Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1765, was born William of Clarence.

William was a Prince who became king in due course, because none of his elder brothers produced heirs. William himself had ten children but none of these could succeed to the throne as they were illegitimate.

William was born on 21st August 1765, at Buckingham House, now called Buckingham Palace, the third son of King George III. As he was not expected to succeed to the throne, William was appointed to light Royal duties. He was sent into the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 13, to beguile the time until he reached adulthood. He saw active service in the American Revolution, and later became acquainted with Nelson, while serving in the West Indies. William quite liked the seafaring life, especially the sailor’s prerogative of having a girl in every port, but his affairs and dalliances reach the ear of his father, George III, who made him leave the service in 1790.

On leaving the Royal Navy, William was given the title Rear-Admiral, and elevated to the peerage as Duke of Clarence. He spoke frequently in the House of Lords, particularly in support of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery. In 1794, he started an affair with an Irish actress, Dorothea Jordan, with whom he lived in Bushy House, Teddington. [Now the National Physical Laboratory, Hampton Road, Teddington, TW11 0LW. Occasionally open to the public]

The couple had 10 illegitimate children (surnamed FitzClarence), all of whom grew to adulthood, a remarkable achievement for those times. They lived together until 1811, when William, came under pressure from his family to find a suitable, and rich, wife. William did not find a wife until 1818, by which time Dorothea was dead. When he eventually came to the throne, William commissioned a statue of his late mistress, but the piece finished up in the Ashmolean Museum and was destroyed in the Second World War to provide material for the war effort.

In 1818, William married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. The princess proved very popular with the public and had an Australian city named after her. The couple had two daughters, Charlotte and Elizabeth, both of whom died in infancy. In 1820, George III died and was succeeded by William’s elder brother, George IV, who reigned until 1830, when he died without legitimate issue, and William succeeded to the throne at the age of 64.

William’s reign was known for reforming zeal. The poor law was updated, municipal government democratised, child labour restricted, and slavery abolished throughout the British Empire. Also Parliament adopted the Reform Act of 1832, which removed Parliamentary seats from ‘rotten boroughs’, with few voters, and gave the seats to industrial districts. William did not approve of this measure, as he thought it would give power to radical reformers and bring about a revolution, in the French style. He was, however, persuaded to approve the Act, after listening to advice from the Duke of Wellington. As a former sailor, he took a great interest in the Royal Navy, and afforded naval officers the privilege of drinking the sovereign's health while sitting down, while aboard ship.

William was already old and in poor health when he began his reign. He had no legitimate living children and therefore his heir was Princess Victoria of Kent, later Queen Victoria, still a young girl. William detested Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, and was fearful that, should he die, she would attempt to reign as regent for her young daughter. He declared that he intended to live long enough to see Victoria reach 18, at which age she could reign personally. William managed to do this, living 4 weeks past Victoria’s 18th birthday. He died on 20th June 1837, at Windsor Castle, and was buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. [Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 1NJ. Admission fee]

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