When William IV became King of the United Kingdom in 1830, England didn’t know what it was in for. Bawdy, brassy, and unapologetically obscene, there’s a reason the history books skip over this “Sailor King” and his brief, dramatic reign: It was one hot mess. Strap in, King William IV was not your mother’s monarch.
William’s rise to the English throne was never supposed to happen. Born on August 21, 1765 to the "Mad King" King George III and Queen Charlotte, William was the third son of the dysfunctional royal couple, and his parents never imagined their younger boy would rule England one day. In fact, William's road to the crown was long and twisted. Maybe it’s these low expectations that turned him into a hellion…
Even as a young child, William went wild for all things naval When he was just 13, he took his obsession to the next level, and the princeling joined up with the Royal Navy and became a lowly midshipman. While on his assigned ship, William revelled in acting like the other commoners on the boat, apparently even doing his own cooking. Except, well, that didn’t mean he was on his best behavior.
19th-century sailors weren’t famous for their decorum and politeness, and William also threw his noble breeding overboard the minute his ship sailed into the sea. One day, this had scandalous consequences. While at a bar in Gibraltar, he got into an honest-to-God brawl—and he paid a high price. He got himself thrown behind bars in the process. It was a dramatic situation, and it was about to get juicier.
The minute England’s prodigal son heard the cell door clink, he didn’t want to be “one of the boys” on the ship anymore, and he turned it into a “do you know who I am?” situation real quick. William made sure word got around about who he really was, and the guards released him post-haste. Still, William more than matched his naval scandals in the bedroom.
In 1790, the young prince watched beautiful Irish actress Dorothea Jordan perform on Drury Lane, and quickly fell madly in lust with her. He couldn’t have picked a more scandalous crush. People of the time saw acting as a disgraceful, immoral profession, and a prince dating an actress was a big breach of "decorum." And then there was Dorothea herself…
Dorothea earned the nickname “Mrs. Jordan” for a reason. Notoriously long-legged and sultry on the stage, Dorothea’s theatre manager gave her the moniker to make her seem more like a motherly good girl…because she’d already had many illegitimate children and scores of illicit affairs before she met our Will. Is it any wonder their relationship became so passionate and so rocky at the same time?
William actually loved Dorothea deeply, and in 1791, he moved in with her, “living in sin” because their classes were too different for an official, state-recognized wedding. The not-so-royal couple then proceeded to have a whopping ten illegitimate children together over the years, and for a time they built a happy domestic life. Then suddenly, William dealt Dorothea a heartbreaking betrayal.
In 1811, William’s decade-long affair with "Mrs. Jordan" came to a crashing halt. Almost without warning, he kicked her out of their shared house and cut off almost all contact with her immediately. Even worse, his reasoning was chilling. According to Dorothea, William was tired of paying her hefty, wifely allowance and dumped her for “Money, money, my good friend.” And he wasn’t even done yet.
William’s only mercy to his former lover was to give her custody of their daughters together…on one condition. Dorothea had to promise never to return to the "disgraceful" stage. So when, deeply in debt, she took on a role to pay the bills, William took his cruelty to a new level. He wrenched the girls away from her, as well as the extra money he’d been giving for their care. This would have grave consequences.
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When William was done with you, he was really done with you. He never lifted a finger to help Dorothea again, and her acting career faltered entirely. Eventually, she had to flee to France to escape her debtors. Alone and penniless, William’s common-law wife came to a tragic end in Paris just five years after their split. But as Dorothea fell, William rose.
In 1828, William was Lord High Admiral of England, and “misuse of power” doesn’t even begin to describe this period of his life. One day, he got into such a tiff with his councillors that he took to the seas with a fleet of ships, told nobody where he was going, and disappeared for 10 days in a sulk. He was quickly “forced to resign” AKA “he got super fired.” And then the heat really started turning up.
