Friday, June 14, 2019

The Duke of Wellington’s Female Circle: Frances, Lady Shelley

by Lauren Gilbert

Lady Shelley, from a miniature by G. Sanders, in the possession of Spencer Shelley Esq.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was known to enjoy women, particularly pretty, intelligent women. He was credited with many mistresses (whether or not true) and he had many women friends whose company he enjoyed. One of these women was Frances, Lady Shelley, a notable diarist.

Frances was born in June 16, 1787 at Preston, Lancashire. Her father was Thomas Winckley, and her mother was Jacintha Dalrymple Hesketh. Originally known as Janet or Jennet, Jacintha was the previously-widowed sister of the famous courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliot, whose family had a connection to the Earl of Peterborough. Jacintha and Thomas were descended of Jacobite families and they married in 1785. Thomas was about 17 years older than Jacintha. Jacintha had children (5 daughters and a son) by her first husband. Apparently Thomas did not care for the Hesketh connection; only one of Frances’ half-siblings lived in the household with her and her parents, and they rarely met the Hesketh siblings. The household was not a particularly happy one; Thomas spent a lot of time with his cronies, drank heavily and liked to play pranks. Accounts indicate that Thomas was quite well off. Shortly after moving his family to Larkhill, Thomas died in 1794, leaving his widow, their daughter Frances and 2 illegitimate sons. Jacintha inherited the house and furniture; the residue of Thomas’ estate was left to Frances, who was 6 years old.

In 1795, at the age of 8, Frances was sent to school at Twickenham, where she resided for 2 years. She was removed from school and went to live at her mother’s home in Bath, under the instruction of a governess. She also had a drawing master. Apparently, she had delicate health, possibly with lung problems. At age 10, her doctor recommended fresh air and exercise, so she was allowed to spend a lot of time outdoors. She read a great deal, including the works of the poet Cowper and the tracts of Hannah Moore, and was imbued with a spirit of reform at a young age.

Jacintha Winckley remarried on September 1, 1799 in Bath. She wed Major James Barrington, an Irish career Army man. Although Frances later professed to be shocked by it, and claimed that her mother had had no one to advise her, the marriage was witnessed by Jacintha’s daughter (and Frances’ half-sister) Harriet Hesketh Despard and her husband General John Despard. Although respected by his fellow soldiers, Frances did not like him. Shortly after the marriage, the household moved to London, where Jacintha became very sick. Sometime before Jacintha’s death, Frances returned to her mother’s room to find a stranger visiting: her notorious aunt Grace Dalrymple Elliott. It was her only meeting with her aunt. Frances stayed with and cared for her mother until about 1801 when she was removed from the Barrington household by her guardian Reverend Geoffrey Hornby (who was related to Thomas Winckley, and whose son would inherit Thomas’ estate if Frances died). Jacintha died January 7, 1802, when Frances was approaching 15 years old.

Shortly thereafter, her half-brother, Sir Thomas Hesketh, brought Frances to live with him and his family. She again had a governess, and got on well with her sister-in-law. In order to gain polish and improve her accomplishments, she was placed with Mrs. Olier in Gloucester Place, Portman Square in London. Mrs. Olier took 4 pupils, each paying 1000 pounds. Frances spent 2 years in this establishment. She returned at age 17 to her half-brother’s home, where she entered local society. It appears that in January of 1805, she was presented at the court of King George III. Initially, her social engagements involved Lancashire and Cheshire families known to her and her half-brother, although she wanted to enter the haute ton. She made the acquaintance of Lord and Lady Sefton, who were friends of Sir John Shelley.

Sir John Shelley, 5th Baronet of Michelgrove, was born March 3, 1772, and was 15 years older than Lady Shelley.  He was handsome, charming and a member of the highest society.  He was also known for his fondness for gambling, horse racing, drinking, and womanizing.  One of his closest friends from his school days was Lord George Villiers, subsequently Lord Jersey. Sir John had served in the army in the Coldstream Guards, including time as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Sussex. He discovered that his father had demolished the family fortune to the extent that Sir John was forced to sell his family estate, Michelgrove, for 100,000 pounds when he came of age.  The loss of this property was painful to him for a very long time. His friends (including the Seftons) were hoping to see him settle down in a good marriage.  He was present at a dinner to which Frances and her family were invited.
Sir John Shelley, 6th Baronet. 1815, pencil and ink. By George Hayter (1792-1871).
Frances’ brother and others objected to Sir John's courtship of her, and she returned to her brother’s home. Her diary indicates that she agreed to marry Randal Wilbraham, a scholar and widower with 3 frail children, but came to her senses and broke it off the next day. For fear of scandal, her brother tried to compel her to marry Wilbraham but she refused so he ordered her out of his home. She returned to Rev. Hornby’s home for a few months, and then was allowed to return to her brother’s house.

Sir Thomas Hesketh lived 19 miles from Lord Sefton. Sir Thomas was determined to keep Frances away from Sir John Shelley; Lord Sefton was determined to assist Sir John Shelley in his pursuit of Frances. Sir John convinced Frances of his sincerity. It took time, but eventually Sir John won over Frances’ family and they became engaged. They were married June 4, 1807 at St. George’s, Hanover Square. As the wife of Sir John, Frances, Lady Shelley gained entrée to the highest level of society. However, she discovered that reforming a rake was no easy task. He had had many romances, including one with Lady Boringdon (Lady Jersey’s sister) and another with Lady Haggerstone (Maria Fitzherbert’s sister). Lady Boringdon was violently in love with Sir John, and had wanted him to elope with her.

After their marriage, Sir John received congratulations from his racing companions at Ascot, and they were presented at court by his aunt. Subsequently, they went to Osterley Park for a country visit with Lord and Lady Jersey. Lady Shelley found Lady Jersey to be domineering and rude, and was not happy there. (One can’t help wondering if Sir John’s previous relationship with Lady Jersey’s sister contributed to the awkwardness of the occasion.) As luck would have it, Sir John suffered an injury to his ankle which delayed their departure. Lady Shelley spent as much time as possible in her room or in the gardens, avoiding Lady Jersey and the other women in attendance. She was delighted when they were finally able to leave.

As they went forward as a couple, she did not interfere with his activities, and encouraged him to go to social engagements without her. They became a most devoted couple and Lady Shelley’s diary and letters indicate that they were very active socially, and often in company with the Jerseys. (Lady Jersey apparently bestowed the nicknames “Goose” and “Country Girl’) on Lady Shelley, which I’m sure did not improve relations between the ladies.) Lord and Lady Shelley had 5 children between 1808 and 1813: John Villiers Shelley born March 18, 1808, Frederick born May 5, 1809, Frances Louisa (Fanny Lucy) born February 2, 1811, Adolphus Edward born March 2, 1812, and Spencer born December 24, 1813.

In 1814, Sir John inherited a property, Maresfield, near Uckfield in East Sussex. Lady Shelley spent 70,000 pounds updating the estate. Having an estate improved Sir John’s position in the county, and made up for the loss of Michelgrove to some degree. They were in London for the peace celebrations and activities in 1814, attending the King of France’s levee at Grillon’s Hotel on April 22, and the arrival of the Emperor of Russia on May 13 as well as others. The Shelleys gave a party on July 18th which was attended by Marshall Blucher and General Platoff. Among the guests were Mrs. Wellesley Pole, accompanied by the Duke of Wellington. Sir John was known to the Duke from his army days, and Lady Shelley was quite impressed with the Duke. Lady Shelley met the Duke of Wellington again at a party at Wanstead House (the home of the Duke’s brother, William Wellesley Pole) on July 21 1814. This party was attended by members of the highest society.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya, between 1812 and 1814
Information in Lady Shelley’s diary and other sources indicates that she and the Duke enjoyed conversation and riding together as she was a notable horsewoman. The Duke returned to Paris in August of 1814, by which time Lady Shelley entertained a great regard and respect for him. The Shelleys returned to Maresfield for the rest of the summer. After the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815), the Shelleys planned a trip to Paris and departed Maresfield on July 13, 1815. They landed in Calais on July 15 and journeyed to Paris, where they arrived a few days later.

