LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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In Whig Society 1775-1818
Chapter I.

‣ Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
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Elizabeth, Viscountess Melbourne was born in 1752, the eldest daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, 5th Baronet of Halnaby, in the county of York, and his wife Elizabeth, who was a daughter of Robert, 2nd Earl of Holderness.

The family of Milbanke was an old one, and an ancestor of the 1st Baronet, Ralph Milbanke, was the hereditary cupbearer of Queen Mary of Scotland.

Lady Melbourne was born at a time when the position of the House of Brunswick was insecure in England—not long after the Highland rising in favour of Prince Charles Stuart; before the American War of Independence and the French Revolution; before William Pitt, the great Commoner, had taken his place among the rising statesmen of the day; and about the time that the hard fate of the young Queen of Hungary, Maria Theresa, had plunged Europe into war.

She died three years after the Battle of Waterloo, when the Army of Occupation had been withdrawn from France and Europe was delivered from the nightmare of Napoleon’s domination.


Her pictures show her to have been a singularly beautiful woman. Her chiselled features, her brilliant complexion and large blue eyes, with a glint of humour in them, still remain to us on the canvases of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Cosway. In that age of powder she wore her bright brown hair untouched, and in nearly all her pictures she wears a narrow thread of black velvet round her throat. The rumour of the day gave a sinister interpretation to this adornment. As she grew older, she became rather large in her person, but this does not seem to have impaired her charms.

This beautiful creature was married at the age of seventeen to Sir Peniston Lamb, a man who was principally known by the distinguished place he occupied in the annals of pleasure, in the Memoirs of Mrs. Bellamy or Mrs. Baddeley, the sirens and courtesans of a former age. She had little prospect of a happy married life before her; but she was not only a beautiful woman; she was also possessed of a commanding intelligence and personality, and it is written that “the rise of her family was due to her brilliant qualities.”

Her husband’s father had made a fortune and received a baronetcy. His wealth was not amassed without suspicion. He was the confidential adviser of Lord Salisbury and Lord Egremont, and the old Marchioness of Salisbury, widow of the 1st Marquess, used to say that the rise of the Lamb family was from the plunder of
the Earls of Salisbury.1 His son constructed an immense mansion in Piccadilly, where now stands the Albany. As he did not care to call it after his own name he consulted
George Selwyn on the subject. “Call it House Lamb, my dear Peniston,” replied the wit. When he was made Lord Melbourne in 1770 he called it Melbourne House.

He took his title from Melbourne, an estate in the county of Derby, bought by his father from the Cokes, to whom he had been attorney. The mansion on the Melbourne property is not very large; the gardens are magnificent. They were laid out by Le Notre, designer of the famous gardens at Versailles, and it is remarkable that those at Wrest Park, in Bedfordshire, which came later into the Cowper family should have been laid out by the same hand. Brocket Hall, near Welwyn, in the county of Hertford, was also bought by the Lambs from the representatives of Sir Thomas Winnington in 1746.

Sir Matthew Lamb had amassed money for his son: Sir Peniston was a spendthrift as well as a libertine. He squandered the immense fortune he received from his father. Without much zeal for politics, he sat in the House of Commons as Member for Ludgershall from 1768 to 1784, dumbly following Lord North. He was created an Irish Baron in 1770 as Lord Melbourne of Kilmore, an Irish Viscount in 1781, and an

1 Burke’s Peerage.

English peer in 1815. He was also a Lord of the Bedchamber to
George IV in 1784.

Lord North had put forward the name of Sir Peniston Lamb as a worthy recipient of a peerage. He was young, rich, with a charming wife. He entertained largely, and he would be a useful person to attach to the Throne. An Irish peerage retained him in the House of Commons, and “it constituted an intervening grade of social rank, which, as the experience of George II’s reign had shown, led the holder frequently to look for Imperial enoblement.”1 The later honours he received were chiefly owing to the careful diplomacy of his beautiful wife.

