The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, c 1770, by George Stubbs
Her date of birth apparently unknown, Elizabeth Milbanke was baptized Oct 15, 1751 at Croft-on-Trees Yorkshire. Her father was Sir Ralph Milbanke (5th baronet), and her mother Elizabeth Hedworth. The family home was Halnaby Hall in Yorkshire. Her father and her mother’s father were both political (her grandfather was a member of parliament for County Durham). Elizabeth was intelligent and educated privately (probably at home), her studies including French, and poetry. Her brother Ralph inherited their father’s title. Her mother died in 1767, when Elizabeth was approximately 15 years old.
In 1769, at about age 17, Elizabeth met and married Sir Peniston Lamb, who was 24 years old, the marriage being celebrated on April 13 1769 in London. He was the 2nd baronet, and they promptly moved to London. It was a marriage of mutual advantage: her lineage was better and she brought 10,000 pounds to the marriage; he provided her access to the highest level of London society. He was a Whig politician, representing at one time the Borough of Malmsbury, and Elizabeth quickly found her feet as a political hostess. She also developed a good head for business, and organized her husband’s financial affairs, including overseeing the building of Melbourne House in Piccadilly, London. Sir Peniston obtained an Irish peerage as Lord Melbourne, Baron of Kilmore in 1771. In 1781, he was elevated to Viscount Melbourne.
Sir Peniston was almost immediately unfaithful, which Elizabeth accepted with tolerance, if not with grace. Elizabeth was beautiful, intelligent, and had the gift for making guests feel at ease, so became a successful hostess quickly. She also attracted confidences, which she remembered for future reference. Rather than show pique at her husband’s straying, Elizabeth focused her efforts on her activities as a reigning hostess and in making friendships that could be advantageous to her husband’s and family’s advancement. In time, these friendships included men, and involved affairs. Calm, rational, with a caustic wit, she seemed to be more comfortable with men than women. The first child, a son named Peniston born in 1770, was definitely Sir Peniston’s child. After that, who knew? It must be said that Sir Peniston accepted her affairs with the same toleration that she showed with his, including the children born of them. Elizabeth knew what Society expected and what Society would tolerate, and managed these activities with discretion.
A significant friendship ensued in 1774, when William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, married Georgiana Spencer. Elizabeth was quick to make friends with Georgiana, and became a mentor to her. (Since the Duchess of Devonshire had a better pedigree, more money and much higher rank, it was a way for Elizabeth to preserve her sphere of influence as a leader of society.) It may be said that Lady Melbourne kept her friends close, but kept her rivals closer by making friends with them. She was pragmatic and ruthless in her way.
Another significant friendship was that with Lord George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont. Lord Egremont was an advisor who educated her in agricultural and other business matters. He never married, and the friendship became romantic. Lord Egremont was supposedly the father of Elizabeth’s children William born 1779, Frederick born 1782, and Emily born 1787, all of whom were accepted by Sir Peniston. (The fact that he never married was attributed to Lady Melbourne’s influence in some sources.)
In 1782, Lady Melbourne became acquainted with George, the Prince of Wales. Their friendship developed into a fruitful relationship, resulting in an appointment as Gentleman of the Bedchamber at Carlton House for her husband in 1783, and another child, significantly named George, who was born in 1784 and widely believed to be the prince’s son. When that romance cooled about 1786, she resumed (assuming it had been interrupted) her relationship with Lord Egremont, as witnessed by the birth of Emily. Even so, she managed to maintain her friendship with the prince and a marital relationship with Sir Peniston. Harriet, the youngest child of the marriage, was born in 1789, and was believed to have been the only other child born by Lady Melbourne to her husband. Sadly, Harriet died of consumption (tuberculosis) on June 7, 1803, a devastating blow to Lady Melbourne. She was a devoted mother to her children, keenly interested in their development and studies. All of the children spent most of their time at the country estate of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, until the boys went to Eton. (Supposedly it was while visiting her son Peniston at Eton that she made the acquaintance of the Prince in 1782.)
The oldest son Peniston died January 24, 1805 of tuberculosis. Peniston had been his father’s favourite, and by all accounts was indulged by Sir Peniston, who gave him a personal allowance of 5000 pounds per year, allowed him to leave school early to travel the Continent, and engage in basically frivolous pastimes. Young Peniston was apparently very intelligent and replaced his father as MP for Newport, but was not particularly interested in politics and did very little. According to some sources, Peniston died in the arms of his mistress, whom Lady Melbourne brought to her son to comfort his last moments. The occasion of Peniston’s death is noted as the only time that Sir Peniston complained about his wife’s affairs, as young Peniston’s death meant that his heir would not be a child of his body. That heir was the second son, William, who also happened to be Lady Melbourne’s favourite. William had studied law, and entered into politics with real interest. His career and success became a primary focus for Lady Melbourne.
Peniston Lamb, 1805
Although Elizabeth maintained her friendship with Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, she thoroughly disliked Harriet Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, the Duchess of Devonshire’s sister, and Caroline Ponsonby, the Countess’s daughter, as well. This dislike, however, did not prevent her from accepting her son William’s engagement and marriage in 1805 to Caroline. Lady Melbourne was a devoted mother, who was laser-focused on advancing her children’s interest at every turn by any means necessary, and was able to set aside her dislike since Caroline’s superior pedigree and influential relatives gave the match all the appearance of an advantageous one. This courtship and marriage started an explosive chain of events.
