Duchess of Richmond's ball

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The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by Robert Alexander Hillingford (1870s)

The Duchess of Richmond's ball was a ball hosted by Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond in Brussels on 15 June 1815, the night before the Battle of Quatre Bras. Charlotte's husband Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, was in command of a reserve force in Brussels, which was protecting that city in case Napoleon Bonaparte invaded.

Elizabeth Longford described it as "the most famous ball in history".[1] "The ball was certainly a brilliant affair",[2] at which "with the exception of three generals, every officer high in [Wellington's] army was there to be seen".[3]

The proceedings were interrupted soon after the arrival of the Duke of Wellington, when he was notified of Napoleon's unexpected advance on the nearby crossroads of Quatre Bras. This forced him to depart after ordering his officers to leave to join their regiments. Some of the officers would soon die in battle and the poignancy of the drama has provided an enduring theme for artists, novelists and poets.

The ball[edit]

According to Lady Georgiana, a daughter of the Duchess,

Lady Louisa, another of the Duchess's daughters, recalled:

While the exact order of the dances at this ball is not known, there is a comment from a contemporary critical observer about the season in Brussels:

Intelligence of the Battle of Ligny (1818) by William Heath, depicting a Prussian officer informing the Duke of Wellington that the French have crossed the border at Charleroi and that the Prussians would concentrate their army at Ligny

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington with his intimate staff arrived some time between 11 pm. and midnight.[c] Shortly before supper, which started around 1 am.,[7] Henry Weber, an aide-de-camp to the William, Prince of Orange, arrived with a message for the Prince. The Prince handed it to Wellington, who pocketed it unopened. A short time later Wellington read the message—written at around 10 pm., it reported that Prussian forces had been forced by the French to retreat from Fleurus. As Fleurus is north-east of Charleroi this meant that the French had crossed the river Sambre (although Wellington couldn't tell from this message in what strength)— Wellington requested the Prince to return to his headquarters immediately, and then after issuing a few more orders went into supper, where he sat between Lady Frances Webster and Lady Georgiana. To his surprise the Prince of Orange returned and in a whisper informed him of another dispatch, this one sent by Baron Rebecque to the Prince's headquarters at Braine-le-Comte, and dated 10:30 pm. It informed the Prince that the French had pushed up the main Charleroi to Brussels road nearly as far as Quatre Bras.[d] After repeating to the Prince that he should return to his headquarters, Wellington continued to sit at the table and make small talk for 20 minutes more, before announcing that he would retire to bed. He rose from the supper-table and:[8]

The atmosphere in the room changed when news circulated among the guests that the French were crossing the border:

Before Waterloo (1868), by Henry O'Neil, depicting officers departing from the Duchess of Richmond's ball

Katherine Arden daughter of Richard Arden, 1st Lord Alvanley described the events towards the end of the ball and the rest of the night:


Floor plan by William brother of Lady de Ros

At the time of the ball no accurate record was kept of the location of the ballroom. In 1887 a plan of the house was published by Lady De Ros (daughter of the Duchess of Richmond), provided by her brother, who were both resident in the house. It was later reprinted in "Reminiscences of Lady de Ros" by the Honourable Mrs J. R. Swinton, her daughter.[11]

The coach house, proposed by Sir William Fraser in 1888 as the likely location of the ball

Sir William Fraser examined the site and concluded that the room proposed as the ballroom by Lady de Ros was too small a space for the number of people who attended the ball.[12] A short time after his visit, he wrote a letter to The Times which was published on 25 August 1888. He reported that he had likely discovered the room and that it was not part of the principal property that the Duke of Richmond had rented on the Rue des Cendres, but was a coach house that backed onto the property and had an address in the next street, the Rue de la Blanchisserie. The room had dimensions of 120 feet (37 m) long, 54 feet (16 m) broad, and about 13 feet (4.0 m) high (the low ceiling was a case where reality impinged on one meaning of Lord Byron's artistic allusion to "that high hall").[13][14]

Research by lawyer P. Duvivier and published by Fleischman and Aerts in their 1956 book Bruxelles pendant la bataille de Waterloo put forward an alternative theory. It proposes that, unknown to Fraser, the coach house used as a ballroom had been demolished by the time of his investigations and that the building he assumed was the ballroom was not built until after 1815.[15]

