William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (21 March 1779 – 24 November 1848) was a British Whig politician who served twice as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century. He is best known for his intense and successful mentoring of Queen Victoria, who was still a teenager when she ascended the throne.
After leaving office, he served as Home Secretary in Peel’s government from 1841 to 1846. He then resumed his position as Queen Victoria’s private secretary, a post he held until his death at the age of 69.
William Lamb was born in London, the eldest son of William Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne, a Whig politician, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Richard Pennefather. As a young man he was noted for his attractive appearance and his lively social life. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford.
In 1806, Lamb was elected to the House of Commons as a Whig MP for Leominster. He served in various ministerial positions in the Grenville and Perceval governments, including Secretary at War (1809–1812), Home Secretary (1812–1827) and Leader of the House of Commons (1827–1830).
Although a Whig, Melbourne was made secretary for Ireland from 1827-1828 in a Tory government, but was then home secretary in a Whig administration from 1830-1834. In 1829, his father’s death meant he inherited his title and moved to the House of Lords.
In November 1830, Melbourne was appointed Prime Minister by King William IV, partly on the advice of his wife Queen Adelaide.
When the young Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, she and Melbourne developed a close relationship, with the prime minister tutoring the new queen in government and politics.
In return, the queen chose to ignore his past indiscretions and the scandal of his failed first marriage – his wife Lady Caroline Lamb had an infamous affair with Lord Byron. The queen’s reliance on Melbourne resulted in a political crisis in 1839, when Melbourne resigned after a defeat in parliament. The queen invited the Conservative leader Sir Robert Peel to form a government, but he insisted that the queen’s Whig ladies of the bedchamber be replaced with Tory ones, which was the usual practice. The queen refused, so Peel declined to form a government and Melbourne returned to office.
Melbourne resigned in August 1841 after a series of parliamentary defeats. His role as confidante and adviser to the queen was taken by her new husband, Prince Albert, who also steered Victoria towards reconciliation with Peel, the new prime minister.
After leaving office, Melbourne served as Home Secretary in Peel’s government from 1841 to 1846. He then resumed his position as Queen Victoria’s private secretary, a post he held until his death at the age of 69.
William Lamb was married twice. His first wife, Lady Caroline Ponsonby, died in 1828 after a long and childless marriage. In 1839, he married Lady Caroline Norton, with whom he had two sons and two daughters.
Lord Melbourne is remembered today as Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, and as a mentor who helped her adjust to life as monarch. He was a talented politician and a shrewd thinker, and his advice was greatly valued by the young Queen. Melbourne is also remembered for his wit and his lively social life.
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