William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne

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The Right Honourable
The Viscount Melbourne
PC FRS
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer.jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
18 April 1835 – 30 August 1841
Monarch William IV
Victoria
Preceded by Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Succeeded by Sir Robert Peel, Bt
In office
16 July 1834 – 14 November 1834
Monarch William IV
Preceded by The Earl Grey
Succeeded by The Duke of Wellington
Leader of the Opposition
In office
30 August 1841 – October 1842
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Preceded by Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Succeeded by Lord John Russell
In office
14 November 1834 – 18 April 1835
Monarch William IV
Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Preceded by The Duke of Wellington
Succeeded by Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Home Secretary
In office
22 November 1830 – 16 July 1834
Prime Minister The Earl Grey
Preceded by Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Succeeded by The Viscount Duncannon
Chief Secretary for Ireland
In office
29 April 1827 – 21 June 1828
Prime Minister George Canning
The Viscount Goderich
The Duke of Wellington
Preceded by Henry Goulburn
Succeeded by Lord Francis Leveson-Gower
Leader of the House of Lords
In office
16 July 1834 – 14 November 1834
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey
Succeeded by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
In office
18 April 1835 – 30 August 1841
Preceded by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Succeeded by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Member of Parliament for Leominster
In office
1806–1806
Preceded by John Lubbock
Charles Kinnaird
Succeeded by John Lubbock
Henry Bonham
Member of Parliament for Portarlington
In office
1807–1812
Preceded by Sir Oswald Mosley, 2nd Baronet, of Ancoats
Succeeded by Arthur Shakespeare (MP)
Member of Parliament for Peterborough
In office
1816–1819
Preceded by William Elliot
George Ponsonby
Succeeded by James Scarlett, 1st Baron Abinger
Sir Robert Heron, 2nd Baronet
Personal details
Born (1779-03-15)15 March 1779
London, England
Died 24 November 1848(1848-11-24) (aged 69)
Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, England
Political party Whig
Spouse(s) Lady Caroline Ponsonby (m. 1805; d. 1828)
Children 2
Parents Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne
Elizabeth Milbanke
Alma mater Eton College, Glasgow University, Trinity College, Cambridge
Signature Cursive signature in ink

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, PC, FRS (15 March 1779 – 24 November 1848) was a British Whig statesman who served as Home Secretary (1830–1834) and Prime Minister (1834 and 1835–1841). He is best known for his intense and successful mentoring of Queen Victoria in the ways of politics, when she was between the ages of 18 and 21. Historians have concluded that Melbourne does not rank highly as a Prime Minister, for there were no great foreign wars or domestic issues to handle, he lacked major achievements, and he enunciated no grand principles. "But he was kind, honest and not self-seeking."[1] Melbourne was dismissed by King William IV in 1834, the last Prime Minister of the UK to be dismissed by a monarch.

Early life[edit]

Born in London in 1779 to an aristocratic Whig family, William Lamb was the son of the 1st Viscount Melbourne and Elizabeth, Viscountess Melbourne (1751–1818), though his paternity was questioned. He was educated at Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge and the University of Glasgow.[2] Against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, Lamb served at home as captain (1803) and major (1804) in the Hertfordshire Volunteer Infantry.[3]

He succeeded his elder brother as heir to his father's title in 1805, and married Lady Caroline Ponsonby, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. The following year, he 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).[4]

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".[5] The resulting scandal was the talk of Britain in 1812. 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.

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".[4] He therefore spoke against parliamentary reform, and voted for the suspension of habeas corpus in 1817 when sedition was rife.[4]

Lamb's hallmark was finding the middle ground. Though a Whig, he accepted (29 April 1827) the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland in the moderate Tory governments of George Canning and Lord Goderich. 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.[6]

Home Secretary: 1830–1834[edit]

When the Whigs came to power under Lord Grey in November 1830, Melbourne became Home Secretary in the new government. 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".[4] 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.[4] There remains, however, considerable 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'[7]. 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.[4]

Prime Minister: 1834, 1835–1841[edit]

After Lord Grey resigned as Prime Minister in July 1834, the King was forced to appoint another Whig to replace him, as the Tories were not strong enough to support a government. Melbourne was the man most likely to be both acceptable to the King and hold the Whig party together. Melbourne hesitated after receiving from Grey the letter from the King requesting him to visit him to discuss the formation of a government. Melbourne thought 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 worth while to have been Prime Minister of England [sic]." "By God, that's true," Melbourne said, "I'll go!"[8]

Compromise was the key to many of Melbourne's actions. As an aristocrat, he had a vested interest in the status quo. He was opposed to the Reform Act 1832 proposed by the Whigs, arguing that Catholic emancipation had not ended in the tranquility expected of it,[9] but reluctantly agreed that it was necessary to forestall the threat of revolution. Later he opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws, arguing not only that Catholic emancipation had failed, but also that the Reform Act had not improved the condition of the people.[9]

King 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 against a parliamentary majority.[10]

Blackmailed[edit]

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, 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.[11] At this time such a scandal would be enough to derail a major politician, so it is a measure of the respect 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 did stop seeing Mrs Norton.[12]

Nonetheless, as 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."[13]

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 only eight months old), and Melbourne's son had died at a young age.[14] 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 and grew in wisdom.[15]

Continued rule[edit]

Lord Melbourne (1844, age 65); detail from a painting by John Partridge.[16]