List of invitations[edit]

The following were sent invitations to the ball:[f][g]

Cultural influences[edit]

The Black Brunswicker by Millais

The ball inspired a number of writers and artists in the nineteenth century.[27] Sir Walter Scott mentioned it in passing in Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk.[28] It was described by William Makepeace Thackeray in Vanity Fair and by Lord Byron in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron emphasises the contrast between the glamour of the ball and the horror of battle, concentrating on the emotional partings,

Thackeray's dramatic use of the ball in Vanity Fair inspired, in turn, a number of screen depictions. One notable example comes from the 1935 RKO production Becky Sharp, the first full-length Technicolor film released after perfection of the full-color three-strip method,[30][31] which makes the Duchess of Richmond's Ball the first historical set-piece ever staged in a full-colour feature film.[32] Critics of the day were not kind to the picture itself, but the sequence in which the officers hurry to leave the ball — the red of their coats suddenly and emotionally filling the frame — was widely praised as showing great promise for the dramatic use of colour on-screen.[33]

The ball also inspired artists, including John Everett Millais, who painted The Black Brunswicker in 1860, Henry Nelson O'Neil who painted Before Waterloo in 1868 and Robert Hillingford who painted The Duchess of Richmond's Ball.[16]

The ball was a scene in the third act of a melodrama called In the Days of the Duke written by Charles Haddon Chambers and J. Comyns Carr, it was displayed sumptuously in the 1897 production, with a backdrop by William Harford showing the hall and staircase inside the Duchess's house.[34]

Several characters attend the ball in Georgette Heyer's 1937 novel An Infamous Army, and also in her novelisation of the life of Sir Harry Smith, 1st Baronet, The Spanish Bride.

Summoned to Waterloo: Brussels, dawn of June 16, 1815 by Robert Alexander Hillingford

The ball was used by Sergei Bondarchuk in his 1970 film Waterloo for dramatic effect. Bondarchuk contrasted an army at peace with the impending battle and in particular as a dramatic backdrop to show how completely Napoleon managed to "humbug" Wellington.

In the novel Sharpe's Waterloo (1990), Bernard Cornwell uses the ball in a similar way to Bondarchuk, placing his character Richard Sharpe in the role of the aide who brings the catastrophic news to Wellington, but includes a sub-plot where Sharpe brawls with Lord John Rossendale, Sharpe's wife's lover and a man who owes Sharpe money.

A fictional account is given of the Duchess of Richmond's ball in The Campaigners, Volume 14 of The Morland Dynasty, a series of historical novels by author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Some of the fictional Morland family and other characters attend the ball and the events that unfold are seen and experienced through their eyes.

The ball serves as the backdrop for the first chapter of Julian Fellowes's 2016 novel, Belgravia. The chapter is titled, "Dancing into Battle," and portrays a potential mésalliance that is avoided the next day by a battlefield fatality at Quatre Bras. Fellowes incorporates into his book real events that occurred during the ball, and inserts his fictional characters into them.

Descendants of guests at the original ball, participating in the Bicentennial Ball in 2015

On 15 June 1965 the British Ambassador in Brussels held a ball to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and the Duchess of Richmond's ball. 540 guests attended the function of whom the majority were Belgians.[35] This commemoration ball has now become an annual event with the money raised going to support several charities.[36]


