“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton” –Duke of Wellington
“Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there” –George Orwell
Today here at Risky Regencies we’re kicking off Waterloo Week! Be sure and visit every day for historical information on the battle itself, life in the Regency-era military, and weaving all that research into characters and plots.
My topic today is the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball, held on the night of June 15, 1815 (193 years ago tomorrow) in a huge old carriage-house on the property of the Richmonds’ Brussels house in the Rue de la Blanchisserie. (The Duke of Richmond was in command of a reserve force in Brussels, charged with protecting the city in case Napoleon invaded). But lest you think everyone was partying in rustic decor, with carriage wheels and horses everywhere, the space was done up in grand style indeed. There were flowers and greenery wreathing all the pillars, and hangings of red, gold, and black draped on the walls. Thackeray, who later used the ball in a pivotal scene in Vanity Fair, declared it “perfectly delightful…with few nobodies present.” Caroline Lamb wrote, “There was never such a ball–so fine and so sad.”
The people who were “not nobodies” in attendance included the Prince of Orange (later King William II of Holland), the Duke of Brunswick (who died the next day at Quatre Bras), the Prince of Nassau, several earls including Conyngham, Uxbridge (commander of the British cavalry, who famously lost his leg), Portalington, and March. There were 22 colonels, sixteen comtes and comtesses, and many English peers. There were 224 invitees in all, though only 55 were women, so I doubt there were any wallflowers that night! (For a list of all invitations, you can go here).
It was at this ball that Wellington learned Napoleon had crossed the border and was on the march. He had assumed Napoleon would advance on Brussels via Mons rather than the more direct Charleroi route, and received word that he was wrong about this during supper. The Richmonds’ daughter, Lady Georgiana Lennox (later Lady De Ros) recalled that “The news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had no time to change, but fought in evening costume.” 72 hours later, more than 4 in 10 of those officers were wounded or dead.
Lady De Ros later wrote a great deal about this ball and the events that followed. She said, “My mother’s now famous ball took place in a large room on the left of the entrance, connected with the rest of the house by an ante-room. When the Duke of Wellington arrived, rather late, I was dancing, but at once went up to him to ask about the rumours. He said very gravely, ‘Yes, they are true; we are off tomorrow.’ It was a dreadful evening, taking leave of friends and acquaintances, many never to be seen again. I remember being quite provoked with poor Lord Hay, a dashing merry youth, full of military ardor, whom I knew very well for his delight at the idea of going into action, and of all the honors he was to gain; and the first news we had on the 16th was that he and the Duke of Brunswick were killed.”
(Perhaps young Lady Georgiana wore a gown like this one, said to have been made for the Richmond ball! See a page about its restoration here).
I’ve always thought that this ball (and the subsequent events) would make a terrific centerpiece for a story. It’s a romantic, tragic setting, full of desperate merriment and the terrible sense of time growing short. Even as the champagne flows and everyone dances, there’s an edge of deep, deep sadness.
For more information, I love the books The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball by David Miller, and Dancing Into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo by Nick Foulkes. (And then there’s always Sharpe’s Waterloo…)
I also love the first stanza of Byron’s poem The Eve of Waterloo:
And Belgium’s capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!”