The Iron Duke’s Lady

The Fane family tree has its fair share of illustrious branches, weighed heavy with peers and politicians, soldiers and poets.
Among these sits a woman who bore influence at the very pinnacle of the British political elite, and who would leave in her journals a detailed record of the lives and beliefs of the ruling classes in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

 

‘Harriet Arbuthnot’ by John Hoppner c. 1805 (public domain)

Harriet Fane was born at Fulbeck Hall on the 10th September 1793, the youngest daughter of Mary and Henry Fane. Her early life was happy and privileged, and by her adulthood she was known for her beauty and her intelligence.

In 1814 Harriet married Charles Arbuthnot, a widow 26 years her senior, and with four children.

Her new husband was at the very heart of the British political establishment, serving as a joint Secretary of the Treasury.  As Patronage Secretary (a position equivalent to the modern day  Chief Whip to the Government) he was hugely influential and considered the right hand man of the then Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool.

It is not surprising that an intelligent young woman whose family contained peers and politicians would have an interest in the workings of the state; for Harriet politics became a passion close to obsession.

Her marriage opened the door to her involvement in a political realm that was otherwise closed to women. She was a passionate and well informed Tory who was vocal in her opposition to liberal ideals, particularly on the subject of Catholic emancipation, and her dislike of the leader of the opposition – George Canning.

Harriet and Charles befriended many of the key figures of the empire; in particular the then Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh (who is often referred to in the Journals as Lord Londonderry) and the Duke of Wellington. In time she would become a close friend and confidant to both men.

She began keeping her journal in February 1820, determined to ‘conquer my natural laziness & make it a rule from this time forth to write down all that occurs to me, or that I hear of in public affairs that is interesting to me’.  Her journal would become one of the most detailed accounts of political life in Regency Britain.
In it she records not only Westminster gossip, but also personal and political conversations she had with many leading figures, including Castlereagh and Wellington.

It is clear that this insightful and witty woman was adored by the men in her life – in a letter written to Charles Arbuthnot in 1819 Lord Castlereagh wrote ‘If Mrs Arbuthnot had come to Aix[1], she would have had the whole of Europe at her feet’. [2]

In 1822, after suffering a breakdown, Castlereagh committed suicide. Harriet’s account of his mental deterioration, growing paranoia and violent death, written several weeks after the ‘catastrophe’ is heart-breaking in its sensitivity and detail.

 ‘Some weeks have passed since I last opened my journal, but I have been unable to write in it. I have been stunned by the dreadful blow that has filled the country with grief and astonishment & has robbed me of the dearest & best friend I had on earth. Lord Londonderry has died by his own hand!!’  –  29th August 1822

The loss of her hero was devastating for Harriet, and Wellington stepped in promising to ‘fill the place of the friend [she had] lost’.
Wellington was close with both Charles and Harriet – but Harriet in particular became one of his closest and dearest friends, often accompanying him or acting as hostess at his events.

‘A sketch in the park’ (Arthur Wellesely, 1st Duke of Wellington; Harriet Arbutnot (nee Fane)) Published by Thomas Mclean, after an unknown artist, lithograph, Published 27th July 1834. NPG D7604. Used with permission

Over their years of friendship the pair exchanged letters numbering in the thousands. He would seek her opinion on almost everything from the remodeling of his London home, Apsley House, to his actions in parliament.

In 1823, Charles was awarded a sought after but less demanding position within the government (after much lobbying of Lord Liverpool by Wellington on behalf of both the Arbuthnots). The new job, although greatly desired by Charles, came with a pay cut, and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the same year Harriet was awarded a Civil List Pension of £1200 per annum (which would equate to around £140,000 today).

During Wellington’s less than popular stint as Prime Minister, she was an unwavering support in both his personal and professional life, often commiserating with him over his unhappy marriage. There was however room in their friendship for disagreement, and the two would argue – sometimes publicly – when their opinions differed.

