Queen Victoria, Lord ‘M’ and Welwyn’s Brocket Hall
PUBLISHED: 16:27 19 December 2016 | UPDATED: 12:24 29 December 2016
The Sunday-night drama Victoria portrayed the young queen as being more amused than usual, with Brocket Hall in Herts the home of one of her love interests, ‘Lord M’. But what is the truth of Victoria’s visits to the grand house near Welwyn?
Queen Victoria ordered her carriage, dashed to Brocket Hall in the leafy Hertfordshire countryside, and demanded that her prime minister, ‘Lord M’, marry her, only to be rebuffed.
This scenario was played out in ITV’s recent Sunday night big hitter, Victoria. But what was the truth about the relationship between the young queen and her considerably older first minister, owner of the grand estate near Welwyn?
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was already a portly 58 when the young Victoria ascended the throne in June 1837. She was just 18. It was surely inconceivable there can have been any amorous leanings with such a prodigious age difference? Cast the dashingly-handsome Rufus Sewell and daintily-pretty Jenna Coleman in the TV roles and romantic frisson is implied. The truth of their appearance? Thomas Sully’s portraits reveal Victoria as youthful, ‘girlish’ even, but plain. Melbourne had, at least, been handsome in his youth.
So, what do we know of ‘Lord M’? An Old Etonian and Cambridge graduate, Melbourne became a Whig MP (forebears of the Liberals) in 1805. Home secretary in 1830, he became PM in July 1834 until November, then again in April 1835, a position he still held when Victoria became queen. He was her first prime minister, tactfully introducing Victoria to her duties and tutoring her for the role thrust upon her. Victoria was ill-prepared for such a responsibility by her family, so it was Melbourne who took it upon himself to coach her, although he came worryingly late to the task.
The relationship was a cosy one, the generation gap ensuring it was more father-daughter in tone, although with a bit of banter and even flirting thrown in. Melbourne grew up among royalty, so had an ease about the Queen, an informality that she responded to with youthful charm. It seems they talked about lots of things, including off-the-cuff stuff, not always relating to state matters. If anything, their’s was a Platonic love, born of hero-worship and a shared sense of humour.
Melbourne was indolent by nature and had a relaxed, calm persona, which appealed to his ‘pupil’. He was, however, industrious in office, as when he suppressed radical and working-class discontent (those troublesome Chartists). Yes, was a ‘right-wing Liberal’, which today sounds a contradiction. His most effective piece of legislation was the Municipal Corporations Act, which sought to instil structure into local government.
It’s almost certainly true that Victoria was devastated when Lord M handed over the office of PM to the Tory Robert Peel in August 1841. This had almost happened two years earlier, when Melbourne resigned, the high-handed Peel then insisting the Queen dismiss some ladies of the bedchamber, whose husbands were Whigs. The ‘Bedchamber Crisis’ was averted when the Queen prevailed on Melbourne to continue.
When he finally did leave, opponents demanded his correspondence with the Queen should cease, it being ‘constitutionally inadvisable’. The friends would be all but estranged thereafter.
If there was a scandal regarding Melbourne, it wasn’t his, but his wife’s. She was known to posterity as author Lady Caroline Lamb. She embarked on a nine-month infatuation with Lord Byron (who also had an affair with Melbourne’s mother). In her diary, she famously characterised the poet as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. ‘Lady C’ slid into alcoholism, obesity and madness and was cared for at Brocket Hall by Bedlam nurses. Family life was complicated further by a possibly-autistic son.
Melbourne and his wife went their separate ways in 1825. Lady Caroline died three years later. Melbourne then made up for lost time on the scandal front by being named in two divorce cases. After all the troubles in his life, perhaps doting on the young Queen came as a welcome light-relief.
Brocket Hall has had a colourful existence. Today’s house dates to the 1760s and Sir Matthew Lamb, although two previous homes on the site take the lineage back to the 13th century. Sir Matthew’s son was the 1st Lord Melbourne, this due largely to his wife, who worked energetically on his behalf (she was a mistress of the Prince Regent, aka George IV).
One certain truth about Victoria and Brocket Hall is that she did visit. In fact, she often stayed.
After his departure from office, Melbourne took little part in public affairs, preferring to keep to his Brocket estate, where he died on November 24 1848, aged 69 from the effects of a stroke. Victoria heard the news the next day at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, where her hero-worship was now bestowed on Prince Albert.
The links with the highest political office in the land and the whiff of scandal continued at Brocket Hall. The estate passed to Lord M’s sister, who went on to marry Lord Palmerston, who served as prime minister on two occasions. Rumours of a bizarre death involving a billiards table and a chambermaid continue to this day.
Today, the hall is a corporate events, wedding and party venue, surrounded by extensive grounds, a golf course and a first-rate restaurant. Melbourne Lodge acts as a 16-room hotel.