The Georgian Era is a period of history associated with style and elegance and remembered now for the grandeur of its entertainments none more so than the Regency Ball. Yet despite the frequency of such events one stands out above all others.
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball was one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the social calendar but this particular year perhaps more so than most, for since Napoleon Bonaparte’s return from exile on the Isle of Elba the nations of Europe had been preparing for war but the Duchess remained determined that her Ball would go ahead regardless and with the cream of the British nobility serving in the Duke of Wellington’s army in Belgium, including three of her own sons, the Duchess and her husband leased a house on the Rue de Blanchiserie in Brussels.
Being at the heart of events meant that the guest list would remain as impressive as ever and with members of the Dutch Royal Family, myriad Lords, Ladies, Earls, and Viscounts, nearly all of Wellington’s senior Officers, and of course the Duke himself it did not disappoint.
The guests, who arrived on the night of the 15 June 1815, were escorted to the Coach House which had been converted into a giant ballroom where to the musical accompaniment of a full Orchestra they were formally introduced to the 47 year old Charlotte Lennox, Duchess of Richmond, though she was already known to many.
The bare surroundings of the Coach House had been transformed, chandeliers sparkled in the early evening gloom, brightly coloured garlands adorned its recently papered walls, ribbons hung from the ceiling, and rose petals littered the floor.
With bows and curtsies aplenty in its heavily perfumed environs ladies in silk, taffeta, and lace mingled with robust young men in military uniform anxiously awaiting the invitation to dance.
As the evening wore on it became increasingly humid and the French Doors were thrown open to allow the gentle summer breeze to cool those perspiring from a vigorous waltz or military quick-step. The Duchess of Richmond’s daughter, Lady Louisa Lennox recalled the scene:
“I well remember the Gordon Highlanders dancing reels at the Ball. My mother thought it would interest the foreigners to see them, which it did. I remember hearing that some of the poor men who danced in our house died in battle. There was quite a crowd to see the Scotch dancer.”
Despite the gaiety of the occasion and the preponderance of champagne there remained a tension in the room for it had been rumoured that the order had been issued for the army to march in the morning, but no one spoke of it other than in whispers.
Around the time supper was due to be served a somewhat frantic, dishevelled young Officer named Harry Webster looking arrived. He had, he said, a letter for the Prince of Orange.
The Prince who was enjoying himself immensely took receipt of the letter but declined to read it instead slipping it into his pocket. The Duke of Wellington however, alerted by the commotion insisted upon seeing it. On doing so despite remaining calm his countenance changed.
The letter informed him that Bonaparte’s army was on the move and had stolen a march on him.
He believed that Napoleon would march west and attempt to sever his route to the channel ports but instead he had turned east to separate his army from that of Field Marshal Blucher. This changed everything.
The Duke exuding a diffidence that belied the seriousness of the situation made his excuses and departed to an ante-chamber where perusing a map he remarked to one of his Staff Officers: “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God.” He then pointed to a place on the map, a small village called Waterloo. Here he would make his stand.
The music which had temporarily ceased started once more but the dancing was now perfunctory at best as orders were issued and men began to make their excuses and leave.
The Duchess pondered whether to curtail proceedings but the Duke insisted they continue, his young Officers should experience the finery and delights of female companionship before war once again became their brutal reality.
But the illusion of peace and tranquillity had been shattered, and the Duke himself after a little frivolity designed to calm nerves soon departed.
The Dowager Lady Georgiana de Ros remembered well the prevailing atmosphere:
“It was a dreadful evening, we were taking leave of friends and acquaintances many never to be seen again. The Duke of Brunswick made a speech as to the Brunswickers to be sure to distinguish themselves after the honour done to them by having the Duke accompany them to their review! I remember being quite provoked with poor Lord Hay, a dashing merry youth, full of military ardour, whom I knew very well for his delight at the idea of going into action, and all the honours he was to gain, but the first news that we received on the 16th was that he and the Duke of Brunswick were killed.”
For many of the young men present that night the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball was to prove their last.