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William IV of the United Kingdom
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 son of George III and younger brother and successor of George IV, was the penultimate monarch of the House of Hanover. During his youth, he served in the Royal Navy; he was 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 meddle in politics as much as either his brother or his father, though he did prove to be the last monarch to appoint a Prime Minister contrary to the will of Parliament (in 1834).
William was the son of King George III and Queen Charlotte. He had two elder brothers (HRH The Prince George, Prince of Wales and HRH The Prince Frederick, Duke of York), and was not expected to inherit the Crown. 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. He became a Lieutenant in 1785 and a Captain in the following year. In 1786, he was stationed in the West Indies.
Created Duke of Clarence in 1789, he ceased actively serving 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 any vessel. Instead, he chose to serve 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 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. From 1791, the couple had at least ten illegitimate children, who were given the surname "FitzClarence." The affair ended in 1811, twenty years after it began, for political reasons. In the same year, Clarence was appointed Admiral of the Fleet. On 13 July 1818, he married Princess Adelaide, 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: Charlotte Augusta Louisa (who died on March 21 1819, the day of her birth) and Elizabeth Georgina Adelaide (December 20 1820 - March 4 1821).
Clarence's elder brother, the Prince of Wales, had been Prince Regent since 1811 because of the mental illness of their father, King George III. In 1820, the king died, leaving the Crown to the Prince Regent, who became King George IV. As the new King had no children, the Duke of Clarence was second in the line of succession to the Throne, preceded only by his brother, the Duke of York. When York died in 1827, Clarence, then more than sixty years old, became heir-presumptive. To mark the occasion, 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. Whilst in office, Clarence attempted to take independent control of naval affairs, although the law required him to act on the advice of at least two members of his Council. The King requested him to resign in 1828; the Duke of Clarence complied. Some sources cite March 27 1819.
The Reform Crisis
When George IV died childless in 1830, the Duke of Clarence ascended the Throne as William IV. Unlike his extravagant brother, William was unassuming, discouraging pomp and ceremony. Whilst his unembellished behaviour did little to change the low opinion of the monarchy held by most of his subjects, William was not involved in embarrassing scandals like his predecessor. He was given to riding about the country in his carriage, making his presence known to the common people, in contrast with George IV, who tended to spend most of his time in Windsor Castle.
At the beginning of William IV's reign, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister. During the general elections of 1830, 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 had seen few changes since the fifteenth century. The inconsistencies in the system were great; for example, large towns such as Manchester and Birmingham were entirely unrepresented, 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.
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 new general elections. 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 a parliamentary resolution against dissolution. Regarding the Opposition's motion as an attack on his power, William IV dissolved Parliament and called fresh elections, 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. 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. To ensure the passage of the Reform Bill, Grey suggested that the King "swamp" the House of Lords by creating several new peers.
When William IV refused, 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.
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 1832, the ministry had become unpopular; it had also lost the support of the King 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. Its reforming ways, however, were obnoxious to the King.
In October 1834, the Whig minister John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp inherited a peerage dignity, and was therefore forced to leave the House of Commons and enter the House of Lords. Because of his removal to the Upper House, he was forced to relinquish the posts of Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer. All admitted that the loss of Lord Althorp 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 noticed the impossibility of governing with 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 during the previous election, they were still in the minority. Peel remained in office for a few days, but resigned after a series of parliamentary defeats. Lord Melbourne's ministry was restored, remaining in office for the rest of William IV's reign.
William IV died in 1837 in Windsor Castle, where he was buried. His issue was extinct, so the Crown of the United Kingdom passed to his eighteen-year-old niece, HRH Princess Victoria of Kent. Under 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.
William's reign was short, but it was 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 fortunate enough 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.
Style and arms
William's official style whilst King was, "William the Fourth, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith". 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.
|HRH Princess Charlotte of Clarence||21 March 1819||21 March 1819|
|HRH Princess Elizabeth of Clarence||10 December 1820||4 March 1821|
- Farnborough, T. E. May, 1st Baron. (1896). Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 11th ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
- "William IV." (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed. London: Cambridge University Press.
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