By the 1830’s the English Monarchy was neither much loved nor respected. It had in large part been brought into disrepute by the vain and dissolute George IV who as Prince Regent had been the most loathed man in the country. When he died childless on 26 June 1830 he was little mourned and was to be succeeded by his brother William.
The sixty four year old William was by no means as flamboyant as his brother but this did not make him any more respected for as the fourth son of George III he had never been expected to inherit the throne and left to live the life he chose he had sown his wild oats accordingly fathering ten illegitimate children by the Irish Actress Dorothea Bland better known by her stage name Mrs Jordan.
His father was not impressed by William’s relationship with an actress and the ten little FitzClarence’s that had resulted from it but he did not express his disapproval perhaps just relieved that he was settled into a relationship that if not exactly free of scandal and ridicule paled into insignificance alongside that of the Prince Regent, even if having halved his allowance it was to be an impoverished domestic bliss.
William and Mrs Jordan were to be together for twenty years but as time went by with his two older brothers in ill-health it became increasingly apparent that he might one day succeed to the throne and he still remained unmarried and had no legitimate issue. There was of course no prospect of him marrying an actress and so he and Mrs Jordan separated, though she was always to insist that he had not done so for dynastic reasons but because he needed the money that could only be acquired through the making of a good marriage.
On 11 June 1818 he married twenty five year old Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, a woman half his age. She was not to provide him with the hoped for male heir however being tormented by miscarriage and still birth. As a result she was held up for scorn given the fecundity of William’s mistress, the actress whore.
The Monarchy had long been fair game for mockery and the satirists had an endless wealth of material but William refused to read the scandal sheets as he called them dismissing it all as so much nonsense.
The marriage itself however was a happy one and had a sobering effect on William, quite literally for he ceased to drink alcohol and perhaps presented with the example of his brothers who had brought their health issues upon themselves he ate frugally and exercised regularly.
When his older brother Frederick, Duke of York, died in 1827 William became the next in line to the throne and was immediately appointed to a position of responsibility as High Lord Admiral.
On 25 June 1830 he was summoned to George IV’s deathbed to be told by him, “God’s will be done. I have injured no man. It will rest on you then.” He was visibly shaken for unlike the rest of the country he was genuinely fond of his brother but he was also excited at the prospect of becoming King.
His reign started well, the years he had spent at sea when a young man had brought him into contact with common people and he was neither afraid to be amongst them nor did he speak down to them and he was popular, but a series of political crises were soon to see him portrayed as an obdurate fool and a conservative reactionary.
Earlier he had displayed his innate conservatism by speaking repeatedly in the House of Lords in favour of the slave trade and against its restriction or abolition accusing its advocate William Wilberforce of lunacy, now he tried to prevent the passage of the First Reform Bill that was intended to extend the franchise and abolish the Rotten Boroughs that permitted the election of political placemen. He even went so far as to dismiss the Whig Government and appoint the ultra-conservative Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister and it was only after he failed to form a Cabinet and pro-Reform and anti-Monarchy riots broke out the length and breadth of the country that William was forced to yield.
It was a chastening experience for William and thereafter he stayed out of politics where he could but the damage to both his reputation and that of the Monarchy had already been done. When he died at Windsor Castle on 20 June 1837 respect for the Monarchy had fallen to an all time low.
Though William had fathered many children he had no direct legitimate heir and the succession would fall upon his niece Princess Victoria of Kent who had just turned eighteen.
The young Victoria wrote in her journal of the events that night:
“I was awoken at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning and consequently that I am Queen.”
She then asserted herself almost immediately insisting that though she had been baptised Alexandrina Victoria she would henceforth be known and referred to only as Victoria.
It was the beginning of the Victorian Era perhaps the most transformative period in Britain’s history and one that still resonates today politically, culturally, and morally both in its lustre and its glory for better or worse.
The young Victoria had come to the throne of a country radicalised, politically divided, and rapidly being transformed from a rural economy into the world’s first industrial nation. By the time she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee sixty years later she would be Queen of the most powerful nation on earth and an Empress to quarter of the globe, an Empire upon which some said, the sun would never set.