Introducing William IV: A ‘sailor king’?

By Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History, Department of War Studies, King’s College London


Johann Heinrich von Hurter (1734-99), William, Duke of Clarence, later William IV (1765-1837). 1780 Enamel 6.3 x 5.5 cm (frame, external) RCIN 421869: Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


Often dismissed as most significant as ‘Victoria’s uncle’, William IV, some of whose papers have now been released as part of the Georgian Papers Programme, in fact played a critical role in stabilizing the monarchy after the extravagance, excess and unpopularity of his elder brother, George IV,  overseeing the beginning of political reform while helping to shape a national culture that saw the present and future as oceanic, imperial and expansive. Although the third son of George III had little reason to expect to become king, and no education for the role, he proved to be a steadying influence in troubled times, and, above all, William would be a British sea king, a marine monarch who represented a distinctly different approach to monarchy and national identity. William ascended to the throne in 1830 aged 64, the oldest new monarch to date. He proved to be a popular king, his down-to-earth approach, naval uniform and homely domesticity a stark contrast to the overblown flummery of his predecessor.

William was raised in the Royal Navy from boyhood. During the American War of Independence his father, George III, sent him to serve under the brilliant admiral, Samuel, Lord Hood. At this time William met and befriended Horatio Nelson, who would assume Hood’s mantle in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Although his own sea-going career ended in 1790, William remained a naval man to the end of his life. In 1827 he was appointed Lord High Admiral by Prime Minister George Canning, who hoped to cultivate the heir to throne. When in 1828 William exceeded his authority, spending money without official sanction, Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington, who was then prime minister, forced him to resign.

When the Whig ministry of Earl Grey took office in 1831 William, now king, took an active role in selecting men for the Admiralty Board, insisting on Sir Thomas Hardy, Nelson’s captain at Trafalgar, as Senior Naval Lord. Although a reluctant appointee, Hardy shared William’s concern to maintain the Navy’s seafaring and combat skills, while adapting them to the new technology of steam propulsion. William also ran a distinctly naval court. Key household offices were deliberately allotted to sailors, while the naval heroes of the Napoleonic wars were prominent there. His aides-de-camp included Captain Sir Henry Hope, who had captured the American frigate USS President in the last major battle of the era in 1815. He also rewarded successful explorers, including naval Captain James Clark Ross, who annexed Magnetic North to the British Crown on 1 June 1831. Such achievements were commemorated in the growing output of naval literature, which the king avidly consumed. William was an important patron of naval and military history. War Office clerk Richard Cannon was directed to compile regimental histories of every unit in the British Army, while Admiralty Secretary John Barrow was encouraged to produce biographies of two great admirals, Lord George Anson and Richard, 1st Earl Howe, as exemplars for future naval officers. William’s taste in art was less sophisticated than that of his brother, but again reveals his naval proclivities.  He preferred realist sailor artists Thomas Huggins and George Chambers to the artistic elite. Pictures of ships and battles complemented naval relics, including the capstan of HMS Victory, in Williams’s palaces. He introduced his German born wife Queen Adelaide to the pleasures of seafaring: Adelaide travelled extensively on Royal Navy warships after the king’s death.

William maintained a low opinion of most foreigners, especially the French, Russians and Americans, powers that happened to possess significant navies, and which posed challenges to Britain’s dominance of the oceans. These opinions occasionally surfaced in speeches at state banquets, leaving the Foreign Secretary to apologize to the diplomatic representatives of any country he had mentioned the following morning. These speeches tended to focus on the power and glory of the Royal Navy, the right arm of the British state.

Many of William’s papers were destroyed at his death, and his archive is less substantial than those of his father or brother as monarchs. The papers that do survive, however, are essential for students of the politics of the Great Reform Act and for contemporary naval and military issues, including his preference for corporal punishment over prison, and a typically Hanoverian insistence on altering naval officer uniforms.  The red facings he introduced were swiftly abandoned at his death. The Georgian Papers project is making these hitherto under-utilized collections, including papers belonging to Queen Adelaide, much more accessible.

Critically William managed to steer a slightly unsteady, but ultimately successful course through the troubled waters of the Great Reform Act. He would be the last monarch to dismiss his ministers, an act that set a negative precedent for all successors —  including Victoria and her Consort. His conservative instincts tempered the radicalism of the Whig ministry, annoyed Whig ministers, and encouraged the resurgence of the Conservatives under Robert Peel. He tolerated the Whigs while they remained an aristocratic party, but had no time for radicals like Henry Brougham. His instinctive conservatism was widely shared, while his distaste for foreign entanglements chimed with the contemporary mood of an increasingly self-confident imperial state, one that saw Europe as a problem to be managed from a safe distance, while the wider world offered economic opportunities for capital, commerce and industry.

The last Hanoverian reigned for just seven years. Nevertheless he stabilized the monarchy, and helped to create a new identity for an increasingly self-confidant nation.  That identity was built around the naval triumphs of William’s old friend Nelson, and it would culminate in the construction of Trafalgar Square, the ultimate expression of the nation’s naval identity, the gathering place for national celebration, and the focus for a growing sense of imperial grandeur. Like much else in the evolving national identity the square remained incomplete when William died, but it was a project that reflected the character and concerns of the maritime monarch. William presided over this shift, emphasizing the critical role of the Royal Navy in British identity by wearing his naval uniform on state occasions, and surrounding himself with naval officers; his reign witnessed an upsurge in maritime cultural output, not just the art and books already mentioned but much else, the King patronizing the art of naval glory. Where the King led the nation followed. To ensure the process would be sustained after his death William ensured that his niece and successor spent time onboard Royal Navy warships, learnt about Nelson and Trafalgar, and understood just how different Britain was from continental European nations. Victoria would pass on those lessons to Prince Albert, who joined her on board HMS Victory, became a major collector of Nelson relics, and accepted the dedication of the seven-volume collection of the hero’s correspondence, which included a significant number of letters to William. William IV lived just long enough for Victoria to come of age.

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