Brussels, June 1815. The Duke of Wellington was marshalling the Allied forces in readiness to fight Napoleon, who had escaped from Elba in February that year. The many British living in the city at the time were enjoying cricket matches, race-meetings and picnics despite the threat of war.
On the fifteenth, the ambitious Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond, held what was to become the most famous Ball in history, since it was interrupted by the news that Napoleon had attacked the Prussian army earlier that day. Pale girls in lily-hued dresses said tearful goodbyes to sweethearts and brothers who raced from the ballroom to battlefields of the Waterloo campaign with terrifying speed when the news broke.
Published to coincide with the Waterloo bicentenary, the book recounts the experiences of those at the ball, and the surprising coincidence that Wellington’s despatch was presented to the Prince Regent at another ball, six momentous days later.
Targeted Age Group:: 12+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The bicentenary of Waterloo in 2015, and the beauty and pathos of the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
“Duke”, said Charlotte, 4th Duchess of Richmond to the Duke of Wellington, “I do not wish to pry into your secrets…I wish to give a ball, and all I ask is, may I give my ball? If you say, “Duchess, don’t give your ball,” it is quite sufficient, I ask no reasons.”
“Duchess, you may give your ball with the greatest safety, without fear of interruption” replied Wellington “
This civilised and historic exchange took place in Brussels, where the Richmonds were living in 1815. The usually autocratic Duchess’s cautious tone is explained by Napoleon Bonaparte’s triumphant progress through France following his escape from Elba that February. It was now late May, and Wellington had been installed as Commander in Chief of the reconvened armies of Britain and Europe, intending to join forces with the Russians and either defend Belgium or attack France.
At first glance it may seem a reckless decision of Wellington’s to permit a party to take place in a potential war zone. But he was acutely concerned to create the impression of ‘business as usual’ in Brussels, so recently occupied by the French. Needing to outfox the many Bonapartist supporters in the city, and keen to disguise the weaknesses of the Armies he had been hastily summoned back from the Congress of Vienna to command, he looked serene and unconcerned whenever he was in public.
He succeeded in fooling the MP and diarist Thomas Creevey, amongst others, into thinking he was almost inanely casual about the danger everyone faced. Though constantly involved in the onerous business of amassing and positioning his troops, he took care to attend as many of the social events in Brussels as he could, always with a smiling and urbane face. In our own century, this would be regarded as a very effective public relations campaign.
And so, two hundred and twenty-eight invitations to ‘the most famous ball in history’ were delivered. The date was fixed for Thursday, 15th of June. But why were the Richmonds able to invite so many of their friends, senior military personnel and the crème de la crème of Dutch and Belgian society at this critical juncture? A major reason is that in the 19th century, virtually all officers in the British army were the sons of aristocrats or landed gentry, commissions being prohibitively expensive for the middle-classes. The Richmonds therefore knew the families of the gallant young men who came to visit their pretty daughters, and Wellington’s personal staff had particularly impeccable lineage. In effect, Mayfair had moved to Brussels and the ambitious Duchess would not miss the opportunity to cultivate well-bred and wealthy young officers.
Though Napoleon’s return to power had taken the whole of Europe by surprise, many Britons had pertinent reasons for remaining in Brussels – a town comfortingly garrisoned by the British and Dutch armies – after the initial shock. But it is necessary to look back to 1814 to understand why civilians were there at all.
Separated from the European continent for twenty-two long years by almost constant warfare, the aristocratic British had gone mad with joy following the former Emperor’s imprisonment. Aware of the cultural ‘Grand Tours’ that their forebears had enjoyed, the wealthiest of the travel-starved upper classes flocked to Paris and to the European spa towns. But those in financial difficulties also looked to Europe, and to Brussels specifically.
The favourable exchange rate made life there affordable and attractive. And the recent French occupation of Belgium had left an indelible mark. The opera, the theatres, the cuisine de campagne had all improved significantly. The half-envious respect that the British have so often accorded French culture meant that the very ‘Frenchness’ of Brussels had huge appeal.
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