“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!”
Oh, I have to think it is the perfect setting for a romance. One could set the entire romance up to that point and let it be the black moment or one could start a romance on that night and go from there. It is just one of those golden turning points in history and in life. There is always that one shining moment before reality comes crashing in like an uninvited guest.
I have the Duke of Richmond’s Ball book and need to read it! This Waterloo week is making me pine for reading of Waterloo again.
I had not realized the ball was in the carriage house!
One book whose portrayal of the Richmond ball I really enjoyed is Jane Feather’s Virtue. More books set in the thick of battle please!
Didn’t Heyer set a book around the ball?–of course I can’t remember the title, but it’s one of the biggies.
Fantastic information! Thanks so much for sharing it. And for the links to the list of ball attendees, and the gown worn that night. Wonderful stuff.
An Infamous Army is the Heyer book, Janet, not one of my favorites, but her research is impeccable!
Yes, I was going to mention Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer. Not one of her best Romances, but one of the best historical accounts of the ball. She brings back Vidal from Devil’s Cub — the heroine is his granddaughter. I prefer it to Sharpe’s Waterloo.
I loved Dancing into Battle.
I also loved the film Waterloo.
The Duchess ofRichmond’s ball is one of those great balls. Waterloo changed so much. There is a great exhibition in the Army Museum in London on the battle etc. The one up at Coldstream is pretty good as well.
I definitely think the Duchess of Richmond’s ball belongs in a romance! Really, it’s hard to think of any kind of Waterloo story without it–that last celebration dancing in the face of danger and death.
Because I am A) a pedant (“I nitpick, therefore I am”) and B) something of a walking encyclopedia on Wellington, I feel compelled to point out that he never actually said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. He had bad memories of his own brief time there–he was a loner and an indifferent student (being something of a late bloomer intellectually)–and never was given to praising the place.
Thanks for the informative post, Amanda!
Mary Jo Putney had a scene set at the ball in SHATTERED RAINBOWS, which is one of my favorites among her romances.
Part of my current work-in-progress is based on events at Waterloo, but the romance takes place later. If I ever do a prequel to this story (involving a couple who are friends of the hero) I will probably have them attend the ball.
There is a great exhibition in the Army Museum in London on the battle etc. The one up at Coldstream is pretty good as well.
Yes, Michelle! I saw it on my 2005 England trip. The diorama of the battle was the same one Heyer stood at and explained the battle to her son in great detail, to the amazement of others standing around her.
I loved Shattered Rainbows!
I saw a diorama of the battle of Quatre-Bas in a toy shop in London once. It was a fantastic set up with miniature soldiers, cannons and horses.
The ball belongs in a romance. Any one who knows what follows can feel the poignancy of the moment when the lovers must part– or it could be the moment that the lady realizes that HE is the one she loves and now has to await the outcome of the battle.
The ball and the immediate days following have been used in many books but it never loses it power to move.
Lord Byron’s words on the ball and Waterloo are part of his Canto III of Childe Harold. It is considered one of the best depictions of battle in verse.
I would love to attend the Richmond Ball. Sometimes, sadness makes even fleeting moments of joy all the more precious.
Janet, I couldn’t stand reading Heyer’s [i]An Infamous Army[/i].
Ammanda, what a treasure trove of information and linkety-links. And ooh, that gown. You could write poetry for that gown alone. Come on. Surely there’s at least one person other than me who can see Keira Knightley in that cration.
Surely there’s at least one person other than me who can see Keira Knightley in that cration.
I’d like to have a replica made to fit me! That’s a beautiful dress…
Yes yes yes to a romance featuring the ball (you could do one, Ammanda!) I love everything Regency and military, so I must protest against those who dissed An Infamous Army and proclaim it is one of my Heyer favorites. Interesting in showing the difficulties in a marriage that happened in an earlier book and in featuring the story of Vidal’s granddaughter–and such an accurate depiction of the battle that it has actually been quoted in military histories.
Sorry, Keira, I will NOT allow Keira Knightly to appear in that lovely gown. Not after she wore mostly brown sacks in the auful P&P adaptation and not after what the writers/producers did to one of my all-time favorite books…but don’t get me started.
I’ve so been looking forward to Waterloo Week. Can’t wait to see what other tidbits the Riskies have in store for us.
“Yes yes yes to a romance featuring the ball (you could do one, Ammanda!)”
LOL! I would definitely like to, and have the germ of an idea in my mind. We’ll see what happens. 🙂
I was so excited to find that museum site with the gown, and all the information on what it took to restore it. I’m amazed it survived so well all these years!
(And I like Infamous Army, though it’s not my #1 favorite Heyer)
Speaking of Keira Knightley I saw that the Costumers Guide (http://www.costumersguide.com)
just posted a bunch of new Duchess pics, including a very, er, interesting hairdo. 🙂 I really like that pink moire gown at the dining table. (I’m not sure if this movie will be good, but so far the costumes look great!)
JuliaJ: Sorry for the diss against Heyer’s AIA. I have duelled Todd (a frequent commentator here) about KeiraK’s P&P vs. Ehle’s P&P. So, the gauntlet is cast. 🙂
Ammanda: Ever the peacekeeper. Even with KeiraK as G.
SusanSW: That dress would look gorgeous on you, particular your hair!!
>SusanSW: That dress would look gorgeous on you, particular your hair!!
Thanks! Though I have to say it would look more gorgeous if there were about 50 lbs. less of me! (Really, really, really need to start sticking to the diet…maybe if I were to decide to have a replica of the dress made to reward myself when I get to goal weight it would be a motivating factor…)
Great blog, Amanda. It’s started my imagination going. I think a book set at the ball would be fantastic.
I adored MaryJo Putney’s ‘Shattered Rainbows’. Doesn’t one of Mary Balogh’s ‘Slightly’ books take place at the ball or was it just Brussels leading up to Waterloo? I believe it was Morgan’s story….
I have always thought that the ball must have been awfully crowded. I’ve read several Regencies where the heroes (and in some cases the heroines) were at that ball, and anyone who’s read Sharpe’s Waterloo knows that he burst in with a message for Wellington partway through the festivities.
Free associating wildly, this reminds me of one of my favorite lines ever from Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
Spike: Oh, please. If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. I fed off a flower person, and spent the next six hours watching my hand move.