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.

Important announcement: The Launch of the King’s Friends Network

10 November 2017 sees an important milestone in the evolution of the Georgian Papers Programme with the public launch of The King’s Friends network.

The King’s Friends is a free-to-join international community of those whose work stands to benefit from the digitization of the Georgian papers in the Royal Archives, and who in turn can help make the project a success.  We hope that a very wide range of researchers working on eighteenth-century or early nineteenth-century themes will join the King’s Friends network, and find it of use and interest in research not only on themes closely related to the history of the British monarchy and its jurisdictions, but to a whole range of topics from the histories of science, agriculture and medicine to the histories of gender and interpersonal relations, and the histories of art, collections, consumption, food and fashion, to mention just a few! For more information and information on how to join, follow the link below.

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE AND

JOIN THE KING’S FRIENDS

Current research in the Georgian papers: a symposium to take stock, Windsor, 4 September 2017

By Arthur Burns, Academic Director of the Georgian Papers Programme, King’s College London


Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

As we launch the second tranche of digitized documents for the Georgian Papers project, this is a good moment to reflect on the progress of academic research related to the project. On 4 September 2017 the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle hosted a one-day symposium for the Georgian Papers Programme, organised by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. It provided an opportunity for those associated with the programme — whether as members of the core project team at King’s, the Royal Archives and the Omohundro, representatives of participating institutions such as the Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Library of Congress, or as fellows of the project — to hear extended reports from a significant proportion of the now more than thirty scholars whose research into the Georgian papers has been supported by fellowships from the Omohundro, King’s, Mount Vernon and the Sons of the American Revolution.

To all of those present it felt as if a significant and exciting milestone had been reached. The event not only demonstrated the extent and the range of the research already undertaken, but also made clear that this research has indeed begun to realize the Programme’s ambition of unlocking the potential of this unique archive to support new interpretations of important themes in eighteenth-century history across the globe. It also embodied a further ambition: to forge a community of scholars meeting on the common ground of a single archive to discuss the intersections and insights of their research in ways that highlight aspects of their projects which might not otherwise appear significant.

An attentive audience at the GPP Fellows Symposium at Windsor, 4 Sept 2017, including on the front row from l. to r. Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Bruce Ragsdale, Anya Zilberstein, Arthur Burns and Karin Wulf. Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

There is not enough space here to describe each of the papers presented in what was a very successful symposium. However, we anticipate that many of the fellows will soon themselves discuss their findings either in their own blogs here or in other venues. But this is a good opportunity to reflect on what the symposium reveals about the research taking place in association with the project, and to note some emerging themes.

 

 

Daniel Reed speaking at the GPP Fellows Symposium at Windsor, 4 Sept 2017. Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

The symposium made apparent what those already familiar with the archives suspected, but which, in the absence of full indexes and catalogues (which the project will produce), has hitherto been hidden from those who have not physically visited the Round Tower: the sheer range of research projects for which the archives contain significant materials. We explored the full chronological scope of the archive collection, which is still in the public mind largely associated with George III. Daniel Reed‘s (Oxford Brookes University) presentation of his research into royal chaplains concentrated on the period between 1714 and 1760, whereas Jane Levi‘s (King’s College London) discussion of the provisioning of royal banquets focused on the coronation festivities of George IV.

Jim Ambuske at the GPP Fellows Symposium at Windsor, 4 Sept 2017. Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

As these two examples also suggest, the range of themes discussed was also exceptionally wide. Those parts of the archive which have previously been published focus in particular on the political and military history traceable in royal correspondence, or the life of the court and the royal family. These topics were duly represented in the presentations with Rachel Banke‘s (University of Notre Dame) reconsideration of Lord Bute and George III’s respective contributions to imperial reform in the 1760s, Jim Ambuske‘s (University of Virginia) reflections on George’s reaction to the loss of America, and Andrew O’Shaughnessy‘s (Monticello and University of Virginia) discussion of the evidence the archive provides on the conduct of the war in America. These presentations demonstrated that — even on subjects of long-standing academic interest where we might think we know the sources — revisiting the archive can still bring fresh insights, not least as our sense of what might be ‘relevant’ material expands, and the selective nature of earlier editions becomes more apparent.