Even when no longer in her first youth, Lady Melbourne became the object for a time of the easily transferable affections of George IV, then Prince of Wales, and Wraxall, who evidently admired her very much, says:

“She might well challenge such a preference. A commanding figure exceeding the middle height, full of grace and dignity, an animated countenance, intelligent features, captivating manners and conversation; all these and many other attractions, enhanced by coquetry, met in Lady Melbourne.”1

When she is mentioned by her contemporaries

1 Life of Lord Melbourne, by Torrens, p. 15.

2 Wraxall’s Historical Memoirs of My Own Time.

there is sometimes a little ridicule mixed with the words of praise necessary for one so much considered in the highest circles. This is apparent in
Wraxall’s account of the trouble she took when the Prince of Wales was a gentleman Commoner at Eton at the same time as her sons. She would pay them a weekly visit, giving a great dinner to which the Prince was always invited. On one occasion Wraxall speaks of her dancing with him after dinner to his great delight, though rather in a “cowlike stile” (sic). Horace Walpole describes her in the prime of her beauty in 1778:

“On Tuesday I supped after the Opera at Mrs. Meynel’s, with a most fashionable company, which take notice I seldom do now, as I certainly am not of the age to mix often with young people. Lady Melbourne was standing before the fire and adjusting her feathers in the glass; says she, ‘Lord, they say the stocks will blow up: that will be very comical.’”

Lady Bessborough, in her private correspondence, calls her “The Thorn.” Lady Holland, in 1793, speaks of her in her journal, saying:

“Our parties at Devonshire House were

1 H. Walpole’s Letters, ed. Cunningham, vii, 63. The meaning of the remark from this lady of fashion seems obscure; but it was the mode among the fine ladies of the day to dabble in the finance of the City, partly because it was so much connected with the politics of the world in which they took their part. So they affected a strange Stock Exchange jargon which they used on all occasions.

delightfully pleasant.
Lady Melbourne is uncommonly sensible and amusing, though she often put me in mind of Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons dangereuses.1 The Duke of Bedford is attached to her: he is almost brutal by the roughness of his manners.”

But these strictures are unusual, and those who disliked her are in the minority. Byron in his diary says she was the best friend he ever had, and the cleverest of women, and that he “writes with most pleasure to her, for her answers are so sensible and so tactique.” Her son William’s verdict on her long after was—“My Mother was a most remarkable woman, not merely clever and engaging, but the most sagacious woman I ever knew. She kept me straight as long as she lived.”

The impression revealed by her contemporaries is that her personality excited a sort of fear. Her care for appearances and her common sense enabled her to preserve an outwardly unassailable propriety in an age when an easy morality characterized good society. She was very beautiful and very brilliant. Having but little prospect of domestic happiness, she turned the brain of a

1 “D’abord Mdm. de Merteuil en effet tres estimable n’a peut être d’autres défauts que trop de confiance en ses forces. C’est un guide adroit qui se plait à conduire un char entre les rochers et lea précipices et que le succes seul justifie; il est juste de la louer, il serait imprudent de la suivre. Elle même en convient et s’en accuse. A mesure qu’elle a vue d’advantages ses principes sont devalues plus sévères.”—Les Liaisons dangereuses.

man to secure the worldly position for her family which a father should have achieved for them.

Melbourne House in Piccadilly was a centre of society. About 1790 the Duke of York, who was a constant visitor there, complained to his hostess that he was tired of Whitehall, and would prefer a residence like Melbourne House. She, nothing loth to oblige such an admirer, persuaded her husband to lend his countenance to the transaction, and the King having given his consent, the exchange was concluded.

In the brilliant society of Melbourne House, where all that was best in brains, politics, art, and fashion constantly gathered, Lord Byron became the friend of Lady Melbourne, and she his confidante. Here, later on, he became the hero of her daughter-in-law’s dreams. Lady Melbourne received Lord Byron on terms of the utmost familiarity, rare with her: one of her sayings was that few men could be trusted with other people’s secrets, and no woman with her own. This curious intimacy must have aggravated an already difficult position, for Lady Melbourne seems to have cared but little for the wives of her sons, and indeed her son Frederick pities her in one of his letters for the daughters-in-law his brothers had given her.

