The Duke of Wellington and Women
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, had a reputation as a ladies’ man. As a handsome military hero and dashing member of Britain’s highest society, he attracted plenty of female attention. Wellington was very much at ease with women and enjoyed their company, especially if they were good-looking and intelligent. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, he developed many close friendships with women and had numerous mistresses. Here’s a look at the Duke of Wellington and women.
Marriage with Kitty Pakenham
As a young man in Ireland, the future Duke of Wellington was already catching ladies’ eyes.
There were stories of picnics outside Dublin to which ladies refused to go if ‘that mischievous boy’ Arthur was also invited. (He specialised in twitching out the lace from shirt collars.) A young Mrs. St. George, however…noticed him favourably. He was ‘extremely good humoured and the object of much attention from the female part of what was called ‘a very gay society.’ (1)
Wellington first courted Catherine (Kitty) Pakenham in Dublin in 1792. He was a debt-ridden 23-year-old captain of light dragoons. Kitty was the 19-year-old daughter of the Earl of Longford, an Irish peer. She was pretty, with a sweet disposition, and she and her suitor had some interests in common, including an enjoyment of music and books. They fell in love. Wellington twice asked for her hand in marriage, in 1793 and again in 1794. Her family rejected the match because Wellington had no fortune or visible prospects. Before Wellington left on his first campaign, he sent Kitty a letter indicating that his feelings for her would remain the same and, if his situation ever changed, he would renew his suit.
In 1796, Wellington and his regiment were sent to India. There he enjoyed a string of flirtations and liaisons. A fellow officer noted:
Colonel Wellesley had at that time a very susceptible heart, particularly towards, I am sorry to say, married ladies and his pointed attention to [a captain’s young pretty wife] gave offence to, not her husband, but to the aide-de-camp, who considered it highly immoral and indecorous. … [Wellesley] once kindly assisted me in a little affair of gallantry I had, but not with a married woman. But this was in a spirit of gratitude, I having assisted him on a like occasion. (2)
During the years that Wellington was abroad, he and Kitty did not communicate directly, but friends kept them informed about each other. When Wellington returned to England in 1805, he was told that Kitty was still pining for him. This was not exactly the case. Two or three years earlier, she had accepted a marriage proposal from Galbraith Lowry Cole, son of the Earl of Enniskillen, and had only been persuaded to break the engagement because a dear friend begged her to remain faithful to Wellington. That same friend now encouraged Wellington to revive his courtship. Feeling bound by his original letter to Kitty, Wellington sent a formal proposal of marriage. They had not seen each other for eleven years, and Wellington’s professed love for Kitty did not stop him from patronizing Harriette Wilson, a famed London courtesan. (When Wilson later offered to exclude former clients from her memoirs for a price, Wellington reportedly responded, “Publish and be damned!”)
To Wellington’s proposal, Kitty replied:
I should be the most undeserving of beings were I capable of feeling less than gratitude in return for the steadiness of your attachment…. I am conscious of a degree of happiness of which till now I had no idea. …
I do not think it fair to engage you before you are quite positively certain that I am indeed the very woman you would choose for a companion a friend for life. In so many years I may be much more changed than I am myself conscious of. If when we have met you can tell me…that you do not repent having written the letter I am now answering I shall be most happy. (3)
When Wellington arrived in Dublin in April of 1806, he indeed found his betrothed much changed. “She has grown ugly, by Jove!” he told his brother Gerald. (4) Nonetheless, on April 10 he went through with the wedding. He soon regretted it. Wellington and Kitty had two children: Arthur, born on February 3, 1807, and Charles, born on January 16, 1808. Beyond that, they had little to do with each other. Finding Kitty poor company, Wellington treated her coldly. Kitty adored her husband, but was afraid of him and intimidated by his fame. She was unsuited to the position of his consort. She had difficulty managing two large households and took little interest in his career. Shy and timid, Kitty avoided society, preferring to spend time with her children. In practice, they lived apart. Kitty and the children stayed mainly at Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, Wellington at Apsley House in London. His many female friends felt sympathy for him and contempt for her.
