22 JANUARY 1972, Page 13

Unremarkable King

Edward Norman

King William IV Philip Ziegler (Collins £3.50) It was always part of the intention of the liberal historians, from whom so many of our views of nineteenth century politics are derived, to diminish the importance of sovereigns and to legitimise the aspirations of the aspiring classes. Since the position of the Crown did in fact greatly diminish during the century, their purpose was quite easily fulfilled. The exponents of reform became the centre pieces of the historians' tableaux and everybody else was more or less judged according to their sympathies for the great causes. The emphasis was not unreasonable. But it is only recently that more serious attention has been given to the institution of monarchy in the nineteenth century and to the persons of the sovereigns. Frank Hardie's Political Influence of Queen Victoria first sought, some thirty years ago now, to resurrect the political interests of his subject. He rather exaggerated her real powers and influence in consequence — a fault corrected (but sympathetically) by Elizabeth Longford's splendid life of Victoria. Mr Ziegler's study of William IV is a distinguished addition to our knowledge of nineteenth century sovereigns.

The author's task was not an easy one. The life of William IV was encompassed with unedifying anecdote, and he had the misfortune to have sat upon the throne during the Reform Bill crisis of 1831-2: he has been judged, in consequence, according to his attitude to that measure, and found vacillating. It is one of the merits of Mr Ziegler's book to have revealed the great subtleties of the King's attitude to the Bill, and to have shown that his first accep tance of reform, and then his reservations, were inspired not by stupidity or treachery or even insanity, but by his belief that he had been betrayed by the Whig Ministry. He had expected more substantial modifi cations of the Bill, in order to make it more palatable to the Tories, than the ministers were in the end prepared to countenance.

There were plenty of indications of this in the published correspondence of the King and Lord Grey: Mr Ziegler draws out the details and puts the case on both sides.

The book is , concerned with the whole life of the King, however, and not merely with this one famous controversy. Like the other sons of George III, William was, as a young man, gross and irresponsible. Yet from an obsessive love of military uniforms and rank sexual indulgence — he was, after all, a member of a German family — he became, in maturer years a sensible and likeable man exactly suited to the difficult task of upholding the institution of mon archy during a period which saw some radical changes at home and the tumble of crowns abroad. He was, and he supposed himself, imbued with common-sense. It was his great virtue. He liked to consider himself, as king, above party issues; as em bodying the great moderation and sense of the people whom he ruled. He always longed for a coalition government, yet was faithful and respectful to the ministers he actually had to have. He was, in short, a constitutional monarch of the type Queen Victoria is usually credited with having established. It is true that in 1834 he sacked the Whig ministry when it still enjoyed a majority in the Commons. But despite the polemical outburst of some of his politicised subjects at the time (which so many subsequent historians have chosen to repeat as though objective evidence of royal malpractice), this exercise of the prerogative was quite proper, acquiesced in by Melbourne, and was hugely popular in the country. It was, however, a bit archaic; but the episode was in no sense a crisis of monarchy.

William IV was, indeed, quite an enlightened man. It was he who, as Lord High Admiral in the 1820s, appreciated the future of steam powered vessels and planned their introduction to the navy — a reform frustrated by his successor, who scrapped the proposals as absurd innovations. It was also William who encouraged massive retrenchments in the Royal household — another feature usually ascribed to Victoria. He began by trying to avoid the fuss and costs of a coronation, actually putting the crown on his own head one day in the hope that a formal ceremony might thereby be avoided. The bishops did not allow him to get away with it. Next, he tried to hand Buckingham Palace over to the Army, to serve as a barracks; and when the Houses of Parliament were burned down in 1834 he tried to convert his Palace into a new Parliament house — again he was not permitted this reform. Instead, he contented himself with cutting down on royal expenses, especially on the costs of entertaining. After the immense splendour of the Court of his brother, George IV, it must have seemed a great change. It was also, as contemporaries were delighted to notice, in sympathy with what they imagined was the spirit of the age. The man who emerges from Mr Ziegler's book, in fact, is far from the fumbling sailor-King of the liberal tradition. He did not aspire to the heights; but he was a careful and informed monarch who handed on a wholesome tradition to his young successor. Ultimately, it was George III who had set the family style for the Royal House in the nineteenth century, and it was George IV who departed briefly from it. Those who read Mr Ziegler's account of the quiet home life of George III at Kew, and the circumstances of the rearing of his children, will recognise at once the ' bourgeois ' elements of nineteenth century monarchy in their earliest expression. For the royal children it was all frugal eating, healthy outdoor games, and regular labour on the model farm. The King's children all broke out at the earliest opportunity — but William IV, after some years of excess, was soon happy to return to the domestic stability of his origins. The fascinating account of this undramatic translation is written with superlative skill in Mr Ziegler's book.