The Wellesley Family: Historical Scandals
The Wellesley Family: Historical Scandals, arose from my long-time interest in Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who is a significant secondary character in the Peninsular War Saga.
During my books, we follow Wellington through his early career in India and then on through the long years of the war in Spain and Portugal. We also follow him through his elevation to a knighthood, then a series of peerages, to when he becomes Duke of Wellington. Through my novels so far, he has been known as Lord Wellington, and for simplicity, that is how I’ll refer to him in this post. To confuse matters further, the family changed their name from Wesley to Wellesley during Wellington’s younger years. I’m going to use the more familiar Wellesley during this post. I’m also going to call the rest of the siblings by their first names, to avoid having to keep changing their various titles as they are elevated through the peerage. Because the Wellesley boys did very well for themselves.
Wellington was unusual among military commanders, in that he did not go home to England throughout the six years of the Peninsular War. It was a matter of choice, because he could perfectly well have done so during winter quarters, but it was very typical of Wellington to assume that if he left the army for even a short time, they would never manage without him. Wellington took micro-management to a whole new level.
His dedication means that in fictional terms, I’ve never really had reason to spend any time with the rest of his family. There is a brief mention of his wife in Dublin in book one, and we meet one of his brothers, Henry, in a short story. But in general, the rest of the Wellesley brothers and sisters were off living their lives. There was a good deal of correspondence between the family, both professional and personal. Richard, the eldest brother was a politician who held office during those years while Henry was a diplomat at the temporary Spanish court in Cadiz. The Wellesley brothers had varied and interesting careers, but they also had varied and interesting personal lives. Given the amount of scandal which happened in this one family, I can’t help wondering what went awry in their early years to make it so difficult for them to maintain good relationships.
The Wellesleys were born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. Their father was Garret Colley Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington and their mother was the Hon. Anne Hill-Trevor. The marriage was reportedly happy, despite his lack of financial sense and the couple had nine children, most of whom have some historical significance. Mornington died at the age of only forty-six leaving his family in financial difficulties, which led them to sell most of their Irish estates.
Two of the Wellesley’s children, Arthur Gerald and Francis did not survive into adulthood. Another daughter, Mary Elizabeth died unmarried at the age of twenty-two. The rest went on to marry and to have generally successful public lives. Four of the five brothers were elevated to the peerage, and all married at least once. Not all of those marriages were successful, however. The story of the Wellesleys, with its scandals, divorces, and duels, would make an excellent soap opera.
Richard Wellesley, second Earl of Mornington
Richard Wellesley succeeded his father as Earl of Mornington but he did not make the traditional marriage expected of a Peer. Instead, he lived with a French actress called Hyacinthe-Gabrielle Roland. The couple had three sons and two daughters and Richard finally married her in 1794. Hyacinthe joined him in London, but the marriage was not a success. Hyacinthe was shunned by polite society because of her irregular union with Richard as well as her relatively humble origins. She never learned to speak English and was probably very lonely, and at some point during their marriage, the couple separated and lived apart.
In addition to Hyacinthe, Richard had a teenage mistress by the name of Elizabeth Johnston, with whom he had two children. One of them, Edward, was born in 1796 just two years after Richard’s marriage, and later became his father’s private secretary.
Hyacinthe died in 1816 and nine years later Richard, who was by then sixty-five years old, married a young widow by the name of Marianne Patterson who was thirty-seven. Marianne was the daughter of a wealthy American merchant and it is possible that her fortune was part of her appeal for Richard, who was always short of money. There were rumours that the couple were already lovers before the wedding, and there had also been gossip linking her name with Wellington. Certainly she and Wellington were close friends, and he tried to persuade her not to marry Richard. Despite this, the marriage seems to have worked well and Richard finally found marital peace in his later years.
William Wellesley-Pole, third Earl of Mornington and first Baron Maryborough
William was the second of the surviving Wellesley brothers and served in the Royal Navy. In 1781 he inherited the estates of his godfather, William Pole on the condition that he change his name. William later inherited the Earldom when his elder brother died with no legitimate son.
William was married in 1784 to Katherine Elizabeth Forbes, the daughter of an admiral. The couple had four children and were said to have the only happy marriage of the four brothers.
Lady Anne Wellesley
Anne was first married at the age of twenty-two to Henry FitzRoy, son of the first Baron Southampton. The couple had two daughters and FitzRoy sadly died after only four years of marriage, in Lisbon of consumption. When Anne’s brother Henry came to Lisbon to escort Anne back home after the death of her husband, their ship was captured by the French and Anne and Henry were prisoners until Anne was released and Henry escaped the following year.
Four years later Anne made a second marriage to Charles Culling Smith, a politician and courtier, with whom she had two more children.
