William IV in the robes of the Order of the Garter, 1832, RCIN 404931 ©

A neglected king?

Among the many sovereigns who have sat on the British throne, William IV is probably one of the most neglected in terms of academic discourse. This is certainly mostly due to the shortness of his reign which, although quite eventful, lasted only seven years. Hopefully however, the publication online of the entirety of William IV’s papers in the Royal Archives will encourage more people to delve into this most interesting collection and bring back to life the adventures and the challenges of an overlooked protagonist.

Born in London on 21 August 1765, the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte, William Henry was certainly a most fascinating figure among George III’s descendants – his naval career and relationship with Mrs Jordan are of particular significance. Having assumed the title of Duke of Clarence in 1789, William was already 61 years old when his brother, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, second in line to the throne, died in 1827. The then king, George IV, was suffering from similar problems – his notoriously noxious eating and drinking habits a root cause of his ill-health – and fears that his death were approaching were mounting. 

Only a few years before it had not even been considered a remote possibility that William could become king, but by the late 1820s it was becoming a certainty.  Previously William had been a man who, although bound to follow the etiquette that his status prescribed, found himself in the privileged situation of being free, not only from any material preoccupation, but also from the burdens and expectations that are usually placed on a heir presumptive – or the next in line. Did this peculiar situation change the way in which people, of his and our time, judged his actions as a King? How much have historians and academics taken into consideration the background against which William approached his ultimate service to the country? These and other questions will certainly find an answer in the collection of William IV’s papers which, despite not being complete, holds a most interesting array of historical documents.

Prince William in midshipman’s uniform, 1782, RCIN 605494 ©

The surviving papers

William IV’s papers were found in the basement of Apsley House, the London residence of the Dukes of Wellington, along with the papers of George IV, and were deposited in the Royal Archives in 1912. Before dying, William had instructed Sir Henry Wheatley, Keeper of his Privy Purse, that all his papers should be destroyed. It appears that Wheatley did carry out the King’s order, but, luckily for us, not very efficiently.

The corpus of surviving papers is made of several groups of documents divided into two main sections, correspondence and financial papers. The extent of each group varies considerably and it is possible that this is related to the initial intent to destroy the king’s papers. In effect, of a total of 1,047 papers, almost two thirds (just under 700 documents) belong to the period when William was Prince and Duke of Clarence, with only the remaining 300 belonging to the seven-year period when he was king.

On the one hand, it can be argued that William’s reign lasted less than a decade – not a long enough period to produce a large volume of papers. On the other hand, much more documentation, of both an official and private nature, must have been generated during that time. Some papers have survived elsewhere, such as a series of correspondence from William IV to his Prime Minister, 2nd Earl Grey, which was presented to the Royal Archives in 1956. The collection, known as the Howick Papers after the Grey baronetcy of Howick, covers Lord Grey’s term as Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, and is particularly significant for the information it contains on the political and social issues of the first years of William IV’s reign. This collection will be published as part of the Georgian Papers Programme in due course.

Mrs James Green (1776-1845) portrait of Queen Adelaide (1792-1849), when Duchess of Clarence ©

Papers of William Henry, Duke of Clarence

The main series of papers of William as Prince and later, Duke of Clarence, is probably the richest and most complete group of papers belonging to the later king. It comprises 435 documents, mostly letters, aside from a few documents of a different nature– such as a copybook, extracts from Articles of War, doctor’s reports, couplets and power of attorney records. This series proceeds chronologically from 1765 to the day before William became king, 26 June 1830.

Although this is the most complete group of letters, a few chronological gaps occur that indicate some items might be missing. Luckily, some of these gaps are filled in with letters held in three groups of supplementary papers relating to William: the first is an additional miscellany of letters written by George III, Queen Charlotte, William’s brothers and sisters, to the Prince and later Duke of Clarence in the period 1772 to 1819.

The second group mainly consists of letters to and from the Duke of Clarence and later king,  with the addition of a group of letters from William’s consort Queen Adelaide to Lady Ely, a Lady of the Bedchamber. Finally, the last supplementary collection is a very small group of letters (in a few cases with their envelopes) written by William to Alexander Whitehead, with a few exceptions.

Other letters to and from the Duke of Clarence are to be found in the collection of papers of his long-term mistress, Mrs Dorothea Jordan. These papers will be published online by the end of 2018.

Letter from William IV to Lord Grey, on univeral suffrage, 4 February 1831, GEO/MAIN/35859 Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Official papers of William IV

With regards to papers from the period when William was king (1830 to 1837), relatively little has been left for us to see. The surviving material nonetheless provides an interesting insight into William’s political and military ideas, which shaped his short reign. 

The group of official and other papers contains mostly letters, dating from 1830 to 1839, on parliamentary matters. Amongst them, one issue is discussed at length and plays quite a prominent role in the collection, and that is the Cabinet Committee’s proposal for changing the representation of England, Scotland and Ireland. The papers highlight William IV’s willingness to take part in internal political discussion and makes us aware of the king’s political opinions on matters such as universal suffrage – in his words, ‘one of those Wild Projects which have sprung from Revolutionary Speculation’.

A second, smaller, group of documents bearing the title ‘Military Correspondence’ contains letters dating from 1830 to 1833, all dealing specifically with the issue of the regulation of corporal punishment in the Army and in the Navy – a matter particularly dear to William who experienced life at sea and the difficulties of maintaining discipline among sailors, which is why he was against limitations on corporal punishment.  

Of the mostly destroyed Privy Purse papers, the only surviving documents are a Privy Purse account book, kept by Sir Henry Wheatley for William IV from 1833 to 1836 and an account book for the Duke of Clarence, for the quarter ending 5 January 1793.

William IV as Duke of Clarence circa 1790, RCIN 605509 ©

Letters from William IV

Other letters and papers, written by or addressed to William IV, can be found scattered in other collections in the Royal Archives; their presence in those other collections, however, is not substantial enough to justify their inclusion in William’s papers. An exception to this is the collection of the papers of James William Daniell which mostly consist of letters from William, as Duke of Clarence and king, to his steward Daniell (1733–c.1855). The majority of these letters date from the period 1818 to 1825, when, soon after his marriage to Adelaide in 1818, the Duke of Clarence had been forced by his difficult financial situation to live in Germany – a cheaper country that also happened to be his wife’s homeland.