William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne: Difference between revisions


“Lord Melbourne” and “The Viscount Melbourne” redirect here. For other holders of the title, see Viscount Melbourne.
British politician (1779–1848)

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne PC, PC (Ire), FRS (15 March 1779 – 24 November 1848) was a Whig politician who served as the Home Secretary and twice as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Some sources indicate that his full name was Henry William Lamb.[1][2]
His first premiership ended when he was dismissed by William IV in 1834, the last British prime minister to be dismissed by a monarch. Five months later, he was re-appointed and served for six more years, into the reign of Queen Victoria. He is best known for coaching the Queen in the ways of politics, acting almost as her private secretary, and the political scandals that resulted from it. His legacy as prime minister was not favourable, as he had no great foreign wars or domestic issues to handle, and he was involved in several political scandals in the early years of Victoria’s reign.

Early life[edit]
In 1779, William Lamb was born in London to an aristocratic Whig family, and was the son of Peniston and Elizabeth Lamb (1751–1818). However, his paternity was questioned, being attributed to George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, to whom it was considered he bore a considerable resemblance, and at whose residence he was a visitor until the Earl’s death. Lamb was called to Egremont’s bedside when Egremont was dying but,[3][4][5] nevertheless, stated that Egremont being his father was “all a lie”.[6]Portrait by John Hoppner, 1796He was educated at Eton, then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was admitted in 1796 and graduated a Master of Arts in 1799,[1] and finally at the University of Glasgow (1799–1801), where he was a resident pupil of Professor John Millar alongside his younger brother Frederick.[7][8]
Admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1797, he was called to the bar in 1804.[1] Against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, Lamb served at home as Captain (1803) and Major (1804) in the Hertfordshire Volunteer Infantry.[9]
He succeeded his elder brother Peniston as heir to his father’s title in 1805 (and as captain of the Midland Troop, Hertfordshire Yeomanry, when he resigned his commission in the Volunteer Infantry[10]) and married Lady Caroline Ponsonby, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. After two miscarriages and a stillbirth child, she gave birth to George Augustus Frederick in 1807 and was devoted to him. George was epileptic and mentally handicapped, requiring significant medical care. He died in 1836.[11] In 1809, they had a daughter. She was born prematurely and lived only one day.[12]
The following year, Lamb was elected to the British House of Commons as the Whig MP for Leominster. For the election in 1806 he moved to the seat of Haddington Burghs, and for the 1807 election he successfully stood for Portarlington (a seat he held until 1812).[13]
Lamb first came to general notice for reasons he would rather have avoided: his wife had a public affair with Lord Byron – she coined the famous characterisation of Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.[14] The resulting scandal was the talk of Britain in 1812.[citation needed]
Lady Caroline published a Gothic novel, Glenarvon, in 1816; this portrayed both the marriage and her affair with Byron in a lurid fashion, which caused William even greater embarrassment, while the spiteful caricatures of leading society figures made them several influential enemies. Eventually the two were reconciled, and, though they separated in 1825, her death in 1828 affected him considerably.[citation needed]

Early politics[edit]
Member of Parliament[edit]
Lord Melbourne by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1820s
In 1816, Lamb was returned for Peterborough by Whig grandee Lord Fitzwilliam. He told Lord Holland that he was committed to the Whig principles of the Glorious Revolution but not to “a heap of modern additions, interpolations, facts and fictions”.[13] He, therefore, spoke against parliamentary reform, and voted for the suspension of habeas corpus in 1817 when sedition was rife.[13]
Lamb’s hallmark was finding the middle ground. Though a Whig, he accepted the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland in the moderate Tory governments of George Canning and Lord Goderich on 29 April 1827. Upon the death of his father in 1828 and his becoming the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, of Kilmore in the County of Cavan, he moved to the House of Lords. He had spent 25 years in the Commons, largely as a backbencher, and was not politically well known.[15]

