1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/William IV., King of England

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

WILLIAM IV. (1765–1837), king of England, third son of George III., was born at Buckingham Palace on the 21st of August 1765. In 1779 he was sent to sea and became a midshipman under Admiral Digby. Next year he sailed under Rodney and took part in the action off Cape St Vincent (16th of January 1780). During the rest of the war the young prince saw plenty of service, for which he imbibed a strong liking, and so laid the foundation of his popularity. On the conclusion of the war he travelled in Germany, visiting Hanover and Berlin, where he was entertained by Frederick the Great. In 1785 he passed for lieutenant; next year he was made captain and stationed in the West Indies. Shortly after 1787, being tired of liis station, he sailed home without orders, and was punished for his insubordination by being obliged to stay at Plymouth till his ship was refitted, when he again sailed for the West Indies.

In 1789 he was made duke of Clarence. When war was declared against the French republic in 1793, he strongly supported it and was anxious for active employment; but, though he was made rear-admiral of the red, he could obtain no command. Thus condemned to inactivity, he amused or revenged himself by joining the prince of Wales and the duke of York in their opposition to the king. He threw himself into the dissipation's of society, and his hearty geniality and bluff, sailor-like manners gained him popularity, though they did not secure him respect. He took his seat in the House of Lords, where he defended the extravagances of the prince of Wales, spoke on the Divorce Bill, vehemently opposed the emancipation of slaves and defended slavery on the ground of his experience in the West Indies. Meanwhile he formed a connexion with Mrs Jordan, the actress, with whom he lived on terms of mutual affection and fidelity for nearly twenty years, and the union was only broken off eventually for political reasons. During all this period the prince had lived in comparative obscurity. The death of Princess Charlotte in 1817 brought him forward as in the line of succession to the crown. In 1818 he married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a lady half his age, without special attractions, but of a strong, self-willed nature, which enabled her subsequently to obtain great influence over her husband. On the death of the duke of York in 1827 the duke of Clarence became heir to the throne, and in the same year he was appointed lord high admiral. In discharging the functions of that office he endeavoured to assume independent control of naval affairs, although his patent precluded him from acting without the advice of two members of his council. This involved him in a quarrel with Sir George Cockburn, in which he had to give way. As he still continued to act in defiance of rules, the king was at length obliged to call upon him to resign.

On the 25th of June 1830 the death of George IV placed him on the throne. During the first two years of his reign England underwent an agitation more violent than any from which it had suffered since 1688. William IV. was well-meaning and conscientious; but his timidity and irresolution drove ministers to despair, while his anxiety to avoid extremes and his want of insight into affairs prolonged a dangerous crisis and brought the country to the verge of revolution. Immediately after his accession the revolution of July broke out in France and gave a great impulse to the reform movement in England. The king, though he called himself an “old Whig,” did not dismiss the Tory ministry which had governed the country during the last two years of his brother's reign; but the elections for the new parliament placed them in a minority. Within a fortnight of the opening of parliament they were beaten on a motion for the reform of the civil list, and resigned. Lord Grey undertook to form a ministry, with the avowed intention of bringing in a large measure of reform. This was not in itself displeasing to the king, who had liberal tendencies, and a few years before had supported Catholic emancipation. But, when the struggle in parliament began, his disinclination to take up a decided attitude soon exposed the government to difficulties. The first Reform Bill was introduced on the 1st of March 1831; the second reading was carried on the 21st of March by a majority of one. Shortly afterwards the government were beaten in committee, and offered to resign. The king declined to accept their resignation, but at the same time was unwilling to dissolve, although it was obvious that in the existing parliament a ministry pledged to reform could not retain office. From this dilemma William was rescued by the conduct of the opposition, which, anxious to bring on a change of ministry, moved an address against dissolution. Regarding this as an attack on his prerogative, William at once dissolved parliament (April 1831). The elections gave the ministry an overwhelming majority. The second Reform Bill was brought in in June, and passed its third reading (21st of September) by a majority of 109. A fortnight later (8th of October) the Lords threw out the bill by a majority of 41. But after a protracted political crisis (see the article on Grey, Charles Grey, 2nd earl) the king was compelled to consent to create a sufficient number of new peers to carry the bill, and the threat was successful in bringing about the passing of the act in 1832.

During the rest of his reign William IV. had not much opportunity of active political interference, but on one other occasion he made an unjustifiable use of his prerogative. Two years after the passing of the Reform Bill the ministry of Lord Grey had become unpopular. In July 1834 Lord Grey himself retired and Lord Melbourne took the lead. There were divergences of opinion in the cabinet, and the king strongly objected to the ministerial policy respecting the Irish Church. On the shallow pretext that Lord Allhorp's removal to the Upper House would weaken the ministry in the House of Commons, where, however, they still had a majority, he suddenly dismissed them and summoned Sir Robert Peel (14th of November). Peel's ministry, containing many members who had been in the government on the king's accession, was called from its short duration “the ministry of the hundred days.” Its formation clearly indicated that the Whig proclivities of the king, which had never been more than partial or lukewarm, had wholly disappeared. The step was regarded with general disapprobation. It was immediately followed by a dissolution, and the ministry soon found themselves in a minority. Beaten on Lord John Russell's motion respecting the Irish Church (3rd of April 1835), Peel resigned and Melbourne again came into power. Under him the Whigs retained the lead during the remainder of the reign. This coup d'état of November 1834 was the last occasion on which the English sovereign has attempted to impose an unpopular ministry on the majority in parliament.

In May 1837 the king began to show signs of debility, and died from an affection of the heart on the 20th of June, leaving behind him the memory of a genial, frank, warm-hearted man, but a blundering, though well-intentioned prince. He was succeeded by his niece Queen Victoria.

Authorities.—Correspondence of Earl Grey with William IV. and Sir Herbert Taylor (London, 1867); Fitzgerald's Life and Times of William IV.; Greville's Memoirs; Memoirs of Sir Robert Peel; the Creevey Papers; Civil Correspondence of the Duke of Wellington; Walpole's History of England; Martineau's History of the Peace.  (G. W. P.)