Friday, February 7, 2020

The Bad Boy Prince Who Became a King

by Nancy Bilyeau

He was a younger brother in a royal family, not expected to ascend to the throne of England when born. He threw himself into a military career. He was wild and boisterous, given to carousing, and fell deeply in love with an actress. During their many years together, she financially supported him. Sometimes mocked by the public, he had a warm heart, a generous nature, and a willingness to listen that gave him a popularity few others in his family enjoyed.

Meet William, Duke of Clarence, and later King of England from 1830 to 1837.

A slightly disheveled William, Duke of Clarence.
Photo: ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak 

In present circumstances, when the life of a younger prince in the British royal family is under scrutiny, William's career presents some interesting comparisons.

Born on August 21, 1765, he was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte. As was common in the age, his parents did not see that much of him. He was in the hands of private tutors at Richmond and Kew and seems to have been emotionally closest to his sister Augusta.

His high spirits made him difficult to handle, and King George decided to install him in the Royal Navy. This was not an honorary position, as had happened with a few other royals. At the age of thirteen, William joined a ship's company as a midshipman. This was the usual age to begin a naval career in the 18th century and he was the first royal to seriously pursue such a career.

From the first, William was an enthusiastic sailor. He served on several ships in the Caribbean and the Americas for the next decade and more. Much later he bore the nickname "Sailor King." But he was rash, with a "roughness of manner" that stuck with him through most of his life.

William formed a strong friendship with Horatio Nelson and was the best man at Nelson's wedding. But he quarreled with others, both below and above him in rank. When in command of a ship, he was capable of disregarding orders and doing as he pleased.

To the distress of his parents, William had a well-deserved reputation for womanizing. He had affairs with married women, frequented brothels, and pursued young women talking marriage when it was impossible for him to offer matrimony.

One of his most infamous episodes took place in Bridgetown in Barbados. After dining with the mess of a regiment stationed on the island, William and his companions "went to Rachel's brothel in the town and, in a drunken orgy of destruction, smashed glass, broke furniture and threw feather beds into the street," wrote Roger Knight in his biography William IV. "Rachel herself sat watching all this in a chair outside the building with equanimity...The next morning she presented William with a bill for 700 pounds and he signed a draft on a Jamaican merchant house without question."

By 1790 his career in the Royal Navy was over. About this time, he was created Duke of Clarence by his father, but only under family pressure. He had nothing official to do.

Instead of marrying a princess, William fell in love with the talented Irish actress Dorothea Bland, whose stage name was Mrs. Jordan, and they lived together for years, becoming the parents of a huge family. She seemed happy in this domestic setting, yet through all her pregnancies she continued to perform on stage. William had little money--Parliament was not inclined to grant large incomes to dissolute princes--and rapidly spent what he did have. Mrs. Jordan supported the family, with their ten children taking the last name "FitzClarence."

"Mrs. Jordan," the mother of William's 10 children

George III accepted the reality of his son's personal life, probably because there were two older sons before him. He created William "Ranger of Bushy Park," which brought with it Bushy House, where the family all lived, fairly quietly.

This lifestyle did not impress everyone. "His life has hitherto been passed in obscurity and neglect, in miserable poverty, surrounded by numerous progeny of bastards, without consideration or friends," said Charles Greville, clerk of the council to the king.

Caricature of George IV, William's oldest brother

The death of Princess Charlotte, the only child of George, the Prince Regent, in 1817 changed everything for William. He moved up the line of succession following his brother Frederick, the Duke of York, who had no legitimate children. It now seemed possible that William would be King of England.

Mrs. Jordan retreated from the scene--she died later in Paris--and William married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, half his age. At least three princesses or heiresses had already declined to marry him. As part of the negotiation, Adelaide agreed she would be kind to his many children.

On their wedding day, William's main feeling seems to have been remorse. He wrote in a letter to his oldest son, "She is doomed, poor dear innocent young creature, to be my wife...I cannot, I will not, I must not ill use her."

Adelaide, William's royal wife

As unlikely as it may have seemed, the marriage was a happy one. Adelaide got her older husband to drink less and economize more. One of the main reasons he married was to provide the nation with a legitimate royal family, but Adelaide suffered miscarriages or their children died shortly after birth. They faced these tragedies together.

William was now in the public eye. The Royal Collection Trust, in a foreword to William's papers, wrote, "Only a few years before it had not been considered a remote possibility that William could become king, but by the late 1820s it was becoming a certainty....previously he had been free of the burdens and responsibilities that are usually placed on an heir presumptive, or the next in line."

Historian A.N. Wilson has declared that most of his contemporaries considered William a "buffoon." But there were differing views. "The British people liked him because he was a sailor, if for nothing else, and men's eyes turned hopefully to him when it became apparent that not much good was any longer to be looked for from George the Fourth," wrote Justin McCarthy in A History of the Four Georges and William IV.

George IV, who had lived as an unpopular recluse, hugely obese, for the last years of his life, died on June 26, 1830, and William became King of England at the age of 64. (York had already died.) "The public was in the mood to make the best of him," wrote one chronicler.

William IV as King

William IV was determined to set a much more financially prudent example than his extravagant brother. His coronation cost less than one-fourth as much as George's. Justin McCarthy wrote,"His manners were frank, familiar, and even rough. He cared little for court ceremonial of any kind, and was in the habit of walking along the streets of London with his umbrella tucked under his arm, like any ordinary Londoner."

King William was even known to offer rides to people in his royal carriage. When he offended anyone, he was quick to apologize. He did have a tendency to ramble strangely at state dinners. The only time his temper flared was over small things, such as a guest drinking water instead of port wine at the table.

William and Adelaide gave money to the poor, arranged dinners for the hungry, and endowed hospitals and charities. What is sometimes overlooked was the critical part William IV played in setting the future of the kingdom and keeping a British monarchy in play. His father and brother had adamantly opposed any parliamentary reform. Now, in the 1830s, a revolution was in the air.

The Reform Bill of 1832 enacted changes to the electoral system of England and Wales, making it more representative of the people and strengthening the House of Commons. It is hailed as bringing much-needed modern democracy to the nation.

Some historians ascribe William's passing it to being "weak." But others say that his years in the Navy followed by life with Mrs. Jordan gave him a view of life from outside the royal bubble. He knew that change had to happen.

William was very fond of his young niece, Victoria, the only child of his younger brother the Duke of Kent. But he distrusted her mother and loathed the looming Sir John Conroy. William said publicly that he would do his best to live long enough for Princess Victoria to ascend to the throne without the need of a regency.

And William did just that, dying of heart failure at the age of 71 on June 20, 1837, at Windsor Castle. Victoria was 18 years and one month old, and thus became Queen of England.

Adelaide, who refused to leave William's side for the 10 days of his last decline, outlived her husband by just 12 years. She was godmother to Victoria and Albert's firstborn child, Victoria, the future mother of Kaiser Wilhelm.

The city of Adelaide in Australia is named after William's queen.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of five historical novels, including The Blue, an espionage thriller revolving around the art and porcelain world of 18th century England. Her most recent novel is Dreamland, set in 1911 Coney Island. To learn more, go to


  1. A well written, fascinating post. Thank you. He was King at a critical juncture. Are his descendants still about?

  2. Yes! A lot of FitzClarences who have royal blood. One of his sons became Earl of Munster and their descendants carried on until 2000. But there are many others

  3. Thank you ... I always knew I liked William IV; just couldn't remember why.

  4. What a fun article -- I want to know more about this unusual king!


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