I do not propose to get into a detailed discussion of the life and affairs of Lady Caroline Lamb (the subject of many blogs, biographies and novels) but it is impossible to talk about Lady Melbourne without reference to her relationship with her daughter-in-law. In a word, bad. It is hard to imagine two ladies with less in common than Elizabeth and Caroline Lamb. From their appearance (Lady Melbourne being tall, full-fleshed and commanding vs. Caroline being slender, delicate and clinging) to their interests and personalities, they were almost direct opposites. As mentioned before, Elizabeth never liked Caroline or her mother, and she deeply resented Caroline’s influence over her son William. While pursuing and after wedding Caroline, William neglected his political career to enjoy the entertainments of the Devonshire set.
Caroline Lamb, by Eliza Trotter
Caroline was undisciplined and uncontrolled, intelligent but not well-educated, willing to have violent tantrums, had no concept of discretion or reticence, and unable to brook any restraint. Lady Melbourne was controlled, as well as controlling, even tempered, discreet, well-educated with a sharp wit and not reluctant to show her contempt for Caroline and her mother. William and Caroline lived on a floor in Melbourne Hall, which can only have exacerbated things to the maximum. In time, the marriage became difficult, and stressed even further after the birth of their son George in 1807, who was later found to be disabled. Then Caroline had a flirt, possibly an affair, with Sir Godfrey Webster in 1810, which alienated Lady Melbourne further.
Then, into this volatile mixture, we drop George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron and poet. Lady Melbourne was a mature woman (approximately 54 years old at the time of William’s marriage to Caroline in 1805) but she was a fascinating companion and still attractive to men. In 1811, Caroline met Lord Byron and by the middle of 1812, their affair was public knowledge. At some point, Lady Melbourne met Byron and developed a personal relationship with him herself, sharing letters from Caroline as well as engaging in her own correspondence with him. Although there was a large age difference (she was in her 60’s when he was in her 20’s), she was a fascinating correspondent, and subtly influenced Byron with her criticisms of Caroline.
Lady Melbourne’s brother’s daughter Anne Isabella Milbanke (known as Annabella) was in London, and was introduced to her aunt and society. Annabella managed to attract Byron’s by appearing cool and disapproving, at a point where his attraction to Caroline’s passions was wearing thin. William’s neglect of his political career put him out of office, which disappointed Lady Melbourne even further. Lady Melbourne and Byron communicated frequently during this time. Annabella found her interest focused on Byron; the couple ended up engaged in 1814, in spite of her doubts and his basic reluctance, thanks in no small part to Lady Melbourne’s machinations and encouragement. While Caroline was trying to hold Byron’s interest, Lady Melbourne and, to a lesser degree, Annabella were busy redirecting it. Ultimately, Caroline was completely out-classed in the Byron contest, in spite of her numerous and increasingly brazen attempts to recover his interest. The affair was over by the end of 1812; unfortunately, Caroline didn’t know it.
This was a tumultuous time for all concerned, with Caroline continuing her brazen behaviour and her pursuit of Byron, Byron’s relationships with his wife and half-sister becoming more bizarre, and Lady Melbourne still in touch with all. In 1816, William had almost reached the end of his tether, and (to the he relief, if not the pleasure, of his family) was on the brink of giving up on Caroline, Byron’s marriage to Annabella was falling apart, and everyone was exhausted. In the midst of the drama, Lord Melbourne achieved his peerage as Baron Melbourne in 1815. In April of 1816, Byron left England and William was ready to break with Caroline, to the pleasure of many, especially Lady Byron and his sister Emily. The straw that almost finished it was Caroline’s novel, GLENARVON, in which Caroline portrayed herself as the innocent victim of her husband and all of society (with recognizable portraits of friends and family). Caroline was basically cast out by society, and almost cast out by William. In spite of Lady Melbourne’s best efforts and the wishes of his family, he kept her as his wife until she died.
This long-running serial of her battle with her daughter-in-law (who was really not an equal combatant), I believe, shows all of Lady Melbourne’s least attractive traits: she was determined to dominate, overwhelmingly ambitious, certain she knew best, and willing to do whatever it took to accomplish her ends. She was cynical, hard and unconcerned with morality once she had decided what she wanted. This pattern continued throughout her life; she was less concerned with right than with expedience. She was shrewd and ambitious for her family, but somehow heartless.
Lady Melbourne died April 6, 1818 at Melbourne House in Whitehall. It was a protracted and painful death, attributed to rheumatism. All of her children except Frederick seemed to have been present. She was buried at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. At the time of her death, none of her children had lived up to her ambitions for them. That lay all in the future: William resume his political career and became Prime Minister for Victoria; Emily married her lover Lord Palmerston (with Queen Victoria’s permission) and became the wife of a prime minister. Lord Melbourne, her husband outlived her, passing away in 1828.
Blyth, Henry. CARO The Fatal Passion. New York, Coward McCann & Geoghegan Inc.: 1972.
Cecil, David. The Young Melbourne. Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis and New York: 1939.
Douglass, Paul. Lady Caroline Lamb, A Biography. New York, Palgrave McMillan: 2004.
Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. New York, Random House: 1998.
Gross, Jonathan David, ed. Byron’s “Corbeau Blanc” The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne. Texas A & M, 1998 (original published by Rice University, 1998).
History and Other Thoughts blog. “Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne.” Read here.
World of the Marchioness blog. “Caroline Lamb: Family Connections-Brocket Hall.” August 17, 2014. Read here.
The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, from Wikimedia Commons here.
Peniston Lamb, from Wikimedia Commons here.
Caroline Lamb, from Wikimedia Commons here.
Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, released in 2011, and is working on A RATIONAL ATTACMENT, due out later this year. A long-time resident of Florida, she lives with her husband. Visit her website here for more information.