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The Duke of Wellington's Disastrous Marriage

By Cheryl Bolen

Arthur Wellesley, who became the Duke of Wellington in 1814, shared many things with aristocratic younger sons who chose military careers. Like many young officers separated from suitable prospective spouses for long periods of time during battles and campaigns, he longed for a wife of his own class. And like other young officers, he was a man of honor.

It was these two qualities which encouraged him to contract a disastrous marriage when he was 37 years of age.

He had met Kitty Pakenham when he was 27 and she a lovely, lively young lady of 23. He desperately wanted to marry her and conveyed to her his feelings, which she reciprocated. Because of his lack of financial prospects, her family rejected him. Ten years later, the two still wished to marry, and this time he had returned from India with a great deal of money; so, her family agreed to the marriage.

The disaster was mitigated by the fact they two "lovers" had not seen each other in ten years. When he saw her just after the announced nuptials, he remarked to his brother, "She has grown ugly, by Jove!" But he was honor bound to marry her.

They married immediately in 1806, had their first son (Arthur) the following year and their second and last child (Charles) the next. During the following years, they usually lived apart, and when they were together, they never shared a room.

He found her "intolerable" to be around.

He had many mistresses throughout his marriage and was one of the personages whom the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson wrote about in her memoirs. Even when he was commanding the British Army in the Peninsula against Napoleon's armies, the newly enobled (1808) Viscount Wellington wrote to the Secretary of the Army requesting an accoucheur (the equivalent of a present-day obstetrician) to come and attend his Cyprian.

After Napoleon was sent into exile (the first time), the newly created Duke of Wellington was named Ambassador to Paris in 1814. While his duchess was present, he scandalized even the French by parading around with his then-mistress, Giuseppina Grassini.

Upon becoming the hero of Waterloo in 1815, he was besieged by literally every woman who crossed his path. He possessed a George Clooney-like attraction to women. Only more so, because he was also considered one of the most powerful men in Europe.

From 1822 until her sudden death at age 40 twelve years later, the chief woman in his life was Mrs. Arbuthnot, although he certainly had mistresses during that time. Many people thought she was his mistress, but there is no evidence of it. By all accounts, her husband was as close a friend to the duke as was Harriet Arbuthnot.

The three men she was closest to in life (Charles Arbuthnot, the Duke of Wellington, and former Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, who committed suicide in 1822) were well-borne Irish Tories a quarter of a century or older than she.

What is indisputable is that the duke admired the lovely young woman more than any other woman he ever knew, and he shared almost everything he thought, heard of, or knew with her. She served as hostess at political dinners at Apsley House, the Robert Adam-built London abode purchased by Wellington in 1817 (and which is still used as a museum to his many careers, including Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830).

More than any other documents about Wellington, it is her diaries—not published until 1950—which have most elucidated Wellington historians.

Society matrons who desired the duke's attendance at their affairs knew they must also invite Mrs. Arbuthnot to ensure his coming.

Despite the common knowledge of the married duke's affection for the also-married Mrs. Arbuthnot, her reputation remained respectable. The Duchess of Kent even presented her little daughter, the future Queen Victoria, to Mrs. Arbuthnot.

The duke and Mr. Arbuthnot were devastated at Mrs. Arbuthnot's death and lived together the next 16 years, until Arbuthnot's death at 83, just two years before the duke died, also at age 83.

After Mrs. Arbuthnot's death, woman once more began to try to force their affections on the duke, but he never married again, even though his detested wife had died in 1831—21 years before his own death.

This article first appeared in The Regency Reader in January 2011.  

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