While reading Lady Melbourne’s correspondence with her niece Annabella, with reference to the
latter’s marriage with
Byron, one is irresistibly reminded of Mme. de Merteuil. It may be that in her anxiety to put an end to the scandal in her favourite son William’s household, she mercilessly sacrificed an Iphigenia on the altar of her own family happiness. It is true that Byron had consulted Lady Melbourne on the choice of a wife, but who that reads Annabella’s list of the qualities she requires in a husband could have given her to him as a wife?

Peniston, Lady Melbourne’s eldest son, was born the year after her marriage in 1770. His portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows him to have been wonderfully handsome in a rather effeminate style. Very like his father, he was idolized by this parent. He was gentle and affectionate, and accepted the political career mapped out for him. His father in 1793 gave up his seat at Newport in his favour, and in 1802 he was returned for Hertfordshire, but fell a victim to consumption, and died on January 24, 1805.

Peniston, like his brothers William and George, was a good amateur actor, and theatricals were among the diversions of Melbourne House, which had become “one of the gayest and most brilliant centres of fashion.” The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Bedford, and Lord Egremont, “who had earliest won and latest held Lady Melbourne’s confidence and regard,”1 were constantly under its roof.

1 Torrens.


William, Lady Melbourne’s second son, born long after Peniston in 1779, whose education was the chief care and preoccupation of her life, now became the heir to the title, and his mother devoted her great abilities to make him a power in the country, though she never succeeded during her life time in moulding him quite as she wished.

Her third son, Frederick, was born on April 17, 1782; her fourth son, George, in 1784. Emily, or Amelia Mary, Lady Melbourne’s elder daughter, was born in 1787.

In 1789 her younger daughter, Harriet Anne, was born, but died in 1803. Her only record is the little humorous merry face which looks at us out of Lawrence’s canvas, laughing and bewildered by the loss of her cap, which her sister, “that little devil Emily,” has pulled off in play; and one letter to her brother George, preserved among his papers. It is just such a letter as a little sister might write now to her brother. George was then at Eton, and “Haryot” writes that “Papa hears you go to school in boats,” so the floods were evidently out. Also she gives news of the dogs, how “Roy has got three beautiful puppies, which are much bigger than Nelly,” and begs him “to write to me soon and tell me how long it is to the holidays.”

It is interesting also to hear from her that “William” (who was probably then 17) “judged
of us—Henry,1
Emily, and me—which knew most and what we knew. He gave us a little bit of cart [sic] with it writ upon it.” She also describes how William tells her that he goes to the play to see Mrs. Stephen Kemble.1 The child quotes William, who says:

“A son of Mrs. Siddons plays all the great characters. His face is more pale, his eyes more black, his voice more foggy, and his manners more constrained than Kemble’s. If he did not add to all these unlucky similarities—he is a decided imitation of him in all he says or does—he might make a tolerable actor.”

Years after, Harriet’s brother Frederick alluded to the cause of her death in a letter to his sister Emily. Consumption took Harriet, as it was destined to take Peniston two years later. The experts of the present day may smile, but it is a fact that this illness decimated Lady Melbourne’s descendants to the third generation.

In 1775 a new star shone on London Society—Georgiana Spencer, the eldest daughter of the 1st Earl Spencer and his wife Margaret Poyntz,

1 We do not know who “Henry” was; probably one of the many childish companions of the Lamb children who played among the leafy glades of Brocket.

2 She was Elizabeth Gatehall, who was then her prime, about 33 years old, and had married Stephen Kemble, the son of Roger Kemble, the great actor and brother of Mrs. Siddons.

married to the
5th Duke of Devonshire at the age of 17.

Devonshire House, which had not known a mistress since the death of the last Duchess in 1754, at once became the centre of a political circle, active because most of its members were young, important because their rank was high and the influence they exerted over the fortunes of the Whig Party far-reaching. The new Duchess was young and beautiful, and was what in modern parlance is called “a personality.”

Lady Melbourne was older by some years than this brilliant schoolgirl who was entering on life, and Melbourne House was already established as the great Whig centre in London Society.