On 7 May 1839, Melbourne announced his intention to resign. This led to the Bedchamber Crisis. 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—supported by Melbourne, although he was unaware that Peel had not requested the resignation of all 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.[citation needed]

Melbourne left a considerable list of reforming legislation, which, although not as long as that of Lord Grey, is considered worthy nonetheless. 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]

On 25 February 1841, Melbourne was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society.[17]

Final vote of no confidence and resignation[edit]

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.[18]

Later life (1841–1848)[edit]

Even after Melbourne resigned permanently in August 1841, Victoria continued to write to him, but eventually the correspondence ceased as it was seen as inappropriate.[19] It has been observed that Melbourne's role faded as Victoria came to rely on her new husband Prince Albert.[citation needed]

Melbourne survived, though weakened, after suffering a stroke fourteen months after his departure from politics.[citation needed] In retirement, he lived at Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire. Melbourne died on 24 November 1848[20] and was buried at St Etheldreda's Church, Hatfield, Hertfordshire.[21]

On his death, his titles passed to his brother Frederick, as both of his children—a son, George Augustus Frederick (b. 1807), and a premature daughter (b. 1809)—had predeceased him.[citation needed]

Legacy[edit]

The city of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, was named in his honour in March 1837, as he was the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time.[22]

Another lasting memorial is his favourite, and most famous, dictum in politics: "Why not leave it alone?", quoted by those who object to change for change's sake.[23]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ J. A. Cannon. Nevertheless he has the city of Melbourne named after him situated in the State of Victoria, Australia. "Melbourne, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount", in John Cannon, ed., The Oxford Companion to British History (2009) p 634
  2. ^ "Lamb, the Hon. Henry William (LM796HW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ [1] History of Parliament article by R.G. Thorne.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Peter Mandler, "Lamb, William, second Viscount Melbourne (1779–1848)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, accessed 27 December 2009.
  5. ^ "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 Lamb coined the phrase after her first meeting with the poet at a society event in 1812. 
  6. ^ Henry Dunckley, Lord Melbourne p 135
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ Cecil, David (2001). The Young Melbourne & Lord M. W&N. p. 321. ISBN 9781842124970. 
  9. ^ a b Cecil, David, Melbourne, (Indianapolis, 1954), p.422
  10. ^ Newbould, I. D. C. (1976). "William IV and the Dismissal of the Whigs, 1834". Canadian Journal of History. 11 (3): 311–30. 
  11. ^ Wroath, John (1998). Until They Are Seven, The Origins of Women's Legal Rights. Waterside Press. ISBN 1 872 870 57 0. 
  12. ^ David Cecil, Melbourne (1954) ch 11
  13. ^ Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (2006), p. 500.
  14. ^ "History of William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne - GOV.UK". www.gov.uk. Retrieved 30 September 2016. 
  15. ^ Cecil, Melbourne ch 14
  16. ^ Partridge, John (1844). William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. NPG 941. Retrieved from http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw04359/William-Lamb-2nd-Viscount-Melbourne.
  17. ^ "Lists of Royal Society Fellows". Archived from the original on 22 January 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2006. 
  18. ^ "Confidence in the Ministry— Adjourned Debate (Fifth Day)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 58. House of Commons. 4 June 1841. col. 1121–1247.  [Narrower col range needed][Narrower col range needed]
  19. ^ Gill, Gillian (2009). We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals. Random House Publishing Group. p. 173. ISBN 978-0345514929. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  20. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 18, 11th Edition
  21. ^ Hibbard, Scott David. "William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne". geni.com. geni.com. Retrieved 24 January 2017. 
  22. ^ Anonymous. "Short history of Melbourne". Only Melbourne. Only Melbourne. Retrieved 24 January 2017. 
  23. ^ Baird, Julia (2016). Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire. Random House. 

Collected papers[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Hilton, Boyd (2006). A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846. Oxford. [full citation needed]
  • Cameron, R. H. (1976). "The Melbourne Administration, the Liberals and the Crisis of 1841". Durham University Journal. 69 (1). 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Goulburn
Chief Secretary for Ireland
1827–1828
Succeeded by
The Lord Francis Leveson-Gower
Preceded by
Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Home Secretary
1830–1834
Succeeded by
Viscount Duncannon
Preceded by
The Earl Grey
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
16 July 1834 – 14 November 1834
Succeeded by
The Duke of Wellington
(caretaker, followed by)
Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Leader of the House of Lords
1834
Succeeded by
The Duke of Wellington
Preceded by
Sir Robert Peel, Bt
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
18 April 1835 – 30 August 1841
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Sir Robert Peel, Bt
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The Duke of Wellington
Leader of the House of Lords
1835–1841
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The Duke of Wellington
Parliament of the United Kingdom
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Charles Kinnaird
Member of Parliament for Leominster
1806
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Henry Bonham
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Sir Oswald Mosley
Member of Parliament for Portarlington
18071812
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William Elliot
George Ponsonby
Member of Parliament for Peterborough
1816–1819
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Sir James Scarlett 1819
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Sir Robert Heron, Bt
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1819–1826
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1827
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1827–1828
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Party political offices
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Leaders of the British Whig Party
1834–1842
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Lord John Russell
Whig Leader in the House of Lords
1834–1842
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Peerage of Ireland
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Peniston Lamb
Viscount Melbourne
Baron Melbourne

1828–1848
Succeeded by
Frederick Lamb
Peerage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Peniston Lamb
Baron Melbourne
1828–1848
Succeeded by
Frederick Lamb