Today is the birthday (1765) of William IV, king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and king of Hanover from 26 June 1830 until his death in 1837. William was the third son of George III and younger brother and successor to George IV. He is often considered to be one of the dullest of the Hanoverian kings, yet a surprising number of pubs in England are named after him. The pub signs usually show him in naval uniform because he spent a good part of his life in the Royal Navy, and, thus, is usually nicknamed the Sailor King.
In 1789 William was created Duke of Clarence and St Andrews. Since his two older brothers died without leaving legitimate issue, he inherited the throne when he was 64 years old. He also died without legitimate heirs, so the daughter of his deceased younger brother, Edward, became Queen Victoria on his death. She could not inherit the kingdom of Hanover as a woman, so William’s younger brother Ernest (who was junior to Victoria in the British succession) became king of Hanover while she continued the Hanoverian line in the U.K. Therefore, William was the last joint monarch of the United Kingdom and Hanover.
William mostly kept away from politics yet his reign saw several key reforms: the poor law was updated, child labor restricted, slavery abolished in nearly all of the British Empire, and the British electoral system refashioned by the Reform Act 1832 (which William did play a hand in). Although William did not engage in politics as much as his brother or his father, he was the last monarch to appoint a prime minister contrary to the will of Parliament. He also created a number of extra peers sympathetic to the Reform Act when it stumbled in the House of Lords and threatened to create more if they did not accede.
William spent most of his early life in Richmond and at Kew Palace, where he was educated by private tutors. At the age of 13, and because he was not expected ever to be king, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, and was present at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1780. His experiences in the navy seem to have been little different from those of other midshipmen, though in contrast to other sailors he was accompanied on board ships by a tutor. He did his share of the cooking, and got arrested with his shipmates after a drunken brawl in Gibraltar, although he was hastily released from custody after his identity became known. He served in New York during the American War of Independence. While William was in North America, George Washington approved a plot to kidnap him, writing: “The spirit of enterprise so conspicuous in your plan for surprising in their quarters and bringing off the Prince William Henry and Admiral Digby merits applause; and you have my authority to make the attempt in any manner, and at such a time, as your judgment may direct. I am fully persuaded, that it is unnecessary to caution you against offering insult or indignity to the persons of the Prince or Admiral…” The plot did not come to fruition; the British heard of it and assigned guards to William, who had up until then walked around New York unescorted.
He became a lieutenant in 1785 and captain of HMS Pegasus the following year (aged 20). In late 1786, he was stationed in the West Indies under (then-captain) Horatio Nelson, who wrote of William: “In his professional line, he is superior to two-thirds, I am sure, of the [Naval] list; and in attention to orders, and respect to his superior officer, I hardly know his equal.” The two were great friends, and dined together almost nightly. At Nelson’s wedding, William insisted on giving the bride away. He was given command of the frigate HMS Andromeda in 1788, and was promoted to rear-admiral in command of HMS Valiant the following year.
William sought to be made a duke like his elder brothers, and to receive a similar parliamentary grant, but his father was reluctant. To put pressure on him, William threatened to stand for the House of Commons for the constituency of Totnes in Devon. Appalled at the prospect of his son making his case to the voters, George III created him Duke of Clarence and St Andrews and Earl of Munster on 16 May 1789, supposedly saying: “I well know it is another vote added to the Opposition.” William’s political record was inconsistent and, like many politicians of the time, cannot be certainly ascribed to a single party. He allied himself publicly with the Whigs as well as his elder brothers George, Prince of Wales, and Frederick, Duke of York, who were known to be in conflict with the political positions of their father.
William ceased his active service in the Royal Navy in 1790. When Britain declared war on France in 1793, he was anxious to serve his country and expected a command, but was not given a ship, perhaps at first because he had broken his arm by falling down some stairs drunk, but later perhaps because he gave a speech in the House of Lords opposing the war. The following year he spoke in favor of the war, expecting a command after his change of heart; none came. The Admiralty did not reply to his request. He did not lose hope of being appointed to an active post (but his rank of admiral was purely nominal at that time). Despite repeated petitions, he was never given a command throughout the Napoleonic Wars. In 1811, he was appointed to the honorary position of Admiral of the Fleet (usually reserved for distinguished officers in retirement). In 1813, he came nearest to any actual fighting, when he visited the British troops fighting in the Low Countries. Watching the bombardment of Antwerp from a church steeple, he came under fire, and a bullet pierced his coat.
Instead of serving at sea, he spent time in the House of Lords, where he spoke in opposition to the abolition of slavery, which although not legal in the United Kingdom still existed in the British colonies. Freedom would do the slaves little good, he argued. He had travelled widely and, in his eyes, the living standard among freemen in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was worse than that among slaves in the West Indies.
From 1791 William lived with an Irish actress, Dorothea Bland, better known by her stage name, Mrs. Jordan, the title “Mrs.” being assumed at the start of her stage career to explain an inconvenient pregnancy and “Jordan” because she had “crossed the water” from Ireland to Britain. William was part of the first generation to grow to maturity under the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which forbade descendants of George II from marrying unless they either obtained the monarch’s consent or, if over the age of 25, gave twelve months’ notice to the Privy Council. Several of George III’s sons, including William, chose to cohabit with the women they loved, rather than seek a wife. Having legitimate issue was not a primary concern for William. Because he was one of the younger sons of George III, he was not expected to figure in the succession, which was considered secure once the Prince of Wales married and had a daughter, Princess Charlotte, second-in-line to the throne. She died later giving birth however.
