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William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne
|Periods in Office:||July, 1834 - November, 1834|
April, 1835 - September, 1841
|PM Predecessors:||The Earl Grey|
Sir Robert Peel, Bt
|PM Successors:||Sir Robert Peel, Bt|
|Date of Birth:||15 March 1779|
|Place of Birth:||London|
Born in London to an aristocratic Whig family and educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he fell in with a group of Romantic Radicals that included Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. In 1805 he succeeded his elder brother as heir to his father's title and, now known as Lord Melbourne, he married Lady Caroline Ponsonby. The next year he was elected to the British House of Commons as the Whig MP for Leominster.
He 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 him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". The resulting scandal was the talk of Britain in 1812. Eventually the two reconciled and though they separated in 1825, her death (1828) affected him considerably.
Lamb's hallmark was finding the middle ground. Though a Whig, he accepted the post of Irish Secretary (1827) in the moderate Tory governments of George Canning and Lord Goderich. Upon the death of his father in 1828 and his becoming Viscount Melbourne, he moved to the House of Lords, but when the Whigs came to power under Lord Grey in November 1830 he became Home Secretary in the new government.
Again, compromise was the key to Melbourne's actions. He was opposed to the radical governmental reforms proposed by the Whigs, but rather than forcing a breach he worked from within the party to prevent passage of the Reform Act 1832. Although he was unsuccessful in this, when Lord Grey resigned (July 1834), Melbourne was widely seen as the most acceptable replacement among the Whig leaders, and became Prime Minister.
King William IV's opposition to the Whigs' reforming ways led him to dismiss Melbourne in November. He then gave the Tories under 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 in April 1835.
The next year, Melbourne was once again involved in a sexual scandal. This time he was the victim of attempted blackmail from the husband of a female friend. The husband demanded £1400, and when he was turned down he accused Melbourne of having an affair with his wife. In Victorian times even one sexual scandal (like the one two decades earlier involving Lord Byron) would be enough to finish off the career of most men, so it is a measure of the respect contemporaries had for his integrity that Melbourne's government did not fall. After Norton was unable to produce any evidence of an affair, the scandal died away.
Melbourne was Prime Minister when Queen Victoria came to the throne (June 1837). Barely eighteen, she was only just breaking free from the somewhat malevolent influence of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her mother's advisor, 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 grown son had died recently. Melbourne was given a private apartment at Windsor Castle, and unfounded rumours circulated for a time that Victoria would marry Melbourne, forty years her senior.
In May 1839 the Bedchamber Crisis occurred when Melbourne tried to resign and Victoria rejected the request of prospective Tory prime minister Robert Peel that she dismiss some of the wives and daughters of Whig MPs who made up her personal entourage. As monarch she was expected to avoid any hint of favouritism to a party out of power, so her action (which was supported by the Whigs) led to Peel's refusal to form a new government. Melbourne was eventually persuaded to stay on as Prime Minister.
Even after Melbourne resigned permanently in August 1841, Victoria continued writing to him. This too was forbidden, however, for the same reasons as before, and eventually the correspondence was forced to an end. Melbourne's role faded away as Victoria came to rely on her new husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg as well as on herself.
Melbourne left a considerable list of reforming legislation - not as long as that of Lord Grey, but worthy in its own right. Among his administration's acts were a reduction in the number of capital offences, reform of the Poor laws, and reforms of local government.
- First Melbourne Ministry (1834)
- Second Melbourne Ministry (1835–1839)
- Third Melbourne Ministry (1839–1841)
|- style="text-align: center;"
| width="30%" |Preceded by:
The Duke of Wellington | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Leader of the House of Lords
1835–1841 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
The Duke of Wellington
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