William IV (1765-1837), called the "Sailor King" and "Silly Billy," was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1830 to 1837. He reigned during the struggle over the great Reform Bill, and his actions helped to establish important constitutional precedents.

William Henry, third son of George III, was born at Buckingham Palace on Aug. 21, 1765. The shortest of the royal brothers and closely resembling his mother, Queen Charlotte, William was perhaps the least physically attractive of the Hanoverians. He was, however, the best-natured, bluff, hearty, and un-assuming. Like that of all the children of George III, his early childhood was sheltered, and he was educated by tutors. At the age of 13, however, he was launched on a not unsuccessful naval career, which probably accentuated his basic personality traits. He rose to the rank of rear admiral, seeing active service in America and the West Indies, and became a fast friend of the future Lord Nelson.

William's active naval career ended in 1790, and until he ascended the throne 40 years later, his life was spent in retirement. Like his brothers, he sought solace in love. Until 1817 he lived happily with the actress Mrs. Dorothea Jordan, producing ten illegitimate children. The death of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of his eldest brother, changed William's life. He was now third in line for the throne, after the older brothers George, who served as regent from 1811 to his accession in 1820, and the Duke of York. In 1818 William married the German princess Adelaide; it was a most happy marriage. The Duke of York died in 1827, and on George IV's death in 1830 William IV ascended the throne.

The new king was more than a little eccentric, but his reputation as a "character" probably did him no harm, and his informality gained him considerable popularity. William did his best to be a strictly constitutional monarch, and, despite his personal fears of parliamentary reform, he firmly supported his ministers, save on one occasion. That was in May 1832, when William faltered over packing the House of Lords to carry the Reform Bill and tried to bring in a Tory ministry. Neither the House of Commons nor the country would have it, and William had to give way and bring back Lord Grey. It was a clear indication that a king could no longer actually appoint his own ministers. And the lesson was underlined by William's unsuccessful attempt in 1834-1835 to replace the Whig Lord Melbourne by the Tory Sir Robert Peel, again against the wishes of a majority in the House of Commons.

By and large, however, William demonstrated a strong sense of reality, and he was always ready to yield to necessity. These qualities, which were not marked in his Hanoverian predecessors, were undoubtedly of the first importance in carrying the British monarchy over a most difficult period. By the time he died on June 20, 1837, William had done much to restore the tarnished reputation of the crown which George IV had left him.

Further Reading on William IV

W. Gore Allen, King William IV (1960), is a recent biography, but uneven in quality. A charming short treatment of William is in Roger Fulford, Hanover to Windsor (1960). Asa Briggs, The Making of Modern England, 1783-1867 (1959), gives an excellent, balanced account of the political background.

Additional Biography Sources

Marples, Morris, Wicked uncles in love, London, Joseph, 1972.

Pocock, Tom, Sailor King: the life of King William IV, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991.

Somerset, Anne, The life and times of William IV, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.