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
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
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
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
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.