His death at Brocket Hall, Welwyn, 150 years ago this month was surrounded by scandalous rumour – perhaps an inevitable end to a contentious career at the heart of the British Empire.

Great British Life: Brocket HallBrocket Hall (Image: Archant)

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Britain was a nation in mourning – prime minister Lord Palmerston had died at Brocket Hall, Welwyn (above).

A product of the 18th century, this political giant was no stranger to controversy and scandal. He exasperated Cabinet colleagues, MPs and Queen Victoria. He was a staunch defender of the landed aristocracy and their right to rule and had no time for reform, blocking all attempts in his Liberal party to extend the vote to the working classes and introduce much-needed social and political reform. Yet the common people adored ‘Pam’.

Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, was an Irish peer who become prime minister in his 70th year. With three exceptions, 1834, 1841–46 and 1858-59, he served as a minister in every government from 1809 until his death in 1865, starting out a Tory and ending a Liberal in the party he helped to found in 1859.

He was a colourful character whose central mission was to defend Britain’s interests overseas. He was the most famous foreign secretary of the 19th century, always seeking to assert Imperial power, protect trade and promote Britain’s role as world policeman. His view of foreign affairs was shaped by the Napoleonic Wars and the belief that if Britain were to fail then the natural order would fail.

He was an advocate of projecting British power through the use of gunboat diplomacy – the threat of Britain’s naval power – especially against weaker nations. He went to war with China because British merchants were denied access to the opium trade. After the war, in 1841, Britain was offered Hong Kong island in the South China Sea. Palmerston dismissed it as ‘a barren island with hardly a house upon it.’

He wanted British subjects abroad to have the full protection of the British government just, as he said in 1850, Civus Romanus sum (‘I am a Roman citizen’) carried weight in the Roman world.

When a French minister said to Palmerston, ‘If I were not a Frenchman I would wish to be an Englishman’, Palmerston replied, ‘If I were not an Englishman, I would wish to be an Englishman.’ Although fluent in French, he would not speak the language and refused to read despatches written in French, the language of diplomacy.

Massively popular with the public (and with his biographer Karl Marx), he was detested by many politicians, especially within his own party. He was impulsive, hot-tempered and often high-handed. After his death Queen Victoria said she had ‘never liked him’. Understandable, given that one winter’s night in 1839 while staying at Windsor, Palmerston entered the bedroom of one of her ladies in waiting, locked the door, and attempted, in the darkness, to ‘force his attention upon her’.

In February 1864, Palmerston was again embroiled in scandal. The 78-year-old prime minister was named in a divorce case by journalist Thaddeus O’Kane. It was alleged that Palmerston and Mrs O’Kane had had an affair. Mrs O’Kane denied adultery and added that since she and Thaddeus were never legally married it could not be classed as adultery anyway.

The case was eventually withdrawn and the judge said no stain should fall on Palmerston’s character. Disraeli, the leader of the Conservatives, wanted the press coverage of the story suppressed as he feared it would boost Palmerston’s popularity. In the music halls the cry was, ‘She may be Kane but is he Abel?’

There are many apocryphal stories associated with Palmerston; not least with his death. Rumour spread that he died seducing a maid on the billiard table at Brocket Hall, the grand Hertfordshire estate that had passed down to his wife, Lady Palmerston, in 1848.

The official line was that he had died of a chill. It is often said that his last words were, ‘Die, my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do.’ More prosaically, his last words were, ‘That’s Article 98, now go on to the next.’

He was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. The Hertford Mercury of Saturday October 28, 1865, carried a detailed report of how the coffin left Brocket Hall in a horse-drawn hearse and proceeded in the rain past Hatfield House then on to Potters Bar, Barnet, Whetstone, Finchley, Hendon and finally to Piccadilly.

On the Friday, the day of the funeral, the capital’s shops closed and crowds thronged the streets to get a glimpse of the statesman’s funeral cortège. Newspapers bordered their stories with thick black rules as a mark of respect. The Mercury said, ‘The man of the age has gone from us.’

Palmerston’s reputation has not worn well; over time his actions, particularly his foreign policy, have been criticised. Set in the context of the imperial age in which he lived, though, he sought to uphold British interests and dominated political life, while he flirted with scandal.