmounted by a crown.


William IV's ancestors in three generations
William IV of the United Kingdom Father:
George III of the United Kingdom
Paternal grandfather:
Frederick, Prince of Wales
Paternal great-grandfather:
George II of Great Britain
Paternal great-grandmother:
Caroline of Ansbach
Paternal grandmother:
Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha
Paternal great-grandfather:
Frederick II, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg
Paternal great-grandmother:
Magdalena Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst
Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Maternal grandfather:
Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Prince of Mirow
Maternal great-grandfather:
Adolf Frederick II, Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Maternal great-grandmother:
Christiane Emilie von Schwarzburg-Sondershausen
Maternal grandmother:
Princess Elizabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen
Maternal great-grandfather:
Ernst Frederick I, Duke of Saxe-Hildburghausen
Maternal great-grandmother:
Sophia Albertine of Erbach-Erbach


All legitimate issue of William IV were born, and died, before his accession to the throne. They were therefore styled as Prince/ ss of Clarence with the style of Royal Highness.

Name Birth Death Notes
Princess Charlotte of Clarence 21 March 1819, The Furstenhof, Hanover 21 March 1819, Hanover Charlotte Augusta Louisa
Princess Elizabeth of Clarence 10 December 1820, St. James's Palace 4 March 1821, London Elizabeth Georgiana Adelaide
Twin boys 23 April 1822, Bushy Park stillborn


A statue of William IV in Göttingen, Germany
A statue of William IV in Göttingen, Germany

William's reign was short, but eventful. The ascendancy of the House of Commons and the corresponding decline of the House of Lords was marked by the Reform Crisis, during which the threat of flooding the Upper House with peers was used effectively for the first time by a ministry. The weakening of the House of Lords continued during the nineteenth century, and culminated during the twentieth century with the passage of the Parliament Act 1911. The same threat which had been used during the Reform Crisis—the threat to flood the House of Lords by creating several new peers—was used to procure the passage of the Parliament Act.

The reduction in the influence of the Crown was clearly indicated by the events of William's reign, especially the dismissal of the Melbourne ministry. The crisis relating to Melbourne's dismissal also indicated the reduction in the King's influence with the people. During the reign of George III, the King could have dismissed one ministry, appointed another, dissolved Parliament, and expected the people to vote in favour of the new administration. Such was the result of a dissolution in 1784, after the dismissal of the Coalition Ministry; such was the result of a dissolution in 1807, after the dismissal of William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville. But when William IV dismissed the Melbourne ministry, the Tories under Sir Robert Peel were not able to win the ensuing elections. Thus, the King's ability to influence the opinion of the people, and therefore generally dictate national policy, had been reduced. None of William's successors has attempted to remove a ministry and appoint another against the wishes of Parliament.

Popular culture

"Silly Billy" — so recalled by Mrs Goodbody in Agatha Christie's novel, Hallowe'en Party, 1969 (Chapter 16).

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