  1. ^ Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond, was herself a Gordon: The eldest daughter of Alexander, Duke of Gordon and Jane, the daughter of Sir William Maxwell, 3rd Baronet of Monreith.
  2. ^ Due to the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars British society had been cut off from the fashions in the rest of Europe and with the end of hostilities in 1814, those who ventured to visit the European Continent were keen to assimilate the latest continental fashions including the new dances (if only not to appear staid and old-fashioned in continental society).[5] Not everyone in Britain approved, and after the waltz was danced at the Prince Regent's court the following year The Times thundered in an editorial about "this obscene display" and warned "every parent against exposing their daughter to so fatal a contagion".[6]
  3. ^ Tim Clayton states Wellington must have arrived around 11 pm.,(Clayton 2014, p. 76) while Miller places the Duke's arrival around midnight (Miller 2005, p. 67).
  4. ^ This second dispatch provided some additional vital information for Wellington. The first was that as Fleurus was on a different main road out of Charleroi from that of Quatre Bras, this meant the French must have crossed the river Sambre in force. Secondly although Charleroi and Fleurus were picketed by the Prussians, the area directly south of Quatre Bras was picketed by the Anglo-allies and this meant that units of his own command were now head-to-head with the French.
  5. ^ "In the course of the evening the duke asked my father for a map of the country and went into his study, which was on the same floor as the ball-room, to look at it. He put his finger on Waterloo, saying the battle would be fought there. My father marked the spot with his pencil, but alas! That map was lost or stolen for it never returned from Canada with his other possessions" (Dowager Lady De Ros 1889, p. 43).
  6. ^ "The following list of the invited guests was given by my mother to Lord Verulam, who sent me a copy of it. Several of the officers were not present, being on duty" — Georgiana, Dowager Lady De Ros (Swinton 1893, pp. 124–132).
  7. ^ A number of entries have been adjusted using the list provided by the Royal Armouries 2015. The adjustments includes assigning ranks and regiments to those present as well as casualties.
  8. ^ Lady De Ros annotated her list with this comment "(from their house we saw the wounded brought in: Lord Uxbridge, Lord F. Somerset, etc.)" (Swinton 1893, p. 125).
  9. ^ Countess Dowager Anne-Henriette d'Oultremont (nee de Neuf; 1757–1830) was the mother of Count Emile d'Oultremont (Miller 2005, pp. 76–77)
  10. ^ The daughter, Lady Elizabeth Conyngham, married Charles Gordon, 10th Marquess of Huntly (Bulloch 1902, p. 42).
  11. ^ Duke of Wellington's liaison officer at the Prince of Orange's headquarters (Hofschröer 2006, p. 2).
  12. ^ Lady Sutton was the widow of Sir Thomas Sutton, 1st Baronet (Miller 2005, p. 61).
  13. ^ Rev. Samuel Briscall name is spelt "Brixall" in the Lady De Ros list (Swinton 1893, p. 132).
  1. ^ Hastings 1986, pp. 230.
  2. ^ a b Bulloch 1902, p. 42.
  3. ^ a b Arden 1898, Letter.
  4. ^ Dowager Lady De Ros 1889, p. 40.
  5. ^ a b Miller 2005, p. 67.
  6. ^ Rust 2013, p. 69.
  7. ^ Clayton 2014, p. 77.
  8. ^ Hastings 1986, pp. 233–234.
  9. ^ Forbes 1896, Chapter: "The inner history of the Waterloo Campaign" cites the Letters of the First Earl of Malmesbury
  10. ^ Dowager Lady De Ros 1889, pp. 40, 43.
  11. ^ Dowager Lady De Ros 1889, p. 39.
  12. ^ Fraser 1902, pp. 304–310.
  13. ^ Fraser 1902, pp. 270–273.
  14. ^ Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto the Third, stanza XXIII.
  15. ^ Wit 2014 cites Fleischman & Aerts 1956, pp. 234–237
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap Royal Armouries 2015.
  17. ^ Eupedia 2013.
  18. ^ Summerville 2007, p. 4.
  19. ^ Lady Alvanley, and daughters Katherine and Fanny (Arden 1898, Letter).
  20. ^ Fuller-Sessions 2008.
  21. ^ a b Mount 2015.
  22. ^ a b Grandson of George Gordon, 3rd Earl of Aberdeen (Bulloch 1902, p. 42).
  23. ^ a b c d e Royal Armouries 2015; Mount 2015
  24. ^ Urban 1838, p. 443.
  25. ^ Gray 1966.
  26. ^ Glover 1968.
  27. ^ Fraser 1902, p. 272.
  28. ^ Scott 1841, p. 16.
  29. ^ wikisource has the original text of this poem.
  30. ^ Hart 2010.
  31. ^ FM Staff 1934.
  32. ^ Higgins 2007, p. 48.
  33. ^ Higgins 2007, Chapter 3.
  34. ^ Bulloch 1902, p. 43; New York Times 1897, p. 7; and Eastern Michigan University 2009
  35. ^ Hansard 1965
  36. ^ Robinson 2011; and Committee of the Duchess of Richmond Ball 2013


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°51′13″N 4°21′33″E / 50.8535°N 4.3592°E / 50.8535; 4.3592