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Prince William, Duke of Clarence (1765-1837)

Prince William, Duke of Clarence (1765-1837), later King William IV, was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte. With two older brothers, he was not educated in the expectation of inheriting the throne, and was sent into the navy at the age of thirteen.

As a young man, much like his brothers the Prince of Wales and Frederick, Duke of York, he was courageous and mostly well-meaning, but not very bright, and prone to bad behaviour, large debts, and love affairs. While in the navy he became good friends with some officers, most famously Horatio Nelson, but it became clear early on that he did not have what it took to become a successful naval commander, as his parents had hoped. In 1791 James Gillray summed up the prevailing image of the duke by depicting him as 'Nauticus,' a grinning sailor announcing that "Those Lips were made for Kissing, Ladies!"

It was one of his most unsuitable ladies, the actress Dora Jordan, who got him to settle down. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 had made it illegal for him to marry without his father's approval, and his parents wanted him to marry an appropriate Protestant princess. William's response was to form a relationship with Dora that was a marriage in everything but name, lasting twenty years and producing ten children (who were given the surname 'Fitzclarence'). The couple helped each other out financially at different times, with Dora using her earnings as a celebrity actress to pay off the prince's debts. Their domestic bliss sometimes provoked hostility – there were many caricatures involving obscene puns on cracked "Jordans", a slang term for chamber pots. At other times, though, their apparently devotion to family life was seen, especially in contrast to the turbulent love life of the Prince of Wales, with amusement and even affection. 'La Promenade en Famille' shows William pulling three of the small Fitzclarences in a cart, with a red face and his pockets stuffed with toys.

By 1811, though, Jordan's career was declining as she got older, and William was tempted by the potential social and financial advantages of a legal marriage to a rich woman. He abandoned Dora, offering to pay only a minimal settlement and insisting on custody of their five sons. She died in poverty in France a few years later. William failed to find a wealthy wife until 1817, when he was set up with Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in a frantic attempt, following the death of Princess Charlotte, to produce a clear heir to the throne. None of their children survived.

William became king in his sixties, in 1830, following the deaths of his two older brothers. He was far more inclined to interfere with politics than his predecessor George IV had been. Inexperienced but conservative in politics, he was persuaded, reluctantly, to support limited political reform. He died in 1837 and was succeeded by his niece, Princess Victoria.

Further reading

Tom Pocock, The Sailor King: The Life of King William IV (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991).

An official royal profile of William IV.

Portraits and caricatures of William at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Ruth Scobie (University of Oxford)

Images © British Museum

Gillray, Nauticus., 1791

Gillray, La promenade en famille-a sketch from life., 1797

Charles Knight, His Royal Higness the Duke of Clarence Lord High Admiral of England, 1788-1830 (circa)

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