William Lamb (1779 – 1848), later Lord Melbourne, was a Whig politician who became Queen Victoria’s first, and a favourite, Prime Minister. A. N. Wilson described their relationship as a “passionate friendship”. He is also remembered as the husband of Lady Caroline Lamb, now best known for her affair with Lord Byron.
William Lamb was not viewed as a suitable choice of husband by Lady Caroline’s family. She was the daughter of the Earl of Bessborough and his wife, Henrietta, daughter of Earl Spencer and sister to the Duchess of Devonshire. “The only daughter of the Earl of Bessborough must aim at higher game than the second son of a nouveau riche Irish viscount”. However, the situation changed with the death, in 1805, of Penistone, William’s older brother. William Lamb became the heir to the peerage and the family fortune and consequently a more suitable match for Lady Caroline.
HALS holds some family records. In 1813, William Lamb found himself with time on his hands and decided to write his autobiography.
“Not being elected to the present Parliament & being thereby released or rather deprived of the occupation to which I had devoted the greatest part of my time during the last seven years, I do not know that I can better employ the leisure which I thus reluctantly enjoy than in taking a short review of the course of my life from my earliest recollection down to the period to which it had now advanced.”
He recorded that his brother, Penistone, had left Eton and that his travels in Europe had been cut short by the French revolution. He had from then on lived “amidst the amusements and dissipation of the World” but acknowledged that he enjoyed a “general popularity through openness and courtesy of manner” and was chosen in 1802, to represent Hertford. He also noted that “He was 9 years older than myself – consequently he was a man when I was a boy therefore no intimacy or familiarity as would be if similar age. (There is a view that Penistone was the only son of Viscount Melbourne; both his parents showed a lack of interest in their marriage after his birth).
William also noted that “I very shortly resolved on quitting the law – I was now Heir to a considerable property and perhaps it would not have been entirely becoming to have continued in the profession”. He determined to pursue a course of reading as his legal studies had precluded this – “my mind felt as uneasy as my stomach would have felt if I had not taken any breakfast.”
However, “But this plan was never carried into effect – A Passion, which I had long cherished, but had repressed, while providence forbade the indulgence of it, now that it felt the obstacles removed out of its way, broke forth and became my Master – I was married on the third of June 1805 to the Lady Caroline Ponsonby, the only daughter of the Earl of Bessborough.”
This is the only reference to his marriage in the autobiography which from then on is a commentary on the politics of the day, with the last entry dated 30 March 1813.
There are a few letters from Lady Caroline held at HALS which shed very little light on the marriage and its breakdown. The marriage produced a son, George Augustus, in 1807 (following a miscarriage the previous year). Caroline was delighted with him and her husband. A book of sketches by Caroline includes one of her and her son (HALS/Lb/F64).
Caroline wrote to William, who was at Melbourne House in Whitehall ….
“After dear boy was gone to bed I set out for Panshanger …. Panshanger is very pleasant in all respects & I only want my Angel boy & Man to be perfectly happy – how sorry I am to hear Edward Paget has lost his arm – it was a very gallant action I hear pray give me accounts of it ….”.
(The letter is undated but Edward Paget lost his right arm in the advance to Oporto during the Peninsula War in 1809).
After Caroline’s affair with Lord Byron in 1812, her behaviour became increasingly difficult. A letter (postmarked 12 September 1825) to William refers to her affection for her son and also a reference to Byron.
“…thank you for keeping the boy so much with you I always told you it would be better for him than sending him to stupid places where he remains with women & children learns nothing and grows silly – my conduct spirit & pride shall prove to you that I desired more money at your hands than you have shewn – yr cruelty will one day recur to yr mind & my curse bitter & untrue fall upon the rest , as far as you I never will curse you but if it be permitted me to return I will come and look at you even as Ld Byron did at me – the more I think of the mean barbarous manner in which I have been sacrificed the less I can understand how you could bring yourself to sanction it”.
Although William was under pressure from friends and family to effect a separation, he was slow to take action. Zeigler’s assessment was that this was due to loyalty, inertia and compassion. A reading of William’s autobiography suggests that he avoided controversy. However a decision was made in 1825. It is possible that managing Caroline had become increasingly difficult following the death of Byron in 1824.
Some letters at HALS (DE/P/F427) refer to payment £2,500 (including pin money) to Lady Caroline during Lord Melbourne’s lifetime and £3000 afterwards, with all debts paid up to moment of arrangements taking effect. A letter noted that Caroline agreed to this but she was recommended “to have a solicitor whom she might consider her own adviser as when she came – she was alarmed by expressions which are mere legal formalities”.
A letter from Caroline (postmark 4 November 1825) marked the end of the marriage:
“Dearest William I am delighted with Augustus’s looks he was in want of money & I gave him 5£ …. I wish to call at Brocket could you meet me there … I shall then either go to Brighton the Isle of Wight or France till Xmas. I hope you are glad all things are concluded – & that you will see me without a cloud on your brow.”.
Caroline’s health deteriorated. Dr Goddard wrote to William on 19 October 1825:
“Lady C has a predisposition to the high form of insanity …. particularly when exposed to mental or physical excitement …. I consider that her Ladyship, with kind treatment and occasional restraint might recover, or at any rate become calm & rational But there are friends who must be removed from her; measures must be taken to make her take less wine….”.
Caroline died on 21 January 1828. William inherited the title of Lord Melbourne on the death of his father five months later. Their son died in 1836. On William’s death, Brocket Hall was inherited by his sister, Emily, the widow of Earl Cowper, and wife of another Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. Both Melbourne and Palmerston are remembered at Brocket Hall by golf courses in their name.
 A N Wilson, Victoria – A Life, London, Atlantic Books, 2014.
 Philip Zeigler, Melbourne, Glasgow, 1976.
 HALS/D/ELb/ F12, Fair Copy – Lord Melbourne’s Autobiography.
 HALS/DELb F32 [1 – 7].
 HALS/DELb F33/ 1 – 2.