A more ordinary woman would have feared a rival in the new Duchess. Instead, Lady Melbourne, with the tact and judgment so peculiarly her own, used every charm she possessed to cherish and strengthen the deep affection for herself which she had inspired in Georgiana, and at once took up her favourite role of confidante and guide.

There is a letter from Georgiana docketed 1775, but which would appear from the contents to be of later date, which shows that Lady Melbourne could scold as well as cajole the impulsive girl. The Duchess called her “Themire,” by which name she always addressed her, and writes:

“I am dead asleep, my D[ea]r D[ea]r Love,
Melbourne must have a line to take to you. Do not think because I am idle that I do not love you. Je t’aime, je t’adore, ma chère, finira qu’avec ma vie [sic]. Pray write to me, tell me that you love me & are not angry with me. I have a thousand things to say you, mais le moyen sans te voir? [sic]. Why don’t you come up? I cannot leave London this week, but I hope to get a few days with you. My brats are pretty well. Bless you.”

(Endorsed 1775.)

Charles Grey, handsome, distinguished, a rising statesman, supposed to hold violent and revolutionary views in his youth, was greatly attracted by the Duchess. He was the son of a distinguished General, Sir Charles Grey, later Viscount Howick and Earl Grey. The most eminent men of the Whig Party were to be met at the feet of one or other of their divinities both at Devonshire and Melbourne House. The young Duchess, like most of the ardent spirits of the day, was in love with liberty, and looked on Charles James Fox, the Whig Minister, as the champion of the cause. It has been said that it was an age of cards and candlelight. We also know it was an age of deep potations; the fashion of the day was to dine early, go to the opera or the playhouse, and return to a late supper, where the wits and the statesmen, fresh from the House of Commons debates on the doctrines of liberty, sat with the most beautiful women of their day, until the candles guttered and bent in the gilded candelabra
and the sedan chairs with their weary chairmen and footmen in the courtyard showed tawdry in the light of dawn. Who can wonder that the doctrines of liberty were not limited to political ends?

Charles Grey, who after his marriage in 1794 became almost a byword for domestic felicity, fell completely under the spell of the young Duchess of Devonshire. His affection was returned, and their confidante was Lady Melbourne. In 1791 Lady Melbourne received the following letter dated “Fallodon, Decr. 20”:

Fallodon, Decr. 20.
Dear Lady Melbourne,

I could almost find it in my heart to be very angry with you for the fright you have given me, but my happiness in being relieved from it will not allow me. I cannot express to you the misery I have suffered for the last three days. Upon reading your letter over again, I found a very exact date of the day on which you wrote it, & a little Postscript telling me that it would enable me to calculate the arrival of the parcel with certainty. This I thought you had considered as sufficient without writing a second letter, & as the time of the arrival of the parcel corresponded exactly with the day on which you said you were to go to Town I thought there was no longer any chance. I waited, however, but Sunday’s Post bringing me no letter I then gave it quite up. Last night your letter arrived and made me quite happy, the more so as it was the more unexpected. The parcel, however, is not yet come, tho’ it ought to have been here at the same
time as your letter. I have, however, no fears for its safety, as I never knew anything lost in the Mail Coach. The worst of it is I had written to her yesterday, having had a letter the night before, desiring me to direct to Aix, as it was very material in case the letter had miscarried that I should hear from her as soon as possible. I am in hopes, however, that I shall be able to stop the letter, as I sent it to a Person in Town to put into the Post, which he may not have done before a letter I shall write today reaches him, as I believe the foreign Post does not go from London till Friday. At all events I shall write today to her again, & if I am in luck she may open the letter meant to relieve her anxiety first, or at least it will follow immediately.

I can bear any scolding from you just now under the joy of this unexpected relief. But you ought to be a little mild from the example of good nature that I set you, in not scolding you for being so dilatory. In the letters I got from Roanne and Lyons on Saturday she says she hopes I have got the parcel, as it was of the greatest consequence that I should have it immediately. So you must justify me to her, & make your own peace. Why did you not send me some of her letters if you felt inclined to do so? Indeed, I never mean to plague her, but I believe I am born to be a plague to every body. I write in a great hurry and am going to Alnwick to enquire about the parcel, which will give me an opportunity of putting this into the Post to-day, which I should not otherwise have had. God bless you.

