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.

The commonplace books of Lady Augusta Murray

Lady Augusta Murray’s commonplace book, c. 1785-1797, GEO/ADD/51/2 Royal Archives /© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Dr Jane Mycock explores the significance of Lady Augusta Murray’s commonplace books, one of the new tranche of Georgian papers released to the public in February 2018. Augusta married Prince Augustus Frederick, George III’s sixth son, in 1793 in defiance of the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 which required that the monarch agree to all such royal marriages. Mycock shows how her troubled family life is reflected in her commonplacing practices.

For more, read the full essay here.

 

 

George I and George II and the Royal Archives: the missing monarchs?

By Dr Andrew Thompson, Queens’ College, Cambridge


 

John Michael Rysbrack (1693-1770): King George II (1683-1760) signed & dated 1738, and Queen Caroline (1683-1737) signed and dated 1739. Terracotta or fired clay | RCIN 1412 and RCIN 1411. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

George III is the Hanoverian monarch perhaps most frequently associated with the Royal Archives. The king’s own voluminous correspondence forms an important part of the collection and, in the early nineteenth century, his son, as Prince Regent, was instrumental in helping to secure the two collections that constitute the ‘Stuart Papers’ for the Royal Archives.

When it comes to the early Hanoverian monarchs, however, there are limits to what can be discovered from the material in the Royal Archives. This relative paucity of material for the first two Georgian monarchs can be attributed to two factors.  One reason relates to the relatively slow process by which the Hanoverians became acculturated into their new British possessions. When George I came to England in 1714 he brought with him a considerable Hanoverian entourage of servants and advisors. These ‘outsiders’ were the cause of much local resentment, not least because George I was a relatively private man and his two Turkish man-servants were stout guardians of their master’s privacy. The fact that George set up a separate German Chancery in London to handle his Hanoverian affairs also meant that much of his political correspondence was handled via another route. When the Personal Union (of the thrones of Britain and Hanover) came to an end with Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837 and her uncle acceded to the Hanoverian throne, the records of the German Chancery were returned to Hanover. Moreover, much of the material relating to the royal family’s life in Hanover, which both George I and II visited frequently, remained in the family archives there, eventually finding its way into the Hanoverian State Archives.

Beyond dispersal of material, eighteenth-century elite custom also played a role.  Although it was common for correspondents to keep letters, it was  not unusual for letters to be returned to families on the death of the original correspondent. In addition, contemporary accounts suggest that George II destroyed many of his father’s private letters after his own accession, and it is possible that something similar happened after his own death in 1760. One of the reasons that George II may have been keen to destroy his father’s papers was that he was anxious to suppress his father’s will, which had raised questions about the ongoing desirability of the Personal Union of Britain and Hanover. Some of the material relating to George I’s discussions about the possibility of varying the succession laws in Britain and Hanover to allow for an ending of the Personal Union is included in the second batch of digitized documents unveiled by the Georgian Papers Programme, released today.

Beyond concerns about the political viability of sharing a ruler between two rather different territories, interest in the possibilities of altering the succession reflected the notoriously poor relations between fathers (and to a lesser degree mothers) and eldest sons within the Hanoverian royal family.  Splitting the inheritance offered the possibility of favouring one child over another or providing for younger children who lacked other prospects.  It was commonly thought that George II and his wife favoured their younger son, William, Duke of Cumberland, over Frederick, Prince of Wales. Familial rivalries, therefore, had a discernible impact on patterns of surviving material. This intergenerational tension also had personal and psychological origins. The banishment of George II’s mother, Sophie Dorothea of Celle, following her divorce from his father in 1694, did little to endear George II to his father. Similarly, the fact that George II did not see his own eldest son, Frederick (b. 1707), between 1714 and 1729 hardly helped their relationship.

There were also, however, more serious structural reasons for dysfunctional relationships.  George II’s accession in 1727 was unusual in that it did not see much alteration in the composition of the ministry.  The default assumption for eighteenth-century politicians was that a new reign would bring in new ministers.  Consequently, those who had fallen out with the current administration naturally gravitated towards the heir to the throne as a better bet for the future.  Much of the detailed story of the deterioration of the relationship between George and his son can be found in the manuscript memoirs of John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey (one version of which is contained in today’s release). Hervey enjoyed privileged access to the royal court. He served as Queen Caroline’s Vice-Chamberlain and the memoirs give a strong sense of his loyalty towards the queen and Robert Walpole, who had been chief minister since 1721 and had managed to survive the transition to a new monarch in 1727, and his frustrations with the king. Hervey’s memoirs have been available in print for a number of years, and consequently Hervey’s voice has been important in shaping how we think about George II’s court.

However, despite the scantiness of material on Georges I and II, some of the documents from the Royal Archive, published here for the first time, do serve to add to our understanding of these monarchs and can provide us with new details that both contrast with and complement Hervey’s narrative.

David Morier (1705?-70): George II c.1745, oil on canvas RCIN 404413. Hangs in Grand Vestibule, Windsor Castle. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Financial records, for example, provide valuable insights into both priorities and personality. While the early Hanoverians did not maintain their own theatrical and operatic establishments on the scale of some of their continental counterparts, their patronage of institutions within London was nevertheless important. For the proprietors, association with the royal family was a useful marketing tool and royal attendance at a performance was frequently advertised in advance as a means of drumming up custom. Meanwhile, the royal family could use appearances at cultural events as part of a wider public relations strategy. Attitudes towards money were another area where there were generational differences – George II was careful to harbour his resources while Prince Frederick, by contrast, thought that lavish spending was one of the marks of royal power. This pattern was to repeat itself with George III and his eldest son.

In addition to papers about the kings themselves, the Royal Archives also hold material relating to their wider families: George II’s children Frederick and William Augustus and his wife, Queen Caroline. Caroline’s role as advisor, confidante and patron has received considerable attention recently, both in print and in an exhibition at Kensington Palace. She had a broad set of intellectual interests, which Hervey tended to contrast approvingly with her husband’s less sensitive approach to culture. More importantly, though, the papers of the wider royal circle emphasize the extent to which being royal was a ‘family business’ to which all contributed. It is only through studying the dynasty as a whole, over time and space, that we can understand what was really going on.  Although there are clearly gaps in the surviving material, the archives digitized here offer new and exciting opportunities for exploring the history of the early Hanoverian monarchy.

Dr Andrew C. Thompson is Director of Studies in History at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of the first biography of George II to make extensive use of British and German material, George II: King and Elector, published in the Yale English Monarchs series (New Haven and London, 2011). He has published widely on early Hanoverian politics and religion, including Britain, Hanover and the Protestant Interest 1688-1756 (Boydell & Brewer, 2006).  He is currently editing a companion to Dissent in the long eighteenth century.

Some further reading:

Andrew C. Thompson, George II: King and Elector (2011)

 

 

 

Joanna Marschner, Queen Caroline: Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth Century Court (2014)

 

 

Hannah Smith, Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture 1714-1760 (2006)