On this day … 24 February 1873

Lady Frances Shelley, the Winckley heiress and rumoured lover of the Duke of Wellington, who was born in Preston in 1787, died at her home on the Isle of Wight, close to Osborne House and her friend Queen Victoria. She was 85, and like the queen, long widowed.

The rumours of her affair with the duke are unsubstantiated and are almost certainly nothing more than society gossip, although they were certainly close friends for many years and carried on an extensive correspondence. Lady Frances kept a diary, collected in two volumes and edited by her grandson, in which she has a great deal to say about the duke and what she describes as their ‘intimate friendship’.

Her early years were spent in Preston in the large family home on Fishergate. Her father, Thomas Winckley, owned an extensive estate in the area, including the whole of Brockholes and the large field on which Winckley Square was later built.

The child of her mother’s second marriage, she had six half-sisters and a half-brother. Five of those sisters lived in a separate house in the town. Her father was an infrequent visitor to Preston, preferring a bachelor-style life in London, and his visits could be disruptive:

When my father had drunk two or three bottles of port, he played all sorts of mad pranks, and on one occasion insisted on taking me out of my bed in the middle of the night, and carried me in his coach, with four black horses, his servants in tawny orange liveries, to Blackpool (the Brighton of the North). My mother, who was greatly alarmed, dared not in such moments oppose any of my father’s whims. Her fears were at last relieved by hearing from a friend at Blackpool that she had rescued me, and taken me from the hotel to her own house. I was at that time above four years of age.

Shortly after, the family left Preston for Liverpool, and on the death of her father when she was six, Frances inherited his estate.

For historians, the interest in Lady Shelley’s journal has been for the light it sheds on the personal life of the Duke of Wellington and his romantic attachments, as one recently commented:

The Duke in his relationship with women friends had a flair for amitié amoureuse – described by Margaret Lane in a recent book of essays as a “romantic friendship in which there is implicit sexual attraction… exchange of confidences, a liking to be seen together, a sense of mutual support and appreciation… Such amitié has all the comforts of openness because there is nothing to conceal… It takes a special sort of man to be adept in this relationship”.

Wellington’s letters to her included this verdict on the battle of Waterloo, ‘I hope to God that I have fought my last battle… Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.’

Wellington, while a fine general was regarded as a poor marksman, as Lady Shelley recalled of an October 1819 shoot:

The Duke shot far better than he had done in the morning. Bad was the best, however; for he had contrived to empty two-and-a-half powder horns with little to show for it. The hero of Waterloo was a very wild shot. After wounding a retriever, and peppering the keeper’s gaiters, he inadvertently sprinkled the arms of an old woman who chanced to be washing clothes at her cottage window.

I was attracted by her screams [and] went to the cottage door. “I’m wounded, Mi’lady” she cried. “My good woman”, said I, “this ought to be the proudest moment of your life. You have had the distinction of being shot by the great Duke of Wellington!” She glanced towards the Duke, eyes full of tears, not knowing whether to be proud or angry.

Then suddenly her face wreathed in smiles, as the contrite Duke slipped a gold coin into her trembling hand.


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