In 1817, the royal family went into a crisis, and William was right smack dab in the middle of it. The heir to the throne died, and suddenly William and his brothers needed to produce a new one…only none of them had one. They were all either trapped in loveless, childless marriages or, like William, flying solo. In other words, William’s royal duty was to find a wife fast. It did not go as planned.
William’s brood of illegitimate children weren’t the easiest sell for finding a bride, and he was in for a royal embarrassment. His first pick was the young and eligible Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, and he sent his younger brother Adolphus to do his wooing. It backfired big time. Not only did the girl’s father refuse the match, Adolphus soon "betrayed" his brother and married the princess himself. Ouch.
In 1818, William settled on marrying Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a pious, pretty girl who was somehow willing to overlook his many previous children. If that sounds unromantic…it definitely was. When the engagement went through, William wrote wryly to his eldest son, “She is doomed, poor dear innocent young creature, to be my wife.” Except no one knew just how doomed it would get.
When William and Adelaide married in a double wedding with his brother, they’d met just a week before the very "special day." There was also a huge age difference between the two, with William being almost three decades older than the 25-year-old Adelaide. Still, they tried to be good to each other. Sadly, they only got tragedy in return.
Everyone expected William to produce the next heir to the throne, and there was a lot of pressure on him to do it ASAP. After all, William was the healthiest of his surviving brothers, he had a fresh, new wife, and he also already had a brood of illegitimate children to prove his, uh, virility. So when Princess Adelaide became pregnant immediately after the royal wedding, all of Europe held its breath. It shouldn’t have.
In March 1819, Adelaide was seven months pregnant, and she and William eagerly awaited their child. Then on the 27th, disaster struck: Adelaide caught pleurisy and went into premature labor. She gave birth to a baby girl, Charlotte, who lived only a few desperate hours. The royal couple was devastated, but their heartache would only grow.
Over the next three years, Adelaide was almost perpetually pregnant, but it all came to nothing. The princess suffered miscarriage after miscarriage, and any children she brought to term survived only months at most. In 1822, her last confirmed pregnancy ended in stillborn twin boys. Cruelly, “bun in the oven” rumors persisted well into William’s reign; the bitter king called these whispers “damned stuff.”
In the 1780s, William threw a royal tantrum to end all tantrums. He wanted to become a duke like his brothers, but his father King George III was stubbornly against the idea, maybe because he was (reasonably) afraid his crass son wouldn’t do a noble service to the title. So William came up with an ingenious and diabolical plan.
Faced with his father’s refusal to appoint him to dukedom, William gave the royal equivalent of the middle finger and said, “Fine, I’ll become an elected official.” He threatened to run for a position in the—gasp—British House of Commons as a civilian. It worked: His father was so aghast at his son stooping to the commoners, he relented and made William the Duke of Clarence. But a better title was on William's horizon.
By 1830, it was clear William’s brother King George IV wasn’t long for this world, and William was about to become King of England. William’s last words to his sibling gave away both his sorrow and his excitement. He told the dying monarch, “God's will be done. I have injured no man.” Then, on June 26, 1830, the previously unthinkable happened: William IV finally became ruler. It was not smooth sailing.
William wasn’t your average king. For one, he was completely opposed to having an official coronation, and only agreed to a sparse, no-frills affair after his councillors badgered him incessantly about it. When the traditionalists threatened to boycott this cheaper “Half-Crownation,” King William hissed back that he’d love for them to skip it, at “greater convenience of room and less heat.” Then there was the coronation itself…
King William actually caused a downright scandal on his big day. Though Queen Adelaide was taking the coronation solemnly, William made it crystal clear he hated the whole business, acting like "a character in a comic opera" the entire time and making a mockery of the processions like he was in a Marx Brothers movie and not, you know, his own crowning ceremony. But William was just getting started.
According to lore, William’s immediate reaction when he heard he was now king was one for the history books. His attendants roused him out of bed to tell him the massive news, but the king sent himself right back to his chambers after hearing it. When his attendants protested why, his response was legendary. He saucily announced that he “had never yet slept with a queen.”
