Exhibition celebrates historical ball

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by Robert Hillingford, 1870s. SUS-150708-132456001
The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by Robert Hillingford, 1870s. SUS-150708-132456001

Amidst the recent Waterloo commemorations, readers may have spotted a reference to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball which took place in Brussels on 15th June 1815, just three days before Waterloo.

The arrival of a messenger half-way through the ball set in train a sequence of events that would culminate in the Battle of Waterloo, thus making the ball arguably the most famous in history.

Our summer exhibition at Goodwood House celebrates the 200th anniversary of the ball.

Like many English aristocrats at that time, the fourth Duke and Duchess of Richmond were living in Brussels owing to straitened circumstances. Their house became a hub of social activity filled with family and friends, including their own thirteen children. The Duchess invited the cream of Belgian and Dutch society, British civilians, diplomats and army officers to her ball. The Duke of Wellington, a great friend of the family, and the Prince of Orange were among the guests, all of whom appear in her guest list which is one of the treasures of the Goodwood collection.

In February 1815, Napoleon had slipped between the hands of his captors and escaped from the island of Elba. He quickly built up an army while the Dutch, Belgian, Austrian, German and English forces gathered together to oppose him.

The message that was delivered to Wellington in the middle of the ball reported that Napoleon had crossed the border into Belgium. Examining a map with the Duke of Richmond, Wellington declared, ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God, he has gained twenty-four hours march on me’. When Richmond asked what he intended to do, he replied that he had told the army to concentrate at Quatre-Bras, but that he would not stop Napoleon there, and pointing to the map placed his thumbnail on Waterloo declaring, ‘I must fight him here’.

That night many of the guests left the ball straight for the holding battle of Quatre-Bras, followed two days later by the battle of Waterloo.

Heart-wrenching scenes took place in the early hours of the morning as soldiers said goodbye to their loved ones, some never to see them again. The ball was immortalised by Lord Byron in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818) and William Thackeray in his novel Vanity Fair (1847-1848).

The summer exhibition tells the story of the ball accompanied by fascinating items, such as the fan the Duchess fluttered on the evening and the silver plate Napoleon breakfasted off. Two of the Duke of Richmond’s sons fought at Waterloo and their portraits can be seen, proudly wearing their Waterloo medals (which are displayed in a cabinet nearby). By far the most poignant exhibit, is a military ‘coatee’, worn at the ball by Captain Thomas Harris. He was still wearing it when he was severely wounded leading a cavalry charge at Waterloo three days later. Left for dead, his cousin found him almost lifeless the next day and took him to a surgeon who amputated his arm. Miraculously, he lived to the ripe old age of 77, despite a musket ball remaining in his chest.

Dancing into Battle: The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball at Goodwood House, August 3 – October 11. Open 1 – 5 pm, Sundays to Thursdays in August, Sundays and Mondays in September and October (www.Goodwood.com 01243 755 040).

Cream teas in the Ballroom can be pre-booked by calling 01243 775 537.

The Hampshire Regency Dancers will be performing on Sunday, September 27.