Elizabeth Milbanke was the biggest social climber of her day, a North Riding squire’s daughter who was a glittering political hostess in Regency London. Colin Brown reports.
I first encountered Lady Melbourne in the basement of the Scotland Office when I was researching the biography of John Prescott. The Deputy Prime Minister was holding Cabinet committee meetings in the garden rooms in Dover House, alongside Horseguards, while he waited for his own offices to be completed.
The rooms with French windows opening onto Horseguards Parade were pea-green with gold Etruscan designs on the walls. I noticed there was a gilded coronet with a baton over the interconnecting doors. It looked like we had both stepped into the set of a Regency farce. I wondered aloud why JP was running the country from what appeared to be a Georgian lady’s boudoir?
Clearly fearing I might write a story about the cost of his wallpaper, the DPM said the decoration was the responsibility of English Heritage and nothing to do with him; he did not know about its history.
I decided to investigate and the story I uncovered was astonishing. It also turned out that my first reaction was remarkably close to the truth. I found that Dover House was the former home of the Duke of York, before he swopped houses with Lord and Lady Melbourne.
Prescott’s rooms were decorated just as they had been when Lady Melbourne entertained her intimate friends there until the break of dawn.
Lady Melbourne had been one of the leading Whig hostesses of the late Georgian period from around 1770 to her death in 1818. She hosted glittering dinner parties in the elegant upstairs rooms overlooking St James’s Park and her salon attracted the sparkling wits of the Georgian age including Charles James Fox, the Whig leader. Lady Melbourne was unlike her more famous friend, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, who had created the ridiculous fashion among the elite – known as the ‘bon ton’ – for towering hairdos enclosing novelties such as toy ships, topped by ostrich feathers.
Georgiana was gushing, headstrong and hopeless with money – she owed up to £50,000 in gambling debts, equivalent to over £5 million today. Elizabeth by contrast was cool and calculating and she also had a sharp tongue. She was compared to the Marquise de Merteuil, the scheming siren in Les Liaisons Dangereuses who used seduction as a social weapon. Georgiana’s sister, Lady Bessborough called her ‘the thorn’.
In May 1777, Lady Melbourne and the bon ton turned out to see the first night of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal, which satirised his friends in the audience. They roared with laughter at Lady Teazle – thought by many to represent Georgiana – being berated by her husband for being a spendthrift, while Lady Sneerwell captured Lady Melbourne’s acid tongue.
In an age of strong women, Lady Melbourne was an influential confidante for the politicians of her day. Lord David Cecil said she was ‘essentially a man’s woman’ – it was only among men she felt sure enough of her ground to be her robust self. She lived by the unwritten rule that a married woman in Georgian society had a duty to produce an heir for her husband to protect his family’s inheritance, but after that a woman was entitled to have affairs while her husband followed his own peccadilloes.
Given the rudimentary state of birth control, Georgian wives often produced children by men who were not their husbands – the offspring of Lady Oxford, wife of Edward Harley, were known as the ‘Harleian Miscellany’.
Lady Melbourne had six children and only one – her first son – was by her husband, Sir Peniston Lamb. Her second son, William, was almost certainly fathered by the Earl of Egremont, and became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister. Her fourth son, George was fathered by the Prince of Wales, later George IV, when he was still in his twenties and she was 32. The Prince rewarded Elizabeth by making her husband one of his senior courtiers as Gentleman of the Bedchamber.
She had been born into a well-to-do landowning family, the Milbankes, in 1751 who ran a racehorse stud at Halnaby in North Yorkshire. They could proudly trace their roots to the court of Mary Queen of Scots. Her father, Sir Ralph was the fifth baronet and an MP, while one of her uncles was a senior figure at the court of George III.
It was not enough for Elizabeth, however. Once she married a rich and dissolute husband, who had inherited £1 million in 1769 from his father, including two stately homes, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire and Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, her rise in the elite of London society was an object lesson in ambition – she used all her husband’s wealth and her skills of seduction to secure titles and influence for her family.
Her son William cemented a link into the Devonshire set by marrying Lady Caroline Ponsonby, niece of Georgiana on June 3 1805. However, in 1812 Lady Caroline Lamb became notorious for her wild and highly public affair with the dazzling new literary star, Lord Byron.
Lady Melbourne wrote her a blistering letter which I discovered in the Lamb archive at the British Library: “When any one braves the opinion of the world, sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it…”
Lady Melbourne sought to get Byron out of her son’s marriage by marrying Byron off to her naïve niece, Anne Isabella Milbanke, known as Annabella, the daughter of her older brother Sir Ralph Milbanke and his priggish wife, Judith Noel.
Astonishingly, Lady Melbourne, at the age of 61, and Byron, 24, became so close in their meetings in the downstairs rooms that Prescott later occupied that they were said to have been lovers. They exchanged rings like lovers and intimate letters which I read in the archives in which the poet invariably addressed her as “Lady M”.
I went to Yorkshire in search of Byron’s Lady M, but was disappointed when I arrived at the site of Halnaby Hall in North Yorkshire and found no trace was left of the Georgian-style country mansion where Byron spent a “honeymoon in hell” with Annabella.
Halnaby Hall with 15,543 acres was sold at auction in 1952 and demolished to avoid punitive taxes. It was stripped bare of ceilings, wooden decorations and stone before the remains were finally blown up with dynamite. The red bricks from the once elegant hall went as hardcore for road building. Some Yorkshire pubs are rumoured to have highly-carved ceilings from Halnaby Hall.
A local couple, Lawrence and Eva Banner bought the site of the hall in 1960 with the remains of the seventeenth century servants’ quarters. Eva recalled seeing the ruins ‘looking like a bombsite’ in her privately-published history of the hall, and the Milbanke family, Halnaby People.
The large gatehouses, the handsome Georgian stable block, parts of the kitchen garden and hothouses, and the servants’ quarters are all that are left.
The stables, which went under the hammer for £2,000 are now a luxurious bed and breakfast where I stayed when I went in search of Elizabeth’s birthplace.
The site where the hall stood for three centuries is now a lush green field with not a brick to be seen.
The place where Elizabeth, Viscountess Melbourne was born was occupied by two long-horn cattle chewing the cud.
Lady M, the Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, by Colin Brown, is published by Amberley.
Family’s church pew still survives
While she managed to make a glamourous life for herself in London, the importance of Elizabeth Milbanke’s family in Yorkshire is still apparent to this day.
The Milbanke family church St Peter’s at nearby Croft-on-Tees still boasts the ‘Milbanke Pew’ – a private family box, lined in red velvet – described by experts as the most vulgar pew in Britain.
It is seven feet high, with its dominating height enabling the Milbankes to lord it over the common folk while listening to the sermon by another of Elizabeth’s uncles, who was the vicar.
The family had considerable political influence; her maternal grandfather had been Member of Parliament for County Durham and her father was also a politician.