Custom Search


The Duke Of Wellington

Statue of Wellington outside Apsley House, cast from canons captured at Waterloo

The life of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, spanned a period of change which is probably unprecedented in human history. He was born in the spring of 1769 and died in September 1852. During this period the Industrial Revolution took place, Britain's population roughly doubled, and the country went from being a mainly rural society, to a mainly urban one. In his personality Wellesley seemed to hold the contradictions of this remarkable age. He fought against change, whilst also having no time for convention and tradition. His life looked to the future. But in a time of bewildering change, he also yearned to hang on to the past.

Arthur Wellesley was born in 1769 at Dangan Castle near the town of Trim in County Meath, Ireland. The exact date is disputed, though Wellesley himself celebrated his birthday on May 1st. Initially he was educated at Eton, but the death of his father meant that Arthur, an unpromising student, was taken out of Eton so that resources could be concentrated on his seemingly more talented brothers, Gerald and Henry. The eldest brother Richard was already established in a promising political career, and Richard used his influence to acquire a commission for young Arthur in the Army. Arthur was sent to the Royal Academy of Equitation in Anges, France, where he became a good horseman, and learnt French. In March 1787 he became an ensign. Even at this early stage of his career the contradictions in his personality were clear. In 1790 he borrowed money from Richard to buy himself the position of lieutenant colonel in the 33rd Regiment. A young man with no training, but good connections, came to command a battalion at the age of twenty one. The way in which this command was purchased reflects old world assumptions. Social position and money were more important than merit, and Wellesley would spend his life defending a system like this. And yet in other ways Arthur refused to play the old game. Leading his regiment against the French in Holland during the winter of 1794 - 1795 Wellesley observed incompetence among senior commanders. They lived a jolly life at a distance from the cold and dangerous position occupied by the regiment on the river Waal: "No one knew anything of the management of an army... We had letters from England and I declare that those letters told us more of what was passing at headquarters than we learned from headquarters themselves..." In contrast Wellesley was determined that he would stay with his men: "The real reason I succeeded in my own campaigns is because I was on the spot - I saw everything and did everything myself" (quoted Wellington - The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes).

In 1796 Wellesley's regiment was posted to India. Since 1600 when The Company of London Merchants started trading with the East Indies, British influence in India had been growing. Initially the East India Company established bases at Surat, Madras, Bombay, and then Calcutta. From these bases it seemed a natural next step to extend influence beyond them. By 1798 Arthur's older brother, Richard Wellesley, was Governor General of India. The brothers now worked together, Richard as chief administrator, and Arthur leading campaigns in the field. Arthur defeated Sultan Tipoo Seringapatum in 1799, and by April 1802 was a general. The battles he won resulted in the creation of British India. Arthur Wellesley returned to England in September 1805, dabbled in politics, and married Kitty Pakenham, which was the beginning of an unhappy union. Arthur had proposed to Kitty ten years earlier, but had been rejected by the family who didn't think him good enough. It seems the request was renewed largely to make a point to the family which had scorned him - not the best basis for a marriage. After ten years Arthur Wellesley, the hero of India, finally won his old battle with the Packenhams. But the words of the future Duke of Wellington after Waterloo are relevant: " to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained."

There wasn't much time to dwell on his painful victory in marriage, since on the continent Napoleon's power was growing. On 2nd December 1805 Napoleon defeated the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz. British prime minister, William Pitt The Younger realised that Napoleon's power in Europe was for the moment impregnable, and he told an aide to roll up the map of Europe because it would not be needed for ten years. In 1808 Arthur Wellesley sailed for La Coruna to lead a campaign against Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula, the first attempt to unroll the European map once again.


