The Duke of Wellington’s Wife

(This is a reblog of comments I made on Goodreads 9/20/2011 in their entirety.)

Original engraving of Catherine Wellesley, wife of the Duke of Wellington, by J R Swinton, circa 1850 from early sketch circa 1810

I think all of us are familiar with the Duke of Wellington, hero of India, the Peninsular Wars and the victor at the Battle of Waterloo. However, little acknowledgement is paid to his wife.

Her name was the Honorable Catherine Pakenham, known as “Kitty.” She was born in January 1772 in Ireland at Pakenham Hall, and was a distant connection by marriage of Arthur Wesley (before the family name was changed to Wellesley”, who was also in Ireland. Kitty was small, slender, with grey eyes, curly hair and a beautiful complexion. She was very high spirited, and stubborn, with a willingness to argue her point to exhaustion. She was very popular and had many admirers, including young Arthur. By all reports, Kitty was very kind and impulsively generous. She loved gossip, and could never keep a secret, which led to accidental exposure of information. She professed high principles, honesty, and high standards of behavior, and was not tolerant of others’ lapses.

Arthur Wesley’s courtship of Kitty began in 1790. He proposed twice: the first time in 1792, which was turned down by her family and again in 1794 which was also turned down. Kitty’s father lectured young Arthur on his need to improve himself and his prospects. Subsequently, young Arthur went into Parliament and subsequently back into the military. (One could wonder how much his disappointment over Kitty pushed him to make these moves.) He was away 12 years, during which period he had no direct contact with Kitty. She continued with her normal life at home, with at least one serious beau (his courtship came to nothing, because Kitty loved Arthur and was waiting for him).

Friends wrote to Arthur, particularly Olivia Sparrow, and he indicated that his feelings were unchanged and he still wanted to marry Kitty. Kitty was getting older, and becoming very nervous and anxious about the situation, especially wondering if Arthur would still want her when he saw how she’d changed. He returned to Ireland, this time successful and financially established, and, in October 1805, wrote to her brother for permission to marry Kitty. This time, Kitty’s family approved and they were married 4/10/1806. The lengthy settlement negotiations were not concluded until after their marriage, finally signed in August. After their marriage, he plunged straight back into his work, setting a pattern for their marriage in which she took a back seat to his career.

At this point, you have two people of completely different character, separated for 12 years, who have made a lifetime commitment after just a few months’ reacquaintance. Both had changed significantly: he was successful, confident and dominating. She had changed from a pretty, confident belle, to a 30-year old, somewhat spinsterish woman who was no longer sure of herself. Not surprisingly, Kitty felt neglected and complained to family and friends. As these reports circulated, they were used by Arthur’s political enemies, the Whigs, in attacks on him. This lack of discretion and its results in turn aggravated him and made him doubt her loyalty.

In 1806, Kitty was pregnant with their first child, and spent most of her time without Arthur, who was preoccupied with his work. He did write, but was very emphatic about expenses and the need for control. Kitty was not forthcoming about bills and costs, and her lack of honesty and control over household expenditures angered him. Since Kitty had impressed him with her strength of character and principles as a very young girl, whom he had idealised, it was difficult for him to recognize and accept the reality of the woman he married. (It must be said that the Arthur Kitty had loved for so long was a younger, less confident man, without the experience and success of the rather stern and authocratic man who returned to her. She was nervous of and afraid to confront him.)

Their personal communication was also difficult. Arthur was accustomed to the society of military men. Kitty had remained in her normal family and social life. He was no longer accustomed to chat, discussions of social activities or family trivia. She was unable to join in the conversation when his military or political colleagues came to call. In short, they had little to talk about together.

Their first son, Arthur, was born 2/3/1807. At the time of the child’s birth, Arthur was away hunting. Letters from him during this time make no mention of the child. Arthur was appointed to a political post in Ireland, and went ahead, leaving Kitty and their child in London. They finally joined him in May of 1807. She became pregnant again in 1807. Arthur spent a great deal of time socializing and hunting without her. Their second son was born in January of 1808. Somewhere during this period, Kitty apparently loaned her brother Henry a significant sum of money from the housekeeping funds, which resulted in bills not being paid.

In the spring of 1808, Arthur was in London. He was promoted to lieutenant-general, and it was nearly certain he would command an expedition to Portugal. In a letter written to the Duke of Richmond June 4th, he specifically states that the subject should not be mention to Kitty until things were positive. This is significant, as it shows a pattern he established, of not telling Kitty anything until the last possible moment, to avoid gossip, discussion and argument. He went in July 1808, had a victory at Vimeiro, and was recalled to England. He returned to Ireland at the end of October 1808, and spent the rest of the year deeply engrossed in plans and work.