Anne was First Lady of the Bedchamber to the Duchess of York. There is a story that the Duke of York came home to Oatlands unexpectedly one day to find his wife and Charles Culling Smith in bed together. There was no public scandal, because the King insisted that the matter be hushed up. There was contemporary gossip about the affair, but it would seem that if it happened, it was very successfully hushed up indeed. Personally, I am doubtful about this one.
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
Wellington was the third of the Wellesley brothers, and apparently in his youth was the least promising. His mother could see no hope of great things from her son and encouraged a career in the army as the best she could do.
Wellington was a young and impecunious officer when he met the Honourable Catherine ‘Kitty’ Pakenham in Dublin. The couple apparently fell in love, but her family rejected his proposal on the grounds that he was the third son of a large family with limited prospects. Wellington withdrew and became absorbed in an increasingly successful military career, while Kitty became engaged to Galbraith Lowry Cole, the second son of the Earl of Enniskillen.
The couple did not meet again for ten years. During that time a lot had changed. Wellington had intimated that he still felt his attachment to Kitty, and that may have been the reason she broke off her engagement to Cole. She was also ill during this period and by the time she and Wellington met again, she was thin, pale and in poor health which was apparently a considerable shock to him. Nevertheless, the couple married in 1806 and had two sons.
The marriage was not a success. Kitty tried hard to please her sharp-witted, decisive husband, but was unable to do so. They had little in common and very quickly began to live separate lives. Kitty doted on her sons and adopted children while Wellington pursued his career. He went to the Peninsula in 1808 and then again in 1809 and did not return until 1814. By then, the gap between them had widened still further. Kitty’s interests were all domestic; Wellington was a public figure.
This did not mean that Wellington was without female company. There were rumours of flirtations and possible more with several married women during his time in India. Back in England, he conducted an affair with a famous London courtesan by the name of Harriette Wilson, whose later attempt to blackmail him apparently brought the very typical Wellington response of “Publish and be damned.”
Little is known of Wellington’s love life during his time in the Peninsula, although rumours suggested that he kept a mistress at headquarters during 1810. Possibly the gossip arising from that either taught him to avoid such relationships or to be more circumspect about them, because there do not seem to be any other such rumours through the rest of the war.
At the end of the war in 1814, Wellington was appointed ambassador to France and moved to Paris. During this time, he apparently had affairs with two women who had previously been lovers of Napoleon, an actress called Marguerite Georges and an opera singer named Giuseppina Grassini. Kitty joined him for a time but returned to London while Wellington attended the Congress of Vienna. After Napoleon’s escape brought war again in 1815, Wellington moved to Brussels to command the Allied forces.
There was a lively social scene in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo, and scandal once again followed Wellington although much of this was probably no more than gossip. Lady Capel complained that Wellington “has not improved the morality of our society” due to his tendency to invite ladies of doubtful character to his parties. There was a reputed affair with Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster, but she and her husband later brought a successful libel action against the St James Chronicle for printing the story. Wellington also developed a close friendship with Lady Georgiana Lennox, who was the twenty year old daughter of the Duchess of Richmond.
During the years following Waterloo, gossip continued to follow Wellington. His name was linked at different times with Lady Frances Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Charlotte Greville and his future sister-in-law, Marianne Patterson. It is impossible to know how many of these, if any, were actual affairs and how many were close and affectionate friendships. What is certain is that Wellington was capable of both. He seemed to be a man who liked the company of women, particularly intelligent and attractive women.
Mrs Harriet Arbuthnot was typical of this. Harriet was married to Charles Arbuthnot, a politician more than twenty years older than her, and was previously a close friend of Lord Castlereagh before he committed suicide in 1822. Harriet and Charles were Tories, and both became close to Wellington. Harriet and Wellington exchanged letters on a regular basis, and she frequently acted as his hostess and social secretary, particularly after Kitty’s death in 1831. Harriet was a diarist, and her observations have contributed greatly to our knowledge of Wellington as a man. Wellington was devastated at her early death of cholera in 1834. He and Charles Arbuthnot remained close, and Charles went to live with Wellington after Harriet’s death. There were undoubtedly rumours about Harriet’s relationship with Wellington, but these do not seem to have been taken seriously and very few people believe that they were anything more than close and devoted friends.
In his later years, Wellington continued the tradition of having close female friends, but he gave no sign of wanting to remarry, and took care, on the whole, to be circumspect about his relationships. He was close to Angela Burdett-Coutts, who apparently wanted to marry him, but Wellington seemed to prefer friendship to scandal. If there were liaisons, he kept them very quiet.
