Meet Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary who clashed with Queen Victoria
Here’s everything you need to know about Lord Palmerston, portrayed in the latest series of Victoria by Laurence Fox
The third series of British historical drama Victoria documents a period of unrest, with the ruling classes in Britain facing the possibility of major political upheaval.
The year is 1848 – Karl Marx has published his communist manifesto and the French have just overthrown King Louis Philippe I, leaving a heavily pregnant Victoria fearing she could be the next monarch to face the wrath of the public.
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But the young queen, played by Jenna Coleman, faces more trouble closer to home as she clashes with tiresome and high-handed Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston – who has rather different ideas of how to tackle the problem of Europe.
Played by Laurence Fox in the new series, here’s everything you need to know about Britain's colourful political figure…
Who was Lord Palmerston?
Born Henry John Temple on 20th October 1784, Lord Palmerston hailed from Irish peerage. Educated at Harrow School, he then went on to attend the University of Edinburgh, and in later life studied for a Masters at St John’s College at Cambridge.
While studying for his BA in Scotland, Temple succeeded his father’s Irish peerage in 1802, seeing him become an MP in 1807 for the Tory party representing the pocket borough of Newport in the Isle of Wight.
As part of the ‘liberal’ wing of the Tory party, with stints as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as the Secretary at War, Palmerston changed party allegiances to represent the Whigs in 1830.
As a politician, Palmerston was a brash, controversial figure who was often disliked by other MPs, but was hugely popular among members of the public – a fact even Queen Victoria had to grudgingly accept.
While his speaking skills weren’t universally renowned, it was his knack of knowing what to say and when that proved him popular. In an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he is described as “no orator…but he generally found the words to say the right thing at the right time, and to address the House of Commons in the language best adapted to the capacity and the temper of his audience.”
When was Lord Palmerston Foreign Secretary?
Lord Palmerston was first named Foreign Secretary in November 1830, a role he stayed in for over 20 years, navigating British foreign policy as the nation stood at its height as an imperial power.
He was a keen user of ‘gunboat diplomacy’, relying on Britain’s naval strength to assert his demands on other countries.
One of his biggest victories in this role was the First Opium War in 1839, in which he claimed China was in violation of Britain’s free trade principles. The war resulted in China opening five ports to trade and saw Britain also take Hong Kong, which they kept ownership of until 1997.
His role as Foreign Secretary also encompassed the European revolutions of the 1830s and 40s, which greatly unsettled the British aristocracy – however, not everyone agreed with Palmerston's gung-ho policies.
His style was often considered to be forthright and abrasive, with his straight-talking earning him the nickname ‘Lord Pumice Stone.’
Did Lord Palmerston sympathise with European revolutionaries?
As Foreign Secretary, Palmerston’s key policies were to safeguard British interests amongst Europe.
However, he shocked the ruling classes with his open sympathies for revolutionaries abroad, and was a strong advocate of national self-determination. He was keen on Catholic emancipation and expanding the electorate to include more male voters.
Palmerston’s views saw many refugees from despot nations come to Britain, which further angered the aristocracy, who accused the politician of fanning the flames of revolution.
Did Lord Palmerston get on with Queen Victoria?
The Queen, Prince Albert and Lord Palmerston were often at loggerheads over Palmerston’s policies in office.
While Victoria and German husband Albert had friends and family in Europe who they had close ties to, Palmerston’s often brash persona and brazen methods caused tensions, with the politician boasting a career stretching back before the Queen was even born.
Palmerston’s personality clashed with Albert’s, with Palmerston’s unpretentious and borderline rude behaviour standing in stark contrast to Albert’s prim and proper demeanour. Palmerston’s off-handed manner and lack of respect towards the monarch and her husband saw Albert and Palmerston constantly argue in each other's company, with Albert even accusing Palmerston of failing to understand the British constitution.
After a scolding from Prime Minister Lord John Russell, Palmerston said he would consult the Queen on foreign policy – something he quickly went back on when he praised new French President Louis Napoleon for how he handled a coup d’etat when parliament had decided Britain would remain neutral. It was this that contributed to his resignation from the role of Foreign Secretary in 1852.