Anya Zilberstein speaking at the GPP Fellows Symposium at Windsor, 4 Sept 2017. Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

It was striking, nevertheless, how many presentations used the archive to illuminate quite different topics and approaches to history: thus as well as food history, we heard from Bruce Ragsdale (Mount Vernon GPP fellow) on estate management as evidenced in George III’s agricultural activities, Felicity Myrone (British Library) on George as collector of topographical prints and drawings, Miranda Reading (King’s College London) on a key early nineteenth-century pressure group, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Cynthia Kierner (George Mason University) on disaster relief in Georgian England, Flora Fraser (Mount Vernon GPP fellow) on the lives of Flora MacDonald and Horatio Nelson, and Anya Zilberstein (Concordia University) on animals in the Royal Archives.

Suzanne Schwarz speaking at the GPP Fellows Symposium at Windsor, 4 Sept 2017. Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

The range was equally impressive in geographical terms, underlining that the Georgian Papers are not just an archive for British and North American history, but for all regions touched by the global Georgian: thus Suzanne Schwarz (University of Worcester) took us to Sierra Leone for reflections on the African Institution and its royal patrons and Vincent Carretta (University of Maryland) explored his search for evidence of Africans present in Britain in the eighteenth century. It was also striking how many of the papers adopted at least a transatlantic and, in several cases, a more far-reaching geographical frame, even when their focus was firmly on Britain. This reminded all present that we can no longer think of Britain in isolation during this period, and indicates that the nature of the Georgian royal archives, reflecting the global responsibilities and interests of the monarchs, of itself enforces a recognition of this.

Felicity Myrone speaking at the GPP Fellows Symposium at Windsor, 4 Sept 2017.Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

The colloquium also prompted some general reflections. First, several papers made clear how important an understanding of the nature of the archive — of its origins, arrangement (and re-arrangement), selective publication and weeding — will be in allowing new insights into key issues (a theme explored further in Karin Wulf’s blog being published alongside this one). Thus it was clear from Felicity Myrone’s work just how significant decisions about arrangement and cataloguing of archives in the nineteenth century may have been in cementing views about the significance of George III as an eighteenth-century collector which may now need to be revised. This underlines the importance of the approach to the digitization and interpretation of the archival papers that this Programme has adopted, in which archivists, conservationists and academics work alongside each other rather than in sequence, sharing insights the significance of which only becomes fully apparent when discussed with those with a quite different expertise.

Secondly, it was clear that in exploiting the archives as evidence of the development of approaches to kingship and policy-making they are best understood when read alongside other key royal collections of books, art and material culture, with the interconnections offering the possibility of unlocking key questions of chronology and causation.

Flora Fraser speaking at the GPP Fellows Symposium at Windsor, 4 Sept 2017. Photo: © Castulo Hernandez Robles

Thirdly, it became apparent that silences in the archive are often of equal significance as direct evidence. Over the course of the day there was at least as much interesting discussion of what researchers had not found as of what they had discovered. Several papers highlighted the absence — at least in those parts of the archive where we might most readily anticipate encountering it — of evidence relating to activities which from other sources we know were of significance to the royal family, one notable case being philanthropy. How should we explain this? Is it that these things were in fact less significant than we have hitherto believed? Is it that the evidence was disposed of by others who regarded it as too sensitive, personal or insignificant to merit or allow preservation? If so what does that say about our own understanding of these themes?  Or is it that the evidence indeed survives, but in a different and unexpected part of the archive, to emerge as the cataloguing and digitization process continues? If the last, this may have important implications for our understanding of how contemporaries understood these themes themselves.

Two final reflections: the first regards the importance of serendipity in the archive. All archival scholars experience this, of course, but the fact that the Georgian papers still await definitive cataloguing and have been exploited for only a limited range of projects in the past increases its significance for researchers. Several of the papers reflected serendipitous discoveries and the resultant change of direction and approach to a theme prompted by encounters with unexpected documents in the archive. It will be part of the challenge of the digitization project to preserve this opportunity for chance encounters for remote users.

Rachel Banke and Andrew Morse at the GPP Fellows Symposium, Windsor , 4 Sept 2017. Photo © Castulo Hernandez Robles

Finally, I want to return to the importance of building a research community around the papers, one united not by a shared approach or a geographical proximity, but by having worked in a particular archive. The symposium demonstrated the opportunities this presents for interdisciplinary exchange, revelations of significance not apparent from a focused project perspective and for fresh inspiration to pursue new insights that such a community affords. We hope to perpetuate that opportunity as our community of fellows grows, but will also seek to expand the community around the project over the next few months in a new initiative – The King’s Friends – which we are launching alongside the second release of papers. In the meantime, it remains only to thank Karin Wulf and her team at the Omohundro for organizing such a rewarding event.

Arthur Burns

All photographs from the symposium are © Castulo Hernandez Robles,  photographer