If it wasn’t for the chaos caused by an uninvited and most unwelcome guest, the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on 15 June 1815 would have been just another high society party in history. But since it was held in Brussels on the very day that Napoleon’s troops stormed into what is present-day Belgium, it became the stuff of legend, forever remembered as the glamorous prologue to the horrors of the battlefield at Waterloo.
There’s no doubt that the highly romanticised fictional accounts of writers like Lord Byron and William Thackeray played their part in that. But just how much did they embellish the events of that fateful evening?
Well for a start, the duchess – Charlotte Lennox – never intended her ball as a farewell for departing soldiers; it was just one of many parties and picnics entertaining genteel British expatriates and army officers alike that summer. Lady Conyngham had held a similar gathering the previous evening, and the Duke of Wellington had one planned for the 21st. It was by accident rather than design that the duchess’s party found its way into the history books.
The story really begins more than a year earlier in March 1814, when Napoleon’s troops in Paris surrendered to Britain’s allies. The self-proclaimed emperor was forced to abdicate, and was swiftly exiled to Elba. With that, more than 20 years of recurrent war in Europe were over, and the long-awaited peace brought swathes of the British fashionable elite to the continent.
Brussels was a particular tourist hotspot. It was partly because British regiments remained in the city. Families and friends of army officers came over to join them, jumping at the chance to holiday abroad again. But Brussels also owed its popularity to affordability. It was the perfect retreat for aristocrats feeling the pinch – not too far from home, cheaper than war-weary Britain and, being a garrison town, it had a lively social scene, with its own pleasure park, horse-racing, hunting and cricket. Like many of their friends, the Richmonds came over “on an Economical Plan”.
When Napoleon made his unexpected escape from Elba in February 1815, the shockwaves rippled through their merry community. Very quickly Brussels was at the centre of military operations again: by early April, the Duke of Wellington had arrived to take command of a combined Anglo-Dutch force, and joining him were ever-increasing numbers of officers and troops. Yet, surprisingly, few civilians chose to leave. One military wife commented (with just a touch of disapproval) that they seemed to consider the army’s arrival as the commencement of a series of entertainments.
And certainly, as spring turned to summer, there seemed to be no immediate threat to their safety. Expectations were all for an Allied invasion of France, sometime towards the beginning of July. So by day, the assembled officers drilled and inspected the troops, keeping a close eye on Bonaparte’s movements. And by night, the social round continued – all with the encouragement of their leader.
“Tho’ I have given some pretty good reasons for supposing that hostilities will soon commence, yet no one wd suppose it judging by the Duke of Wn,” wrote Spencer Madan, tutor to the Richmonds’ younger sons, on 13 June. “He … gives a ball every week, attends every party and partakes of every amusement.” There was certainly a determination to Wellington’s nonchalance; it suited him to let Napoleon’s spies report that the Allies were relaxed about the battles to come.
But as the city began to buzz with rumours that Napoleon’s forces were close to the border, the Duchess of Richmond grew uneasy about the ball she had planned. The Iron Duke reassured her unequivocally. “Duchess,” he said, “you may give your ball with the greatest safety without fear of interruption.”
Privately, however, he had concerns. The call to battle was not as unexpected as the fictional accounts might have us believe – for either Wellington or his forces. By 5pm on the 15 June, some five hours before the Richmonds’ first guests arrived, the Duke knew that Napoleon had invaded. His troops were put on standby for a rapid move. His officers, however, were permitted to attend the ball. It was too late to stop it without causing widespread panic.
Yet as they changed into their dress uniforms, the unmistakable sound of cannon fire could be heard in the distance; the officers knew an engagement was imminent. And as they went off to sip champagne and waltz with the ladies, more news was coming in. Their Prussian allies had been engaged in intense fighting with the French. In fact, the town of Charleroi, to the south of Brussels, had been in French hands since noon. Wellington ordered his troops to assemble, ready to march out in the early hours. He came to the ballroom sometime around midnight, not to socialise, but as a last act of reassurance for his civilian friends.
The sight that greeted him was not quite as glamorous as paintings of the event suggest, with their gilded interiors and sea of scarlet uniforms. Being one of the last families to arrive in Brussels, the Richmonds had been forced to rent a house on the Rue de la Blanchisserie, an unfashionable street so-named because it was home to a laundry business. Built by a coachbuilder, their property came complete with two cavernous wings that had once served as showrooms for his various carriages. One of these, papered with a simple rose trellis pattern, was their makeshift ballroom – not the grand Hôtel de Ville, as Byron and other battlefield tourists were led to believe.
