Two hundred years ago, tomorrow, Field Marshal, His Grace the Duke of Wellington, was formally welcomed back to Great Britain by Queen Charlotte, at her London home, Buckingham House. With Napoleon safely in exile on the island of Elba, and all the Allied Sovereigns already gathered in London to celebrate the great victory, it was high time the man who had forced the French out of the Iberian Peninsula, and made that victory possible, was properly recognized in his own country.
And so began a social round for the new Duke of Wellington which would continue for nearly a month …
Wellington had actually returned to England five days prior to his reception by the Queen, on 23 June 1814. It was the first time he had set foot on English soil in more than five years. Though he had learned of Bonaparte’s abdication more than two months before, the General of the Allied forces had had much to do before he could consider returning to England. He had to manage the ordered and safe return of British forces and supplies to their homeland. He was offered command of the British forces in America at this time, but he declined, considering the War of 1812 a pointless military action. Once he had seen to the arrangements for the repatriation of his men, he also had to arrange for his own possessions to be transported to Paris. Now that he believed his military career to be over, he had accepted the position of British Ambassador to France. He spent some time in Paris after he left his troops in southern France, seeking a suitable home for himself and an acceptable building for the new British Embassy there.
On Saturday evening, 18 June 1814, (like everyone else, completely unaware of what would transpire on that date exactly one year later) the Duke of Wellington attended an elegant soiree at Clichy, given by the celebrated intellectual, Madame de Staël. It is reported that Wellington, who admired intelligent women, greeted her by kneeling before her on one knee, not a gesture he was known to make very often, to anyone. The next day, he traveled north to the French port of Calais, on the English Channel. There, he boarded His Majesty’s sloop, Rosario, which sailed into Dover Roads early on the morning of Thursday, 23 June 1814. The Rosario fired a salute as she entered port, which was answered by nearly every gun in the harbor battery. From Dover, the Duke traveled by carriage north through Kent and Surrey to London. News that he had arrived in England spread swiftly and people were soon lining the roadway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the returning hero. At Westminster Bridge, the crowd surrounded the carriage, in an attempt to remove the horses, intending to draw the carriage themselves to its destination. The Duke, who abhorred such boisterous demonstrations, slipped from the carriage in the melee and mounted a saddle horse. He was not observed until he had put his horse into a trot, moving quickly toward St. James’s Park. Once out of sight of the crowd, Wellington turned his horse toward Hamilton Place, just off Piccadilly, where he pulled up at Number 4, his London home.
Both his wife, Kitty, and his two young sons, Arthur, age 7 and Charles, age 6, were waiting there to greet him. It was an uncomfortable meeting, since he had not seen his children since they were babies, and he tended only to correspond with his wife when she had mismanaged the household affairs. There was also another child in the house, Gerald Wellesley, the son of Lady Charlotte Wellesley, who had eloped with General Lord Paget in 1809, soon after the little boy’s birth. Kitty, always tender-hearted, had convinced her husband to allow her to take the child in, since no one else in the family wanted anything to do with "the miserable little Being." Wellington never understood the messy and public peccadillos of his siblings, and though it is highly unlikely he was celibate during his years on the Peninsula, he was the model of discretion and, though there was the occasional vague rumor, no one was ever able to find credible proof of his own affairs. Such was the home to which the hero of the Peninsula returned in June of 1814.
Even if Wellington had wanted some private time to reacquaint himself with his family, there was none to spare. He was determined to make the most of his brief time in London, before he returned to Paris to take up his duties as British Ambassador. Within a few hours, the crowds began to grow outside Number 4, Hamilton Place, and Wellington, nearly as eager to escape them as he was his wife and family, slipped out a back door which gave onto Hyde Park. He calmly walked away through the park to the relative quiet of his mother’s house in Brook Street. Over the course of the next five weeks, Wellington would spend the odd hour or two here and there with his wife and children, but he was usually focused on those military, business and political matters which he considered much more pressing. There was also a whirl of social events which he would be expected to attend, but he would do so without his wife, who was so shy and retiring she could not bear to go about in society, especially when she knew she was in the spotlight.
