Why is it famous? Well, for one thing, the very fact that it happened seems amazing to many of us today. Only 100 days before, the worst threat to English sovereignty and European peace, Napoleon Bonaparte, had been imprisoned on the island of Elba, and representatives from the countries who had beaten him were meeting in Vienna to carve up all the land he had conquered. What does he do but escape, rally the French, and start a march across Europe once more! The best in British military leadership rushed to meet him.
And their friends rushed to watch.
Yes, watch. British nobility and gentry were so certain of a quick, decisive win by their hero Wellington that they actually traveled to the battlefields to watch the action. By day, the British officers planned their campaigns, by night they joined their friends and campaigned for the right to dance with the prettiest girl at the ball.
On the night of June 15, the Duchess of Richmond held such a ball (shown in the painting) and invited only the very best of the families present. The guest list reads like the Who’s Who of the early nineteenth century, with royal princes, aristocracy, and military leadership in attendance. But the ball had barely begun when Wellington received news: Napoleon had moved faster than anyone expected and would likely arrive to meet them by morning!
You would think that such news would have put a swift end to the Duchess’ grand ball. But that’s another reason this ball is famous. Most people just kept partying! Some of the officers went off to prepare, but many danced the night away and went to meet Napoleon in their evening clothes instead of their uniforms. The Duchess’ daughter, Lady Georgiana, was 19 at the time, and had this to say about the event:
“I went with my eldest brother (Aide de Camp to the Prince of Orange) to his house, which stood in our garden, to help him to pack up, after which we returned to the ballroom, where we found some energetic and heartless young ladies still dancing . . . It was a dreadful evening, taking leave of friends and acquaintances, many never to be seen again. The Duke of Brunswick, as he took leave of me in the ante-room adjoining the ballroom, made me a civil speech as to the Brunswickers being sure to distinguish themselves after "the honor" done them by my having accompanied the Duke of Wellington to their review! I remember being quite provoked with poor Lord Hay, a dashing merry youth, full of military ardor, whom I knew very well, for his delight at the idea of going into action, and of all the honors he was to gain; and the first news we had on the 16th was that he and the Duke of Brunswick were killed.”
During the battles that followed, the British visitors stayed in Brussels, listening to shots fired in the distance, wondering who would be next trundled through town on litters either dead or wounded. Napoleon met his Waterloo on the 18th, but the Duchess met hers shortly thereafter, when the society newspapers of the time sneered at her efforts to be a good hostess and claimed that she had not done the ball well at all.
Well, there was a war going on, ya know? I’m just saying.