Women And Politics: The Passions of Palmerston

Lord Palmerston in his prime
Lord Palmerston in his prime

by Ray Setterfield

October 18, 1865Queen Victoria simply could not stand her Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who died on this day. But other women felt quite differently. He had a string of affairs, was known widely as a “ladies’ man” and was dubbed “Lord Cupid” by The Times newspaper – a name that stuck.

On one occasion, while invited as Foreign Secretary to stay at Windsor Castle, a rumour spread that he had entered the room of a lady in waiting to the Queen with the aim of seducing her.

Even at the age of 78 he was cited as a co-respondent in a divorce case after the wife of a journalist said she had committed adultery with Palmerston while visiting him at the House of Commons.

Born Henry John Temple in London in 1784, he was the son of very wealthy parents who owned estates in Ireland and England. Henry became the 3rd Viscount Palmerston at the age of 18 when his father, the 2nd Viscount, died.

He became an MP in 1807 – the start of a political career that would last for the rest of his life and see him serve as Secretary at War (charged with financial control of the army), Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.

While Foreign Secretary, in 1839 Palmerston married his mistress of many years, the society hostess Emily Lamb. She was the widow of Lord Cowper who had died two years earlier. She was also the sister of Palmerston’s boss, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, who described her as “that little devil Emily”.

It was widely believed that at least one of Lord Cowper’s putative children had actually been fathered by Palmerston.

There seems no doubt that he had affairs with Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey and Princess Dorothy de Lieven before he began his affair with Lady Cowper in 1810. Despite the relationship with Emily, Palmerston made three proposals of marriage to Lady Georgiana Fane, the younger sister of Lady Jersey, but was rejected each time.

Queen Victoria, who had come to the throne in 1837, invited Foreign Secretary Palmerston to stay at Windsor Castle – an invitation with consequences that are believed to have done much to cripple their relationship.

Lady Dacre, daughter of Lord Chesham, was one of the Women of the Bedchamber – an honour in the personal gift of the Queen, and she, too, was staying at the castle. One night, to her shock and horror, a stranger entered her room and locked the door. It was Lord Palmerston.

Despite later accounts that he had intended to seduce Lady Dacre, many historians have given him the benefit of the doubt and accepted that he made a mistake and thought he was entering the room of Lady Cowper. It seems that after seeing Lady Dacre’s distress, he apologised and left.

His apology cut no ice with the strait-laced Queen Victoria when she was told of the incident and she demanded his removal from office – a demand rejected by Melbourne.

His sexual reputation might have triggered the dislike by his Queen, but she had other reasons for her enmity. Palmerston believed the main objective of the Government's foreign policy should be to increase Britain's power in the world and he was pleased in 1848 when a spate of revolutions across Europe helped this cause by forcing some aristocratic rulers out of power.

The Queen and her husband Prince Albert, on the other hand, were closely related to several of the European royal families that faced being overthrown. She believed that the British Government should do whatever it could to support them against revolutionary groups advocating republicanism. Palmerston quietly begged to differ.

“Pam”, as he was popularly known, continued a successful career in politics, serving as Prime Minister for nine years. But inevitably, it seems, the sexual scandals followed him.

In 1863 Margaret O’Kane, a former actress, visited him at the House of Commons and then later claimed that she and Palmerston had committed adultery. Thaddeus O’Kane, a journalist, promptly cited Palmerston as co-respondent in a divorce case and claimed £20,000 in damages. He later withdrew the suit and the action was dismissed as an attempted extortion, no proof of marriage having been produced.

But the case served only to increase Palmerston's popularity: he was 78 years old.

He called a general election in 1865 and won with a big majority. But he did not take his place as head of the new administration because he caught a chill, which turned into a fever. A sombre doctor told him that he must be prepared to die.

“Die, my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do,” 80-year-old Pam responded. Then he closed his eyes. And died.

Published: September 19, 2020
Updated: October 8, 2020

Articles on Events in October