Wellington later complained to his friend Harriet Arbuthnot “of the distress it was to him to be united to a person with whom he could not possibly live on any terms of confidential intercourse. He assured me he had repeatedly tried to live in a friendly manner with her…[but] it was impossible, that she did not understand him, that she could not enter with him into consideration of all the important concerns which are continually occupying his mind and that he found he might as well talk to a child…she made his house so dull that nobody would go to it…& it drove him to seek abroad that comfort & happiness that was denied to him at home.” (5)
Harriet considered Kitty “the most abominably silly stupid woman that ever was born,” but told the Duke that she thought he was also to blame for their marital problems, “for that all would go on much better if he would be civil to her, but he is not. He never speaks to her and carefully avoids ever going near her.” (6)
Seeking comfort abroad
From 1808 to 1814, the Duke of Wellington was abroad, leading the fight against Napoleon’s forces in Spain and Portugal. He did not deprive himself of female company. In 1810, he was said to publicly keep a mistress at headquarters.
In April 1814, Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba. Wellington became the British ambassador to France, now ruled by Louis XVIII. He settled into a house that had previously belonged to Napoleon’s sister Pauline. During this period, Wellington had affairs with an Italian opera singer, Giuseppina Grassini, and the French actress Marguerite Georges, both of whom had been Napoleon’s lovers. Mademoiselle Georges claimed that the Duke was “by far the stronger.” (7) Wellington hardly curtailed his activities when Kitty joined him in October.
When Napoleon escaped from Elba to reclaim the French throne in March 1815, Wellington was attending the Congress of Vienna (Kitty returned to London). Wellington was sent to Brussels to command the British and Dutch-Belgian forces that would confront the returned French Emperor. While assembling men and arms, Wellington enlivened the social scene and attracted many female admirers. Lady Caroline Capel, on holiday in Brussels, wrote on June 2, 1815:
The Duke of W. has not improved the morality of our society, as he has given several things [parties] and makes a point of asking all the ladies of loose character. Every one was surprised at seeing Lady John Campbell at his house and one of his staff told me that it had been represented to him her not being received for that her character was more than suspicious. ‘Is it, by God,’ said he, ‘then I will go and ask her myself.’ On which he immediately took his hat and went out for that purpose. (8)
One of the ladies with whom Wellington was rumoured to have an attachment was Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster. She and her husband later brought a successful libel action against the St. James Chronicle for suggesting Lady Frances and Wellington had an affair. Wellington also developed his friendship with Georgiana Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond.
After defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, Wellington returned to Paris. He was again surrounded by female admirers, several of whose names were linked romantically with his, including Lady Frances Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Charlotte Greville, and his future sister-in-law Marianne Patterson (at that time she was married to the brother of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte). Women practically threw themselves at his feet. Countess Granville described encountering the Duke of Wellington in Paris in 1817.
I have met his great Grace several times, and, with the weakness I have about great people, treated him [from the height of my grandeur]. I supposed he was pleased with the [rarity of the fact], and today…[h]e called me to sit by him and was quite at my feet…. The fact is that I really believe the Duke finds so few women that do not kneel to him, that he must feel a sort of respect for any who do not make up to him. Granville…will be rather pleased to hear of my successes…for an ugly good sort of woman to be attended to by a man into whose good graces beauties force themselves by dint of [servility]. (9)
In 1818, the Duke of Wellington returned to England. He had a brief affair with Charlotte Greville, daughter of the Duke of Portland, in whose administration Wellington had served a decade earlier. Her husband soon persuaded her to give up the romance, but she and Wellington remained close friends and her son Algernon became Wellington’s private secretary.
In 1824, another one of Charlotte’s sons, the diarist Charles Greville, took revenge on the Duke by sending an anonymous letter to Harriet Arbuthnot that accused her of being Wellington’s mistress. Harriet – 24 years younger than the Duke – was by then Wellington’s closest female friend. In 1814, she had married Charles Arbuthnot, a widower 26 years her senior with four children. He was Joint Secretary of the Treasury in Lord Liverpool’s administration, in which Wellington also served. Harriet had a keen interest in politics and shared Wellington’s conservative political views. When her dear friend Lord Castlereagh committed suicide in 1822, Wellington stepped in to fill the void.
