Catherine Sarah Dorothea Wellesley, Duchess of Wellington was commonly known as Kitty Pakenham. She was born in Dublin, Ireland on 14 January 1773 to Edward Pakenham, 2nd Baron Longford and Catherine Rowley. She became “The Honourable Catherine Pakenham” when her father succeeded as the 2nd Baron Longford three years after her birth.
Kitty met Arthur Wellesley in Ireland when they were young, and, after numerous visits by him, he made his intentions known. However, his career prospects seemed bleak and Kitty’s father and brother felt she could do better and rejected his offer. Wellesley then became serious about his military career and appeared to have forgotten all about her. She seemed to forget him too and became engaged to Galbraith Lowry Cole, the second son of the Earl of Enniskillen.
A friend of Kitty’s, Olivia Sparrow, described as an “amiable busybody,” kept in touch with Wellesley. About ten years after his proposal, she suggested that he propose again to Kitty as she thought the result would be different. “‘What!’ he said; ‘does she still remember me? Do you think I ought to renew my offer? I’m ready to do it.’” Olivia then revealed this news to Kitty and after much soul-searching, she broke off her engagement to Cole.
When Kitty and Wellesley first met, she had been a vivacious and pretty girl. One person referred to her looks in 1801 when she was 28 years old:
“She had a pleasing countenance, a slender form, and was considerably below the middle stature; she was extremely gentle in her manners, and looked a quiet country lady, without any of the slightest pretension to fashion.”
Unfortunately, since Wellesley had last seen her, she had been ill and was not so good-looking anymore. People described her as pale and thin. Wellesley in the meantime obtained her brother’s blessing for the marriage, but Kitty was worried that he was marrying her because he felt bound by a promise ten years earlier. So, to ensure that he was happy with the way she now looked, Kitty insisted he see her first.
He did and was obviously disappointed because he remarked to his clergyman brother Gerald, “She has grown ugly, by Jove!” Still he went ahead with the wedding, and they were married on 10 April 1806 in Lady Longford’s drawing room in Dublin by Gerald. Newspapers reported on the marriage mentioning it in a single line and referring to the “accomplished” Miss Pakenham marrying Sir Arthur Wellesley.
After their marriage, Kitty was presented to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and according to one historian:
“[W]hen Lady Wellesley was presented to the queen, her Majesty said, ‘I am happy to see you at my court, so bright an example of constancy. If anybody in this world deserves to be happy, you do.’ Then her Majesty inquired, ‘But did you really never write one letter to Sir Arthur Wellesley during his long absence?’ – ‘No, never, madame.’ – ‘And did you never think of him?’ – ‘Yes, madam, very often.’ ‘I am glad constancy is approved at courts, and hope the bright example may be followed,’ she adds.”
Kitty regained her health somewhat after her marriage, but the couple found they had little in common and their marriage was an unhappy one. Kitty was frightened by him and he was regularly annoyed with her. Wellesley found his wife to be unpunctual, poor company, and a spendthrift. So, for most of the time they were together, they either lived apart or had separate rooms in the house where they lived together. However, they did have two sons, Arthur Richard, born 3 February 1807 and, and Charles, on 16 January 1808.
Although Kitty doted and concentrated on their children, Wellesley found his wife vacuous and boring. He confided to his closest female friend, Harriet Arbuthnot, that he was unhappy in his marriage. She was sympathetic as she thought of Kitty as a “fool.” However, Arbuthnot did once remark that she thought his wife wanted to make him happy, but she just did not know how. Of their conversations about his marriage, Arbuthnot once noted:
“Late in the evening the D. of Wellington joined me & walked for a considerable time up & down the lawn with me. He talked for some time of the Duchess & his domestic annoyances, complained bitterly of the distress it was to him to be united to a person with whom he could not possibly live on any terms of confidential intercourse. He assured me had repeatedly tried to live in a friendly manner with her … [but] it was impossible … & it drove him to seek abroad that comfort & happiness abroad that was denied him at home.”
