Elizabeth, Viscountess Melbourne rose from the squire’s daughter in the North Riding of Yorkshire to the pinnacle of Georgian society. Her story is an object lesson in ambition set against astonishing change for her aristocratic friends such as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Queen Victoria was devoted to her son, William, when he became her first Prime Minister. Melbourne, Australia, was named after the family title she helped to found. Colin Brown describes her life, her loves and how she was still able to capture Lord Byron’s heart when she was in her sixties and he was only twenty-four.
The Georgian period has been called the Age of Elegance. It was also the Age of Unrest. Britain appeared at times close to revolution. Britain lost the revolutionary war of American Independence. The industrial revolution turned towns and cities in the North of England into overcrowded metropolises of poor families forced from their rural way of life. The ruling elite feared the French predilection for beheading its aristocrats would jump the Channel and set Britain ablaze.
But for the small circle of landowning aristocrats who together ruled Britain, it was a time of unprecedented privilege. Lacking a need to work, they entertained themselves with Georgian pursuits, gambling at cards and horse racing, drinking – gout was widespread, and romantic affairs for both men and women. One of the unwritten rules was that a woman could enjoy herself with as many lovers as she liked, providing she was discreet.
It was into this world that Elizabeth Milbanke stepped on 13 April 1769 when she married Sir Peniston Lamb, an MP, rich man-about-town, and a wastrel. It was a marriage of convenience.
She was seventeen and he was twenty-four. He had inherited a vast fortune a year earlier from his father Sir Matthew Lamb with £500,000 in cash and £500,000 in property and land including Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire and Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire, worth about £121 million at today’s prices. The Victorian writer William Torrens said Sir Peniston ‘indulged in all the pleasures of a pleasure-seeking age’… he was ‘on the whole a good-for-little indolent apathetic kindly man who never had a quarrel in his life.’
He needed Elizabeth to give him an heir and some respectability. Elizabeth needed his fortune to satisfy her burgeoning ambition to steer her family to the apex of Georgian society and she would do that with grace, tact, shrewdness and careful calculation, all the qualities her husband lacked.
Elizabeth Milbanke was the daughter of a Yorkshire country squire and MP in the North Riding. She had been born in 1751 at the family estate, Halnaby Hall, near Richmond and had been well educated at home. Her family proudly could trace their roots back to the court of Mary, Queen of Scots, and she had an uncle who was a senior courtier at the court of St James’s in London.
She was pregnant with their first child when she discovered that her husband had taken up with a celebrated actress and courtesan, Sophia Baddeley. Her ‘friend’, Mrs Steele later published a kiss-and-tell memoir of his exploits which read like one of the popular Georgian farces by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. They were excruciatingly embarrassing in their detail, but Elizabeth, though young, took it all in her stride. Her price was that she never had another child by her husband. She had two or three children by George Wyndham, the third Earl of Egremont, owner of Petworth in West Sussex, including her second son William, who in late middle age became Queen Victoria’s beloved Prime Minister (played by Rufus Sewell in the ITV drama, Victoria).
Between 1770 and 1787, Elizabeth produced six children and only one, her first son, was by Sir Peniston. After that, she had a string of lovers. Whether or not Lord Melbourne acquiesced in his wife’s affairs is hard to prove, but there is strong circumstantial evidence that Peniston knew all about his wife’s infidelities because he profited from her liaisons. Her biggest coup was securing Prince George, the Prince of Wales, as one of her lovers when he was 21. She produced a son by him which he came very close to acknowledging as his own by acting as his godfather.
In November 1783, the same month that Elizabeth knew she had become pregnant by him, the palace announced in the London Gazette that her husband had been made a Viscount with a courtesy title as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber on the staff of the Prince of Wales.
Elizabeth’s most intimate friend was Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, much to the annoyance of the Duchess’s family. Her mother Lady Spencer repeatedly pleaded with her daughter to break off her relationship with Lady Melbourne but she refused. She was in awe of Elizabeth, and wrote her letters that are in the archives at the Devonshires’ country seat, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and the Lamb archive at the British Library showing that she appeared to be frightened of her: ‘My dearest Them (Themire, the goddess of wisdom)…you must never be angry with me.’
It was said of Georgiana that she would never enter a room without a ‘hop and a jump’. Where Georgiana was gushing, Elizabeth was cunning and some said she was devious. Lady Holland, another grande dame of the Georgian era, compared her to the notoriously scheming Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She was handsome rather than beautiful with lustrous brown hair and blue eyes but men found her fascinating because she was different. She was, said Lord David Cecil, ‘a man’s woman’, who took a deep interest in what men had to say and do.
She presided over a glittering Whig salon for over three decades, first at Melbourne House which she arranged to have built just off Piccadilly (now the Albany) and later at Melbourne House in Whitehall (the small dumpy building with the portico on the street next to Horse Guards) after she did a house swop with the Duke of York.
The great wits of the Georgian age including the Whig leader Charles James Fox and Sheridan were regular guests at her table and she won the lasting friendship of Prince George for her sage advice. In her sixties, she faced her biggest scandal when her son William Lamb’s wife, Caroline, had a wild and public affair with the poet Lord Byron in 1812. Lady Caroline Lamb’s wild antics – slashing her wrists at a ball – made Melbourne House one of London’s most a notorious addresses in London. Elizabeth nevertheless charmed Byron and engineered his marriage to her niece, Annabella Milbanke. It was a disaster but it succeeded in extricating the poet from her son’s marriage. It was claimed she and Byron became lovers; they exchanged rings and letters like lovers. Elizabeth was such an extraordinary woman, no-one would say it never happened.
Lady M, The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751- 1818 by Colin Brown was published in April 2018,
To find out more and to buy a copy (priced £20) please visit amberley-books.com/lady-m