A Woman at Waterloo

Andrew Roberts introduces the remarkable memoir of Magdalene De Lancey, wife of Wellington’s chief of staff, who accompanied her husband on a campaign that climaxed in triumph and tragedy.

Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler'I arrived at Brussels on Thursday, June 8th 1815, and was much surprised at the peaceful appearance of that town, and whole country from Ostend,' wrote Magdalene de Lancey of the period ten days before the battle of Waterloo. 

We were billeted in the house of the Count de Lannoy, in the Park, which is a square of very beautiful houses with fine large trees in the centre. The Count de Lannoy was very attentive, and we had a suite of very excellent rooms, up four stories, which is the fashion in that country, I believe. It was amusing enough, sometimes, to see from our windows the people parading in the Park.

Magdalene De Lancey (née Hall) was clearly a remarkable woman. To have decided to accompany her husband, Colonel Sir William Howe De Lancey, on the campaign against Napoleon in the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium) was brave; to have scarcely left his side as she nursed him for a week as he lay mortally wounded after the battle of Waterloo was magnificent; to have written about the experience so honestly and engagingly has proven invaluable to historians. She has been compared to her contemporary Jane Austen transported onto a battlefield, and her Narrative certainly evokes the Brussels scene from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, set at the same time.

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