In late January 1809, they were closing the house in Ireland to move back to England permanently, and Arthur insisted all of the bills be paid. At this point, the truth came out and Kitty had to explain and provide detailed accounts. Ultimately, Kitty’s deception and Arthur’s discovery of it put the final seal on his disillusionment. Her concealment of the situation and poor excuses demonstrated a lack of moral courage that was completely foreign to him, and showed him that she was not the person he had thought he had married. He never trusted her again.

In the spring of 1809, Arthur left for Portugal and the Peninsular Wars, and did not return for five years. He forbade her to take the children to Ireland. He did write, but told her very little, and nothing of signficance. She angered him again by requesting information from other people, which he felt implied his inadequate attention and he considered disloyal. Her life was very routine and dull: taking care of her sons, and other children, sewing, making shoes (a hobby she took up), reading extensively, music and so forth. She became very bored and depressed. Her household accounts were a nightmare for her-she was kind-hearted and easily imposed upon. His military discipline caused Arthur to view her inadequacy in this respect as a serious offense whenever money problems arose. Kitty was not shy, and did enjoy social life, but she did not enjoy public functions and avoided them-she was married to a famous hero who never took leave to come home and seldom wrote; how could she answer questions about him, when she had no information unless she read something about him in a newspaper?

It is important to note that, while he was away, Arthur was not faithful to Kitty, supposedly from shortly after their marriage. He was very sociable, enjoyed hunting, parties and so forth, and he liked women. He was the subject of a great deal of gossip. (Just two of his escapdes: involvement with the famous courtesan Harriette Wilson in London, and in Brussels at the time of Waterloo,rumors about him and Lady Frances Webster Wedderborn.) Kitty made it a rule never to believe any gossip or negative reports against him, and maintained this her whole life.

Arthur finally returned to England 6/23/1814 as the Duke of Wellington, and took her to Paris with him as ambassadress, but never reposed trust or confidence in her. It is very ironic as Arthur was known as a kind and loyal man, quick to anger but quick to get over it; however, he was completely unforgiving of his wife. Kitty, for her part, never learned either; she ran into debt, and concealed her debts by borrowing. She occupied herself with raising her children, and other children of family members, and spending time with family and friends. She tried please Arthur and to build some kind of home with him. Her later years were spent at their house in Hampshire, at times in isolation. Kitty died in 1831.

Arthur never got over his disappointment in her. He seemed to feel that his marriage to her was a weakness or personal failure, which he just could not accept. In later years, he blamed his marriage on the undue influence of others.

There is information on line about Kitty Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington. A detailed work about her is A SOLDIER’S WIFE: WELLINGTON’S MARRIAGE, by Joan Wilson (1987: George Weidenfeld & Nicholas Ltd, London), from which I got a lot of information for this post.

Original Goodreads post: https://www.goodreads.com/comment/index/86909608
Image from Wikimedia Commons

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12 Comments

Filed under biography, History, Love story, Regency era, Regency society

12 responses to “The Duke of Wellington’s Wife

  1. wonderful post–I didn’t know about the lack of trust between them. I had the impression Arthur’s success had gone to his head and poor Kitty couldn’t compete.

  2. Excellent post! I refuse to believe that Kitty’s loan was the sole reason for a decades long rift between husband and wife and would love to know the real, or other reasons. Unfortunately, the 2nd Duke burned many of the Duke’s private papers upon his father’s death, so it’s likely the answer will never be known. Many more posts on the Duke on our blog, Number One London.

    • I think it was the icing on the cake of general disillusionment. It seems he thought he was going to marry the girl he left behind, and discovered that the woman she became was not who he wanted to be with. Thank you for commenting, Kristine!

      • My pleasure – really enjoyed the post. And I never miss an opportunity to discuss the Duke. Believe it or not, his name doesn’t come up much in every day conversation. 🙂

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 5-15-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

  4. Reblogged this on doingsomereading and commented:
    I just love learning more about those close to Wellington and himself.

  5. charlene capodice

    what a very interesting story, something I did not know. very sad for both of them. Thank you

  6. Lori Zukerman

    Wondering how different the relationship might have been if one of the first two marriage proposals had been accepted. So sad that two people who loved and waited so long to be together had such a terrible relationship in the end.

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