Harriet and the Duke of Wellington became dear friends. They exchanged confidences and considerable correspondence. She often accompanied him, or acted as hostess at his events. Charles Arbuthnot, who was also Wellington’s friend, didn’t seem to mind, probably because Harriet remained devoted to him, and because there was no evidence of any physical intimacy between Harriet and Wellington.
Lady Shelley wrote after Wellington’s death that she was convinced the friendship was platonic.
Mrs. Arbuthnot, who was often the Duke’s adviser, and gave him her clear and honest opinion on matters of which others were afraid to speak – views inspired by her clear brain – was invaluable to the Duke. Their intimacy may have given gossips an excuse for scandal; but I, who knew them both so well, am convinced that the Duke was not her lover. He admired her very much – for she had a manlike sense – but Mrs. Arbuthnot was devoid of womanly passions, and was, above all, a loyal and truthful woman.’ …
The Duke required a fireside friend, and one quite without nerves. Mrs. Arbuthnot often said that he ought to have found this at his own fireside; and how easy it would have been for his wife to have made him happy. He only asked for repose from the turmoil of public affairs, for absolute truth, and the absence of little-mindedness. Alas! The Duchess had precisely those faults which annoyed him most. (10)
One of the Duke’s biographers noted that although Wellington enjoyed the company and conversation of his close women friends, and basked in their praise, it’s unlikely that any of them were his mistress in his later years.
Dangerous liaisons would leave him open to blackmail, exposure and gossip and seriously compromise the exemplary reputation of the Duke of Wellington. If he did have affairs after 1820, he took good care to ensure that no trace of them would ever be discovered; but he was so well known and lived so much in the public eye that it is not easy to see how that could have been arranged. It is more likely that he recognized that his exalted position, his concern to be a model of probity and the warm friendship with the kind of women he craved, more than physical relations, made his past conduct impossible as the shades of nineteenth century morality closed around even members of the aristocracy who were concerned about conventional respectability. This was a considerable renunciation, but a tolerable bargain for a person who needed affection and admiration but who feared complete intimacy. (11)
The widowed Duke of Wellington and women
Kitty died on April 24, 1831, at Apsley House. During her final illness, Wellington was at her side. On one occasion, after being called to Kitty’s room, he returned with his face showing signs of emotion.
‘It is a strange thing,’ he remarked to his friend ‘that two people can live together for half a lifetime and only understand one another at the very end.’ Kitty had run her thin fingers up his sleeve to see whether he still wore an armlet she had given him many years before. ‘She found it,’ said Arthur, ‘as she would have found it any time these twenty years, had she cared to look for it.’ (12)
After Kitty’s death, Wellington withdrew from social life for a month. He wrote to Harriet Arbuthnot: “I walk, play at tennis and ride and read all day, so that the hours do not at all hang heavy upon my hands.” (13)
Three years later, Harriet Arbuthnot died of cholera on August 2, 1834, at the age of 40. Her death shook her husband so much that he had a nervous breakdown. Wellington brought Charles Arbuthnot to live under his care at Apsley House, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Probably in reaction to Harriet’s death, Wellington next became involved with someone who was quite unlike his previous female companions.
At the beginning of 1834 a Miss Anna Marie Jenkins, a woman of strong religious convictions who had brought a murderer to repentance in his death cell a year before, wrote to the Duke about the state of his soul. A bible and an invitation to visit followed at intervals. Wellington was always interested in religion and theology and in November, seeking consolation for his loss or merely out of curiosity, he called on Miss Jenkins. He can hardly have expected her to be an attractive woman of twenty. So overwhelmed was he that, according to her account, he burst out: ‘Oh, how I love you! how I love you!’ He assured her that the feeling was inspired by God Almighty. After their next meeting, which did not take place until 23 December, Miss Jenkins decided that his words did not quite mean what she had imagined. The second round of protestations convinced her that the Duke was not proposing marriage but seduction. Great were the outbursts of indignation and accusations from the injured saint, who may not have been as free from social ambition as she insisted. Wellington refused to reveal his real intentions but pointed to the impossibility of marrying someone nearly fifty years younger (and almost as far apart socially, he tactfully refrained from adding) while continuing to express admiration for her. (14)
Anna Marie continued to write to Wellington, and he continued to sporadically reply and occasionally meet her, for the next 17 years. Still lonely, Wellington turned to Frances (Fanny) Gascoyne-Cecil, Lady Salisbury. She was a charming platonic friend and a good listener, but she died in 1839, just five years after Harriet, at the age of 37.