Describing one such public argument Harriet wrote:
‘he said I always told him the most disagreeable things in the most invidious manner … I, on the other hand…told him that if that was his way of behaving, he would neither have a friend or deserve one…I thought the people on the Mall would have thought he was mad, he talked so loud; but we ended as we always do. We made up our quarrel & were very good friends’  – 16th November 1828

Such was Wellington’s affection for Harriet that among many personal gifts he gave her was Copenhagen, the famous stallion he had ridden at the Battle of Waterloo.

It has often been assumed that Harriet was Wellington’s mistress, and the pair were even subject to an ill judged blackmail attempt, however after the publication of her diaries in 1950 it is now believed that although the two were very dear friends, that their relationship was entirely platonic.

In 1830 the Tories lost control of the House, and Harriet lost both her informants, and her interest in government, her final journal entry was abandoned mid-sentence.

The Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot, while sometimes petty and always partisan, gives an unmatched insight into the inner workings of a decade of British Government.

Harriet contracted Cholera and died suddenly on the 2nd August 1834 aged just 40.
Her funeral cortege travelled from the home she shared with Charles in Woodford, Northamptonshire to Fulbeck, resting at both Stamford and Grantham.  Harriet is buried in the Fane family plot at Fulbeck Church.

Shortly after her death, Charles ordered that Harriet’s journals ‘all of which have a lock and are locked’ be securely preserved, he wrote to Wellington explaining his intentions:

‘I mean that ultimately they should go to you; but when they go I must beg you not to destroy them at least while I live…I intreat you not to burn them as I shall wish them to be a sacred Deposit with you’[3].

By January 1835, Charles handed his estate at Woodford to his son, and followed the diaries to Aspley House.
He and Wellington lived there together, surrounded by the legacy of Harriet’s influence, until Charles died in 1850.

 

Notes:

[1] ‘Aix’ refers to the congress of Aix la Chalpelle in 1818, one of a series of congresses held by the heads of state of Europe to determine the future of the continent in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

 

References

Unless otherwise stated all quotes are taken from:
Bamford, F.  and Duke of Wellington (1950) ‘The Journal of Mrs. ArbuthnotVolumes I and II , Macmillan, London.

[2] Delaforce, P (2014) ‘Wellington the Beau: the life and loves of the Duke of Wellington’, Thistle Publishing

[3] Letter from Charles Arbuthnot to Duke of Wellington 2nd September 1834, as published in The Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot, Volume I, (1950) Macmillan

Bew, J (2012), ‘Castlereagh, A Life‘, Oxford University Press

Lee, S, (2015) ‘Harriet Arbuthnot and ‘the Vortex of Politics’ ‘
https://history.blog.gov.uk/2015/01/12/harriet-arbuthnot-and-the-vortex-of-politics/  accessed 10/7/18

The Story of Apsley House
www.wellingtoncollection.co.uk/wellington-stories/the-story-of-apsley-house/
accessed 10/7/18

Women in St Stephen’s Chapel 1548-1834
www.parliament.uk/about/livingheritage/building/palace/ststephenschapel/ststephensthehouseofcomonns/women-st-stephens-chapel/
accessed 10/7/18

‘Congress of Aix-la- Chapelle’  www.britannica.com/event/Congress-of-Aix-la-Chapelle  accessed 12/7/18

‘Woodford, Waterloo, Wellington and a Warhorse’ www.woodfordpc.co.uk/waterloo.htm  accessed 12/7/18

Ernest Raymond; The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot, 1820–1832, English: Journal of the English Association, Volume 8, Issue 46, 1 March 1951, Pages 207–208, https://doi.org/10.1093/english/8.46.207

Muir, R ‘Wellington’ Commentary for Volume 2 Chapter 15: https://www.lifeofwellington.co.uk/commentary/chapter-15-family-and-friends-c1819-1827/
Accessed 12/7/18

Past Prime Ministers: Arthur Wellesley 1st Duke of Wellington.
https://www.gov.uk/government/history/past-prime-ministers/arthur-wellesley-1st-duke-of-wellington
accessed 12/7/18