History buffs and hist-rom readers alike know that adultery has traditionally been an accepted, even expected, feature of aristocratic life—and not just in the distant past, either. It’s rumored that during one of Charles and Diana’s blazing rows about his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, Charles was heard to ask in disbelief, “Am I to be the first Prince of Wales without a mistress?”
Eventually, like generations of aristocratic wives before her, Diana took lovers of her own. What made the Prince and Princess of Wales different from so many royal couples was that their various and public infidelities led to divorce. In the past, most couples just chose to lead separate lives. Indeed, that’s still the case today with many royals (see: Princess Caroline of Monaco and Prince Ernst August of Hanover).
Most aristocrats married for reasons other than love—money, property, political influence. Except for those very rare cases of love matches, aristocratic marriages often joined together two people who didn’t know, didn’t like, or couldn’t stand one another. It was assumed that once the business of procreation had been dealt with, husband and wife might spend the rest of their lives minimizing the amount of time they had to spend together. The phrase “an heir and a spare” was coined by Consuelo Vanderbilt (miserably married to the Duke of Marlborough) in the early twentieth century, but she was simply describing the matrimonial reality of British nobility. Once a wife had given her husband an indisputably legitimate son to inherit his title and estates (and an extra or two was ideal) she was usually free to pursue her own satisfaction while her husband took his pleasure as he liked.
Rather more discretion was demanded of a woman than of her husband, of course—the double standard is as old as civilization itself, and I can’t think offhand of one society that hasn’t adhered to it.
Some women weren’t too clear on the concept of discretion—cf. Lady Caroline Ponsonby, aka Lady Caroline Lamb, aka the woman who declared Lord Byron mad, bad and dangerous to know. Caroline disguised herself as a pageboy to lurk outside houses waiting for Byron to emerge, threw screaming fits at him in public after he dumped her, and generally made such a spectacle of herself over her former lover that her husband packed her off to Ireland to calm down.
Jane, Lady Oxford, produced a number of children in the course of her marriage to the fifth Earl of Oxford, but no one was ever sure which, if any, were his. Society wits referred to Lady Oxford’s brood as the Harleian Miscellany, after the famed literary collection put together by the Earl’s ancestor. (If you’ve read Gaelyn Foley’s Knight Miscellany series, you’ll recognize the inspiration for the late Duchess of Hawkscliffe.)
These women incurred Society’s scorn not because they were unfaithful to their husbands, but because they were indiscreet. Even so, neither Lady Caroline nor Lady Oxford’s behavior resulted in divorce. The Earl of Oxford never denied paternity of Lady Oxford’s children. Most noblemen acknowledged their wives’ children as their own, at least legally, in order to save face and avoid scandal.
Divorce was nearly unthinkable and very difficult to obtain, even for the rich and titled. And—big surprise—it was much harder on women than on men. A father retained custody of his minor children and could prevent his ex-wife from having contact with them. Married women had no legal rights to speak of, and divorce did nothing to improve that.
So the vast majority of aristocratic couples married, had some kids, and then turned a blind eye to whatever their spouses did as they went their own way. The only rule was not to make a fuss or become a topic of public conversation.
Every once in a while, though, someone would refuse to play by the rules. In one particular family, a whole bunch of people refused, and they wound up generating lots of public conversation.
My boyfriend, the Duke of Wellington. You had to know he’d pop up, right?
The Duke of Wellington’s wife, Kitty, was a model of marital fidelity and parental devotion. Wellington was neither, but despite his well-known fondness for women, and widespread rumors about his affairs, the marriage lasted twenty-five years with no hint of real scandal. However, the rest of his family was covered in the stuff.
His elder brother Richard, Marquess Wellesley, married his mistress after she’d given him five children. When he tired of her and sued for divorce, she refused to move out of the house.
Wellington’s niece (and Richard’s daughter), Anne, left her husband for a son of the Duke of Portland. She went home to her husband for a spell, but then ran off with her lover again.
Two of Wellington’s brothers, who married two sisters, lost their wives to other men. The Rev. Gerald Wellesley’s wife Emily, a daughter of the Earl of Cadogan, eloped with her lover.
Then there was Emily’s sister, Charlotte, who was married to Wellington’s brother Henry. Charlotte fell in love with the Earl of Uxbridge, causing a scandal that shocked and fascinated Londoners of all classes for months. This scandal had everything—duels, disguises, secret assignations, threats of suicide. It reads like something out of Page Six or Vanity Fair.
Lady Charlotte Wellesley was married to Henry Wellesley and the mother of his four children when she met Henry Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge, in 1808. Lord Uxbridge was married to Lady Caroline; they had eight children.
(When the scandal exploded—to the horror of one of Uxbridge’s relatives, “even the mob” was talking about it—people took to referring to the two women as Car and Char for short. So—Car is Uxbridge’s wife, Char is the women he left his wife for.)
Uxbridge was one seriously gallant son of a bitch—Elizabeth Longford says he was probably the best cavalry officer in the Army—and handsome to boot. Nick Foulkes, whose Dancing Into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo, is a delight to read (I quoted him in my earlier post about Wellington), calls Uxbridge “the apotheosis of the moustachio-twirling officer of a romantic novel.”
So Lady Charlotte meets Lord Uxbridge and they have a fling—normal aristocratic behavior, right? Well, not to Henry Wellesley, Char’s poor husband. Henry (if you’ll notice, Char’s lover and husband had the same name – which might have made things easier for Char, at least at first) started the whole thing. For some reason he decided that Uxbridge was just the guy to accompany Char on the horseback riding excursions that had been prescribed for her health. Why Henry thought it was a good idea to put his wife in the company of a handsome, dashing cavalry hero has never been explained.
Presently he began to notice that Uxbridge was paying rather too much attention to Lady Charlotte. So, in the manner of Lady Caroline Lamb’s and countless other cuckolded husbands since the days of Chaucer, Henry decided to pack his wife off to some place where her virtue would be safe(r).
It didn’t work. Charlotte and Uxbridge still managed to steal time together.
Now, Car—that’s Caroline, Uxbridge’s wife—was used to her husband’s affairs by this time. She probably didn’t expect him to desert his family for his new lover. But don’t start feeling sorry for Car—she was consoling herself with the Duke of Argyll.
The clueless Henry eventually figured out that Char and Uxbridge were still seeing each other. He flew into a rage, declaring that he and Charlotte could no longer live under the same roof.
Charlotte said fine with me, grabbed a cab in Green Park, and disappeared.
There followed lots of drama. Foulkes summarizes it neatly:
The ensuing scenes are worthy of a nineteenth-century melodrama*: husband fearing his adulterous wife has committed suicide; wife hidden in a black veil, which she wears at all times, even it is said in bed with her lover; lover, dressed in his oldest clothes to avoid recognition, meets the missing wife in a hackney carriage and takes her to the apartments of an old friend; old friend moves out into local hotel telling everyone that the couple in his apartments are friends visiting from the country who are unable to afford an hotel room; husband tracks down errant wife by following a delivery of linen; husband pleads with estranged wife to return to his side; however wife refuses, declaring that ‘she could never think of returning home after the Iniquitous Act she had been guilty of with Lord Paget.’ (Foulkes, p. 77)
However it sounds to us now, it wasn’t at all funny to the participants.
Henry and Charlotte’s children were so miserable without their mother that Henry couldn’t stand it. At one point, Paget had left town, leaving Charlotte without his “protection”—because it would have been unthinkable for her to live by herself—so Henry allowed her to move back into the marital home and have contact with her children again, even though divorce proceedings had already started. But there was no chance of reconciliation.
Charlotte gave birth to Gerald Valerian Wellesley who, despite his surname, was Uxbridge’s child. Henry refused to accept paternity. (From beginning to end, Henry just wouldn’t play the game. I wonder if anyone ever took him aside and said, “What’s with the fuss and bother, old boy? Get yourself a mistress and quit all this nonsense. You’re embarrassing yourself.”)
Eventually Kitty Wellesley (Wellington wasn’t Wellington at this point, just General Wellesley) took baby Gerald, the “miserable little Being,” into her home and raised him, explaining that “the wretched infant is rejected by every body.” (Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: the Years of the Sword, p. 204)
Meanwhile, both Charlotte and Uxbridge were in agony, even as they plotted and planned to be together. Uxbridge wrote to his father that he wished he’d died in battle in Spain and that he was afraid to visit his own home because the sight of his children might make him kill himself. Charlotte referred to the affair as “this most criminal atrocious attachment” and wanted people to know that Henry Wellesley had ever been “kind to me in the greatest Degree.”