The majority of Wellington’s titles, including that for the Dukedom, were conferred upon him, in absentia, during a day-long ceremony on Tuesday, 3 May 1814. Parliament had also granted him the sum of £400,000 to purchase an estate. Upon his return to England, the Duke engaged Benjamin Dean Wyatt, the eldest son of the architect, James Wyatt, to find him an estate. Benjamin Wyatt was well-known to Wellington since he had spent time in India in the office of the Governor-General when Wellington’s elder brother, Richard Wellesley, had held that post. Young Wyatt had also served as private secretary to Wellington when the latter had served in the Irish government at Dublin Castle. Wyatt soon set off to comb the English countryside for an estate "with a very fair house," suitable for the Duke of Wellington. He visited several dozen properties over the course of the next few weeks, sending back a full report on each, but, in the end, he was not able to find an estate which met the Duke’s requirements.
While he was in London, the Duke’s counsel was constantly sought on various military matters, most often on the ongoing war with America. He very clearly stated that he thought the war was ill-advised and impracticable and should be brought to a close as swiftly as possible. Sadly, his advice was mostly ignored and the war would drag on into January of the following year, with much loss of life, including that of his own brother-in-law, Kitty’s brother, Edward Pakenham. Wellington was also invited to Portsmouth, along with the Prince Regent and many of the visiting sovereigns, to be present at a joint naval and military review. They all took their places on Portsdown Hill, a high point which gave a wide view of the harbor. Later, the Prince Regent inspected the 7,000 troops marshaled for the occasion. Afterward, many of the dignitaries went on to breakfast at Goodwood as the guests of the Duke of Richmond.
On Thursday, 28 June 1814, the Duke of Wellington attended the Queen’s Drawing Room, held in the grand Saloon of Buckingham House. He was officially presented to Queen Charlotte, who, in turn, welcomed the returning hero back to Britain. The Prince Regent, most of the Royal Dukes, and many of the allied sovereigns were present as this grand event, all wearing the many emblems and badges of their honors and titles. Wellington was wearing his full field marshal’s uniform. There is no doubt it was a most glittering affair, if perhaps somewhat stilted, as those very formal drawing rooms were known to be. Later that same day, the Duke of Wellington went to the House of Lords in Westminster, where he took his seat for the first time as a peer and member of that house. He was officially thanked on behalf of the Lords for his service to the nation by Nicholas Vansittart, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It does not appear that Wellington made a speech to the House of Lords on that day.
Three days later, on the following Friday, 1 July 1814, the Duke of Wellington, in his full Field Marshal’s uniform, came to the House of Commons where he was officially thanked for his service on behalf of the Commons by Charles Abbot, the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Duke did make a brief speech on that occasion, offering his thanks to the House. That evening, the Duke attended a grand bal masqué given in his honor at Burlington House by Watier’s Club. Among the more than 2000 guests were the Prince Regent, most of the Royal Dukes, and the majority of the allied sovereigns as well as all the beau monde who were in London. In addition, both the Duke’s wayward young friend, Lady Caroline Lamb, in green pantaloons and Lord Byron, in a monk’s habit were in attendance. John Cam Hobhouse accompanied Byron, wearing his friend’s Albanian costume. Harriette Wilson and her sisters also attended, in costume, at the invitation of the Dukes of Devonshire and Leinster. The Duke of Wellington wore his military uniform rather than a costume, which was excused since he was the guest of honor that evening. In Wellington’s honor, multiple balloon ascents were made outside of Burlington House. Tickets were made available to a limited number of spectators for a half guinea each.
On Thursday, 7 July 1814, a national service of "General Thanksgiving" for the allied victory over Bonaparte was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral, preceded by a public procession. The Prince Regent, ever fond of spectacle, wore his own royal regalia and arranged for the Duke of Wellington, attired in his new ducal robes, to travel with him in the great State Coach, drawn by an eight-horse hitch of Royal Hanoverian Creams. The Regent also had the Duke enter the cathedral just ahead of him, carrying the great Sword of State. The Duke then sat on the Regent’s right during the service, with the Sword of State in front of him. The majority of the members of both the Houses of Lords and Commons attended the service as well as many foreign ambassadors, since most of the allied sovereigns had already departed London by then. Nevertheless, it is estimated that over 10,000 people attended the thanksgiving service. The sermon delivered during the service by the Bishop of Chester, George Henry Law, was printed and went on sale within the week. While he was in London that summer, the Duke of Wellington also sat, or rather, stood, for a portrait by Thomas Lawrence, which was requested by the Prince Regent. The Duke is shown wearing his field marshal’s uniform and holding the Sword of State on the portico of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the thanksgiving procession passing behind him. Though Wellington, who had a very strong wrist, insisted on holding the sword upright while posing, Lawrence painted it with the pommel resting on the base of the nearby column. He explained his artistic license to Wellington by saying that otherwise, looking at it would make people feel tired. That portrait now hangs in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle.