When her husband was absent, it was reported that Kitty generally passed her summers at Tunbridge Wells, a town in western Kent, England, 40 miles south-east of central London. She also didn’t mix much in society preferring to keep a low profile. One newspaper noted:
“[S]eldom, very seldom, [did she] attended the ball and card assemblies, but was remarkably fond of [plays], and generally visited the theatre once or twice a week. Her two sons appeared to engross her chief care and attention. Almost every afternoon, with book in hand, she would accompany them on foot in their donkey rides. Her most intimate friends were the two Misses Berry, whom Caroline, Princess of Wales, visited during her stay at the Wells. Quietly and unattended, with her book basket in her hand, Lady Wellington used to walk to their residence to pass the day with them. Accompanied by her two friends, she was one evening occupying her usual box at the theatre, when despatches, announcing ‘another glorious victory’ achieved by her husband, were read on stage. ‘God save the King,’ was immediately sung in full chorus, and Ellis, one of the actors, in the excitement of the moment, extemporised an additional stanza, containing, of course, a warm eulogy on the noble hero. The unexpected mention of her husband’s name excited her ladyship so much that, after leaning forward and loudly applauding, she burst hysterically into a strong flood of tears, and was, in her turn, most enthusiastically cheered; but she was of so unobtrusive a nature, that she appeared overwhelmed by the notice thus obtained.”
Wellesley was absent from his wife throughout most of the Peninsular War, from 1807 to 1814. When he returned, he quickly discovered his wife had aged. She was also someone people described as “dumpy,” and, in addition, to make her appearance even less appealing, she was also short-sighted and squinted most of the time.
When Wellesley returned, he was made the Duke of Wellington on 3 May 1814, and, as the new Duchess of Wellington, Kitty decided to join her husband in Paris when he was appointed Ambassador after Napoleon’s exile to Elba. He probably would have preferred she not come, but there was nothing he could do to stop her. They resided at the Hotel de Borghese in the Rue Fauburg St. Honore.
With her arrival, the people of Paris viewed Kitty in various ways. One newspaper reported that in her new role “her manners were still as amiable, her demeanour as unobtrusive.” Germaine de Staël described her as “adorable,” while Elizabeth Yorke was not so enthusiastic, although she did give her a back-handed compliment:
“The Duchess of Wellington has arrived to take her station here. Her appearance, unfortunately, does not correspond to one’s notion of an ambassadress or the wife of a hero, but she succeeds uncommonly well in her part, and takes all proper pains to make herself and her parties agreeable.”
In Paris, the couple liberally entertained the likes of such as guests as Madame de Genlis (writer, educator, and one-time governess to the Children of France), Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (Napoleon’s chief diplomat), and Madame Récamier (socialite and hostess). According to one twenty-first writer:
“[S]he sat at the head of his [Wellington’s] table, dressed unsuitably in white muslin, chatting cluelessly and indiscreetly and forever gushing about her husband, which was anathema to him. However, somehow they managed to keep up appearances and there was no question of a divorce or legal separation, even though Arthur was by no means unresponsive to the many advances from the beautiful women around him.”
In late 1817 or early 1818 Kitty suffered a “lamentable” injury where she seriously tore one of her Achilles tendons and was thereafter “indisposed” for many weeks. According to one newspaper:
“Her Grace was reading a letter from her illustrious husband, in which he said, ‘in less than forty hours after the receipt of this I shall be in London.’ The Duchess had proceeded thus far, when in burst the Duke. In the hurried anxiety to receive his welcome embrace, she flew to his arms, but unfortunately, one of her feet coming in contact with a table or chair, she fell and met with [an] accident. … A series of hysteric fits followed, and her Grace did not recover till she was carried to bed.”
Despite Kitty remaining faithful, the Duke did little to disguise his affairs with other women. In fact, one of his lovers, Harriette Wilson, a famed British courtesan, wrote a tell-all in 1825 about their exploits partly because her lovers had broken promises to provide for her in her old age. Her publisher, John Joseph Stockdale, tried to cash in and blackmail the Duke before its release, and supposedly, the Duke’s reply when he learned about the tell-all was something along the lines of “Publish and be damned.”
As Kitty aged, her health declined, and it did so for some time. However, despite her health challenges, she still wanted to see visitors. One visitor who received a request from her to visit was the prolific Anglo-Irish writer of adults’ and children’s literature, Maria Edgeworth. She had always found Kitty “delightful,” and she noted of their visit in a letter dated 20 January 1831:
“In the midst, of a high narrow mattressed sofa … all white and paler than ever … lay, as if laid out a corpse, the Duchess of Wellington. Always little and delicate-looking, she now looked a miniature figure of herself in waxwork. As I entered I heard her voice before I saw her, before I could distinguish her features among the borders of her cap; only saw the place where her head lay on the huge raised pillow; the head moved, the head only, and the sweet voice of Kitty Pakenham exclaimed; ‘Oh! Miss Edgeworth, you are the truest of the true – the kindest of the kind.’ And a little delicate death-like white hand stretched itself out to me before I could reach the couch, and when I got there I could not speak – not a syllable, but she, with most perfect composure, more than composure, cheerfulness of tone, went on speaking, as she spoke, all the Kitty Pakenham expression appeared in that little shrunk face, and the very faint color rose, and the smile of former times. She raised herself more and more, and spoke with more and more animation in charming language, and with all her peculiar grace and elegance of kindness recollected so much of the past time and my father particularly, whose affection she convinced me had touched her deeply.”
