• Joanna Seldon

  • 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.