Stratfield Saye, Wellington's country residence after 1817

The first phase of the Iberian campaign ended in stalemate and the widely unpopular Treaty of Cintra. This treaty was regarded as being far too generous to the French. Included in its terms was a requirement for the Royal Navy to carry French troops back to France. Wellesley's reputation suffered after this, but by 1809 he was back in Lisbon with orders to defend Portugal against French attack. The campaigns that followed once again demonstrate the strange contradictions of Wellesley's personality. As usual great competence and conscientious effort were shown. In some respects Wellesley's style of command showed a denial of the distinctions between men, reminiscent of Shakespeare's Henry V. Assistant surgeon George Burrows saw Wellesley near Salamanca, the site of his great victory in November 1812: "The noble commander passed our column in review, as usual unaccompanied by any mark of distinction or splendour; his long horse cloak concealed his undergarment; his cocked hat soaked and disfigured with rain" (quoted Holmes P172). Commissary August Schaumann made similar observations: "There was no throng of scented staff officers with plumed hats, orders and stars, no main guard, no crowd of contractors, actors, valets, mistresses, equipages, horses, forage and baggage wagons, as there is at the French or Russian headquarters. Just a few aides de camp, who went about the streets alone and in their overcoats, a few guides, and a small staff guard: that was all" (quoted Holmes P175). On the other hand it was clear that though Wellesley valued talent, he preferred ability with a title to ability without. He continued to support the old aristocratic practice of rich men buying positions of responsibility in the army. It was also the case that on occasion individual competence and initiative was stamped on. This happened after Salamanca when the chief medical officer James McGrigor made excellent evacuation arrangements for his wounded, only to be reprimanded for acting above his station. But just to confirm these contradictions, Wellesley's nephew William was sent home from the peninsula campaign after showing himself to be "lazy and ignorant". Connections could not save an incompetent. On 21st of June 1813 Wellesley again beat the French at Vitoria, and French power in Spain was broken. On top of Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow the previous winter, all the French could do now was to try and defend southern France from invasion. When Napoleon capitulated on 6th April 1814 the British army had reached Toulouse. Arthur Wellesley was made Duke of Wellington. Paintings captured at the Battle of Vitoria from Joseph Bonaparte can be viewed in the Drawing Room at Stratfield Saye, the country mansion near Reading which Wellington bought in 1817.


Apsley House - Wellington's London home

The newly ennobled Wellington became ambassador to Paris, and was then sent to Vienna. Soon, however, France grew restive under the rule of corpulent Louis XVIII. Napoleon escaped from exile on the island of Elba, and the French army quickly went over to him. On 20th of March 1815 Napoleon was carried shoulder high into the Palace of the Tuileries. The Duke of Wellington now went to work, with all his usual personal attention to detail, to defeat Napoleon once and for all. He was placed in charge of an allied army of British, Netherland, Hanoverian and Brunswick troops, with the Prussians forming their own army in support. There was doubt as to where Napoleon would attack. Wellington waited, not wanting to commit too soon to the complex process of concentrating his troops, knowing also that delay might be equally disastrous. On 15th of June 1815 Wellington attended a party in Brussels, wanting to maintain an image of calm and normality. News then arrived that Napoleon was advancing across the river Sambre towards Brussels. The decision was taken to make a stand north of the river in the area of a town called Waterloo. The desperate battle of 18th June was eventually won by an exhausted Wellington, who afterwards made his remark about the sorrow of battles won and lost. He was referring to the misery of death, and the loss of friends. His remark also seems to sum up the contradictions of a man who wanted to change an old and corrupt system, at the same time doing all he could to maintain it. Progress is not straightforward. Successful change is as frightening as not getting anywhere.


Walmer Castle

In 1818 the hero of Waterloo was offered a seat in Cabinet, which he accepted. In the parliamentary career that followed Wellington has been judged by many historians as a disastrous politician, and between 1828 and 1830 a terrible prime minister. The problem was that the Duke simply did not believe in party politics. "Factious opposition" to the government was, he felt, not in Britain's best interests. Wellington tended towards the military dictatorship end of the political spectrum. Politics was very different to his earlier life where "I assembled my officers and laid down my plan, and it was carried into effect without more words" (quoted Holmes P 272). For the two years that the Duke of Wellington was prime minister he continued to fight a contradictory battle in a changing world. He supported new laws to protect catholics from traditional discriminaton. At the same time he made a last stand for what he saw as old world values, resisting attempts at parliamentary reform. Wellington felt that he was fighting for a traditional orderly way of doing things. He worked with, and personifies, tensions of a time when change was unprecedented, and nostalgia overwhelming. Towards the end of his life Wellington lived much of the time at Walmer Castle, an old fortress built by Henry VIII on the south coast. Walmer came with his position as warden of the Cinque Ports, and was a solid symbol of the past. Wellington was a similar symbol.

The Duke of Wellington died at Walmer Castle on 14th September 1853. A display at the castle commemorates his life.