William IV’s behavior as king would make Queen Elizabeth II choke on her tea even today. The new monarch grew notorious for hosting dinner parties where he’d just call up hotels for their guest lists, invite anyone and everyone he knew, and then explain to his guests not to "bother about clothes. The Queen does nothing but embroider flowers after dinner.” So it's no wonder he earned himself a royal enemy very quickly.
Without any biological children, William and Adelaide tried to dote on their young niece and heir, Princess Victoria—that’s right, the future Queen Victoria. There was just one enormous problem. William loathed Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, with the burning fire of a thousand suns. And guess what? The Duchess very much deserved it.
William and Adelaide had enough personal problems in their life, but the Duchess of Kent made them 10 times worse. Knowing she was the mother of a future Queen of England, the Duchess lorded it over the childless William and his wife, and even demanded she get her own royal apartments and stables because of her "status." But that was just the beginning of the Duchess's mean-girling.
The Duchess of Kent was such a piece of work, she had no problem being massively rude right to the royal couple’s faces. She often refused to acknowledge that Queen Adelaide was above her in station, and would make big shows of not attending court because William’s illegitimate children “scandalized" her delicate sensibilities. One day, this all came to a breathtaking climax—and rest assured, we're getting to that.
William’s relationship with his illegitimate children makes the Lannister family dynamic look positively loving. Although William's daughters were supposedly fresh-faced, lively company, his sons were notoriously vicious, greedy, and constantly at his door for money, particularly his eldest son George. Sadly, this strained relationship would come back to haunt William.
In 1837, tragedy visited William’s doorstep once more when his daughter Sophia passed in childbirth. Yet little did he know, one cruelty would give way to another. The news brought a letter of condolence from his bitterly estranged son George, and the aging William hoped a reconciliation was on the horizon. It wasn’t. George stayed venomous until the very end, never believing his father gave him enough money.
The ghost of William’s old lover Dorothea Jordan must not have let him sleep at night, because several years after her ignominious passing in 1816, William commissioned a sculpture of her, and possibly even tracked down and acquired a professional portrait depicting her glory days on the stage. As we'll see, that wasn’t all he felt guilty about.
When William was a young man, the American Revolution raged on the other side of the Atlantic. The daring royal decided he just had to go where the action was, and ended up serving in New York. This feat made him the only British royal to ever do so. But, being a prince and all, the “Sailor King” actually had a dangerous target on his back…
While William was in America, he almost started an international incident. See, no less than General George Washington was eyeing the upstart prince. Washington even hatched a plan to kidnap him, since the royal was foolish enough to put himself on a platter. Luckily for William, England got wise to the plot and upped his guard detail. But that wouldn't be William's last connection to Washington.
Apparently, William didn’t hold grudges. Later in his life, he dined with an American ambassador and confessed how much he regretted not being "a free, independent American” since the country had "George Washington, the greatest man that ever lived." A little dinner-time flattery? Maybe, but it worked: The ambassador adored him.
Besides earning the nickname “The Sailor King” for his Naval career, people also called William “Silly Billy” behind his back. Well, apparently they didn’t whisper quietly enough. When he became king, William reportedly turned to his councillors and said jubilantly, “Who’s the Silly Billy now?” Kind of still you, William.
For all that William loved the high seas, they didn’t quite love him back. When the Napoleonic Wars rolled around in the 1790s, the young William was out of the Navy but still desperate to fight. So he was utterly offended when England said, “Thanks but no thanks, your highness” and denied him. As it turns out, their reasons were pretty embarrassing.
Historians point to two big reasons why William didn’t initially serve against Napoleon, and they are whoppers. First, William had apparently broken his arm after a tipsy fall down some stairs, and wouldn’t be cutting jibs any time soon. Second, he’d just given a public speech against the conflict. Yet for all this foolishness, William has one terrifying claim to fame.
