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Your guide to William IV, the ‘sailor king’

How did William IV come to the throne? What were the reasons for his nicknames ‘Silly Billy’ and ‘the sailor king’? What did he think about the Great Reform Bill that would transform his kingdom’s parliamentary democracy? John Van der Kiste presents a guide to the last Hanoverian king…

A portrait of William IV
Published: August 16, 2022 at 10:38 am
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As the son of George III and Queen Charlotte, William spent most of his childhood years at Kew Palace, where he and a younger brother, Edward, were educated by two tutors. He was one of 15 children (with eight brothers, two of whom died as children, and six sisters), but as the third son he was not expected to come to the throne. Instead, he was sent to sea as a midshipman at the age of 13.

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In February 1780, when he was 14, William was present at the battle of Cape St Vincent, in which the British fleet conquered a Spanish force during the American Revolutionary War. He later served in New York, becoming the only member of the British royal family to visit the continent during the revolution. While he was there, an attempt to kidnap him was approved by George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, but foiled by the guards assigned to him. William went on to be stationed in the West Indies under Horatio Nelson.

William IV: key dates and facts

Born: 21 August 1765

Died: 20 June 1837

Reigned: King of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover from 26 June 1830 until his death

Parents: George III and Queen Charlotte

Spouse: Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen

Children: 10 by his mistress Dorothea Bland (professional actress, stage name Mrs Jordan); one or two others rumoured, but unsubstantiated

Cause of death: bronchopneumonia and heart failure

Succeeded by: Queen Victoria

As well as prince, what other title was he given?

Like his brothers, as a young adult William was given a dukedom, in his case that of Clarence and St Andrews in 1789. When his two elder brothers, George and Frederick, were awarded their titles (and commensurate parliamentary allowances) at a younger age than he was, he had threatened to stand for election to the House of Commons in the vacant seat of Totnes, Devon, in protest. The gesture was not taken seriously, and as the son of the sovereign he would probably have been disqualified from standing, but it worried his father enough to give him the title as quickly as possible.

A depiction of Prince William, age c13, as a midshipman
A depiction of Prince William, age c13, as a midshipman. (Image by Getty Images)

Why was he nicknamed ‘Silly Billy’?

The origins of this nickname are uncertain. Anybody in public life named William is liable to attract such a sobriquet; his cousin and brother-in-law William, Duke of Gloucester, was also known thus.

It could have been bestowed on him by any one of several contemporary cartoonists who wanted to ridicule him for his eccentricities, outbursts of temper, excitability or tactless behaviour. Once king, he took it all in good part and reputedly asked his councillors on first meeting them after his accession in 1830, “Who is Silly Billy now?”

How well did he merit the title of ‘sailor king’?

According to Sir Thomas Byam Martin, Admiral of the Fleet, not very well. From first going to sea as a midshipman in 1779, William was professionally employed in the service for 10 years, nine months and three weeks, including over a year when he was on leave of absence in Germany. He was made a rear-admiral in 1790, but rather than a merited promotion for his service this was only an honorary rank, mainly in deference to his princely rank, and no active appointment followed.

In fact, this marked the end of William’s active naval career. In 1827, the administrative post of Lord High Admiral was revived specifically for him in order that he could build up some experience of major responsibility since it had become clear he would be king before long. His resignation was demanded just over a year later: his liberal interpretation of the limits of his office had irritated certain members of the Admiralty so much that they complained to his brother, King George IV.

Did William marry and have a family of his own?

As Duke of Clarence, William had the largest family of any of George III’s children. All of them, however, were outside of his marriage. Around 1790, he formed a liaison with the Irish-born actress Dorothea Bland – better known by her stage name Mrs Jordan – who could not become his wife as she was a commoner. It would have been contrary to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, passed during the early years of George III’s reign to prevent ‘unsuitable’ marriages within his family and descendants.

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Irish-born actress Dorothea Bland – better known by her stage name Mrs Jordan
The future William IV formed a liaison with the Irish-born actress Dorothea Bland – better known by her stage name Mrs Jordan. They had 10 children. (Image by Getty Images)

Together, William and Dorothea had 10 children, who were given the family name of FitzClarence and all lived to maturity. One daughter, Elizabeth, Countess of Erroll, would become the four-greats-grandmother of David Cameron, Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016. When William was advised in middle age that he would need to find himself a suitable princess and marry her in order to provide an eventual heir to the throne, he separated from Mrs Jordan and she moved to Paris, where she became ill and died in 1816. Two years later, William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, who was 27 years his junior. He proved himself a devoted husband, but of their five children, three were stillborn, one died after a few hours, and the other at three months.