That same year, Wellington met Angela Burdett-Coutts, the daughter of Sir Francis Burdett, a radical turned conservative Member of Parliament, and granddaughter of the banker Thomas Coutts. She was 25 years old – 45 years younger than Wellington – and one of the wealthiest women in England. She adored Wellington and consulted him on her business affairs and charitable works. In February 1847, she proposed to him. Wellington replied that he would be her “Friend, Guardian, Protector,” but could not be her husband. “I entreat you…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 consequences and infirmities of age.” (15) Their friendship continued, but Wellington never talked to Angela about politics or revealed his feelings to the extent that he had to Harriet Arbuthnot or even Lady Salisbury.
Wellington also for years carried on a flirtation and compromising correspondence with Lady Georgiana Fane, a cousin of Harriet Arbuthnot and the unmarried daughter of Lord Westmorland. Georgiana had first met Wellington when she danced with him at age 14 at ball after the Battle of Waterloo. In the 1820s, they had a romance, and possibly even a sexual relationship. After Kitty’s death, Wellington decided to end things with Georgiana. In 1849, Georgiana threatened to publish his love letters to her and to sue him for breach of promise. Wellington refused to see her, but she continued to send him threatening letters. One Sunday she trapped him after his regular church attendance at St. James’s, Piccadilly, and made a scene.
During the Duke of Wellington’s final year of life, he was charmed by Margaret Jones of Pantglas. Nearly 60 years younger than him, she was the wife of a Member of Parliament and niece of Lord Campbell. A Scottish compatriot of Mrs. Jones wrote, after Wellington’s death on September 14, 1852 at the age of 83:
It is much better that he is dead for this love affair he had with Mrs. Jones during his last season was very unbecoming. He always was in love with someone but never made himself ridiculous till this one, which was a source of great grief to his family and made him laughed at by every empty-headed fool in London…. At every party Mrs. Jones and the ‘Dook’ were ushered in together as she has never been known to blush since she last came to town, I daresay she will feel no remorse at all for making the last years of so great a Hero contemptible, when perhaps she might have done him some lasting service. (16)
You might also enjoy:
- Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: The Years of the Sword (New York, 1969), p. 27.
- Lord Monson and George Leveson Gower (eds.), Memoirs of George Elers, Captain in the 12th Regiment of Foot (London, 1903), p. 126.
- Wellington: The Years of the Sword, pp. 117-118.
- Ibid., p. 192.
- Francis Bamford and the Duke of Wellington (eds.), The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832, Vol. I (London, 1950), p. 168.
- The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832, Vol. II, p. 5.
- Patrick Dalaforce, Wellington the Beau: The Life and Loves of the Duke of Wellington (Barnsley, UK, 2005), p. 74.
- Ibid., p 79.
- F. Leveson Gower (ed.), Letters of Harriet Countess Granville, 1810-1845, Vol. I (London, 1894), p. 108.
- Richard Edgcumbe (ed.), The Diary of Frances, Lady Shelley, 1818-1873 (London, 1913), pp. 310-311.
- Neville Thompson, Wellington After Waterloo (London, 1986), p. 26.
- Jane Wellesley, Wellington: A Journey Through my Family (London, 2010), p. 246.
- Seventh Duke of Wellington (ed.), Wellington and His Friends (London, 1965), p. 96.
- Wellington After Waterloo, p. 146.
- Wellington and His Friends, pp. 242-243.
- Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State (New York, 1972), p. 385.
The fact is that I really believe the Duke finds so few women that do not kneel to him, that he must feel a sort of respect for any who do not make up to him.