During this time in Paris, the Duke allowed them to use his boxes at the theatres in Paris, and escorted Lady Shelly on horseback to various military reviews. She dined with him regularly as Sir John was often out if not ill with gout. He introduced her to various personages. She attended the Allied Review of Troops in July in a glass coach with outriders and footmen provided by the duke. Gossip about their relationship was, of course, rife. The Duke simultaneously entertained more than one mistress, about whom Lady Shelley was aware but somehow managed not to meet. Her diary does not read like one would expect a record of a passionate affair but as a more platonic, intimate friendship. She also wrote of her husband with great affection.

Lord and Lady Shelley subsequently returned to England in September of 1815. The Duke and Lady Shelley maintained a regular correspondence. On Jun 18, 1816, Lord and Lady Shelley sailed from Brighton to France and journeyed back to Paris. The Shelleys dined with the Duke of Wellington on June 23, 1816. After that, Lady Shelley socialized with the Duke, and rode his horse Copenhagen (the horse he rode in the Battle of Waterloo) at least once in the Bois de Boulogne. (Her diary indicates that she and her husband spent time together, as well as having separate engagements.) However, the Duke was not there long, as he intended to go to Cheltenham, England to take the water and to spend time with his wife Kitty and their sons. Lady Shelley dined with him regularly until his departure.

The Shelleys left Paris July 7 on a European tour and travelled through France to Switzerland. Lady Shelley received a letter from the Duke of Wellington written July 10 at Cheltenham, a newsy, social letter in which he sent regards to Lord Shelley and asked her to write when she had time. They travelled on through the German states, to Prague, Austria and Hungary where she met the Princess Esterhazy and Lord Shelley went hunting with the Prince. They went to Vienna, where they spent a month. Their journey took them on to spend the winter in Italy, which Lady Shelley enjoyed very much, being particularly fond of Naples. It is interesting to note that, according to her journal, Lady Shelley indicated some kind of reconciliation with Lady Jersey in Italy. During her travels (as indeed during her life), Lady Shelley maintained an extensive correspondence with family and friends, as well as the Duke of Wellington. They finally returned home March 25, 1817. Their youngest child Cecilia Victorine was born sometime in 1818.

Both Lord and Lady Shelley maintained friendships with the Duke of Wellington and many personages highly placed in society and government circles. Lord Shelley served in Parliament from 1804-1806, and again from 1816-1831. He maintained his interest in horse racing, which kept him in the same circle as Lord Sefton, Lord Jersey and other racing aficionados. (His horse Prince Paul lost the Derby despite being the favourite in 1818, which was a sad disappointment to both; they had counted on winning the purse to ease a cash shortage.) Lady Shelley also went on to form a close friendship with Mrs. Harriet Arbuthnot, another of the Duke of Wellington’s closest female friends (and rumoured mistresses). Her diary and collected letters (in 2 volumes) show that, while she and the Duke of Wellington maintained a steady correspondence and met frequently when possible, she was deeply attached to Lord Shelley who was also on excellent terms with the Duke. In her diary, Lady Shelley refers to political matters, travels, and her personal impressions of people she met. They also entertained the Duke of Wellington at their home.

The only breach in the friendship between the Duke of Wellington and Lady Shelley occurred in 1847. The Duke wrote what he considered a private and personal letter to Sir John Burgoyne in which he described the weakness of England’s defenses. Concerned, Sir John showed it to Lady Shelley. She shared that information, publication of the information resulted, and the Duke was furious with her. (Her motive was honourable, in that she hoped action would be taken according to the Duke’s wishes; unfortunately, the Duke did not appreciate her efforts.) Although the Duke met Lord Shelley with pleasure, he remained on the outs with Lady Shelley, until 1850 when Lord Shelley managed to heal the breech. It is sad to note that she lost her both husband and her dear friend in 1852: her husband passed away on March 28, 1852, and the Duke of Wellington on September 14, 1852.

