Rear Window: When Wellington said publish and be damned: The Field Marshal and the Scarlet Woman

Share
Related Topics
ONE morning in December 1824, the Duke of Wellington received an unpleasant letter. 'My Lord Duke,' it began, 'in Harriette Wilson's Memoirs, which I am about to publish, are various anecdotes of Your Grace which it would be most desirable to withhold, at least such is my opinion. I have stopped the Press for the moment, but as the publication will take place next week, little delay can necessarily take place.'

The letter, signed by one Joseph Stockdale, a pornographer and scandal-monger, was a naked attempt at blackmail. The Duke was a field marshal, cabinet minister, national hero, husband and father, while Harriette Wilson was a famous London courtesan past her prime, then living in exile in Paris. Wellington was being asked to pay money to be left out of her memoirs.

His response is famous: 'Publish and be damned]' And they did. Through 1825 the memoirs appeared by instalments, each with a dramatis personae listing the notables named in order of rank - 'Dukes: Argyll, Beaufort, de Guiche, Leinster . . .' and so on through earls and viscounts down to humble esquires.

London society was thrilled and scandalised. Half the aristocracy was named in the book, and painted in a most unflattering light. The memoirs went through 31 editions in one year; excerpts were pirated and sold as illustrated broadsheets and French and German editions quickly appeared to delight the gossips of the Continent.

Stockdale, the impresario, and Wilson, the scarlet woman, were said to have made pounds 10,000 from the enterprise, but their good fortune did not last. Stockdale was soon ruined by libel suits, while Harriette was down on her luck again within a few years, and died in obscurity.

What did her memoirs reveal about the Duke? He was, she wrote, her 'faithful lover, whose love survived six winters'. He was 'my own Wellington, who sighed over me and groaned over me by the hour, talked of my wonderful beauty, ran after me . . .' and he was 'my constant visitor', a 'modern Bluebeard', 'my old beau'.

Her story was that they became lovers in 1805, not long after he returned from India a general and a minor celebrity (and not long after he was married). They had a halting relationship for some years, interrupted by the Peninsular War, and eventually drifted apart. There was one last meeting, in Paris in 1814, when they swapped memories and he stopped her laughter by 'kissing me by main force'.

She felt she and Stockdale had acted fairly by giving him the chance to buy his way out of her book - others, she wrote, had seized the offer with gratitude - and she did not spare him in print. Not only was he named among her throng of clients, he was also mocked and belittled for his lack of charm and style. The Duke, she said, was 'most unentertaining', 'very uphill work', and 'in the evenings, when he wore his broad red ribbon, he looked very much like a rat-catcher'.

Elizabeth Longford, biographer of Wellington, dismisses much of Harriette's story as 'choice lies', pointing out errors of detail and chronology which render some of the scenes impossible. But she detects a germ of truth. Wellington was a lady's man caught in a loveless marriage; he is known to have patronised the procuress in Berkeley Street, who acted for Wilson; and the dialogue in the memoirs, it was noted at the time, accurately captures the Duke's speech.

Although Wellington's answer to Stockdale's blackmail letter does not survive in his own hand, there is no reason to doubt he used those famous words. But his stance was less bold than they suggest, for he also threatened to sue 'if such trash is published'.

The threat was ignored but the Duke did not issue a writ, perhaps because others got there before him, or perhaps because there was too much truth in what Wilson wrote. Either way, his reputation did not suffer and he was not forced to resign for reasons of security or hypocrisy or anything else. On the contrary, he remained the nation's hero and went on to become prime minister.

Real Life, page 24

(Photographs omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape