Emily Lamb, Lady Cowper, was famous for her wit, charm and tact, and exercised great social power, not only as one of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s, but in her later life as Lady Palmerston, wife of the Prime Minister. It is important to look at her family life to see how she evolved to her subsequent status.
Emily was born April 21, 1787 to Elizabeth, Lady Melbourne (born Milbanke) who was the wife of Peniston Lamb, Viscount Melbourne. Lady Melbourne was a woman who was part of the “Devonshire House set”, a famous hostess, and a highly powerful society figure. Lady Melbourne was noted for her ambition, her discretion, and her influence. Although the first child born of the marriage, a son, was undoubtedly that of her husband, Lady Melbourne had many affairs, including one with George, then the Prince of Wales, and the paternity of her other children (including Emily) was not clear. The Earl of Egremont was a possible candidate as Emily’s natural father. Although her affairs were not secrets, she conducted them with great tact, dignity and discretion; there is no indication of any scandal, and no record of any objection by Lord Melbourne. Elizabeth was also a loyal friend (if not a loyal wife). Emily was raised in a highly social and political circle and would have had the opportunity to learn her social skills from hostesses at the highest level of society, including her mother and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her formal education was acquired from governesses. Emily was the fifth of six children, including her brother William (who married Caroline Lamb, and became a Prime Minister).
In 1805, at age 18, Emily was married to Peter Leopold Louis Francis Nassau Cowper, 5th Earl Cowper. Nine years older than Emily, Earl Cowper was the largest landowner in Hertfordshire, and invested as a Fellow in the Royal Society. He was also considered lacking in ambition, dull and slow of speech. Earl Cowper was also apparently uninterested in politics. He worked with Henry Repton on the building of a house on one of his estates during this period, and they had a son, George, in 1806. Emily threw herself into her social career, becoming a leading figure and one of the patronesses of Almack’s and, subsequently, a regular member of the court of George IV. She had a reputation for being the most popular of the lady patronesses, and was noted for her tact, apparently skilled at smoothing over the social conflicts and quarrels that sprang up in her social milieu. Four other children were born during the marriage, whose paternities are not clear. Like her mother, there was no scandal; apparently, her husband also raised no objection.
At Almack’s, Emily was seen more and more frequently in company with Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (who was noted for his own romantic adventures). Lord Palmerston appeared regularly at Lady Cowper’s social functions. The nature of their relationship during this time was and is subject to a great deal of speculation; at the very least, they were good friends. (At most, they were intimate – Emily’s son William born in 1811 was considered very like Lord Palmerston, and ultimately bore the last name Cowper-Temple.) Her social career, however (as previously mentioned), was not blighted by open scandal, so we can assume that Emily learned not only deportment but discreet behavior from her mother.
Upon the death in 1818 of her mother, Lady Melbourne, Emily became increasingly involved in assisting her brothers with their affairs, communicating regularly with her brother Frederick (a diplomat) and attempting to guide her brother William through his marriage and career crises. William had fallen in love with and become engaged to Caroline Ponsonby (daughter of Henrietta who was the Duchess of Devonshire’s sister, and another member of the “Devonshire House Set”), and married her June 3, 1805. As a result, Caroline became the Caroline Lamb, subsequently famous for her affair with Byron, wild behavior, and uncontrolled emotions. The young couple lived with Lord and Lady Melbourne, which was a far from satisfactory arrangement for all. Emily had little use or sympathy for Caroline, all of her sympathies being with William. In 1816, Caroline published a novel GLENARVON anonymously. In this novel, Caroline portrayed herself as an abused heroine, and other members of society (including her husband and mother-in-law, and Byron) in extremely bad light. This tested William’s loyalty to the maximum, and almost resulted in a separation. After Lady Melbourne’s death, Emily tried to protect William from Caroline’s emotional upheaval. Caroline ultimately died January 26, 1828. Emily was convinced that William was relieved (although he never remarried).
Between her social duties, and family responsibilities, Emily was very busy during this period. When the Prince of Wales became King George IV in January of 1820, Emily was still active as lady patroness of Almack’s and a popular member of society. She became a prominent figure at court and, by the late 1820’s, she was also a prominent political hostess for the Whigs, the party espoused by her friend Lord Palmerston and her brother William. As William’s political career began to advance (he was Home Secretary in 1830, and Prime Minister in 1834), Emily acted as his hostess.