For the next few weeks, the Duke of Wellington traveled around England, where he received a plethora of honors from the "freedom" of a number of places to an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Oxford University. But the celebrated hero did not forget his friends during this time. Dr. James McGrigor, the Chief of the Army Medical Staff, had been recommended for a knighthood, and Wellington meant to sponsor him. But at the last minute, the Duke was summoned to Foreign Minister Lord Castlereagh’s home at North Cray for an important political discussion. Wellington therefore asked Lord Bathurst, the Minister of War, to sponsor his friend. McGrigor, quite shy and rather disconsolate at being left on his own, lingered in the halls of Carlton House, feeling unable to make himself known to his new sponsor. Suddenly, Wellington was at his side, and made the introduction to Lord Bathurst. To McGrigor, his former commander said, "I thought it as well to place you under Lord Bathurst; you are a shy fellow, and might not have found him out." Wellington then hurried off to his meeting in North Cray.
It was not all politics and honors for the Duke during those weeks in London. He was also invited to a number of parties and balls. The City of London honored Wellington on Saturday, 9 July 1814, with the freedom of the city, in a gold box, and an ornate sword. The presentation was followed by a grand banquet in the Guildhall. The festivities were attended by most of the Royal Dukes, all of the Cabinet Ministers and the majority of the male members of nobility in London that day. During the meal, the ladies were confined to the galleries above, until late in the evening, when Wellington made a toast "to the ladies." At that point, a temporary staircase was moved into place and over seven hundred ladies descended to the floor of the hall. It is reported that nearly every one of them managed to shake the hero’s hand before he was able to make his exit.
On Monday, 18 July 1814, Wellington was invited back to Burlington House for a grand fête sponsored by a subscription of the general officers and colonels of all of the regiments under his command to celebrate the victories on the Peninsula. Unlike the City of London banquet at the Guildhall, this was not an event segregated by gender and it is reported to have been a night of lively dancing. Perhaps the most grand entertainment was the lavish garden fête and ball hosted by the Prince Regent in the gardens of Carlton House, three days later, on Thursday evening, 21 July 1814. An entire suite of temporary rooms were constructed to accommodate the sumptuous event, which was attended by the cream of society and many officers in their striking dress uniforms. It was during this evening, while watching several of his young aides-de-camp dancing that the Duke turned to Lady Shelley and said, "How would society get on without all my boys!"
To one evening of dancing even the great hero of the Peninsula was to be denied. It was during this visit to London, in the summer of 1814, that the Duke of Wellington was turned away from the notoriously traditional and strict Almack’s Assembly Rooms in King Street. The Duke arrived for the evening’s dancing wearing pantaloons instead of the required knee breeches. It is rather unlikely that after nearly six years hard campaigning abroad, with little time for social events, that he even owned a pair of old-fashioned knee-breeches the night he went to Almack’s. But the Lady Patronesses ruled their realm with an iron hand, and the Duke was refused entry. Though some cannot credit it, Wellington calmly accepted this decree and walked quietly away. Having by then been a military man for most of his life, he had a great respect for regulations and orders. He prided himself on his ability to take orders as well as to give them, and did not make any fuss or demand entry based on his exalted status.
Later in July, at Wanstead House, in Essex, Wellington’s nephew, William Wellesley-Pole, threw a grand party for his uncle. Young William had recently married the heiress, Catherine Tylney-Long, believed to be the richest woman in all England, so he spared no expense to celebrate his famous uncle. There were over a thousand dignitaries at this event, including the Prince Regent, several members of the royal family, General Blücher and a wide swath of the English aristocracy. After dinner, the Prince Regent toasted Wellington’s health, and the Duke rose to return the toast. The Regent, well aware of how much the Duke abhorred public speaking, with a chuckle, said, "My dear fellow, we know your actions, and we will excuse you your words, so sit down." One member of the dinner party noted how Wellington immediately took his seat " … with all the delight of a schoolboy who has been given an unexpected holiday."
The Duke of Wellington continued to meet with many members of the government to discuss politics and military issues in order to prepare himself for his new responsibilities as the British Ambassador to the Court of France. He was also the honored guest at a number of other glittering social events before he finally departed London, on Monday, 8 August 1814. It was time for him to return to France and take up his new post as Great Britain’s representative to the newly-restored Bourbon monarchy. It would be two years before he would set foot in England again, and once again, would return as a hero, this time as the Victor of Waterloo and the Saviour of Europe.