William appeared to enjoy the domesticity of his life with Mrs. Jordan, remarking to a friend: “Mrs. Jordan is a very good creature, very domestic and careful of her children. To be sure she is absurd sometimes and has her humours. But there are such things more or less in all families.” The couple, while living quietly, enjoyed entertaining, with Mrs. Jordan writing in late 1809: “We shall have a full and merry house this Christmas, ’tis what the dear Duke delights in.” The couple had ten illegitimate children—five sons and five daughters—nine of whom were named after William’s siblings, each given the surname FitzClarence (child of Clarence). Their affair lasted for twenty years before ending in 1811.
In 1818 William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, the daughter of George I, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. At 25, Adelaide was half William’s age. Their marriage, which lasted almost twenty years until William’s death, was a happy one. For their first year of marriage, the couple lived in economical fashion in Germany. The couple had two short-lived daughters and Adelaide suffered three miscarriages. The city of Adelaide, capital of South Australia planned in 1837, was named for her when she was queen, and the main street, a wide boulevard running down the center was named King William Street.
William’s elder brother, the Prince of Wales, had been Prince Regent since 1811 because of the mental illness of their father, George III. In 1820, the King died, leaving the Crown to the Prince Regent, who became George IV. William, Duke of Clarence, was now second in the line of succession, preceded only by his brother, Frederick, Duke of York. Reformed since his marriage, William walked for hours, ate relatively frugally, and drank only barley water flavored with lemon. Both of his older brothers were unhealthy, and it was considered only a matter of time before he became king. When the Duke of York died in 1827, William, then more than 60 years old, became heir presumptive. Later that year, the incoming Prime Minister, George Canning, appointed him to the office of Lord High Admiral, which had been in commission (that is, exercised by a board rather than by a single individual) since 1709. While in office, William had repeated conflicts with his Council, which was composed of Admiralty officers. Things finally came to a head in 1828 when, as Lord High Admiral, he put to sea with a squadron of ships, leaving no word of where they were going, remaining away for ten days. The King, through the Prime Minister, by now Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, requested his resignation and he complied.
Despite the difficulties William experienced, he did considerable good as Lord High Admiral. He abolished the cat o’ nine tails for most offenses other than mutiny, attempted to improve the standard of naval gunnery and required regular reports of the condition and preparedness of each ship. He commissioned the first steam warship and advocated more.
When King George IV died on 26 June 1830 without surviving legitimate issue, William succeeded him as King William IV. Aged 64, he was the oldest person yet to assume the British throne. Unlike his extravagant brother, William was unassuming, discouraging pomp and ceremony. In contrast to George IV, who tended to spend most of his time in Windsor Castle, William was known, especially early in his reign, to walk, unaccompanied, through London or Brighton. Until the Reform Crisis eroded his standing, he was very popular among the people, who saw him as more approachable and down-to-earth than his brother.
William did his best to endear himself to the people. Charlotte Williams-Wynn wrote shortly after his accession: “Hitherto the King has been indefatigable in his efforts to make himself popular, and do good natured and amiable things in every possible instance.” Emily Eden noted: “He is an immense improvement on the last unforgiving animal, who died growling sulkily in his den at Windsor. This man at least wishes to make everybody happy, and everything he has done has been benevolent.”
William dismissed his brother’s French chefs and German band, replacing them with English ones to public approval. He gave much of George IV’s art collection to the nation, and halved the royal stud. George IV had begun an extensive (and expensive) renovation of Buckingham Palace but William refused to live there, and twice tried to give the palace away, once to the Army as a barracks, and once to Parliament after the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834. His informality could be startling and, certainly, against norms of the age. When in residence at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, William used to send to the hotels for a list of their guests and invite anyone he knew to dinner, urging guests not to “bother about clothes. The Queen does nothing but embroider flowers after dinner.”
In William’s day, eating out at taverns was popular which may be a partial explanation of why so many pubs are named after him. Some tavern chefs at the end of the 18th century produced cookbooks, notably, The Universal Cook: And City and Country Housekeeper by Francis Collingwood, John Woollams. You can browse it in the original here:
By modern standards Collingwood and Woollams cooked vegetables too much as in the recipe for a ragout of celery:
To ragoo Celery
CUT the white part of the celery into lengths and boil it till it is tender. Then fry and drain it, flour it and put to it some rich gravy, a very little red wine, salt, pepper, nutmeg and catchup. Give it a boil and then send it up to table.
The “catchup” here would be a fermented mushroom ketchup which you can get a version of today in some supermarkets. I think this would be all right if the celery were no more than blanched in boiling water first then fried quickly. The point of flouring the celery after frying is to thicken the gravy.
The following recipe appeals to me more: battered, deep-fried celery.
To fry celery
FIRST boil it, then dip it into batter, then fry it of a light brown in hog’s lard. Put it on a plate, and pour melted butter over it.