As we find ourselves in the middle of the second season of Victoria, it seemed as good a time as any to take a look at Queen Victoria’s relationship with her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. The ITV/PBS show has depicted a dynamic in which the young queen was in love with her PM – at one point even proposing marriage. And by all appearances, the affection was mutual, at least on our television screens. The reality was obviously by far different, but this storyline is grounded in a kernel of truth – the relationship between the two always prompted some raised eyebrows.
When Victoria ascended the throne in June 1837 she was 18-years-old, naive and not overly prepared for the realities of her position. Her mother had famously kept her from court during her uncles’ reigns, despite numerous invitations from William IV and Queen Adelaide to begin to introduce her and emancipate her from her mother. Lord Melbourne, or William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne, played an integral role in transitioning Victoria from sheltered princess to opinionated sovereign. Arguably, had it not been for him than the dynamics of Victoria’s marriage in the early 1840s might have looked very different, though it’s debatable whether that’s a positive or a negative.
But more to the point, Melbourne played a central role in establishing the concept of “independent” Victoria, or rather, the woman she briefly was between living under her mother’s roof and her marriage three years later.
His first interactions with her were indirect. Melbourne followed Earl Grey as Prime Minister in 1834, the year Victoria turned 15. By then, it was a foregone conclusion that she would follow her childless uncle on the throne and she preceded her other uncles and their children in the line of succession. Her own father, Edward, Duke of Kent, had been a son of George III and a younger brother to George IV and William IV, but he died in January 1820 when Victoria was in infant. As such, her childhood was spent in Kensington Palace with her German mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg, Dowager Duchess of Kent.
In 1835, the Duchess was planning a second “progress” for her daughter as a way to show her off to her future subjects. The entire sideshow enraged the King, who found it personally insulting that his niece was rarely allowed to see him in London, but was dragged around the country in a seeming anticipation of his death. Victoria, for her part, detested the practice, and its optics rubbed William’s government the wrong way, too. Melbourne was deputized the deal with the Duchess via letter, who responded to know on what exact legal grounds William meant to use to stop her. That in writing, mother and daughter carried out their dog and pony show.
Two years later, Victoria was queen and Melbourne her PM. The two met on the day of her accession, June 20, during which time Victoria formally told him that she meant to retain him and the rest of the ministry. But those of course were pleasantries, while the real significance for Victoria may well have been that she was able to meet with him alone, as was her right as the queen. Victoria was famously never allowed to be alone during her youth – her mother feared some mishap so acutely that up until the day Victoria ascended the throne she was always chaperoned, held someone’s hand to go and down stairs and slept in her mother’s bedroom.
It was Melbourne who wrote the first speech Victoria ever delivered as queen, offering up a short statement for her to read aloud to Council, which was well-received for both its sentiment and its delivery from a notably small woman in a white dress in a chamber full of seasoned men.
It was this juxtaposition which made Melbourne both well-positioned to serve as mentor and a strange choice for a close friend. Melbourne, born in 1779, was 58 when Victoria came to the throne. His upbringing and education – aristocratic and rounded out at Eton and Cambridge – made him a figurehead for the establishment, but it was his personal life which set him apart. He became his father’s heir following his brother’s death in 1805 and he quickly married Lady Caroline Ponsoby, daughter of Lady Harriett Spencer and niece to none other than the famous Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.
The marriage was a love match and produced one son, George, in 1807, and a short-lived daughter in 1809 who died within 24 hours. Tragically, George had severe mental disabilities, which many today believe may well have been some form of autism. The Lambs insisted on caring for their son at home, though he passed away in 1836, meaning that as of when Victoria first began interacting with her PM, he was still in the throes of grieving the loss of his son.
But before that, the Lambs’ marriage had long since soured. In 1812, Caroline embarked on a several-month affair with none other than the famous poet, Lord Byron. When Byron ended the affair, it was Melbourne who took his heartbroken wife to Ireland to recover, but Caroline refused to put it to bed. She and Byron corresponded while she was away and upon her return there were a number of public fights as she attempted to resume the affair and he spurned her. Finally, in the summer of 1813 the two confronted one another at a ball and it ended with Caroline attempting suicide via a shard of glass from a wine glass she broke. Her mental health in question, London was scandalized and the subsequent commentary did nothing to help Melbourne’s burgeoning political career.
Infidelity was mutual and for a while relations between the two were so bad that neither put up much of a charade in hiding their affairs. In 1825, Caroline finally convinced Melbourne to agree to a formal separation, however by then her mental and physical health had further deteriorated. By 1827 she was under the full-time care of a physician and when she was on her deathbed in the winter of 1828, Melbourne made a dangerous journey back from Ireland to be with her as she died. Indeed, given that the separation was not at his prompting, his infidelity may well have stemmed from the humiliation of his wife’s obsession with Byron and his own behavior at her passing, one could make the argument that he never stopped loving her.