Yours sincerely,
C. Grey.

It is necessary in endeavouring to picture Lady Melbourne’s many-sided character to emphasize not only her love for her own relations, for whom she seems to have been ready to take infinite trouble, but also her genius for business. Her younger brother John, who had been Architect and Contractor of His Majesty’s Works, was lying ill of the illness with which he died in 1800. His son, afterwards Sir John Milbanke, 7th Baronet, had married before this Eleanor, daughter of Julius Hering. The couple were in debt, and Lady Melbourne took upon herself to endeavour to extricate them in a letter so clear and so businesslike that it is worth quoting in full. Indeed, in every capacity in which Lady Melbourne appeared she seems to have succeeded. Not one of her letters ever displays anything but the soundest principles and amazing good sense.

From Lady Melbourne to unknown

I have to apologise for the liberty I take in addressing you, but as the comfort of a near Relation of Yours is so much concerned I hope I need make no further excuses, & shall only observe that the bad state of my Brother Mr. John Milbanke’s health, which renders him unable to attend to any business, is the reason of my interfering upon a subject which would have come more properly from him—I am afraid my nephew Capn. Milbanke has not been so
explicit as he ought respecting his affairs to you Sir, & to
Mrs. Milbanke’s other Relations, for if he had I feel convinced you would have seen the necessity of making some provision for the pay[men]t of his debts—& would have advised him accordingly—or had his Relations known that his Marriage was to have taken place so soon some arrangement of that sort would have been proposed by them, for tho they were unacquainted with the extent of his debts, yet we knew it was impossible he should not have some, from the very small income his Father could give him, & from his situation in the profession which must lead him into great expenses. At the same time I must say that I cannot accuse him of any great extravagance, but he seems to have fall’n into bad Hands, & of course to have obtained money on very exorbitant terms, & I must own that considering all these circumstances I am surprised his debts do not amount to a larger sum. His conduct in not explaining his situation more fully can only be attributed to the embarassment a Young Man naturally feels in confessing his imprudences, as he might have settled his affairs with more facility previous to his Marriage than he can now. I have no doubt in my own Mind that were he once clear of debt, his future conduct would be prudent, & that having suffered so much distress and difficulty, a lesson would be imprinted, which he could not easily forget. It is under this conviction that I venture to apply to you—as I think it may be in your power to assist him materially & I do not see how he can in any other way extricate himself even from his present difficultys which press upon him daily & which distress him the more as they must involve Mrs.
Milbanke’s happiness by wounding her feelings—& from her amiable Character, I feel highly interested in her welfare and most sincerely hope they may be happy. From a variety of causes, relating to Family affairs which it would at present be unnecessary & tedious to enumerate, but which I have not the least objection to relate to you, if I have the honor of seeing you, my
Br[other] has it not in his power to assist him which he certainly would wish to do if he could—for if he has appear’d averse to his marriage it has not been from the least want of affection or from any other reason, but from a consciousness of his inability to make his situation comfortable. I understand you are Trustee for Mrs. Milbanke & that her fortune of £2,000 is settled upon her. If you would consent to call in a Thousand p[oun]ds of it, & it could be stated in what time it might be raised I should hope that sum might be borrowed on reasonable terms till the time of payt., & as he has 500 pd. at his Father’s death which is not settled, & secured to him by his Mother’s will: and another 500 secured also—by his Father—these two sums might be settled upon Mrs. Milbanke in lieu of 1,000 of her fortune which would be paid to him—This would I think relieve him effectually, and you must be sensible that nothing except being clear of debt can enable Mrs. M[ilbanke] & him to live upon their present small income and that any calls for Money to pay off old Debts must, not only be of the greatest present distress, but also of the least consequences ultimately.

