illiam Lamb, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne and Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister , was born in 1779. His family was part of the aristocratic Whig society that reached a peak in the late 1700s. Its members reveled in non-stop politics, partying, gambling, and infidelity. His father, who embraced only the more disreputable Whig interests, was an inconsequential and almost nonexistent factor in William's life. His mother was wholly different. Described as beautiful, clever, virile, and cool she aggressively and successfully pursued her two goals — to rise to the height of English society and to raise happy, productive children. She befriended the Duchess of Devonshire, the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), and Lord Egremont, widely believed to be William's biological father. Lady Melbourne recognized William's natural intelligence and potential and encouraged his education at Eton, Cambridge, and Glasgow where he studied under the Whig professor John Millar. Lamb was an avid reader who developed his own interests in literature, drama, and religion.
Two Portraits of Lord Melbourne in the National Portrait Gallery London, that on the left painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence c. 1805, that on the right by John Patridge in 1844. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
As a younger son, William was not a direct heir of his father nor financially independent, and after completing school set out for a law career. However the death of his older brother in 1805 made him heir to the family name and fortune and caused momentous changes in his personal and professional life. His rise in social status enabled him to marry that year a young woman, Caroline Ponsonby whom he had long regarded but had been socially out of his reach. One of the most notorious marriages of the age, it was to be disastrous for them both. Creative, cultured, dramatic and flighty, Caroline clashed with her more coarse, rational mother-in-law and placid, passive husband. Over time her behavior become more erratic and erotic. Her many publicized affairs included one with the famous poet and social figure Lord Byron (who simultaneously became an intimate friend of William's mother). The publication of her best selling autobiographical novel Glenarvon, in which she described her amorous adventures and her husband's acquiescence further added to his humiliation. She ultimately suffered a permanent psychological breakdown. They were legally separated in 1825 and Caroline died in 1828. Their son had severe developmental delays and died in 1836.
While serving as Chief Secretary for Ireland (and legally separated) Lamb had a romantic though possibly unconsummated relationship with Lady Branden of Dublin. Her husband unsuccessfully sued him for "criminal conversation" with his wife though the suit marked the end of their relationship. Later, as Prime Minister he again developed a romantic but likely chaste relationship with the socialite, writer, and granddaughter of the playwright Sheridan, Mrs. Caroline Norton. Again, he won a civil suit brought on by her husband in a much publicized trial that was later satirized by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. Though Lamb (now Lord Melbourne) survived the trial unscathed, Mrs. Norton became a social outcast, and based on the law at the time, lost custody of her children to her disreputable husband. She later successfully campaigned for passage of the Infant Custody Bill, which gave women more custody rights. Though Melbourne withdrew from the intimacy of their relationship, Caroline remained a loyal friend and was a source of comfort to him in his later melancholy years. Unfortunately, Melbourne's adulthood was characterized by a failure to develop a satisfying, mature love relationship or family life.
His older brother's death also propelled Lamb into a political career in which he fared much better. As a young man he was a disciple of the eighteenth-century Whig icon Charles James Fox and subscribed to his political beliefs in the primacy of Parliament, religious toleration, limited monarchy, the right to private property, and civil liberty. However Lamb also had a conservative streak and never adapted to the radical wing of the Whig party which was evolving in the early nineteenth century and which stood for Church, educational, social, and parliamentary reform. Lamb, who believed in an aristocratic oligarchy rather than democracy, was skeptical about man's ability to improve his condition through government action. Though he could sometimes bend, his beliefs were fixed for life. Lamb affected a disarming insouciant attitude, which, unlike in his personal life, belied a developing determination and ambition.
After showing initial promise following his election to the House of Commons for Northhampton in 1816 and Hertford in 1819, Lamb withdrew from active politics for about the next ten years and actually resigned his seat in 1826. He did so in part due to his marital problems and part to estrangement from the radicals of his party, which left him in limbo between the conservative wing of the Whigs and the liberal wing of the Tories. In fact during this period he associated more with the Tory politicians Canning and Huskisson and when Canning became Prime Minister in 1827 Lamb came in out of the cold and accepted office as Chief Secretary for Ireland. In that role he served as the link between the Irish Lord Lieutenant and the British government and helped run the Irish government. During his brief term of one year he showed an unorthodox desire to befriend the Catholic populace, work with the Catholic leader Daniel O'Connell, and support Catholic emancipation but ultimately Lamb effected no lasting change in Ireland. Following the death of Canning, Lamb (now Lord Melbourne) resigned office rather than serve under the more ultra-Tory Duke of Wellington.
In 1830 Wellington's government fell and Melbourne accepted a cabinet post as Home Secretary with the primary responsibility of maintaining law and order under the new Whig Prime Minister Lord Grey. This was a difficult task in an era of great social unrest and agitation symbolized by the mythic protester Captain Swing in a country that lacked, with the exception of London, a modern police force. Though he avoided pressure to institute the harshest repressive measures he strongly stamped out illegal protest and through modern eyes seemed to lack sympathy for the underlying problems of the lower classes. He was responsible for the conviction and transportation of a group of poor laborers, known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, under an obscure law prohibiting the taking of unauthorized oaths by members of societies. Their trial evoked a storm of protest that Melbourne ignored, and the convicted workers were pardoned a year later. Melbourne was a reluctant supporter of the 1832 parliamentary Reform Bill that increased the franchise and removed some "rotten boroughs"-parliamentary districts with small malleable electorates under the control of a special interest.