Lady Shelley maintained her diary and continued her travels and correspondence until late in life. She started to write an autobiography, which was unfinished, and made notes in her diary to clarify things. (She provided the details of Lord Shelley’s courtship and their marriage in 1855.) The closest she came to hinting at an affair with the Duke was her description of her hero-worship of Wellington and the intoxication of being his chosen companion and then his acknowledged friend.(1) It is very possible they had a romantic relationship (dalliance on his side, hero-worship on hers) that did not involve a physical affair, that evolved to a more mature and sincere friendship.

In 1868, she built a house on the Isle of Wight that was called Maresfield Lodge. She became a friend of Queen Victoria, with whom she dined at Osborne. Queen Victoria visited Lady Shelley when she became ill in early 1873, and came to see Lady Shelley when she got word that Lady Shelley was dying.

Frances, Lady Shelley died February 24, 1873 aged almost 86 years at her home on the Isle of Wight. She lived through interesting and momentous times, had the opportunity to know and observe many of the movers and shakers through the last reigns of the Georgians and into the Victorian era, and recorded her observations. Her diaries, which were edited by her grandson Richard Edgcumbe, provide a fascinating window onto the late Georgian and Victorian eras.


Shelley, Frances. (Richard Edgcumbe, editor.) THE DIARY OF FRANCES LADY SHELLEY, Vol 2. P. 405


Delaforce, Patrick. WELLINGTON THE BEAU The Life and Loves of the Duke of Wellington. 2004: Pens & Sword Books Ltd., Barmsley, South Yorkshire. (First published 1990 by The Windrush Press.)

Edgcumbe, Richard, ed. THE DIARY OF FRANCES LADY SHELLEY 1787-1817. Vol. 1. 1912: John Murray, London.

Shelley, Frances. Edited by Richard Edgcumbe. THE DIARY OF FRANCES LADY SHELLEY Vol. 2. (This covers 1818-1859.) Originally published 1912. 2012: Forgotten Books. (Reprint)

Major, Joanne and Murden, Sarah. AN INFAMOUS MISTRESS The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott. 2016: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., Barmsley, South Yorkshire. (Kindle version)

Manning, Jo. MY LADY SCANDALOUS The Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Royal Courtesan. 2005: Simon & Schuster, New York.

Blog Preston. “Notable People of Preston – Frances Lady Shelley 1787 to 1873” by Gill Lawson, October 18, 2013. HERE

History of Parliament Online. “Shelley, Sir John, 6th Bt. (1772-1852) of Maresfield Park, Suss.” by Howard Spencer (no post date). HERE

History Today. “The Duke of Wellington and Lady Shelley” by Prudence Hannay. Vol. 25 Issue 2 published February 2, 1975. HERE

Lady Shelley: scanned frontispiece from my personal copy of  THE DIARY OF FRANCES LADY SHELLEY 1787-1817.

Lord Shelley: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)  HERE

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)  HERE

Lauren Gilbert is a dedicated reader and student of English literature and history, holding a BA in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long-time member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, she has done various presentations for the local region, and delivered a break out session at the 2011 Annual General Meeting. Her first book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel was published in 2011, and her second, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, will be released later this year. She lives in Florida with her husband, and is researching material for a biography. For more information, visit her website


  1. Fascinating as usual Lauren even more so than usual.
    I was reminded of Jane Austin when reading this.
    Lady Shelley was not the usual lady that ones come to expect from those times, Quite the opposite.
    I like her.
    My paternal grandmother would have been 8 or 9 years of age when her ladyship died; I wonder if she knew of or had heard of the lady.

  2. Very interesting history! Thank you for posting!

  3. Fascinating stuff. I hadn't realised the Iron Duke was a bit of a lad! What complicated lives they all had. Enormous amount of research in your account.


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