Home Secretary[edit]
In November 1830, the Whigs came to power under Lord Grey. Melbourne was Home Secretary. During the disturbances of 1830–32 he “acted both vigorously and sensitively, and it was for this function that his reforming brethren thanked him heartily”.[13] In the aftermath of the Swing Riots of 1830–31, he countered the Tory magistrates’ alarmism by refusing to resort to military force; instead, he advocated magistrates’ usual powers be fully enforced, along with special constables and financial rewards for the arrest of rioters and rabble-rousers. He appointed a special commission to try approximately 1,000 of those arrested, and ensured that justice was strictly adhered to: one-third were acquitted and most of the one-fifth sentenced to death were instead transported.[13]
There remains controversy regarding the hanging of Dic Penderyn, a protester in the Merthyr Rising who was then, and is now, widely judged to have been innocent. He appears to have been executed solely on the word of Melbourne, who sought a victim in order to “set an example”.[16] The disturbances over reform in 1831–32 were countered with the enforcement of the usual laws; again, Melbourne refused to pass emergency legislation against sedition.[13]
Melbourne supported the 1834 prosecution and transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia for their attempts to protest against the cutting of agricultural wages.

Prime Minister[edit]

After Lord Grey resigned as Prime Minister in July 1834, William IV was forced to appoint another Whig to replace him, as the Tories were not strong enough to support a government. Melbourne, who was the man most likely to be both acceptable to the King and to hold the Whig Party together, hesitated after receiving from Grey a letter from the King requesting Melbourne to visit him to discuss the formation of a government. Melbourne feared he would not enjoy the extra work that accompanied the office of Premier, but he did not want to let his friends and party down. According to Charles Greville, Melbourne said to his secretary, Tom Young: “I think it’s a damned bore. I am in many minds as to what to do”. Young replied: “Why, damn it all, such a position was never held by any Greek or Roman: and if it only lasts three months, it will be worthwhile to have been Prime Minister of England [sic].” “By God, that’s true”, Melbourne said, “I’ll go!”[17]
Compromise was the key to many of Melbourne’s actions. He was personally opposed to the Reform Act 1832 proposed by the Whigs and later opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws, but he reluctantly agreed to both.[18]
Melbourne was also a strong supporter of slavery.[19] He called Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833 a “great folly” and said that if he had had his own way (as opposed to what many Whigs wanted), he would “have done nothing at all!”[20] He had told his sister-in-law that “slavery was a matter of necessity”, was hesitant to pressure foreign governments about slavery, and saw slavery as “no bar to the recognition of Texan independence.”[21]
William IV’s opposition to the Whigs’ reforming ways led him to dismiss Melbourne in November. He then gave the Tories under Sir Robert Peel an opportunity to form a government. Peel’s failure to win a House of Commons majority in the resulting general election (January 1835) made it impossible for him to govern, and the Whigs returned to power under Melbourne that April. This was the last time a British monarch attempted to appoint a government to suit his own preferences.[22]

Cartoon about the affair by John Doyle. Credit: Wellcome Collection
The next year, Melbourne was once again involved in a sex scandal. This time, he was the victim of attempted blackmail from the husband of a close friend, the society beauty and author Caroline Norton. The husband demanded £1,400, and when he was turned down, he accused Melbourne of having an affair with his wife.[23] At that time, such a scandal would have been enough to derail a major politician and so it is a measure of the respect that contemporaries had for his integrity that Melbourne’s government did not fall. The King and the Duke of Wellington urged him to stay on as prime minister. After Norton failed in court, Melbourne was vindicated, but he stopped seeing Caroline Norton.[24]
Nonetheless, as the historian Boyd Hilton concludes, “it is irrefutable that Melbourne’s personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity”.[25]

