The nineteenth century king William IV is not the best known of monarchs. In coming to write of him it might seem as though there is little to say. His obituary in The Times was as follows:
"The events of his life afford no fit material for the biographer; they partake so much of the common place of history. The simplicity of William IV's career before his accession to the Crown corresponds with that of his original mind and disposition. There was no involution or complexity in either. He met with no adventures on a grand scale; he displayed no gross, nor great, nor memorable attributes. There was little guile in his nature or obliquity in his course" (The Times 21st June 1837 - quoted in Victoria The Young Queen by Monica Charlot).
William became king in June 1830 at a time of great social change. As Queen Victoria's uncle Leopold was to point out, ever since the French Revolution of the 1790s, the position of royalty was much less secure than it used to be. New ideas of social equality had swept Europe. Even William IV's predecessor, his famously self-indulgent brother George IV had reflected new attitudes. During one boozy evening George was arrested for drunkenness by a constable who did not recognise him. Once the prisoner's identity became known there were profuse apologies for offending a member of the royal family, to which George responded: "Offended my good fellow? By no means! Thank God the laws of this country are superior to rank; and when men from high station forget the decorum of community, it is fit that no distinction should be made with respect to them" (quoted in The Prince of Pleasure by Saul David P 56). And yet in a kind of equal and opposite reaction, this was also the age of the Industrial Revolution, where industrialisation was to be driven by aspiration. Products were increasingly designed in a series of stepped ranges to encourage consumers to try and move up the ladder of desirability. George IV may have accepted that he was no different to any other kind of drunkard, but he also spent money ostentatiously, and demonstrated the new importance of fashion. Aspirational society quite simply needed people at the top of the ladder as style icons to drive production. George loved clothes, and the clothing industry had been amongst the very first to develop ideas of planned obsolescence, and aspirational ranges.
William IV was third son of George III and Queen Charlotte, born on 21st August 1765. His youth was spent in the royal family's unofficial boarding school at Kew Palace, part of which still stands. As George III's third son, he was not expected to take the throne, so it was not seen as worthwhile to continue his education for long. At thirteen years of age he was sent off to serve in the Royal Navy. Here, he lived as his shipmates did, and got into a brawl in Gibraltar. Arrest by the authorities was followed, as with his brother George, by hasty release when the identity of this particular brawling sailor became known. William, being a prince, was rapidly promoted. By 1786 he was a captain, in charge of HMS Pegasus, stationed in the Caribbean. Here he became a friend of another young captain, Horatio Nelson. At this stage of his career William still seemed to have an old conception of monarchy, which gave him divine right to govern. This put him at odds with naval authority, which since the seventeenth century had been relatively meritocratic. Terry Coleman in his biography of Nelson describes William as running his ship in a manner which gave his superiors great concern. William viewed the normal requirement to hand over documentation to port authorities, as insolent. He seemed to feel himself above all that. Unfortunately, Nelson, an enthusiastic royalist, tended to stoke up William's self regard. When Admiral Hood sent a competent lieutenant to help William in his command on Pegasus, Nelson joined in with William's sulky effort to thwart the plan. Nelson helped get the lieutenant arrested on a trumped up charge. A court martial loomed for the poor lieutenant, until Commodore Alan Gordon of Jamaica managed to get him out of trouble, in exchange for not taking action against William's many failings in providing proper documentation to port authorities (see Nelson, The Man And The Legend by Terry Coleman).
William, it seems, was not suited to being a successful naval officer, inspite of the relatively high rank he reached. He wanted to be a duke like his brothers, and pressed his father George III for a title. When King George refused, William threatened to become an MP. The prospect of having a disgruntled son in Parliament making life difficult for the king had the desired effect. William was made Duke of Clarence, just in time for the end of his naval career in 1790. Leaving the navy William settled down to a long period of domesticity. All marriages entered into by princes had to be cleared by George III, and fearing a negative judgment, William chose to simply co-habit with the woman of his choice, Dorothea Bland, better known as Mrs Jordan. Mrs Jordan, was not considered princess material. She was born in Ireland, fleeing to England after being seduced by her employer. A period making a living as a successful actress, and living with a son of a royal physician followed. Mrs Jordan began her relationship with William in 1790, and they were established as man and wife by 1791. William and Mrs Jordan were to live together for twenty years and have ten children. This large family was housed at Bushy House in south west London. The family had little money and was constantly in debt, though fortunately Mrs Jordan's money earned as an actress helped.
Sadly the pressure of money eventually drove William to try and find a richer and more "respectable" wife. In 1811 Mrs Jordan was paid off, and fled abroad where she died in poverty. Meanwhile William's search for a suitable consort led him in 1818 to twenty five year old Princess Amelia Adelaide of Saxe-Meninger. By now it was clear that George IV would have no surviving children to inherit his throne, which meant there was a possibility that William might actually become king. Then with the death of George III's second son Frederick in 1727, William moved into first place as heir to the throne. 1727 was to see this new status reflected in the building of a grand London residence, Clarence House, for William. Clarence House was designed by the most famous architect of the time, John Nash.