However, private anguish did not translate into public sympathy. Old Lord Uxbridge was so incensed that he threatened to cut his eldest son off and had to be restrained from physically bursting in on the lovers. Lady Charlotte was widely seen as a temptress who had separated a man from his family and was called everything from a “maudite sorcière” to a “nefarious damned Hell-hound or a “stinking Pole Cat.” She had left her husband on a Monday and by Friday her flight was discussed by ‘the people in the streets’ and even, quelle horreur, ‘the mob.’ (Foulkes, p. 78)
Henry Cadogan, Charlotte’s brother (NB: that’s three Henrys now – her husband, her lover, and her brother) challenged Uxbridge to a duel. It might seem strange to us that her brother, rather than her husband, would’ve challenged her lover. But Henry Wellesley wasn’t the fighting type—he was a Secretary to the Treasury, later a diplomat, and Uxbridge was a bona fide war hero. And it’s likely Cadogan blamed Uxbridge for corrupting his sister because, after all, she was just a weak and vulnerable woman.
The duel produced no fatalities. Uxbridge wouldn’t aim to hit Cadogan, not wishing to cause the family any more distress.
Eventually, Uxbridge and Car divorced, and Henry and Char divorced. Car married the Duke of Argyll (I told you not to feel too sorry for her). Uxbridge and Char married each other and had nine more children together, in addition to the “wretched infant” Gerald. Relations between Uxbridge and his ex-wife were so cordial that their children went back and forth between the households, referring to the two women as Mama Argyll and Mama Paget.
I haven’t learned yet what happened to Char’s relationship with her older children, or if Henry even gave her access to them.
It all sounds very modern, doesn’t it? Do you think Uxbridge and Char would’ve shared the story of their courtship and marriage with the New York Times’ “Vows” column? Nah, probably not. Far too tacky.
Since this was the nineteenth century, the social consequences for Uxbridge were nothing like what Char had to endure. She was no longer welcome in polite society, even after they married. Uxbridge, on the other hand, was a highly respected Army officer from a noble family. Although the scandal kept him from serving under Wellington during the Peninsular Campaign, by the time Wellington was putting together an army to halt Napoleon’s return, Uxbridge was appointed his cavalry commander.
A lot of people assumed that Wellington would be loathe to have on his staff the man who’d stolen his brother’s wife. And in truth, Wellington had never been crazy about the cavalry—or officers of Uxbridge’s temperment, for that matter. He once opined that “There’s nothing so stupid as a gallant officer.” And of his cavalry he remarked, “His Royal Highness is our sovereign, and can do what he pleases; but this I will say, the cavalry of other European armies have won victories for their generals, but mine have invariably got me into scrapes.”
But despite his views on gallant cavalry officers, he didn’t protest Uxbridge’s appointment, leading some people to wonder if he’d forgotten the whole running away with his sister-in-law thing.
Of course he hadn’t forgotten, Wellington replied. “At any rate Lord Uxbridge has the reputation of running away with everybody he can. I’ll take good care he don’t run away with me: I don’t care about anybody else.” (Foulkes, p. 79)
The two men got along very well. Uxbridge served heroically at Waterloo, where he lost a leg. According to legend, when Uxbridge’s leg was shattered by a cannon (he was mounted and fighting at the time), he turned to Wellington and exclaimed “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” and Wellington is said to have responded, “By God, sir, so you have!”
The severed leg became a tourist attraction in the village of Waterloo.
Uxbridge retired to raise his eighteen children and be well cared for by Char. By the time he died at 85 (Char died, aged 71, less than a year earlier), he was the Marquess of Anglesey.
Some last, tangential points that might interest dedicated Regency readers:
Car (Uxbridge’s first wife) was the daughter of Lady Jersey—not the Lady Jersey who presided over Almack’s, but her mother-in-law, who had been a favorite mistress of the Prince of Wales. Lady Jersey the Prince Regent’s mistress was a jolly grande dame in the best seventeenth century tradition. Lady Jersey the Almack patroness was a conspicuously virtuous woman who didn’t approve of her mother-in-law at all.
Charlotte (and her sister Emily who, as you’ll remember, deserted Wellington’s other brother, Gerald) were the daughters of Earl Cadogan. Cadogan’s family name was Sloane. They gave their name to Sloane Square. Readers of a certain age will remember that Princess Diana was a Sloane Ranger—a kind of preppy young woman in the 1980s.
And my brother-in-law and sister-in-law lived for several years just off Sloane Square, in Cadogan Gardens. Okay, you might not find that interesting, but I did.
*Well, yeah. Because they were a nineteenth-century melodrama.