But that is not to say Melbourne’s personal life was otherwise pristine. He often engaged in affairs with married aristocratic women, which in and of itself wasn’t unusual, but often had a way of coming to haunt him. In 1836, the same year his son died, he was blackmailed by George Chapple Norton, husband of the society beauty, author and social reformer Caroline Norton after she left him. Melbourne begged Caroline to return to her husband, writing (tellingly), that “a woman should never part from her husband whilst she can remain with him.” Later he conceded it was impossible:
“This conduct upon his part seems perfectly unaccountable…You know that I have always counselled you to bear everything and remain to the last. I thought it for the best. I am afraid it is no longer possible. Open breaches of this kind are always to be lamented, but you have the consolation that you have done your utmost to stave this extremity off as long as possible.”
When Melbourne refused to pay Norton’s his demanded sum, he was taken to court. Caroline’s children were taken from her and she was denied a divorce, essentially leaving her a social pariah and in indefinite limbo.
It beggars belief that this scandal didn’t end Melbourne’s government, but William IV and the Duke of Wellington were in his corner. When the court sided with Melbourne, he stayed on as PM and it’s a good indication of how well-respected a politician he had become amongst his peers.
Nevertheless, Melbourne was a seasoned adult with more professional and personal experience than Victoria could likely even fathom at 18. It’s also possible that, particularly in the beginning, she didn’t know the full extent of Melbourne’s past, though she likely knew at least the basics. As for the rest, it came together over time, by which point it would have been grounded against her personal knowledge of him.
Melbourne, thanks to his age and ability to solve Victoria’s problems, quickly became a figure of near hero worship. Her largest obstacle was that of her mother, who wanted a household she deemed grand enough for the monarch’s mother and a position for the comptroller of her household, Sir John Conroy. Victoria detested Conroy and didn’t much like her mother, but Melbourne advised her to let him deal with her, thus allowing Victoria to absolve herself of guilt and the need to personally reject her mother’s pleas. Had Melbourne done nothing else for her that would likely have still been enough to win Victoria’s devotion.
But of course he did. As Victoria’s biographer Christopher Hibbert put it:
“‘He has *such* stores of knowledge,’ [Victoria] wrote; ‘such a wonderful memory; he knows about everybody and everything; *who* they were and *what* they did.’ He remembered things ‘from *thirteen months old*!’ and his days at Eton in great detail. She delighted in the stories he told her about Napoleon and Byron, Pitt and Charles James Fox, her wicked uncles, and was very pleased that he did not include their brother, her father, as being of their naughty company.”
Always politic that Melbourne.
But that last part is key for Victoria was fatherless and Melbourne, in a position to advise, was an older man. It was not only paternalism so much as paternal approval he offered. Melbourne, the career politician, was a flatterer and adept at knowing the right thing to say at the right time. As Victoria found her way in a difficult position with the eyes of the country on her, he managed to infuse in her a confidence in her own opinion and voice that would prove invaluable. Which is not to say he was a yes-man, because he wasn’t – his advice could – and did – often fly in the face of what Victoria wanted, but he had the ability to offer it gently in a way wholly foreign to her.
Victoria was also a woman of extremes – in that way she was similar to Melbourne’s deceased wife. When she loved she did so with fanaticism and when she hated she did so completely. Victoria enjoyed Melbourne’s company and came to rely on him – as such, she began to spend three to four hours a day with him and writing to him when they were apart. In short, he was more integral to her day-to-day than anyone else. As the famous diarist and courtier Charles Greville wrote:
“She is continually talking to him. Let who will be there, he always sits next to her at dinner, and by arrangement, because he always in the Lady-in-Waiting which necessarily places him next to her, the etiquette being that the Lady-in-Waiting sits next but one to the Queen. It is not unnatural, and to him it is peculiarly interesting. I have no doubt he is passionately fond of her as he might be of his own daughter if he had one, and more because he is a man with capacity for living without having anything in the world to love. It is become his province to educate, instruct, and form the most interesting mind and character in the world … Melbourne thinks highly of her sense, discretion and good feeling.”
All of this raises the question of whether the feeling ever grew romantic on either side. On Melbourne’s part, it’s unlikely, though his affection for her was certainly personal. But he was in a better position to separate the professional and the private, and had more life experience against to weigh Victoria’s place in his life. Victoria had none of that – neither context, wisdom nor experience, however intelligent and well-meaning she may have been. Melbourne was not just the most prominent man in her life, he was the only man in her day-to-day life and it’s not surprising that she associated masculine company with freedom and freedom was something to desire.
One courtier noted, “She could not bear that he should be out of her sight … if Melbourne even left the room her eyes followed him, and … she sighed when he was gone.”