Queen Victoria[edit]
Melbourne was Prime Minister when Queen Victoria came to the throne (June 1837). Barely eighteen, she was only just breaking free from the domineering influence of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her mother’s adviser, Sir John Conroy. Over the next four years, Melbourne trained her in the art of politics, and the two became friends: Victoria was quoted as saying she considered him like a father (her own had died when she was eight months old), and Melbourne’s son had died at a young age.[26] Melbourne was given a private apartment at Windsor Castle, and unfounded rumours circulated for a time that Victoria would marry Melbourne, 40 years her senior. Tutoring Victoria was the climax of Melbourne’s career: the prime minister spent four to five hours a day visiting and writing to her, and she responded with enthusiasm.[27]
Lord Melbourne’s tutoring of Victoria took place against a background of two damaging political events: first, the Lady Flora Hastings affair, followed not long after by the Bedchamber Crisis. Victoria’s reputation suffered in an 1839 court intrigue when Hastings, one of her mother’s ladies-in-waiting, developed an abdominal growth that was widely rumoured to be an out-of-wedlock pregnancy by Sir John Conroy.[28] Victoria believed the rumours, as did Lord Melbourne.[28] When Victoria told Melbourne of her suspicions, he planted the idea in her head that her mother, the Duchess of Kent, was jealous of Hasting’s closeness to Conroy, which made Victoria excited and more resolute on the matter.[29] Initially, Melbourne “suggested quiet watchfulness” over Hastings’s body changes.[29] But after the court physician, Sir James Clarke, had examined Hastings and generally concluded she wasn’t pregnant, Melbourne was wholly persuaded Hastings must be pregnant from a throwaway comment that Clarke made about the appearance of virginity in spite of pregnancy. Melbourne immediately informed the queen. When Victoria observed to him that Hastings had not been seen in public for a while because “she was so sick,” Melbourne “repeated, ‘Sick?’ with what the queen described as ‘a significant laugh.'”[30]

Foreign affairs[edit]
The Rebellions of 1837–1838 led directly to Lord Durham’s Report on the Affairs of British North America and to The British North America Act, 1840 which established a new political entity, the Province of Canada.
The Whig cabinet under Melbourne decided on 1 October 1839 to send an expeditionary force to China to protect British interests in the trafficking of opium into China, against the wishes of the Chinese Daoguang Emperor.[31] The First Opium War was fought between China and the United Kingdom from 1839 to 1842, one of the outcomes of the war was that Hong Kong would be ceded to the UK and become a British crown colony.
The First Anglo-Afghan War occurred between 1839 and 1842. At the beginning of the conflict, the East India Company troops had defeated the forces of Afghan Emir and in 1839 occupied Kabul.
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on 6 February 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and Māori chiefs. In November 1840 a royal charter was signed by Queen Victoria, establishing New Zealand as a Crown colony.[32]

Rule and resign[edit]

Satire of the Bedchamber crisis by John Doyle, 31 December 1840
On 7 May 1839, Melbourne announced his intention to resign, which began a series of events that led to the Bedchamber Crisis. A prospective prime minister, Robert Peel, requested that Victoria dismiss some of the wives and daughters of Whig MPs who made up her personal entourage, arguing that the monarch should avoid any hint of favouritism to a party out of power. The Queen refused to comply and was supported by Melbourne although he was unaware that Peel had not requested the resignation of all of the Queen’s ladies, as she had led him to believe—and hence, Peel refused to form a new government, and Melbourne was persuaded to stay on as Prime Minister.[33]
Among his government’s Acts were a reduction in the number of capital offences, reforms of local government, and the reform of the Poor laws. This restricted the terms on which the poor were allowed relief and established compulsory admission to workhouses for the impoverished.[citation needed]
After Victoria fell in love with and became engaged to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on 15 October 1839, Melbourne helped to push through approval for the marriage in parliament, although with some stumbling blocks, including Victoria’s insistence that Albert be made king consort, to which Melbourne asked Victoria “to hear no more of it.” On the eve of Victoria’s wedding on 10 February 1840, Melbourne reported Victoria being “very angry” with him after she had remarked it pleased her Albert did not look at other women, only for Melbourne to respond “no, that sort of thing is apt to come later.” Melbourne reported Victoria responded “I shan’t soon forgive you for that”, rubbing his hands and chuckling over it while telling the story to Lord Clarendon. The morning after her wedding, Victoria wrote to Melbourne of her “most gratifying and bewildering night” with Albert, and how she never thought she “could be so loved.”
On 25 February 1841, Melbourne was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society.[38]
Following a vote of no confidence, initiated by Conservative MP John Stuart-Wortley, Melbourne’s government fell, and he resigned as Prime Minister on 30 August 1841.[39]

