In British period drama Victoria now airing on BBC First, Rufus Sewell plays Prime Minister Lord Melbourne as a handsome brooding confidante to Jenna Coleman’s young queen, whose troubled past doesn’t stop him from forming a close (and almost romantic) bond with the new monarch that many disapprove of.
But what was the real Melbourne like? How close was he really to Victoria? And what secret scandals dogged him throughout his career?
Read on to find out…
Born in 1779, William Lamb (later 2nd Viscount Melbourne) was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, later falling in with some Romantic poets (including Lord Byron and Percy Shelley) and serving in the Napoleonic wars.
In 1806 he was elected an MP for the Whig party (moving between various constituencies throughout his career), and later rising to become Prime Minister in 1834. After being temporarily dismissed by King William IV (who preferred the rival Tory party), he led further governments from 1835-1841.
After serving as an MP in various seats, Melbourne first came to unfortunate wider attention in 1812 after his wife Lady Caroline had an affair with poet and Libertine Lord Byron (something referred to several times in the ITV series). Coining the famous description of Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” and sending him fan letters, Lady Caroline was later rejected by the poet resulting in increasingly public attempts at reconciliation, including an altercation at a ball where she broke a wine glass and threatened to self-harm.
Later, Lady Caroline wrote a Gothic novel called Glenarvon, which featured thinly-veiled versions of herself and her former lover along with caricatures of several society figures, which made her and Melbourne some influential enemies. But the pair remained fond of each other (Melbourne's own extra-marital affairs meant he didn't have much to be annoyed at her for), and even though they eventually separated in 1825 (at Lady Caroline’s insistence) Melbourne still mourned her death three years later.
But that wasn’t the end of scandal for Melbourne by a long shot. In 1836 (one year before Victoria rose to the throne) Melbourne was blackmailed by George Chapple Norton, who claimed that the Prime Minister had been having an affair with his wife Caroline (an author and society beauty who was close friends with Melbourne) and sought payment for his silence. Melbourne denied the demands for money, so Norton publicly accused him of the liaison with his wife and took him to court.
Luckily, Melbourne had the support of the King and prominent Tory the Duke of Wellington who urged him not to resign, and after Norton lost the case the Prime Minister was ultimately vindicated, though not without some reputational damage and the loss of his friendship with Caroline.
Relationship with Victoria
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria with Rufus Sewell's Melbourne
As portrayed in the TV series, Victoria and Melbourne were unusually close, with the Prime Minister spending four to five hours a day writing to her or visiting her and tutoring her in matters of politics.
However, despite some rumours at the time that Victoria would marry Melbourne, their real-life relationship was probably a little less romantic than how it’s portrayed in ITV’s version. In reality, Melbourne was forty years older than Victoria when she took to the throne (Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell have just 18 years between them) as well as overweight, with the Queen quoted as saying that she thought of Melbourne as a father having lost her own at the age of 8 months (with Melbourne’s own daughter dying at a young age).
But it is true that Victoria was so distraught at the possibility of Melbourne leaving office in 1839 (as is depicted in the ITV series’ second episode) that she nearly caused a constitutional crisis nicknamed The Bedchamber Crisis, refusing to replace members of her Whig entourage with Tories at the behest of Sir Robert Peel (who was to replace Melbourne as Prime Minister) and causing Melbourne to cancel his resignation.
Lord Melbourne and Prince Albert
When Melbourne’s Whigs lost the general election in 1841 he stepped down as Prime Minister, and while Victoria continued writing to him afterwards the correspondence eventually ended as it was seen to be inappropriate. In any case, after marrying Prince Albert in 1840 the Queen had less need for Melbourne’s advice, and their relationship cooled over the years (which some historians have said was upsetting for Melbourne).
Still, in contrast to how their relationship is portrayed in the TV series, Melbourne and Albert were not rivals for Victoria's heart, though their differing stance over social problems (Melbourne told the Queen to ignore poverty and illness among her people, whereas Albert had more compassion for the poor) is broadly accurate for both men's public positions.
Melbourne died in 1848, when his titles passed to his brother Frederick as both his son and daughter had passed away before him.