Per Hibbert again:
“[W]hen he was not at Court she was jealous of the hostess who had attracted his presence elsewhere. More often than she liked this was Lady Holland; and once, when she knew he had gone to Holland House, she lamented in her diary, ‘I WISH he dined with me.’ She told him that Lady Holland, who was old enough to be her grandmother, did ‘not care for him half as much as she did, which made him laugh.’ Indeed, she said, ‘I am sure none of your friends are as fond of you as I am.”
This dynamic absolutely caught the attention of those around them. Usually it was a matter of mild amusement, but when Victoria faced a dip in her popularity in 1839 and her loyalty to Melbourne was viewed as problematic, she was derided as “Mrs. Melbourne” much in the same way she would be called “Mrs. Brown” decades later for her affection for her servant, John Brown. But in Melbourne’s case, styling her as though she was his wife alluded less to a perceived sexual relationship than it did to her showing a clear political preference based on personal bias.
So, did she fall in love with him? I think it’s safe to say that Victoria loved him, but not necessarily in a romantic sense. She certainly didn’t love him the way she would love Albert, but critically, she had yet to meet Albert as an adult. Victoria also loved possessively and jealously – in her world, there was a finite amount of love to go around. It was this instinct that would later prompt her to be jealous over the amount of time Albert spent with their eldest daughter in the lead up to her wedding two decades later. It was this instinct, too, which made her (in part) hesitant over having children at all – and which would lead her to urge her daughters and granddaughters to delay having children after getting married.
She loved Melbourne because she relied on him, he was kind to her and she enjoyed his company. As such, his attention had to be guarded and from the outside that dynamic would often look a different way. Her feelings were intense, unyielding and slightly irrational, but that could also be said of so many of Victoria’s feelings about any number of people and things. As for whether or not Victoria ever confused her love for Melbourne with something more romantic, I would say it’s entirely possible, though that is mostly premised on having once been 18, 19 and 20…
Regardless, it’s safe to say Melbourne molded the queen that Victoria became. In most regards, particularly personally, I would argue that was to her benefit. But in one respect, it wasn’t – Melbourne wasn’t a reformer by any stretch of the imagination and his cavalier, dispassionate view of the world (which he won the hard way) didn’t equip his last monarch to fully appreciate all of the tumult that industrialization was bringing about. I think Victoria’s biographer Elizabeth Longford put it best when she wrote:
“Melbourne did not dry up the wells of her pity – that would have been impossible – but he did blunt her social conscience by starting the evil legend that all discontent was due to a handful of agitators. Particularly this was so in Ireland, where Melbourne himself had recently applied coercion and martial law against the advice of his own Lord-Lieutenant. At seventeen Victoria had studied Irish history with Lehzen [her governess]: ‘How ill treated that poor Country & Nation has been!’ she exclaimed in her Journal. When, as Queen, she asked Melbourne what happened to the ‘poor Irish’ who were evicted by their landlords, Melbourne replied, ‘They become absorbed somehow or other’ – which made them all laugh amazingly … Melbourne’s callous tuition she gradually came to believe that every rebellious Irishman was ‘a low Irishman.’ It is fair to add that he strongly advocated royal visits both to Ireland and Scotland.”
Now, for those of you familiar with Queen Victoria’s early reign, you may be wondering where the story of Lady Flora Hastings is, or the whole debacle about Victoria’s ladies when Sir Robert Peel won the majority. We’ll be saving that for another time, because while they do illustrate this period – and Victoria’s absolute reliance on Melbourne – they are symptoms and not the cause. The crux of Victoria and Melbourne’s relationship was something entirely separate from an external factor, and it is this element that I think is key to gauging their dynamic.
In the end, it wasn’t Melbourne’s eventual loss of power that ended their relationship so much as Victoria’s marriage. The transition in dependence from Melbourne to Albert didn’t happen overnight – not by a long shot – but slowly but surely Victoria came to recognize she could use Albert to lessen her workload and perhaps even more significantly, she was pregnant every 18 months or so for the first decade of her marriage.
Melbourne saw the writing on the wall long before Victoria did, knowing that the moment she married their entire relationship would change. For the first year of her reign, from accession to coronation, the matter was moot as the two were mostly preoccupied in setting up her household and settling into the reality of her rule. But when the issue was raised later in 1838, Melbourne noted that Victoria didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic and he took the time to persuade her it wasn’t necessary. Her uncle, King Leopold, wanted her to marry Albert, but Melbourne noted that cousins rarely worked as spouses and the Coburg family was meddlesome. Even worse, he said, foreigners would be detested by the English. But then again, he noted, marrying an Englishman was out of the question, too. In short, he made marriage seem impossible.
Was he a politician in that moment, hoping to put off the day he lost control of his greatest asset? Or a man knowing he would someday lose the absolute attention and devotion of the young woman who looked up to him? As with nearly everything about their relationship, there’s room for speculation.