William was the third son of George III and not expected to become king. He was sent off to join the Royal Navy at 13 years old, and saw service at the Battle of St Vincent against the Spanish in 1780 and in New York during the American War of Independence. A supposed plot approved by George Washington to kidnap him was leaked and did not come to fruition. He was later stationed in the West Indies under Horatio Nelson, and left active service in 1790 as a Rear Admiral.
He was created Duke of Clarence and from 1791 set up home with Dorothea Bland, an Irish actress known as ‘Mrs Jordan’. They lived contentedly together for 20 years, and had 5 sons and 5 daughters given the surname Fitzclarence. By 1817 William was in debt but, with the death of Princess Charlotte only daughter of his elder brother, he had become heir to the throne. Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen was found for him as a suitable Protestant wife and they married in 1818. The marriage was happy but despite several miscarriages there were no children who survived infancy. His London residence Clarence House was designed for him by John Nash in 1825.
William was 64 years old and the oldest person to date to succeed to the throne when he became King on the death of his brother George IV in 1830. He was nicknamed ‘The Sailor King’, distrusted foreigners and was noted for his informality. He regularly invited his friends for dinner, and when told that his carriage was not ready to take him to Parliament he is reported to have said ‘Then I will go by hackney cab’. In 1834 when fire destroyed the Houses of Parliament at Westminster he offered Buckingham Palace to Parliament. They declined and Westminster was rebuilt by Charles Barry in Gothic style.
He took his responsibilities seriously but was more used from his naval career to giving and receiving orders than the intrigues of politics. The Reform Act which sought to remove inequalities in the electoral system, including the removal of ‘rotten boroughs’ which returned a disproportionate representation to actual voters, had a stormy passage through Parliament. It was only passed in 1832 after street protests and Lord Grey and his cabinet threatened to resign unless the king supported them against opposition from the House of Lords. He sought to repair Anglo-American relations following the war during his father’s reign but, despite his experience in the West Indies, argued against Wilberforce who was campaigning to abolish the slave trade. The Abolition of Slavery Act was eventually passed in 1833. William died in 1837 aged 71 of heart failure. He had no legitimate children and was succeeded by his niece Victoria (Royal family history: www.britroyals.com)