William IV's dismissal of Lord Melbourne's Whig government in November 1834 was the last time a British monarch tried to assert political authority by bringing down a government that had majority support in the House of Commons.
Discontent had been growing between William and his Whig ministers since he first succeeded his brother George to the throne in July 1830. The King was distrustful of many of the Whig reformers and objected to their attempts to push a Reform Bill through Parliament. In the spring of 1831, the then Whig Prime, Minister Earl Grey had been forced to ask for further elections in an attempt to pass the legislation. Then, in May 1832, he had asked the King to appoint a number of Whig peers in order secure the passage of the Bill though the House of Lords. Despite his sympathy for reform, the King was incensed at what he saw as the action of Radicals pressing forward with their agenda, despite public and parliamentary hesitation. He therefore refused to accept Grey’s request, prompting the Whig Prime Minister to resign in protest. However, the Tory Duke, Wellington proved unable to form a government and the publicly popular Grey was soon back in power. Accepting defeat, the King thus yielded to Grey’s request to create additional Whig peers and the Great Reform Act thus passed successfully through the House of Lords.
In July 1834, Grey chose to resign for the final time, following parliamentary disagreements over Irish policy. The Tories were again unable to form a government and Grey was succeeded by Lord Melbourne, who had served as Home Secretary in his last administration. The King, still worried by what he saw as the political extremism of Whig reformers such as John Russell and Henry Brougham, was desperate for an excuse to sack his Whig ministers. Unfortunately for Melbourne, his ministry was plagued by personality conflicts, rows over Ireland and tensions between radicals and the more conservative elements of his party over the ongoing issue of social and constitutional reform.
When Lord Althorp left his position as Leader of the Commons in November 1834, to assume his father’s title in the House of Lords, the King argued that his absence justified his decision to break the Whig Cabinet up. William argued that Althorp had acted as a curb on the more radical members of the Whig administration and that without his steadying influence, the reformers would run out of control. Writing to his predecessor Grey on the 14th November, Melbourne set out what he believed to be the King’s reasons for sacking his ministry. The King’s great mistrust for the majority of Cabinet members, the conduct of the Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham, in engaging in a public row with the Earl of Durham over details of the Reform Bill and apprehension at measures to reform the Church were all cited as reasons for William IV’s bold decision. ‘You know the motives which have led him to this as well as I do’, Melbourne lamented to Grey.
The King replaced Melbourne with the Conservative moderate, Sir Robert Peel, who had previously shown a dislike for the Whig reformers. Nonetheless, with the Whigs continuing to outnumber the Tories in the House of Commons, Peel struggled to hold his government together and by April 1835 Melbourne and the Whigs were back in office once again.
Historians have disagreed as to the reasons behind the King’s action in dismissing his Whig Ministry in 1843. Norman Gash has argued that the King was essentially an old Whig who was prepared to accept limited measures of parliamentary reform, but nothing else and thus he lost confidence in his Whig Ministers when they began making plans to reform the English and Irish churches. Others, such as I. D. C. Newbound (William IV and the Dismissal of the Whigs, 1834 in Canadian Journal of History 11:3, 1976) have argued that King was of the opinion that the more radical members of the Whig administration were attempting to force their opinions on a more reluctant public. According to Newbound, William feared that the departure of Lord Althorp, who had acted as a restraining influence in the House of Commons, would allow Whig Ministers to go beyond what public opinion desired. Nevertheless, whatever the King’s motives, his action in dismissing his Whig Ministers in 1834 was an important episode as it marked a turning point in relations between the sovereign and the State. William IV’s action represents the last time a monarch dared to challenge the authority of a government that had been elected with popular public support.