The Iron Duke’s feminine side

For two centuries, gossip, rumour and legend have befogged reports of the Duke of Wellington’s relationships with women. Even his most celebrated words about one liaison are apocryphal. The claim that he returned a blackmailing letter from the courtesan Harriette Wilson (who demanded money to keep the names of eminent patrons out of her memoirs ) scrawled with “Publish and be damned” comes not from Wilson herself. It derives from the ghosted confessions of a friend-turned rival, Julia Johnstone. She, as Frances Wilson makes clear in her biography of Harriette (The Courtesan’s Revenge: The life of Harriette Wilson, the woman who blackmailed the king, 2003), gives the riposte as “write and be d–d”. The phrase stuck because it rang true from the victor of Waterloo: gruff, curt, plain-spoken, with a Georgian warrior’s disdain for bourgeois propriety.

At Apsley House – the mansion at Hyde Park Corner that Wellington purchased from his brother Richard in 1817 – a new exhibition tells another, more nuanced and fascinating, story. Wellington, Women and Friendship Deploys diaries, letters, caricatures and portraits to depict a soldier-statesman who, for all his alpha-male aura, was widely known and often mocked as a man who preferred the company of women. “His whole social life was defined by women”, explains Josephine Oxley, keeper of the Wellington Collection. As she notes, the military hero’s female confidantes moved in his own – Tory and Aristocratic – circles, but never acted as doormats or groupies. “They accepted their place in the private sphere, but were intelligent enough to engage the Duke in conversation about politics and public events.” His protégé, and later competitor, Sir Robert Peel complained that “No man has any influence with him. He is led by women”.

Wisely, the exhibition avoids the “Did they or didn’t they?” aspect of these friendships. For sure, the scurrilous tittle-tattle of the age made every female acquaintance of the Duke a bedmate too. The merrily salacious pre-Victorian media agreed. One caricature shows the Duke astride the outsize barrel of a cannon. “Bless me! What a spanker!”, a nearby lady observes. “I hope he won’t fire it at me.” The Duke took himself very seriously. Many of his contemporaries did not.

Wellington, Women and Friendship highlights the power of gossip, but insists that the presence, or absence, of an erotic dimension may not have been what drove the friendships that sustained him. The unclubbable Wellington belongs strictly to the “no comment” school of public relations. He discreetly covered his tracks and did not brag to male cronies. Evidence for his affairs is scrappy and forms no clear pattern, as the anecdotes gathered in Christopher Hibbert’s Wellington: A personal history (1997) confirm. Plagued by stories of his liaison with the married Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster, he barked: “Never saw her alone in my life. This must be checked.” But when told that Lady Shelley had repelled an Austrian suitor at the Congress of Vienna by protesting “Know, Sir, that I have resisted the Duke of Wellington”, he retorted: “I must say that I was never aware of this resistance”. Regency omertà means that, often, we simply don’t know.

We do know how much the companionship of astute, observant women meant to Arthur Wellesley, the shy, musical Anglo-Irish minor nobleman who almost accidentally fell into soldiering. Through letters, journals and a room of portraits (mainly loans), the displays bring several of them – such as his favorite confidante, Harriet Arbuthnot, the hostess and political fixer Lady Jersey, and his beloved American friend Marianne Patterson – into the light. It also coaxes his hapless, humiliated wife, Kitty Pakenham, out of the shadows. Deferred for a decade, this marriage made in hell finally took place in 1806. It led to a quarter-century of misery as the depressive Kitty vainly tried to please the idol, who treated her with near-sadistic scorn. “I was not in the least in love with her”, he told Harriet Arbuthnot. “I married her because they asked me to do it and I did not know myself.” Sick and lonely, Kitty languished at home, her journals a bleak chronicle of nullity: “Much as yesterday, languid and dawdling”. The exhibition has a rare, touching drawing of Kitty by Thomas Lawrence. In contrast, around 200 likenesses of the endlessly painted Duke survive.

With society players such as Arbuthnot, Princess Lieven (wife of the Russian ambassador) or Frances Cecil, Lady Salisbury, the Duke could dissect affairs of state with well-informed interlocutors. He said about the writer Germaine de Staël – befriended as a fellow anti-Bonapartist – that he liked her company if you kept the tone light and “away from politics”. That sounds out of character; Wellington diplomatic loved a nerdish chinwag. However, he preferred his female politics junkies as traditional backstage operators: hostesses, strategists, go-betweens. De Staël’s spotlit interventions in European politics and culture belong to a future age of women’s agency.

Harriette Wilson’s unreliable memoirs frame the Duke as a gauche, tongue-tied lover (“for such a renowned hero you have very little to say for yourself”). Yet the memories of women he admired capture a fluent, even charming conversationalist, at ease with intimacy and capable of tenderness. Although he despised “the whole race” of poets, Wellington – a connoisseur of music, opera and art – nonetheless shared an emotional epoch with Byron and Shelley. Out in the public realm, meanwhile, the Duke stiffened into the diehard reaction who in politics combined (according to the Manchester Guardian in 1827) “inveterate prejudices, very mediocre abilities, and an unteachable disposition”. That obduracy melted away in private. From Thomas Lawrence, for instance, he commissioned the best-known portrait of himself as a gift for Marianne Patterson, along with one of Marianne to keep by his side. As Josephine Oxley remarks, the signature image of Wellington began “as a love token for a woman”. At Apsley House, the Iron Duke emerges not so much as a great seducer as a thwarted romantic.

Boyd Tokin He was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson Medal in 2020

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