Early in 1834 Lord Grey resigned and Lord Melbourne became his unlikely successor as Prime Minister. He led a caretaker government still under the influence of Grey and not well supported by King William IV and was forced to resign at the end of 1834 without any accomplishments. The new Tory Prime Minister Peel only lasted a few months in office brought down in part by the Lichfield House Compact - a coalition of Whigs, Radicals, and Irish of which Melbourne was not an active participant.
Following Peel's resignation, Melbourne was again named Prime Minister. He held together a rickety coalition cabinet of egotistical Radicals and Whigs with differing agendas backed by the shaky support of the Irish (Catholic) MPs and the tacit approval of the more liberal Tories. The government, which did not have the full support of William IV, was opposed by the more ultra-Tory members of the House of Lords. Philosophically Melbourne was against ongoing radical reform and believed the country needed time to adapt to the Reform Bill but was willing to bend when popular opinion demanded it. Stylistically he allowed cabinet members a great deal of independence and served as a mediator and conciliator at cabinet meetings. Though he had a carefree manner it took an underlying drive and ambition to keep his government afloat and its factious elements together.
Legislatively, after years of wrangling Melbourne's government passed an Irish Tithe Bill, which reformed the taxation Catholics were forced to pay to the Irish (Anglican) Church, though attempts to appropriate Church money to secular uses were defeated. In 1835 they passed the Municipal Corporation Act that greatly improved the management and representation of city governments (a similar bill was later passed for Ireland). In 1836 they passed the Dissenter's Marriage Bill that allowed marriage outside the Church of England. Ultimately unsuccessful reforms in the welfare system were attempted with the passage of the English and Irish Poor Law Bills. Backing the radicals, Melbourne helped put through penny postage, which opened up the mail system to the masses and was a democratizing force in England but not surprisingly, he supported suppression of the Chartist movement that advocated universal suffrage and other democratic ideas.
Melbourne had limited interest in foreign affairs which he left to his Foreign Secretary (and brother-in-law) Lord Palmerston. Inadvertently though he helped pave the way for colonial reform by appointing the Earl of Durham as Governor of Canada. The Durham report, which advocated responsible government for Canada, provided a model for future Imperial government. Melbourne also played a role in preventing war with France over its support of an Egyptian uprising against Turkey.
In 1837 the happiest and perhaps most important chapter in Melbourne's life began-the death of William IV led to the accession of his niece, the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria. Growing up in a constrained and isolated environment controlled by her mother and her mother's detestable aide Sir John Conroy, Victoria immediately took to the witty, gracious, and charming fifty-eight-year-old Melbourne. Their relationship, much analyzed, blossomed and was for Melbourne avuncular with a touch of romance and political self-interest. During the start of her reign they spent as much as six hours a day together with Melbourne acting as part Prime Minister, part private secretary. Appealing to his pedantic nature, Melbourne regaled the Queen his with views on history, religion, politics, politicians, and life. Victoria took his lessons to heart and dutifully copied them in her journal. Melbourne instilled or reinforced in the Queen a sense of self-confidence, respect for the monarchy, and the importance of doing her duty, qualities somewhat lacking in the kings since George III. Based on his cynical and flippant observations on education and the poor, however, he has been accused of failing to develop her social consciousness.
Overall, Melbourne was scrupulous with Queen Victoria, but he could be overly solicitous, which occasionally ill-served her. For instance, when Victoria inaccurately accused her mother's unmarried maid of honor Flora Hastings of being pregnant (based on an abdominal swelling due to cancer), Melbourne was insensitive to Hastings and her family's humiliation, and when the episode became public, opinion swung strongly against him and the Queen.
In the 1839 "Bedchamber Crisis" Melbourne's government, split by dissension, fell and Peel became Prime Minister. When Queen Victoria refused Peel's reasonable request to replace some of the Whig ladies of her bedchamber with Tories, Peel resigned, and the Queen named Melbourne as Prime Minister again. Melbourne was not forceful enough in suggesting the Queen comply with Peel and overly associated her with the Whig Party. Melbourne's somewhat contrived return to power found his government still rocked by increasing internal dissension especially over issues, such as the secret ballot, reform of the Corn Laws (agricultural tariffs), and Irish, colonial, and foreign policy.
Unfortunately for Melbourne, his time with Victoria was to be short. The maturation of the Queen, her marriage to the earnest Prince Albert, Melbourne's physical aging, and the further weakening and final fall of his government in 1841 led to the end of their special relationship. After he left office, Victoria's new sober-minded advisers discouraged Melbourne from having even an innocuous correspondence with the Queen, and due to their influence and her growing self-confidence, Victoria seemed to minimize the unique part he played in her life.
Lord Melbourne played no significant political role after 1841. Though his last years were characterized by deteriorating health, a wistful longing for the Queen, and periods of melancholy, he also had the comfort of being surrounded by devoted friends and family. He died, unheralded, in 1848, perhaps considered the relic of a vanished age.
Though not a great political leader or innovator, Melbourne, provided a source of stability and moderation in government during a period of great turmoil and change. He was a factor in England's relatively peaceful transition to democracy, and he provided a beneficial and altruistic role in educating and molding Queen Victoria. The study of his life offers a fascinating window into the social and political life of the English elite at the start of the Victorian Age.
Auchincloss, Louis. Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and her circle. New York: Random House, 1979.
Cecil, David. Melbourne. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954.
Longford, Elizabeth. Victoria R. I.. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Mitchell, L.G. Lord Melbourne 1779-1848. New York: Oxford, 1997.
Plaidy, Jean. The Queen and Lord M. New York: Putnam, 1977.
Ziegler, Philip, Melbourne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
11 October 2002
Last Modified 25 June 2020