Later life[edit]
A plaque marking the burial of Melbourne at St Etheldreda’s Church, Hatfield, in Hertfordshire, England
After Melbourne resigned permanently in August 1841, Victoria continued to write to him about political matters, but as it was deemed inappropriate after a time, their letters became cordial and non-political without issue. On 1 October 1842, in reflecting on a prior journal entry from 1839 in which she had described her “happiness” with Melbourne, Victoria wrote that she “looked over and corrected one of my old journals, which do not now awake very pleasant feelings. The life I led then was so artificial and superficial, and yet I thought I was happy. Thank God! I now know what real happiness means.”
Though weakened, Melbourne survived a stroke on 23 October 1842, 14 months after his departure from politics.[42] In retirement, he lived at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire. He died at home on 24 November 1848[43] and was buried nearby at St Etheldreda’s Church, Hatfield, Hertfordshire.[44] There is a memorial to him in St Paul’s Cathedral.[45]
Upon his death, his titles passed to his brother, Frederick, as his son, George Augustus Frederick (1807–1836), had predeceased him.

In literature[edit]
Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s poetical illustration Lord Melbourne, to a portrait by Thomas Lawrence, was published in Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1837. It is one of the few instances in which she allowed herself a political comment.[49]

Wikisource has original text related to this article:

In popular culture[edit]
On screen, Lord Melbourne has been portrayed by several actors:


^ a b c “Lamb, the Hon. Henry William (LM796HW)”. A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.

^ Arnold-Baker, Charles (2001). The Companion to British History. Psychology Press. p. 875. ISBN 9780415185837. Retrieved 9 July 2019.

^ “LAMB, Hon. William (1779-1848), of Brocket Hall, Herts. | History of Parliament Online”.

^ Petworth- From 1660 to the present day, Peter Jerrome, The Window Press, 2006, pp. 62–63

^ Dick Leonard. Nineteenth-Century British Premiers. pp. 163–179. doi:10.1057/9780230227255_12. ISBN 9780230227255. Retrieved 14 October 2018.

^ Lord Melbourne, 1779–1848, L. G. Mitchell, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 6–7

^ Torrens, William McCullach (1878). Memoirs of the Right Honourable William, Second Viscount Melbourne. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan. p. 39. Retrieved 28 June 2019.

^ Lehmann, William C. (1960). John Millar of Glasgow 1735–1801. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 37–38. Retrieved 28 June 2019.

^ [1] History of Parliament article by R.G. Thorne.

^ Lt-Col J.D. Sainsbury, The Hertfordshire Yeomanry: An Illustrated History 1794–1920, Welwyn: Hart Books/Hertfordshire Yeomanry and Artillery Historical Trust, 1994; ISBN 0-948527-03-X, p. 35.

^ Profile of Viscount Melbourne, gov.uk. Accessed 28 December 2022.

^ Douglass, Paul (1999). “The Madness of Writing: Lady Caroline Lamb’s Byronic Identity”. Pacific Coast Philology. 34 (1): 53–71. doi:10.2307/1316621. JSTOR 1316621.

^ a b c d e f Peter Mandler, “Lamb, William, second Viscount Melbourne (1779–1848)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, January 2008. Accessed 27 December 2009.

^ “Ireland: Poetic justice at home of Byron’s exiled lover”. The Sunday Times. London. 17 November 2002. Archived from the original on 12 July 2012. Retrieved 21 February 2010. ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’ has become Lord Byron’s lasting epitaph. Lady Caroline coined the phrase after her first meeting with the poet at a society event in 1812.

^ Henry Dunckley, Lord Melbourne p 135

^ “Wales Online: Trade unions to mark the legacy of Dic Penderyn and the Merthyr Uprising on 70-mile memorial walk: Robin Turner 2 August 2013: Accessed 12 August 2017”. 2 August 2013.

^ Cecil, David (2001). The Young Melbourne & Lord M. W&N. p. 321. ISBN 9781842124970.

^ Cecil, David, Melbourne, (Indianapolis, 1954), p. 422

^ Lord Melbourne, 1779–1848, L. G. Mitchell, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 198-199

^ Lord Melbourne, 1779–1848, L. G. Mitchell, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 198

^ Lord Melbourne, 1779–1848, L. G. Mitchell, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 198-199

^ Newbould, I. D. C. (1976). “William IV and the Dismissal of the Whigs, 1834”. Canadian Journal of History. 11 (3): 311–30. doi:10.3138/cjh.11.3.311.