My anxiety for my nephew and my wish to explain his situation clearly & fully to you, are my reasons for having presumed to trouble you
with so long a letter, which I trust you will have the goodness to forgive.

I am,
Your most obet.
& most Humble Sert.
Eliz: Melbourne

Charles Grey, an impetuous lover of the theories of liberty of Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the Encyclopedists, had found that when these theories were put into practice, a state of unparalleled licence was the result. Many of the younger votaries of Liberty, when they saw the French Revolution, paused to reconsider their opinions. Grey when he wrote to Mrs. Ord after the Execution of the King of France in 1793, says, “bad as I am thought I cannot express the horror I feel at the atrocity,” and as a postscript adds—“War is certain. God grant we may not all lament the consequence of it.”

Among Grey’s friends was George Canning. The fearful events which marked the Revolution in France were reaching a summit of unparalleled horror. Those who loved liberty in this country had welcomed the beginning of Revolution in France, but, as Mme. Roland said, the crimes which were committed in the name of liberty were rapidly alienating those champions of the struggle which was taking place on the other side of the Channel


Canning, who had taken up the law as a profession, purposed to enter politics. He was already a friend of those habitués of Devonshire House and of Melbourne House who are spoken of in the letters of the period. Lords Morpeth1 and Boringdon2 were his chief friends, and to the latter he wrote from the Temple on December 13, 1792, a letter so like in sentiment to the following found among her papers that his feelings on the subject were probably well known.

Canning was, like Grey, an intimate friend of Lady Melbourne. Her mature mind had at once rejected the violent views which both held, and either may have written the following letter in which he explains that he will not offend the principles of his hostess by airing the violence of his opinions should he be allowed as usual to come to her house.

“Whatever my principles may be you need not be afraid of my discussing them at your house. I know how ill it will be received and shall therefore avoid it however angry I may sometimes be at hearing unqualified abuse of Men whose talents and general principles I must admire, particularly when it comes from those who have neither talents nor principles but are guided in all their actions solely by selfishness. Ld. E[gremont]’s

1 Morpeth, the eldest son of the Earl of Carlisle, who in 1801 married Georgiana, the eldest daughter of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, had espoused the cause of liberty with ardour.

2 Lord Boringdon, afterwards created 1st Earl of Morley, married into the great Whig family of the Jerseys.

opinions do not alarm me; I think his judgment generally good, but on this subject he has always been a croaker.

“How can you know me so little as to suppose any thing could induce me even to accept, much more to ask a favor of the present adminis[tratio]n. I wrote to Ld. O. to thank him for his offer of the Lieut[enan]cy, but to decline it at the same time, telling him I never would take it. I will never subject myself to the caprice of a K[ing], & I might be turned out for my political opinion as others have been. As to the Militia, I deferr’d giving him a positive answer till I see him. I should not have hesitated about accepting it if I had not been convinced that in every respect it would be disagreeable to me, & I could only be induced to do it from a conviction that in the present situation of affairs everybody ought to stand forward, particularly the young ones & those whose keeping back might be attributed to their want of ardour in the cause. I therefore remain still in doubt urged on the one hand by the wish to what I think I ought & on the other by the wish to avoid what would be in every respect a disagreeable situation.

“You mistake me in supposing I am violent in my political opinions. At some moments I feel great apprehensions as to the effects of any change—my inclinations lead me to the reformers, my aversions strengthen these inclinations. I see too with regret Men whom I always hoped would some day rescue the country from the arbitrary, the oppressive, the aristocratic Administration that now governs it, meanly playing a second part and being the dupes by being the Cats paw of the very set of men their principles
must make them detest (at least politically so). Seeing all this I cannot help wishing a speedy reform that will in some degree satisfy the minds of the people. I know the danger of any reform, but I cannot help looking on a present moderate one as the only means of preventing a very serious one soon. Opposition have lost their consequence. Whilst the people had them to look to they flatter’d themselves the hasty strides of the present admin[istratio]n towards encreasing the influence of the Crown would at least be checked if not stopp’d. They can no longer have that hope, for they see the Chiefs fighting
Pitt’s battles.”