Fewer than half of their guests were military men. The Duchess invited 238 people in all, but only 103 of them were uniformed officers. They were easily outnumbered by a combination of British, and Dutch aristocrats, diplomats and relations of the Richmonds. And a number of military invitees actually stayed away, either by choice – favouring preparation over partying – or because the rapidly developing operational situation detained them. Newlywed Colonel Sir William de Lancey was one. Wrenched from his honeymoon to act as Wellington’s deputy quartermaster-general, he was entirely occupied by logistical preparations that night.
What’s no exaggeration, however, is the speed with which the party soon broke up. The arrival of a mud-splattered messenger, just as supper was ending, put an abrupt end to the drinking and dancing: he brought news that the French were advancing towards Brussels.
A mass exodus of officers followed: in all conscience, they could delay joining their regiments no longer. “I became aware of a great preponderance of ladies in the room,” recalled Lady Jane Lennox, the Duchess’s daughter. “The gallant uniforms had sensibly diminished.” As the shocked civilians processed the news, the strains of the waltz gave way to the sounds of an army on the move: artillery wagons rolling, drums and bugles sounding, and cavalry horses clattering over the cobbles. Lady Jane’s dance partners went flying through the night on horseback. Some really would go dancing into battle, having had no time to change out of their finery.
Belgravia: an invitation to the ball
The most recent Waterloo-era programme to hit TV screens is ITV’s six-part drama Belgravia. The brainchild of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, the period drama – due to start in early Spring – is set amongst the upper echelons of 19th-century London society. The story begins on 15 June 1815, as British society – including the Trenchard family – attend the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the battle of Quatre Bras, an event that presaged a dramatic chain of events…
The Duchess of Richmond was apparently rendered hysterical – blocking the exit and pleading with her guests to “wait one little hour more”. But there are few reports of the kind of heartbreaking lovers’ partings the Victorians imagined; when another of the Duchess’s daughters, Lady Georgiana Lennox, bid farewell to her friend, the young Lord Hay, she was provoked by his obvious excitement. Probably the most sorrowful of all the goodbyes actually took place away from the ballroom. Colonel de Lancey and his new bride Magdalene watched the troops marching out of the city together as the Sun came up, before he charged her to retreat to Antwerp.
Wellington slipped away from the ball without a farewell – though not before making a request of the Duke of Richmond. He wanted a map. It was while the two men pored over it together that Wellington is said to have confessed: “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God, he has gained 24 hours march on me.” Asked how he intended to react, Wellington replied that he had ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras, a crossroads 25 miles outside Brussels.
“We shall not stop him there, and, if so, I must fight him here” – pointing, as he spoke, to the village of Waterloo. And in that moment, the conversation of the two Dukes bridged the gulf between the brilliant ballroom of the past few hours and the bloody battlefield yet to come.
What happened at the battle of Quatre Bras?
The fighting at Quatre Bras the following day was intense but inconclusive. So close was the battlefield to Brussels that some officers rode back after the initial skirmish to eat and sleep. Covered in dirt, they had little good news for the anxious civilians, who were left unsure whether to make a hasty retreat. But 17 June did not bring a French attack as many feared. Pouring into the streets instead were the dead and injured Allied soldiers. After months of frivolous partying, Brussels’ British community was put to work tending the wounded as the city became an open-air hospital.
As Wellington had predicted, Quatre Bras was the precursor to the fierce battle that followed at Waterloo on the 18th. Despite suffering 23,000 casualties (killed or wounded), the Allies emerged victorious. Napoleon abdicated again on the 22nd and was exiled once more, this time to St Helena.
Within a matter of weeks, the Duchess’s ball began to be shrouded in myth. One correspondent described it as “a sort of farewell ball”, another lamented “all the young men who appeared there shot dead a few days after”. In fact, only 11 of the Duchess’s nearly 100 military guests died on the battlefield. The excitable Lord Hay was one of them. One more died later of his wounds, and another 35 were injured. Colonel de Lancey was also mortally wounded after being struck by a ricocheting cannon ball, his wife made a widow just three months after their marriage.
LISTEN: Melvyn Bragg discusses Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington in an episode of In Our Time.
Felicity Day is a freelance writer specialising in the history of the Georgian era.