William Lamb was born on 15 March 1779 and was the son of Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne, and Elizabeth Milbanke, although his paternity was attributed to George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, to whom he bore a strong resemblance. Melbourne would later claim Wyndham was not his father, however the two maintained a close relationship throughout their lives and Melbourne was called to Egremont’s death bed.
Melbourne was educated at Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge and the University of Glasgow, and he served at home in the Hertfordshire Volunteer Infantry during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1805, Melbourne married Lady Caroline Ponsonby and they had a son, George Augustus Frederick, born on 11 August 1807, and a premature daughter, born in 1809, who died within 24 hours. George was born with severe mental problems, most likely autism, but the couple chose to keep their son at home rather than placing him into an institution as was more common at that time. The strains of looking after George, coupled with Melbourne’s burgeoning career, began to take its toll on the marriage though and the situation wasn’t helped by the fact Melbourne’s family had grown to dislike Caroline immensely.
In 1812, Caroline embarked on a very public affair with Lord Byron after meeting him at a social event. Although Caroline had initially spurned Byron’s advances, she later wrote him passionate letters which encouraged him to pursue her and they began a torrid affair. After only a few months, Byron ended the affair and Melbourne took Caroline to Ireland but she continued to write letters to Byron. When Caroline returned to London in 1813, she attempted to resume her affair with the poet but he was adamant their relationship was over. Caroline, unable to accept, began to make increasingly public overtures which culminated in a suicide attempt in July 1813. Melbourne had stood by his wife throughout the whole episode, however she prevailed upon him to end their marriage in 1825 since both were unhappy. Caroline’s mental health continued to decline and she died on 25 January 1828 after becoming addicted to alcohol and laudanum. Melbourne was devastated by Caroline’s death and he never married again.
Melbourne was first elected to the House of Commons as the Whig MP for Leominster in 1806 where he would spend the next twenty-five years as a backbencher before moving to the House of Lords after the death of his father in 1828. In November 1830, the Whigs came to power under Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, and Melbourne was made Home Secretary during a politically chaotic time when agricultural workers were rioting about mechanisation and other harsh conditions. Although Melbourne was urged to squash the rioting with military force, he relied on justice instead and appointed a special commission to try those arrested. Melbourne was praised for acting sensitively but was still held responsible for the hanging of one rioter who was judged to have been innocent of any wrongdoing.
After Lord Grey resigned as Prime Minister in July 1834, Melbourne was considered the best man to replace him but he acquiesced with some reluctance. As a member of the aristocracy, Melbourne wasn’t keen on reform but he realised some form of compromise was necessary, nevertheless he remained opposed to the Reform Act 1832 and the abolishment of slavery. Melbourne’s first tenure as Prime Minister was a short one though as the Whig government was dismissed on 14 November 1834 by William IV who did not approve of the reforms they were trying to pass. William IV offered the Tories a chance to form a government under Sir Robert Peel but he failed to secure a majority in the House of Commons so the Whigs returned to power under Melbourne in April 1835.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in June 1837, she was a naive eighteen-year-old who had been sheltered at Kensington Palace by her domineering mother. Victoria relied greatly on Melbourne’s advice during the early years of her reign and the two became close friends to the point rumours soon spread they were having an affair and would eventually marry. On 7 May 1839, Melbourne resigned as Prime Minister, being replaced by Sir Robert Peel, who was disliked by Queen Victoria, and they would have a bitter quarrel over the appointment of her ladies-in-waiting which would become known as the Bedchamber Crisis. Although Queen Victoria was supposed to be impartial, she did not hide the fact she favoured the Whigs and when Peel demanded she replace her Whig ladies with Tories, she refused. In the end, Melbourne was persuaded to stay on as prime minister which is really what the queen desired.
Melbourne tutored the young queen over the next four years, spending four to five hours a day together, until he was supplanted by her marriage to Prince Albert. Melbourne’s final resignation came in August 1841 and he retired to Brocket Hall, however the Queen continued to seek his advice which was deemed inappropriate. During his retirement, Melbourne began suffering from a series of strokes which led to increasing debility and he died on 24 November 1848.