Emily Lamb, Lady Cowper

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Portrait of Lady Emily Lamb, aged 16, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Emily Lamb, Countess Cowper, later Viscountess Palmerston (1787–1869) was a leading figure of the Almack's social set, sister to Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, wife to the 5th Earl Cowper, and subsequently wife to Prime Minister Lord Palmerston.

The Lamb family[edit]

Emily was born in 1787 to Peniston Lamb and his wife Elizabeth (née Milbanke). Due to her mother's numerous affairs, her paternity was never verified, and has been described as " shrouded in mystery". The Lamb family had been politically prominent since the mid-18th century, reaching their zenith of influence in Emily's generation. Her father was made Viscount Melbourne in 1781. Her eldest brother William Lamb twice held the premiership of England, while another brother, Frederick Lamb, was a noted diplomat, and a third, George Lamb, was a minor playwright and journalist of the era. The Lambs were closely linked with the Whig party, and were intimates of Queen Victoria.[1] There was a lifelong bond between William and Emily; by contrast she detested his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb ( whom she called "that little beast").

Portrait of Emily Lamb, Countess Cowper by William Owen, ca. 1810

First marriage[edit]

At age eighteen, Emily married Peter Clavering-Cowper, 5th Earl Cowper, a man nine years her senior. Lord Cowper had a reputation for dullness and slowness of speech which were in marked contrast to his wife's social gifts;[2] a more favourable portrait was that he was a quiet, pleasant man who was far less stupid than he appeared but avoided society and politics.[3] Emily threw herself into the Regency social scene, becoming one of the leading ladies of the highly exclusive Almack's club.[4] She was noted for kindness and generosity: she would do anything for a person she liked, and would even help people she disliked: although she detested her sister-in-law Caroline, when Caroline was barred from Almack's, a deep social disgrace, Emily eventually managed to get the ban lifted.[5] Like many of the society ladies of the age, she had love affairs, including one with the Corsican diplomat Carlo Andrea Pozzo di Borgo, later Russian Ambassador to Great Britain.[6]

Emily was noted not only for beauty but extraordinary charm: "grace put in action, whose softness was as seductive as her joyousness".

Lord Cowper

The affair with Palmerston[edit]

At Almack's, Lady Cowper was increasingly seen in the company of Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, who was known as "Cupid" at the time for his various romantic dalliances, including affairs with Emily's fellow patronesses of Almack's, Dorothea Lieven and Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey. Palmerston was a regular fixture of her parties and salons, and as Lord Cowper sank into a long period of ill health and general decline, Lady Cowper and Lord Palmerston entered into a romantic relationship. This brought Palmerston, originally a Tory, increasingly in contact with notable Whigs, particularly Emily's brother. Of an 1826 proposal for Catholic Emancipation, Palmerston said, "the Whigs supported me most handsomely, and were indeed my chief and most active friends."[7] Soon after, Palmerston switched affiliations and ran as a Whig candidate. Emily's mother, on her deathbed in 1818, urged her to remain constant to Palmerston, possibly looking forward to a time when they would be free to marry.

Marriage to Palmerston[edit]

In 1837, Lord Cowper died, two days into the reign of Queen Victoria. This left the way open for a marriage between Emily and Palmerston, though their age was a cause for concern, as, in the eyes of her family, was Palmerston's reputation as a womaniser. The matter was referred to Queen Victoria, whose approval cleared the way for the marriage on December 16, 1839. Palmerston was 55 at the time, and Lady Cowper was 52.

They set up their home at Broadlands and the union was, by all accounts, a decidedly happy one. Of it, Lord Shaftesbury said, "His attentions to Lady Palmerston, when they both of them were well stricken in years, were those of a perpetual courtship. The sentiment was reciprocal; and I have frequently seen them go out on a morning to plant some trees, almost believing that they would live to eat the fruit, or sit together under the shade."[8]

During the marriage, Lady Palmerston continued an active social role as a salon hostess. As the events were eagerly attended by foreign diplomats, Lord Palmerston would encourage his wife to float his ideas before the assembled guests and report back on their reception as a means of unofficially testing the diplomatic waters before committing himself publicly to an opinion.[9] She could not cure his notorious lack of punctuality, a fault she shared; Queen Victoria once complained that Emily had kept her waiting for an hour.

Palmerston aged 18

Death and children[edit]

In 1865, Lord Palmerston died, and Lady Palmerston followed him four years later. She was survived by her three sons and two daughters, all born during her marriage to Lord Cowper, although one of the daughters, Emily, was believed to have been fathered by Palmerston, and her son William may have been fathered by Pozzo di Borgo. They were:

References[edit]

  1. ^ Guedalla, Philip (1927). Palmerston: 1784-1865. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 233. 
  2. ^ Guedalla, 67.
  3. ^ Ridley, Jasper Lord Palmerston Constable London 1970 p.43
  4. ^ Moers, Ellen (1960). The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 43–45. ISBN 0-8032-8101-3. 
  5. ^ Ridley p.48
  6. ^ Ridley pp.43-4
  7. ^ Quoted in Guadalla, 118-119
  8. ^ Bolton, Sarah (1891). Famous English Statesmen of Queen Victoria's Reign. Boston: C.J. Peter's and Sons. p. 85. 
  9. ^ Bolton, pages 86-87