How did he come to the throne as William IV?

The death of George III’s only legitimate grandchild Princess Charlotte in 1817 resulted in several of the aged king’s middle-aged sons (William, Duke of Clarence among them) having to marry, produce heirs and continue the line of succession.

William’s elder brothers, George IV (Charlotte’s father) and Frederick, Duke of York, left no children to survive them. When Frederick died in 1827, William was therefore first in line to the crown, and became king upon George’s death in 1830. Aged 64, he was the oldest person ever to ascend the British throne.

Was William IV a good king, and for what is his reign best remembered?

William IV had mellowed in his later years, largely thanks to the good influence of his much younger and persuasive wife Adelaide. He had some eccentricities, such as his cheerful behaviour at George IV’s funeral when he recognised various friends, nodded at them with a grin or shook them heartily by the hand, as well as talking loudly throughout the service. Yet he had none of his eldest brother’s pomposity, and thought nothing of walking along the streets of London unescorted without any guards to protect him.

When he tried to avoid having a coronation, which would be a “useless and ill-timed expense”, the Tories in Parliament and his brother Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, insisted that it was a necessary duty that could not be avoided. He submitted to it on the understanding that it would be “short and cheap”. It ended up costing £30,000, a highly stripped-down affair when compared to the £240,000 price tag for George IV’s extravagant ceremony in 1821. Some peers threatened to boycott what they called the “half-crownation”, to which he retorted that this would mean greater convenience and less heat.

A Victorian era caricature of William IV in a sailor uniform
A Victorian era caricature of William IV in a sailor uniform. Once king, he reportedly took his nickname 'Silly Billy' in good part. (Image by Getty Images)

William is best remembered for the passage of the Great Reform Bill, which by abolishing the rotten boroughs, widening the electorate and providing for secret ballots, was a major milestone in British parliamentary democracy. Despite his doubts about reform, he realised it would be for the public good, and gave his Prime Minister Lord Grey his support in facilitating the legislation against a vociferous minority of diehards. The Great Reform Act received royal assent in 1832. It was believed by biographers that, had George IV or his brother Frederick been on the throne at the time, they would have refused to have anything to do with reform, and any subsequent unrest might have resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy. ‘Silly Billy’ had the common touch, possessed far more common sense than some of his critics gave him credit for, and probably saved the crown for his successors.

What influence did Queen Adelaide have on him?

Despite being much younger and coming from a very sheltered upbringing in Germany, Adelaide was a sensible, if somewhat prudish, princess who had the best possible effect on her husband. She persuaded him to behave less boorishly, cut down his financial extravagance, his swearing and drinking, and encouraged him to behave more like a gentleman.

Queen Adelaide, consort to William IV
As queen consort, Adelaide had had "the best possible effect on her husband". (Image by Getty Images)

Adelaide also earned his undying gratitude by treating her FitzClarence stepchildren with great consideration, even when they did not always treat her with due respect. Yet she was politically conservative in her views, and supporters of parliamentary reform suspected that she was constantly trying to persuade him to side with its opponents.

How did William IV die, and who succeeded him?

In his last years, William aged suddenly and it was feared that he might be going the same way as his father, who was thought to have gone mad. In truth, George III was probably suffering from the hereditary affliction of porphyria and dementia, as yet barely recognised by the medical profession. While William was extremely fond of his niece and heir Victoria, he hated her mother, the Duchess of Kent, who was frequently rude to him and Adelaide, and he suspected that she intended to become Victoria’s regent after his death, under the influence of her over-ambitious, grasping secretary John Conroy.

At a birthday dinner for the queen in August 1836, at which the duchess was present, William astonished the guests by making an angry speech in which he said that a certain person near him was surrounded by evil advisers, was incompetent to act with propriety, and had continually insulted him. It was his dearest wish to survive until Victoria reached the age of 18 so that no regency would be necessary. Much to the duchess’s chagrin, he managed it – by a month. Following several weeks of declining health, William died on 20 June 1837. As he left no legitimate children, he was succeeded by his niece, Princess Victoria of Kent, who would go on to rule for more than 63 years.

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John Van der Kiste is an author who has written extensively on British and European royal biography from the later Stuarts to the early 20th century. His forthcoming books are William IV: The Last Hanoverian Monarch (Pen and Sword, 2022) and Queen Victoria’s Daughters-in-Law (Pen and Sword, expected 2023)

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