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.

Season’s Greetings from all the team at the Georgian Papers Programme!

Samantha Callaghan, Metadata Analyst, King’s Digital Laboratory, and Arthur Burns, Academic Director, Georgian Papers Programme, King’s College London


Wreaths created by Liz Losh and Mel Horan from GPP themes on display in Colonial Williamsburg VA 2017. Picture (c) Stephen Salpukas at Willliam & Mary.

All those involved in the Georgian Papers Programme would like to send all visitors to our websites, the scholars associated with the programme as fellows, and the King’s Friends season’s greetings and wish them all the best for 2018, which promises to be an exciting year for the Programme.

As it happens, we have a splendidly seasonal GPP post to share with you! Christmas and the Georgian Papers Programme were recently invoked in an article on the College of William and Mary website which discussed how Elizabeth Losh, an Associate Professor at the College and her husband, Mel Horan, who live within Colonial Williamsburg used the Georgian Papers Programme as inspiration for their Christmas wreaths this year. Christmas is a popular time to visit the historical attraction, and tours of the decorated homes are on offer. You can read all about it here, but we can also share additional pictures of the wonderful wreaths on this page.

A Transit of Venus wreath! (c) Stephen Sapulkas at William and Mary

In relation to the Georgian Papers themselves, a quick search of the material on Georgian Papers Online shows, at present,  a small number of letters, papers and menu books that refer to Christmas. In particular there is one letter from Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) to Prince William (1765-1837, later William IV), dated 30 December 1782, in which she writes, ‘We are at present again at Windsor, the Xmas Holiday’s have been spent here in as chearfull a manner as possible as our Small Company would admit of ‘. Prince William was, at that time, serving in the Royal Navy under Lord Samuel Hood near the colonies of North America and the Caribbean.

A GPP sourced seasonal recipe! (c) Stephen Sapulkas at William & Mary

Queen Charlotte goes on, as perhaps any aristocratic mother would to a son in the Royal Navy at that time, though rather lacking in seasonal cheer and goodwill, ‘Above all things do I beseech You William do not become a libertine that Character will neither become nor prosper You … therefore beware of every Step You take dont be ashamed of doing right, but always fearful of doing wrong. which if You remember will greatly contribute to the happiness of your Affectionate Mother.’

 

Sharing Research: GPP Fellows Flora Fraser & Gabriel Paquette

By Dr Angel Luke O’Donnell, Academic Liaison for the Georgian Papers Programme, and Teaching Fellow in North American History, King’s College London.


On 8 June 2017, King’s College London hosted its third GPP fellows coffee morning. The coffee mornings are opportunities for fellows on various schemes to share their research in the archives. The meetings help academics, archivists, and other fellows understand more about the material being digitised as part of the programme. In this session, we were joined by the Mount Vernon fellow and award-winning author Flora Fraser, the Sons of the American Revolution Visiting Professor Gabriel Paquette from Johns Hopkins University, and Roberta Giubilini from the Royal Archives.

The session was opened by incoming Academic Director, Prof Arthur Burns (King’s College London). Arthur first welcomed the fellows to GPP and then shared his recent experience with a teaching module at King’s in which undergraduate students transcribed documents from the Royal Archives. The students produced fantastic work and engaged thoughtfully with the programme. Arthur also discussed his plans for the future, especially his aims to continue to build a scholarly community around the programme.

Flora Fraser talked through some of the material that animates her work, including some fascinating links between the Georgian material and an associated collection at the Royal Archives called the Stuart and Cumberland papers. The Stuart papers are a series of volumes relating to the deposed James II, his son the ‘Old Pretender’, and his grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie. Meanwhile, the Cumberland papers are mainly comprised of papers relating to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and named after George II’s younger son, William Duke of Cumberland, ‘Butcher of Culloden’. One of the aspirations for GPP is to find and explore these links between collections, both within Windsor and further afield, in order to understand better the significance of the material in the Royal Archives. The Stuart and Cumberland papers are helping Flora write the biography of Flora Macdonald, a Scottish heroine of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion who eventually emigrated from her native Skye to North Carolina. Flora told us the story of how Flora Macdonald helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape Scotland by himself in women’s clothing despite a £30,000 bounty on his head. This led on to a broader discussion of royal costume in general, especially other times that royalty adopted disguises and costumes.

Flora is also working on a biography of Horatio Nelson. She discussed her hopes to find material in the Royal Archives about Nelson’s rise to prominence as well as more information about his funeral. Flora has previously written a number of award-winning biographies, most recently the biography of the relationship between George and Martha Washington. These two newest projects each use biography as a genre to tell interesting stories, one to reveal the life of a woman relatively unknown to posterity and one to reassess one of the most famous Britons of all time.

Gabriel Paquette is a historian of the Iberian world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing specifically on the decline, revival and fall of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Gabe is currently researching the relationship between Spain and Britain with an interest in the American War for Independence. A lot of the diplomatic historiography of the war so far has concentrated on the French and American alliance, overlooking the contributions of the Spanish. Crucially, Gabe argued that Spain’s navy was an important factor in menacing Britain’s Caribbean colonies, and thereby, the threat of the Spanish navy prevented Britain from concentrating its forces on the continental colonies. Gabe reported that the GPP material would be particularly useful for understanding this Anglo-Spanish relationship because George III practiced ‘personal diplomacy’. He pursued diplomatic aims outside of formal government structures through his own network of emissaries. At times, this personal diplomacy actually meant that George’s messages to the Spanish were at odds with official government policy. Gabe’s presentation revealed two interesting things for me. Firstly, the significance of the Spanish involvement in hampering Britain’s movements in the American War for Independence, and secondly, it showed that George III not only intervened personally in domestic politics, but also believed he had a role to play on the international stage as well.

Finally, Roberta Giubilini gave us an update about the progress in cataloguing the papers of William IV. Roberta has completed a description of items in the William IV collection. As Roberta argued in her presentation, William IV has not had many biographies written about him and these papers may be instrumental in encouraging new historical interest in his life and reign. The papers may be particularly interesting for understanding his time as the Duke of Clarence, a period only covered very briefly in the few biographies that do exist. Roberta’s presentation prompted a fascinating discussion about William’s time in the navy, his experience as a midshipman and his later interest in military discipline. During his reign, William had a personal interest in maintaining corporal punishment in the military despite objections raised about its effectiveness. Overall, Roberta’s presentation gave an exciting insight into how the GPP material could be used once it is fully catalogued.

A recurrent theme in the discussions was the navy: its strategy, leaders, and the management of the personnel. It was great to see links between seemingly separate projects. Discovering connections that I hadn’t previously considered always provides new models for approaching historical archives in creative ways.