Did Palmerston clash with the Queen over Hungarian politician Lajos Kossuth?
Yes! Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian political leader who rose from a poor gentry family to become Governor-President of the Kingdom of Hungary during the revolution of 1848-9. He was known as an outstanding orator who could give powerful speeches in English, and was considered by many to be a freedom fighter for democracy in Europe. But as far as the British monarchy was concerned, his republican viewers were a threat to the established order.
Unrest had broken out in Hungary in the 1840s over the future of the country, coming to a head in 1848 as part of a wave of revolutions in Europe. In 1849, Kossuth issued the Hungarian Declaration of Independence, declaring that the royal family had forfeited the throne; but after an intervention by the Russians, Kossuth was defeated.
The Hungarian patriot was able to escape his enemies' clutches and moved between several cities and countries, even visiting the United States. On his way he stopped off in England, where he was widely celebrated; in fact, there was so much hype that it was dubbed "Kossuth Mania".
Palmerston was determined to receive him at his country house, Broadlands. Victoria was totally incensed that her Foreign Secretary should be seen to support an outspoken republican, even asking Prime Minister Lord John Russell for Palmerston's resignation. (He apparently persuaded her to change her mind, given that the decision would be widely unpopular with her subjects and may destabilise the government.) The Prime Minister clashed with Palmerston, and the Cabinet ultimately voted to prevent Palmerston's actions.
In her diary, the Queen wrote that she had "Tried in vain, to make Lord Palmerston feel, that he ought not to see Kossuth," and later that she'd discussed the matter with the Prime Minister; on 24th October she noted that "Kossuth has arrived & it is quite disgusting to see the absurd fuss that is being made about him." She was furious at Palmerston and at Kossuth, recording the political back-and-forth in her diary with plenty of scathing comments.
Not one to back down, Palmerston got around the Cabinet ban and raised the stakes by receiving a delegation of Trade Unionists at his house, listening sympathetically as they praised Kossuth and laid into the Emperors of Austria and Russia.
With this action, the Foreign Secretary made it clear that he was totally indifferent to royal displeasure, and he also stoked the fire of anti-Russian feeling among the public.
When did Lord Palmerston become Prime Minister?
In 1854, rumblings of Russian desire to topple the Ottoman Empire saw Britain and France declare war on Russia in Crimea. The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava were unequivocal failures for the British, and after a vote of no confidence, then-Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen was forced to resign.
While Lord Palmerston was a hugely popular choice among the British public the Queen was reluctant to bestow the premiership upon him due to her deep distrust. But after exhausting all other avenues, Victoria offered him the chance to form a government on 4th February 1855 at the age of 70 – the oldest British Prime Minister in history, before or since.
Palmerston’s leadership saw the end of the Crimean War, seeking to reduce Russia’s threat to Europe permanently. After using gunship diplomacy to secure the Black Sea for the allies, Russia surrendered, with peace established in 1856.
Was Lord Palmerston a womaniser?
It wasn’t just his views on foreign policy which saw Queen Victoria deeply dislike Palmerston, as the man had a chequered history of being sexually inappropriate with a number of women – despite being married to his mistress of many years, Emily Lamb, who was the sister of Prime Minister Lord Melbourne.
On one occasion, he was accused of entering a room of one of Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, Lady Dacre, and ‘forcing his attention on her’ while visiting Windsor Castle.
He then found himself embroiled in scandal when the then-78-year-old was named in a divorce case, and was stood accused of having an affair with the wife of a journalist. While the case was dropped, Palmerston never denied the adultery.
It is even rumoured that he died seducing a maid at a billiard table at Brocket Hall, although the official line is that he died of a chill.
How old was Lord Palmerston in 1848 when series three of Victoria is set?
Although Lord Palmerston was actually 64 at the time the third series of Victoria is set, actor Laurence Fox is only 40, and portrays the statesman as a much younger cad.