^ Wroath, John (1998). Until They Are Seven, The Origins of Women’s Legal Rights. Waterside Press. ISBN 1-872-870-57-0.

^ David Cecil, Melbourne (1954) ch 11

^ Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (2006), p. 500.

^ “History of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne – GOV.UK”. gov.uk. Retrieved 30 September 2016.

^ Cecil, Melbourne ch 14

^ a b Hibbert, p. 77-78; Weintraub, 119-121

^ a b Weintraub, 119

^ Hibbert, p. 79

^ Dartnell, Lewis (23 May 2023). “Out of our minds: opium’s part in imperial history”. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 21 June 2023.

^ “New Zealand officially becomes British colony”. NZ History. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 23 December 2016. Archived from the original on 18 May 2017. Retrieved 25 July 2017.

^ “BBC – Radio 4 – This Sceptred Isle – The Bedchamber Crisis and Afghanistan”. www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 14 July 2021.

^ “Lists of Royal Society Fellows”. Archived from the original on 22 January 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2006.

^ “Confidence in the Ministry—Adjourned Debate (Fifth Day)”. Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Vol. 58. House of Commons. 4 June 1841. col. 1121–47. Retrieved 20 February 2016.

^ “Lord Melbourne | Biography & Facts”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 13 May 2020.

^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 18, 11th Edition

^ Hibbard, Scott David (15 March 1779). “William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne”. geni.com. Retrieved 24 January 2017.

^ “Memorials of St Paul’s Cathedral” Sinclair, W. p. 462: London; Chapman & Hall, Ltd; 1909.

^ Anonymous. “Short history of Melbourne”. Only Melbourne. Retrieved 24 January 2017.

^ “History of the City of Melbourne” (PDF). City of Melbourne. November 1997. pp. 8–10. Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 October 2022. Retrieved 28 January 2017.

^ Ross, James Clark (2011) [1847]. A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839–43. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 205. ISBN 9781108030854 – via Google Books.

^ Landon, Letitia Elizabeth (1836). “poetical illustration”. Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1837. Fisher, Son & Co.Landon, Letitia Elizabeth (1836). “picture”. Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1837. Fisher, Son & Co.

^ “Victoria (TV Series 2016– )”. IMDb. Retrieved 27 October 2018.


Cecil, David (1954). Melbourne. London: Constable. 1954. major biography focused on his psychology
Cecil, David (1939). The Young Melbourne: And the Story of His Marriage with Caroline Lamb.
Dunkley, Henry (“VERAX”) (1890). Lord Melbourne.
Hibbert, Christopher (2000) Queen Victoria: A Personal History, London: HarperCollins, ISBN 0-00-638843-4
Mandler, Peter (1 January 2008) [1 September 2004]. “Lamb, William, second Viscount Melbourne (1779–1848)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/15920. Retrieved 27 December 2009. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
Marshall, Dorothy (1975). Lord Melbourne. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0297767732.
Mitchell, L. G. (1997). Lord Melbourne, 1779–1848. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198205920.
Newbould, I. D. C. (December 1976). “William IV and the Dismissal of the Whigs, 1834”. Canadian Journal of History. 11 (3): 311–330. doi:10.3138/cjh.11.3.311.
Newbould, Ian D. C. (1980). “Whiggery and the Dilemma of Reform: Liberals, Radicals, and the Melbourne Administration, 1835-9”. Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research. 53 (128): 229–241. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2281.1980.tb01745.x.
Weintraub, Stanley (1997). Albert : uncrowned king. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5756-9. OCLC 36727394.
Weintraub, Stanley (1987). Victoria : biography of a queen. London: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-0-04-923084-2. OCLC 15016119.
Ziegler, Philip (1987). Melbourne: A Life of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-217957-7.

Further reading[edit]
Hilton, Boyd (2006). A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0199218912.
Cameron, R. H. (1976). “The Melbourne Administration, the Liberals and the Crisis of 1841”. Durham University Journal. 69 (1).
Cecil, David. “Melbourne and the Years of Reform.” History Today (Aug 1954) 4#8 pp 529–536.
Collected papers[edit]

External links[edit]

William Lamb navigational boxes


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