With the sad news that Lord Raglan’s collection is up for auction at Christie’s in London on 22-23 of May, this is an opportune time to explore the runners and riders in the race for recognition as The Duke of Wellington’s favourite niece.
Lot 40 of the Raglan sale (above) contains all three candidates for this special place in the affections of our greatest military general. As the item is likely to fetch upwards of £50,000 there is a distinct possibility that it will leave the UK once the gavel has fallen next week. So if you have a chance to get to King Street prior to auction, I would recommend you seize the moment, and view first hand this wonderful portrait of three women collectively dubbed ‘the three graces’. From left to right we have Mary Bagot, Emily Raglan and Priscilla Burghersh. These ladies more than compensated for the stress and disruption Wellington endured at the hands of their only brother ‘Wicked’ William Long-Wellesley, and for distinct reasons each one has been attributed by differing historians the honour of being Wellington’s favourite niece.
Let’s examine each claim individually
Contestant No 1 – Mary Bagot (Age in picture -28)
As Wellesley-Pole’s eldest daughter Mary was old enough to remember her kindly uncle as a lodger at the family home in Hanover Square before he set off for India in 1797. She was a wild child like her brother William, and brought a fair degree of scandal upon the Wellesley family even after her marriage to society hunk Charles ‘Beauty’ Bagot.
Link to Wellington
Mary really came into her own after 1816 when she went to Washington when her husband was appointed Ambassador to America. It was here she became close friends with the Caton family whose three wealthy daughters Marianne, Bess, Louisa were intending to visit England and Europe. It was Mary Bagot that directed the Caton sisters to her parent’s house in Savile Row, where Marianne first met Arthur Wellesley and became perhaps the single most important relationship of his life. However, this was one battle that Wellington ended up losing, and the victorious suitor who deprived him of Marianne’s love was none other than Richard, his oldest brother. Wellington never really came to terms with the loss of this great love of his life to a brother he regarded with suspicion and contempt.
When Wellington went to St Petersburg for the funeral of Czar Alexander in 1825 he was guaranteed a great reception not only because of his exploits at Waterloo but also on account of Mary Bagot’s popularity in the Russian court during her husband’s 3 year stint as ambassador to Russia
Jehanne Wake, who has written an excellent book on the Caton sisters entitled Sisters of Fortune, identifies Mary as Wellington’s favourite.
Mary’s husband Charles was very closely allied to George Canning, with whom Wellington had a long history of animosity. This would have made it awkward for Mary to have been the chosen one
Interesting Fact about Mary
When Napoleon returned to Paris in 1814, he spotted Mary at Notre Dame Cathedral and had her carriage moved to the front steps so that she could not leave without acknowledging him.
Contestant No 2 – Priscilla Burghersh (Age in picture 22)
Priscilla is widely regarded as Wellington’s favourite niece not least because there is a plenty of correspondence between her and the Duke of Wellington. Though she was only 5 when Uncle Arthur went to India, she vividly remembered that his first port of call upon his return in 1805 was to the Wellesley-Pole house in Blackheath where he insisted that Priscilla was roused from her bed so he could see her.
Priscilla was a very straight-laced woman who firmly believed in decorum at all times.
Link to Wellington
She met and married Wellington’s aide-de-camp Lord Burghersh, who was a talented musician and sensitive man, not cut out for military life. However Burghersh was a brave soldier met his bride having been sent home injured from the Peninsular and was told to visit Wellesley-Pole by Wellington during his convalescence. Once married Priscilla joined her husband travelling with the Allied forces from Germany towards France right up until Napoleon’s defeat and exile in 1814. She kept a journal recoding events of the war which was published by John Murray in 1822.
Priscilla spent many years abroad as her husband became an established diplomat. After her return to England in the late 1820s she spent a lot of time in her uncle’s company, sharing his views on morals and standards in public life. Her uncompromising character and inflexibility drew comparisons with Wellington.
Historians such as John Severn and Elizabeth Longford, as well as the curators of Apsley House, which was Wellington’s London home. Priscilla can be found standing in a doorway in the Waterloo Banquet painting in the lobby of Apsley House looking kindly over her uncle as he hosts the veterans’ annual dinner. A very good copy of that iconic print is amongst the lots for sale this week, together with some paintings by Priscilla, who was a very competent artist in her own right.
It is hard to believe that Wellington could confide in Priscilla considering her uncompromising principles
Interesting Fact about Priscilla
When Napoleon escaped from Elba and made his return to France he travelled under the false name of ‘Lord Burghersh,’ which if nothing else proves that the Emperor had a great sense of humour
Contestant No 3 – Emily Raglan (Age in picture – 21)
Youngest of the Wellesley-Pole sisters, Emily was present at Brussels, about to give birth, on the day of the Battle of Waterloo. She married Wellington’s most famous aide-de-camp Fitzroy Somerset in 1814 having travelled to Paris with her father to visit her victorious uncle Arthur following Napoleon’s defeat and exile. Whilst there she met and fell in love with Fitzroy Somerset, though she was besieged with suitors for several years before and right up to the day of her marriage.
Link to Wellington
As we all know, Fitzroy Somerset (or Lord Raglan as he became) lost his arm at the Battle of Waterloo. As Wellington’s closest military confidante and now family-member, Raglan continued to enjoy a close relationship with the Duke long after they left the arena of warfare. Naturally Wellington was very familiar with his niece whom he saw regularly for a great many years
John Sweetman, who has written the definitive biography of Lord Raglan, emphasises the special relationship between the Duke and Emily as wife to his closest companion. Also the very knowledgeable staff at Christie’s in King Street, who have prepared a truly sumptuous auction guide, are very much in favour of Emily’s claim.
Emily was a bit of a hypochondriac and there is plenty of evidence to suggest she could be a real pain in the butt at times moaning about various ailments. Her own husband found her a little wearing for this reason. This might explain why Emily burned all the Raglan private correspondence after her husband’s tragic death in the Crimea in 1855
Interesting Fact about Emily
Emily was pestered for a time by Charles Arbuthnot, who was dazzled by her renowned beauty. Then, when she went to Paris in 1814 a young prince became besotted and followed her round like a love-sick puppy. The Wellesley-Poles took pity on him because they knew that Emily had fallen for Fitzroy Somerset. So they brought him back to England and Emily introduced this handsome admirer named Leopold of Saxe-Coburg to her good friend Princess Charlotte. But for Charlotte’s tragic death, Emily could have been the maker of a new royal dynasty, though Leopold did go on to become King of Belgium, which for some must be considered a booby prize.
It’s a close one to call especially as both Mary Bagot and Emily Raglan destroyed their private correspondence, but on balance I would have to opt for Priscilla as there seems to be a definite bond between herself and Wellington in the pages of their surviving published letters, that seems to indicate a mutual love and understanding. Of course you must decide for yourselves, as this 200-year old debate will continue to divide opinion!
I hope this blog has shed some light on some very interesting WOMEN in the Wellesley family, each of whom I am sure you will agree are worthy of greater attention.
Even if they don’t receive any recognition on their own right, I hope at least we can continue to appreciate their beauty via Lawrence’s work, if a white-knight comes forward to buy this fascinating drawing for the nation
For more information on the dispersal of Lord Raglan’s collection visit http://www.raglanrescue.co.uk/