Kitty continued to deteriorate until she died on Sunday 24 April 1831 at 10am at Apsley House in London. Edgeworth visited again on 30 April unaware that the Duchess had died and was distraught when she learned of her death. She then asked to speak to the Duchess’ maid and wrote:
“Then came, in black, that maid, of whose attachment the Duchess had, the last time I saw her, spoken so highly and truly, as I now saw by the first look and words.
‘Too true, ma’am – she is gone from us! her Grace died…’
‘Was the Duke in town?’
‘Yes, Ma’am, beside her.’ …
They had no apprehension of her danger, nor had she herself till Friday, when she was seized with violent paint, and died … ‘calm and resigned.’ The poor maid could hardly speak. She went in and brought me a lock of her mistress’s hair, silver gray, all but a few light brown, that just recalled the beautiful Kitty Pakenham!”
Kitty’s death also greatly affected her staff, who reported “she was regarded with the most devoted attachment.” Most newspapers, however, wrote nothing more than one or two lines noting her death, but England’s monarch, William IV, was more interested and wanted to make sure he paid his respects.
“When the King was informed of the demise of the Duchess of Wellington, his Majesty was most graciously pleased to have conveyed to the Duke the expression of his regret and condolence, and at the same time intimated that his own private carriage and that of the Queen should join the procession at the funeral.”
After Kitty’s death, the Duke of Wellington set out of Stratfieldsaye where she was to be buried, but prior to her funeral and internment, a newspaper reported:
“The remains of the late Duchess of Wellington were removed at eight o’clock yesterday morning from Apsley House, previous to interment at Stratfieldsaye. Lord Maryborough, as chief mourner, and other relatives of the deceased followed in four carriages and four. The carriage of the deceased, the King’s carriage with a set of horses, the Queen’s carriage, the Duke of Cumberland’s carriages, the carriages of the Duke of Northumberland, and upwards of thirty of the relations and friends of the deceased Duchess followed. The funeral procession, it was arranged, would stop at Bagshot last night.”
Everyone knew that Wellington had never been a good husband to Kitty, yet, interestingly, it took her worsening health to turn him into a devoted husband. This was made evident when a friend came to call on him during her illness. While visiting, he noted that the Duke was summoned to his wife’s room.
“When he returned his face showed signs of emotion: ‘It is strange thing,’ he remarked to his friend ‘that two people can live together for half a lifetime and only understand one another at the very end.’ Kitty had run her thin fingers up his sleeve to see whether he still wore an armlet she had given him many years before. ‘She found it,’ said Arthur, ‘as she would have found it any time these twenty years, had she cared to look for it.’ Maybe he had worn the armlet all those years; but perhaps it was Kitty’s first chance to discover this.”
-  The Glasgow Herald, “The Iron Duke,” December 5, 1899, p. 7.
-  Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, “The Late Duchess of Wellington,” November 30, 1852, p. 4.
-  B. R. Patterson, The Generals: Andrew Jackson, Sir Edward Pakenham, and the Road to the Battle of New Orleans (New York: NYU Press, 2005), p. 31.
-  G. A. Oliver, A Study of Maria Edgeworth: With Notices of Her Father and Friends (Boston: A. Williams and Company, 1882), p. 217–18.
-  H. Arbuthnot, The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820-1832 v. 1 (Macmillan, 1950), p. 168.
-  Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  R. Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace 1814–1852 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 18.
-  M. Hichens, Prime Ministers’ Wives (London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2014), Kindle
-  The Morning Post, “The Duchess of Wellington’s Indisposition,” January 24, 1818, p. 3.
-  M. Edgeworth and A.J.C. Hare, The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth v. 2 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895), p. 521–22.
-  Ibid., p. 533–34.
-  Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, p. 4.
-  “The Morning Post,” May 2, 1831, p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  J. Wellesley, Wellington: A Journey Through My Family (London: Orion Publishing Group, 2010), p. 246.