In 1831, William made his most shocking move yet—and he did it by simply opening a door. That year, parliament was in the middle of the Reform Crisis, and the king knew just what to do. At the Prime Minister’s urgent request, the strapping William made a surprise appearance at the House of Lords to dissolve the government…and pandemonium broke out.
The king showing up to parliament was a big freaking deal, and when William walked into the room, one man was so excited he actually started brandishing a whip. The rest of the lords only acted sightly better. But William simply put on his crown, strode past them, and dissolved the parliament like a boss. Sure, absolute power corrupts, but darned if it doesn’t look cool.
The king’s parliament entrance also produced another classic William moment. When he was getting ready to head to the building, his attendants initially informed him that they couldn’t get the horses ready fast enough. William's reply was priceless. Never one for patience or politeness, William just shouted back, “Then I will go in a hackney cab!” Let's just say this would have been a much less impressive entrance.
Even parliament had to adjust to William becoming king. Just after his brother George IV passed, William was signing some documents with the politicians and commented gruffly, “That’s a darned bad pen you’ve given me.” One minister’s mortifying response? “King George IV—William, I mean…” Luckily, the sailor king had a sense of humor that day, and just laughed it off.
William really didn’t have time for pomp and circumstance, and his lack of decorum extended to his possessions. Most infamously, the King of England would not stop trying to sell off Buckingham Palace, which he found stuffy and uninhabitable, to almost everyone’s horror. His first half-baked plot saw him trying to turn it into barracks, and the second into a parliament building. No one took the bait.
William might have wanted to be a down-to-earth ruler, but he wasn’t above pulling rank when it suited him. When his great friend, the legendary admiral Horatio Nelson, got married, William wasted no time on pleasantries and simply insisted on walking the bride down the aisle. Even the mighty Nelson had to say, “Yes, sir." But before long, William would be showing his might in darker ways.
When William inherited the British throne, he was 64 years old—the oldest person to have ever taken the crown at that point. Still, William very much proved that older doesn't mean wiser...
It wasn’t like William was pure and virginal when he met Dorothea Jordan. He’d actually become vastly unpopular in the Navy, mostly because he wouldn’t stop getting himself embroiled in endless love affairs.
Overall, William held conservative beliefs, and once went the super-gross distance to publicly oppose abolitionists in the House of Lords—a move that shocked and confused even his not-so-progressive contemporaries, who just wanted the rich white guy to sit down and shut up. But don’t get it twisted. The philandering William also supported more lenient adultery laws, so he could be liberal…when it benefitted his debauched lifestyle, that is.
By the 1830s, William was getting on in years, and just before his passing, he insisted that his aide destroy all of his correspondences, though luckily a fraction of his letters still survive. What was the king hiding? Oh, maybe immense guilt. One of the letters is a message from his ill-fated daughter Sophia, begging to come live with him after his split from her mother Dorothea. William flat-out refuses the poor girl.
On the day of his own birthday banquet in 1837, the aging William really let his old enemy the Duchess of Kent have it. He stood up in front of everyone and announced that since the Duchess was “incompetent to act with propriety,” he solemnly vowed to live until his niece Victoria came of age at 18, just so the Duchess could never gain power as Regent. The announcement made all the women burst out into tears, but did he manage to do it? Well...
By summer 1837, William was 71 years old, and his health was fading fast. Yet his brightest joy also lived in his darkest moments. He may have had a strained relationship with his ungrateful children, but his wife Queen Adelaide stayed by his bedside for 10 days straight, devoting herself to her beloved husband in his time of need. In the end, though, not even the great, virile King William IV could stop the reaper.
On June 20, 1837, William slipped away from this world after suffering heart failure at Windsor Castle. But even in death, he somehow managed to get his ingenious revenge. William passed just bare weeks after his niece Victoria came of age at 18. That’s right, the cantankerous jerk really did will himself to live just long enough to frustrate the Duchess of Kent’s regency. How’s that for vengeance?
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