George IV died on 26th June 1830, and William became king as William IV. Immediately the new king was aware of his difficult position in a society that no longer had an automatic respect for social precedence. The awkward and arrogant young man who had served in the navy seemed to have mellowed. William did not want to have a coronation ceremony, fearing it would be a focus for protests. The prime minister Earl Grey would not accept this, and the compromise solution was a cut price coronation, taking place on 8th September 1831 at Westminster Abbey. The event cost roughly ten times less than that of his brother George IV. The traditional coronation banquet was cancelled. And yet these moves to hopefully satisfy new social expectations did not satisfy everyone. Many people still wanted the royal family to appear different and special. Many Tories in Parliament reflected an important element of public opinion when they derided the coronation of William IV as the "half crown-ation" (see Victoria, The Young Queen by Monica Charlot P60). People were busy making money out of social aspiration. Many people instinctively wanted to see the visible evidence of a better life, and dream of achieving something like it for themselves. It was on this dream that industrial demand depended.
The social contradictions of the time are perhaps best summed up by Buckingham Palace. George IV had rebuilt Buckingham Palace extensively with John Nash. When George died, Nash retired to the Isle of Wight, and King William ordered Edward Blore to finish the work. The resulting building received a great deal of hostile criticism. The politician Thomas Creevey wrote:
"It has lost a million of money and there is not a fault which has not been committed in it. You may be sure there are rooms enough, and large enough, for the money; but for staircases, passages etc I observed that instead of being called Buckingham Palace, it should be called 'Brunswick Hotel'. The costly ornaments of the state rooms exceed all belief in their bad taste and every species of infirmity. Raspberry coloured pillars without end, that quite turn you sick to look at it..." (from A Selection of the Letters and Papers of Thomas Creevey quoted Charlot P 102).
Interestingly Creevey's criticism is two sided. First there is the complaint that too much money has been needlessly spent: "It has lost a million of money." But there is also a sense that the palace, rather than being too grand, is not grand enough. In Creevey's opinion it is more hotel than palace. Taking up this theme, the Quarterly Review magazine attacked Buckingham Palace on similar grounds in a satirical poem:
Augustus at Rome was for building renowned
And of marble he left what of brick he had found
But is not our Nash, too, a very great master?
He finds us all brick and leaves us all plaster
(Quarterly Review of June 1826: quoted Charlot P102).
Once again the feeling is that Buckingham Palace, the great white elephant which soaked up unacceptable amounts of public money, is actually not grand enough. Where there is plaster there should be marble.
King William was only king for seven years, but these were years of momentous change. His reign coincided with the five year voyage of HMS Beagle 1831 to 1836, on which a young Charles Darwin was gathering information that would eventually lead to the Theory of Evolution. As the Beagle sailed around South America's coastline Darwin remarked in his journal on the society of natives of Tierra del Fuego. He met the Fuegians on a freezing, rainy day, and wondered at their condition as rain ran over their entirely naked bodies. Darwin wrote: "In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantages, such as domesticated animals or other valuable presents, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another" (The Voyage of the Beagle P184). There is a sad truth in Darwin's words. People aspire to nicer things, a better life. They look at other people and covert what they have. In this way, economies are driven forward. Modern industrial society depends fundamentally on some people having a great deal, and others having much less. But of course this division is never going to be stable. William himself reflected this, trying to appear as "citizen king," even as people demanded grandeur from him, and poked fun if they didn't get it.
In keeping a low profile, William had little involvement in politics. A.N. Wilson in The Victorians quotes William as saying: "I have my view of things, and I tell them to my ministers. If they do not adopt them I cannot help it. I have done my duty."
This, however, does not really do justice to William. He wasn't a completely passive figure. He was the last king to remove a prime minister against the wishes of Parliament, removing Lord Melbourne in November 1834 and replacing him for a short time that year with Robert Peel. William also stood up to the scheming Duchess of Kent, who was manoeuvering to maintain her influence over her daughter, and heir to the throne, Victoria. Most significantly perhaps, the Reform Act whereby the electoral processes of Parliament became more democratic was passed during William IV's reign, under his prime minister Earl Grey. William had to assist in this process by creating new peers who helped the Reform Bill through the House of Lords.
By spring of 1837 King William's health was failing. He died at Windsor Castle on 20th of June that year. His brother the extravagant George IV had been little mourned when he died. The fact that public feeling was warmer after the death of William shows that his quieter, less ostentatious role had been much more fitted to his times. The Times may have portrayed his life as "partaking so much of the commonplace of history" but his times were most uncommon, and he stood as a kind of comforting image of society coming together even as society was moving out into the unknown.