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Emily Mary Lamb, Lady Cowper (and subsequently Lady Palmerston) was born on 21 April 1787. Her legal father was Peniston, first viscount Melbourne (1748-1819); her natural father was probably George O'Brien Wyndham, third earl of Egremont (17511837). Her mother was Elizabeth (1749-1818), only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, bart., of Halnaby, Yorkshire. She was the fifth of six children; she was sister to Peniston (3 May 1770 - 24 January 1805), William, Lord Melbourne, Frederick James, third Viscount Melbourne (17 April 1782 - 29 January 1853); George (11 July 1784 - 2 January 1834), and Harriet (1789 - 18030.
Emily's limited formal education came from a variety of governesses; she learned her social skills from the Duchess of Devonshire and her mother, both of whom had a string of extra-marital affairs. Emily learned the so-called 'Devonshire House drawl', an affected pronunciation found among the Whig aristocracy.
Emily Lamb made her society début in 1804; her appearance and personality won her many male admirers. Lady Melbourne was ambitious for her children, and encouraged the attentions of the young, handsome, rich whig peer Peter Leopold Louis Francis Nassau Cowper, fifth Earl Cowper (1778–1837). At age eighteen, on 20 July 1805 at Melbourne House in London, Emily married Cowper, a man nine years her senior. Lord Cowper had a reputation for dullness and slowness of speech which were in marked contrast to his wife's social gifts. He lacked ambition, and never made a figure as a politician. He rarely spoke to his wife and the marriage became merely a legal contract. The couple lived at Panshanger, in Hertfordshire.
Emily's son and Cowper's heir, George, Viscount Fordwich, was born in June 1806, and then she embarked on a series of affairs, apparently with her husband's knowledge. The paternity of her four other children, Emily, William, (Charles) Spencer, and Frances, born between 1808 and 1820 was, and continues to be, a matter for speculation. However, William was very like Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, who was also supposed to be the father of her youngest child, Frances.
After Lady Melbourne's death in 1818 Emily assumed responsibility for her brothers, and much of her energy was directed towards the management of their affairs. William's marriage with Lady Caroline Lamb and the wreckage of his political career in the 1820s was a matter of concern, and she maintained a regular political and social correspondence with Frederick, a career diplomat.
Emily became — with Lady Jersey and Princess Lieven —one of the ‘lady patronesses’ of Almack's, and a regular member of the court of George IV. By the late 1820s she had established herself as a hostess to the Canningite whigs, which included both her brother William and Lord Palmerston . When Melbourne became home secretary in 1830 and then prime minister in 1834, Lady Cowper became his hostess; her ties to the ministry were cemented by Palmerston's position as foreign secretary.
Lord Cowper died on 27 June 1837, so Emily played little public part at the court during the first year of Victoria's reign, though she offered advice to Melbourne on his handling of the young queen. The marriages of her children were also a major preoccupation. The lively young Lady Emily surprised everyone when in 1830 she decided to marry the earnest, evangelical tory Anthony Ashley-Cooper, later seventh earl of Shaftesbury. Lady Frances was still unmarried when, on 16 December 1839, Emily Cowper and Palmerston were finally married. The queen gave the elderly couple her blessing; they were extremely happy together. At the age of sixty-two Emily refused to travel alone with ‘Poodle’ Byng, an old admirer, lest it arouse Palmerston's jealousy.
The foreign secretary's wife was expected to fulfil a variety of social obligations and Lady Palmerston undertook these duties with relish until the minstry fell in September 1841. Then she and Palmerston went on a tour of his Irish property.
Lady Palmerston was soon established as the leading political hostess in London. Her Saturday parties during the season were packed with 'everyone who was anyone'. These events served to strengthen the governments in which Palmerston was involved, and to forge support for him in opposition. More intimate gatherings such as dinners and country house parties at Broadlands, were held for explicitly political ends. Her influence, charm and warmth affected the political life of the country. Emily supported Palmerston for twenty-five years; she was also his friend and confidante. She had a firm grasp of the realities of the political life. As an intelligence gatherer with sources in Britain and all over continental Europe she had no equal.
After the deaths of her brothers William (1848) and Frederick (1853), Emily inherited the Lamb estates, at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, Melbourne in Derbyshire, and elsewhere.
Palmerston died, still in office as prime minister, at Brocket on 18 October 1865. Emily was devastated, but consoled herself with her children and grandchildren. She moved out of Cambridge House into 21 Park Lane in January 1866, and divided her time between Brocket, Broadlands, London, and her children's houses. Lady Palmerston died at Brocket on 11 September 1869; six days later she was buried next to her husband in Westminster Abbey.
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