The First Duchess
The story of Kitty Pakenham, who in 1806 married the First Duke of Wellington.
I told him we should meet again.
Twenty-three when first I fell in
Love with him, he twenty-seven.
My father would not bless the match.
To prove his worth Arthur set sail
To India – Seringpatam;
Assaye; returned a hero; so
Yes, said father. April wedding
In the damp of Dublin city –
Dim as my eyes had grown. ‘We must,’
I said, ‘Meet just once more – once more
Before I walk the aisle.’ How long
Since we last cast that loving glance?
Nine years. I’d changed – knew I had changed.
The beauty Arthur caught in me
Had gone; the graceful liveliness
Gone too. But he cried ‘No. No need
To meet. My feelings are unchanged.’
That glowering day, that gloomy
Church. I heard him murmur to his
Friend, ‘Egad, she’s ugly.’ Ugly?
I hadn’t thought he’d go that far.
We’ve done the best we can over
The years, the Duke and I. Victor
In Portugal and Spain, and then
The nation’s feted darling
After Waterloo. No surprise
He liked to be with ladies full
Of wit and dazzle: how could I
Outshine Mrs. Arbuthnot? She
Who rattled about politics
To my Prime Minister husband?
Her nicknamed her ‘La Tyranna’.
I stayed at Stratfield Saye, deep in
The folds of Hampshire; I brought up
Douro and Charles. Two sons I gave him.
‘How long my nose is a-growing!’
Groaned his heir. He wanted that beak –
That eagle beak that pierced right through
Napoleon’s dream. I couldn’t
Manage the account books – feared
The reins of the house; cared only for
My children, and the servants,
And those who sheltered
Under my charitable care.
This angered the First Duke. His ire
Was also drawn by my grey hair,
My sad grey hair. ‘Kitty, what you need
Is a wig.’ As if he thought he stood
Addressing officers in the mess.
I bought a wig, and threw away
My battered straw hat. I’ll admit –
Even my boys complained I dress
In a manner unbecoming.
Now clothes no longer matter. Here
I lie in Apsley House. The mob
Outside cares not at all that I
Am dying now. As my life thins
I hear the stones – like cannon balls –
They throw at our windows, enraged
That Waterloo’s hero cannot
Abide Reform. He’s by me now.
I place my hand around his arm;
Feel for the place. There! There it is:
The amulet I gave him when
We loved – young and ordinary.
I find it there, my proof of love –
And his: he loves me still. I touch
The hard, warm circle round his wrist.