The Revd and Hon. Gerald Valerian Wellesley
The next of the Wellesley siblings was a churchman, who became Rector of St Luke’s, Chelsea and a prebendary of Westminster Abbey. In 1802 he married Lady Emily Cadogan and the couple had two children.
By 1818 however, the marriage had gone badly wrong. Emily is said to have had an affair initially with the Marquess of Anglesey and then to have discarded him for Lord Wallscourt, who was still in his teens and half her age. There is some doubt as to the exact date of the ending of Gerald’s marriage, and possibly because of his position in the church, he did not formally seek a divorce. It seems likely, however, that the scandal did not help Gerald’s repeated unsuccessful attempts to become a bishop.
The Hon. Henry Wellesley later first Baron Cowley
The Cadogan family was also involved in the marital scandal of the final Wellesley brother’s marriage. Henry Wellesley had a successful diplomatic career, but he was as unfortunate as the rest of his family in matters of the heart.
In 1803 Henry married Lady Charlotte Cadogan, who was the sister of Lady Emily Cadogan, the wife of his brother Gerald. The couple had three sons and a daughter. However, in 1808, Charlotte began an affair with Lord Paget. He was forty and she was twenty-seven. When Henry Wellesley became suspicious and confronted his wife in 1809, Charlotte left her family and placed herself under Paget’s protection.
The scandal was huge. Both couples were divorced, with Henry being awarded £20,000 in damages from Paget, a step which seems bizarre to us, but was common at the time. Paget and Charlotte were married in 1810 and Paget’s former wife Caroline soon married the Duke of Argyll.
The scandal blighted Paget’s career for some years. He was a talented cavalry officer but was unable to serve in the Peninsula under Wellington because of bad blood between the two families. His younger brother, Sir Edward Paget did, however, even acting as Wellington’s second-in-command. By the time of Waterloo, Wellington was obliged to accept him as cavalry commander. By then Paget had succeeded to the title of Lord Uxbridge and lost his leg during the engagement.
As mentioned above, Uxbridge apparently went on to have an affair with Emily Wellesley, wife of Gerald Wellesley. The date of this is unclear, but Emily was his wife’s sister, and was married to the brother of the man he had cuckolded in 1809 which makes the whole thing extraordinarily tacky.
In March 1809, Charlotte’s brother Henry Cadogan challenged Paget to a duel, accusing him of having dishonoured his sister. The two men fought on Wimbledon Common. Paget deliberately fired wide, and honour was considered satisfied. By the time Paget embarked on an affair which helped to ruin his other sister’s marriage, Cadogan was dead, fighting bravely under Wellington at Vitoria.
In 1816 Henry married again, this time to Lady Georgiana Cecil, daughter of the Marquess of Salisbury. The two families were already close, and Henry’s second marriage appears to have been happy.
The Wellesleys were not the only family in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to become embroiled in scandal, but they do seem to have been unusually prone to it. While only one of them was formally divorced, all but William seem to have been unhappy one way or another. Richard and Wellington lived apart from their wives for many years and conducted extra-marital affairs very openly. Henry went through a painful divorce. Gerald was never formally divorced but was separated from his unfaithful wife. Anne’s second husband was rumoured to have been unfaithful with a member of the royal family.
It is hard not to speculate why the Wellesleys found marriage so difficult. Their parents apparently had a reasonable happy union, but their father died early, when Richard was only 21 and Henry was 8. Possibly the ensuing financial hardship made the boys focus on success and money, which gave them less time for their wives. Perhaps they were simply unfortunate in the choices they made. Or perhaps there was something in the Wellesley temperament, which made them impatient, critical, and difficult to live with. Certainly in the case of Wellington there is some evidence of that.
Whole books have been written about the life and loves of the Duke of Wellington. His brothers and sister are less well known to popular history, but were significant characters in their era. This post is a light-hearted look at the best-known scandals surrounding the Wellesley family, but there was a great deal more to them than that, and I recommend any of the books below for people wanting to know more. From the point of view of a historical novelist, the Wellesleys were an interesting family and definitely one with enough historical scandals to fill a novel or two in their own right.
Wellington: the path to victory Rory Muir (Yale, 2013)
Wellington: Waterloo and the fortunes of peace (Yale 2015)
Wellington: the years of the sword Elizabeth Longford (Smithmark, 1996)
Wellington: pillar of state Elizabeth Longford (Harper 1972)
There is a book entitled Architects of Empire: the Duke of Wellington and his brothers by John Severn (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007) which I didn’t manage to get hold of in time to write this post, although it is mentioned in some of my other sources and I would like to read it at some point.
I’ve given a specific link to a blog post by Shannon Selin about the Duke of Wellington and his relationships with women, but I highly recommend reading some of her other posts about Wellington, because they are all excellent.