Ask most people about the women in the Duke of Wellington’s life and they’ll mention the notorious courtesan, Harriet Wilson (“Publish and be damned.”). Some may even be able to tell you that the Dukes’ wife was named Catherine Pakenham, but that she was more commonly known as Kitty.
However, there were many more contemporary women who had ties to Wellington. The Duke took pleasure in the company of women and most women, aside from his mother, returned the compliment. Whether these women were family or friends, they treasured his friendship and advice.
Thankfully, many of these ladies left behind diaries or letters, the entries of which shed light on another side of Wellington – a side many have never seen.
From the letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, regarding the Duke of Wellington’s first visit to the Brighton Pavilion, January 26, 1822:
“I wish you were here to laugh. You cannot imagine how astonished the Duke of Wellington is. He had not been here before, and I thoroughly enjoyed noting the kind of remark and the kind of surprise that the whole household evokes in a newcomer. I do not believe that, since the days of Heliogabalus, there have been such magnificence and such luxury. There is something effeminate in it which is disgusting. One spends the evening half-lying on cushions; the lights are dazzling; there are perfumes, music, liquers – “Devil take me, I think I must have got into bad company.” You can guess who said that, and the tone in which it was said. . . . . .”
From the Journal of Harriet Fane, Mrs Charles Arbuthnot, April 1, 1828:
“. . . . We dined today at Lady Shelley’s. She has got a medallion of the Duke framed with a Garter he has worn for some years, and she wanted some of his hair. So she had him to dinner the 1st of the month, as he said that was his day for having his hair cut, and I cut off two pieces for her, one quite brown and the other as white as silver, with which she was quite overjoyed and meant to put into the frame and keep as an heirloom in the family for ever.”
From the Diary of Frances, Lady Shelley, a playful letter from the Duke to Wellington about a portrait of him she’d commissioned from the artist, Hayter. Dated September 24, 1823:
My Dear Lady Shelley,
I have received your letter, and it was a fortunate thought of yours to write to theamirabile Tyranna (Mrs. Arbuthnot) on the same day, as she immediately consented (if I chuse to be bored by sitting for the picture) to be at Maresfield; but I cannot at this moment fix the time, as I don’t know when I am to go to Cheveley (Duke of Rutland); and I have impending over me a visit to Windsor Castle. The Tyranna says that provided the picture is not painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and is not so good as hers, she does not care about it; but she will not allow you to have a better picture of me than herself. It is very amiable of her to allow you to have one at all; at least she thinks so, and desires me to say so.
Ever, my dearest lady, yours most affectionately,
In his later years, one of the ladies who became excessively fond of the Duke was the richest heiress in England, Angela Burdett Coutts.
Renowned for her philanthropy, Miss Coutts and the Duke enjoyed an amiable relationship, but when she proposed marriage, he cited their 45-year age difference in his refusal, below:
My Dearest Angela
I have passed every Moment of the Evening and Night since I quitted you in reflecting upon our conversation of yesterday. Every Word of which I have considered repeatedly. My first Duty towards you is that of Friend, Guardian, Protector. You are Young, My Dearest! You have before you the prospect of at least twenty years of Enjoyment of Happiness in life. I entreat you again in this way not to throw yourself away upon a Man old enough to be your Grandfather, who however strong, Hearty and Healthy at present, must and will certainly in time feel the Consequence and Infirmities of Age. You cannot know, but I do, the dismal consequence to you of this certainty. Hopeless for years during which you will still be in the prime of your life! I cannot too often and too urgently entreat you to consider this well, I urge it as your Friend, Guardian, Protector. But I must add, as I have frequently, that my own happiness depends upon it. My last days would be embittered by the reflections that your life was uncomfortable and hopeless!
God Bless you My Dearest
Believe me Ever Yours. Wn.
Two days after the Duke’s death on September 14, 1852, Queen Victoria wrote to his younger son, Lord Charles Wellesley.
“The Queen cannot let any one but herself express to Lord Charles Wellesley her deep grief, her unfeigned sorrow at the immense loss the whole Nation and herself have experienced in the death of his dear, revered and great Father! The Queen is so stunned by the awful suddenness of this sad event that she cannot believe in the reality of it and cannot realise the possibility that the Duke of Wellington, the greatest Man this Country ever produced, is no more! To the Country his loss is irreparable but not less so to the Crown – who possessed in him the most devoted loyal and faithful servant and one of his staunchest supporters! To the Queen personally he has ever been a kind and true friend and a most valuable Adviser. It is dreadful to think that all this is gone!”
We shall be exploring all the facets of the Duke’s life as we embark on The Duke of Wellington Tour in September 2014. Won’t you consider joining us for this once in a lifetime opportunity? The full itinerary and details can be found here.