When William became king he wanted to be known as Henry IX (he was christened William Henry) until it was pointed out that the last Stuart pretender, Henry, Cardinal York, was known as Henry IX by his supporters. Cardinal York died in 1807 and that was recent enough for him to change his mind and call himself William IV. The new king was very popular with his subjects at first. He was very down to earth and even would walk the streets of London and Brighton without any security and was found to be very approachable. When he was in Brighton he would send for gusts from the local hotels and invite them to dinner and would not care too much for proper dress and protocol. He also did away with a lot of the pomp and circumstance and the overt display of monarchy that was the rule under his brothers kingship. His coronation was also less extravagant and has become known as the half-crown-ation.
William was 64 years old when he became king and is Britain’s oldest monarch to succeed to the throne. He did not reign for a long time, only seven years, but his reign is seen as significant as he presided over large changes within society and the government, forging Britain into a more modern nation. The Duke of Wellington was the kings first Prime Minister and Wellington said that William was such a hard worker that he had done more work with the king in 10 minutes than he had with his brother, George IV, after years of working with him. Lord Brougham described William IV as a superior man of business who would ask questions to ensure that he understood a matter and this was different from the practice of George IV who feared asking questions lest he appeared to be ignorant.
Although William and Adelaide did not have any children his illegitimate children took up a good deal of his time and attention. He created his eldest son, George, 1st Earl of Munster. He had a troubled relationship with his sons who were constantly looking to their father for money and titles and opportunities for power. This created many quarrels between father and sons. His daughters were said to be beautiful and caused no undue stress for their royal father. During his reign the heir to the British throne was his niece, Princess Victoria of Kent, and although he was fond of his niece there was great animosity between the king and Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. This conflict meant that Victoria was rarely seen at court.
The largest political battle of William’s reign came within his first year on the throne. Shortly after his accession a general election was called. After a bitter battle the Duke of Wellington was defeated and Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey had become Prime Minister. Because of the conflicts and problems during this election the need to reform the process, which had not been modified since the 15th century, was evident. The system was abused. The aristocracy often controlled the elections to the Commons because as landholders the members and potential members of the House of Commons were often their tenants.
The First Reform Bill was defeated in the House of Lords and Earl Grey wanted the king to dissolve Parliament and call for new elections. William hesitated because a general election had just been held the prior year. It also placed him in a bind because the House of Lords was debating a resolution that would prevent the king from dissolving Parliament and they were resistant to any reform that would reduce their power. At the request of the Prime Minister, William drove to Parliament, donned the crown, and in the face of great opposition by members such as Lord Londonderry who brandished a whip and threatened violence, he personally declared Parliament dissolved.
Matters grew worse as the Second Reform Bill was also blocked in the House of Lords and discontent grew throughout the country. Minor riots broke out and Earl Grey wanted again to push through reform and face the House of Lords. He asked William to create enough liberal peers to ensure that the Bill would pass in the House of Lords. William agreed to the proposal and created a number of new peers. There were now enough peers for the Reform Bill to pass but these new peers placed enough amendments onto the Reform Bill that they too thwarted the Prime Minister’s plans.
Earl Grey asked one again that William create enough peers for the Reform Bill to pass the House of Lords in its entirety without amendments. William refused to do the prime Minister’s bidding this time and Earl Grey and his entire Cabinet resigned, sinking the monarchy, and specifically William IV, to an all time low in popularity. William desired that the Duke of Wellington should return to his former position but he did not have enough support in the Commons so William had no choice but to ask for Grey’s reinstatement. Grey returned to office and the House of Lords was more complacent knowing that the king was now agreeing to flood their membership with liberal peers. The Reform Bill passed unamended in 1832. During the crisis William had mud thrown at his carriage and was booed at and hissed at. Eventually the blame for the king’s actions were placed on the influence of the queen and the Duke of Cumberland and the kings popularity rose once again.
William was a member of the House of Hanover and his great-great grandfather, King George I of Great Britain, loved Hanover more than Britain. Although William had visited Hanover in his youth he did not step foot in his other kingdom during his tenure as king. Instead, William was represented in Hanover by a viceroy, HRH The Duke of Cambridge, a role he had played through the reign of George IV. Although ruled by the same monarch they were not politically united. During William’s reign Hanover was part of the Confederation of the Rhine, the successor state of the Holy Roman Empire. Austrian minister Metternich had considerable influence over Hanover at this time. Twice he implemented reforms in Hanover which Lord Palmerston did not support. When asked by Palmerston, then Prime Minister of Britain, to block these reforms in Hanover, William refused which was his prerogative as King of Hanover.
In April of 1837 William’s daughter, Sophia, Lady de L’Isle, died in childbirth leaving the frail king shaken and depressed. His health began to decline further. At a dinner reception in May another conflict occurred and he publicly humiliated the Duchess of Kent where he said he hoped he lived long enough to live past princess Victoria’s 18th birthday to avoid the Duchess of Kent from becoming regent. The king was successful in this endeavor. Victoria turned 18 on May 24. William IV passed away on June 20, 1837 at the age of 71. This ended the personal union of the Untied Kingdom and Hanover. The British throne went to his niece, Victoria, and since women were barred against serving as the monarch in Hanover, that crown went to his brother the Duke of Cumberland who became King Ernst-August of Hanover.
His reign was short but significant. He oversaw needed Parliamentary reforms and it was one of the last times when a British monarch would be this active in party politics. He lead an interesting life and was an ordinary man place in extraordinary circumstances.