The Duke of Wellington: The life of the Iron Duke

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769–14 September 1852) was an Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman, widely considered one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century. He came from an established family of noblemen – his father was the 1st Earl of Mornington, his eldest brother, who would inherit his father’s Earldom, would be created Marquess Wellesley, and two of his other brothers would be raised to the peerage as Baron Maryborough and Baron Cowley. Commissioned an Ensign in the British Army, he would rise to prominence in the Napoleonic Wars, eventually reaching the rank of Field Marshal.

Wellington commanded the Allied forces during the Peninsular War, pushing the French Army out of Spain and reaching southern France. Victorious and hailed as a hero in England, he was obligated to return to Europe to command the Anglo-Allied forces at Waterloo, after which Napoleon was permanently exiled at St. Helena. Wellington is often compared to the 1st Duke of Marlborough, with whom he shared many characteristics, chiefly a transition to politics after a highly successful military career. He served as a Tory Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on two separate occasions, and was one of the leading figures in the House of Lords until his retirement in 1846.

Early Life

Believed to have been born in either Dublin or at his family’s lands in County Meath, both in Ireland, the third son of Garret Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington, his exact date of birth is a matter of some contention. All that exists is a church registry of the event marked a few days after it must have occurred. The most likely date is 1 May, but any day for a few days before or after is possible. He was baptised Arthur Wesley, which was legally changed to Arthur Wellesley in March 1798.

Wellesley was educated at Eton from 1781 to 1785, then moved to Brussels in Belgium to receive further education. In 1787, his father purchased Wellesley a commission as an Ensign in the 73rd Regiment of Foot; he attended the Military Academy of Angers in France, after having received earlier training in England. His first assignment was as aide-de-camp to two successive Lords Lieutenant of Ireland (1787–1793). He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1788; two years later, he was elected as an independent Member of Parliament for Trim in the Irish House of Commons (in 1790), a position he held until 1797. He rose rapidly in rank (largely through the purchase system, which at that time allowed, and, indeed, generally required, officers in the British Army to purchase their rank) becoming Lieutenant-Colonel in the 33rd Regiment of Foot in 1793. He then fought in Holland between 1794 and 1795, and was present at Boxtel.

In 1796, after a promotion to Colonel, he accompanied his division to India. The next year, his elder brother, Richard Wellesley, 2nd Earl of Mornington, was appointed Governor-General of India, and when war broke out in 1799 against the Sultan of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, Arthur Wellesley commanded a division of his own. While serving in that capacity, he was appointed Governor of Seringapatam and Mysore, positions he held until 1805. He fought at Assaye, Argaum, and stormed the fortress at Gawilghur. Following the successful conclusion of that campaign, he was appointed to the supreme military and political command in the Deccan; while in that position he defeated the robber chieftain Dhundia Wagh (who had ironically escaped prison in Seringapatam during the last battle of the Mysore war) and the Marathas (in 1803). In 1804, he was created a Knight of the Bath, which would be the first of numerous honours throughout his lifetime. When his brother’s term ended in 1805, he returned with him to England.

Upon his return to England, Wellesley was elected MP for Rye (in the British House of Commons) for six months in 1806; a year later, he was elected MP for Newport on the Isle of Wight, a constituency he would represent for two years. During this time, he was an established Tory, and in April 1807 (while representing St Michael), he was invested a Privy Counsellor. Additionally, he served as Chief Secretary for Ireland for some time. However, his political life would soon come to an abrupt end, and he would sail to Europe to participate in the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleonic Wars

It was in the following years that Wellesley undertook the events that made his place in history. Since 1789, France had been embroiled in the French Revolution, and after seizing the throne in 1799, Napoleon had reached the heights of power in Europe. The British government was casting about for ways to end Napoleon’s threat; and Wellesley began to supply them.

First came an expedition to Denmark in 1807, which soon led to Wellesley’s promotion to Lieutenant-General and a transfer to the theatre of the Peninsular War. Although that war was not going particularly well, it was the one place where the British (and the Portuguese) had managed to put up a fight on the European mainland against France and her allies. Wellesley defeated the French at the Battle of Roliça and the Battle of Vimeiro in 1808. The resulting Convention of Cintra, which stipulated that the British army would transport the French out of Lisbon, was controversial, and Wellesley was briefly recalled to Britain. In the meantime, however, Napoleon himself had come to Spain, and when the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore, died during the Battle of Corunna, Wellesley was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all British forces in Portugal.

Returning to Iberia in April 1809, he defeated the army of King Joseph of Spain (Napoleon’s eldest brother) at the Battle of Talavera in 1809. For this, he was raised to the Peerage as Viscount Wellington, of Talavera and of Wellington in the County of Somerset. He proceeded to drive French forces out of Portugal entirely in 1810 to 1811, fighting at Busaco, Lisbon, and Fuentes de Oñoro. In May 1811, he was promoted to General for his services in Portugal.

Driving into Spain he defeated the French again at Salamanca, then took Madrid in 1812. Around this time, he was created Earl of Wellington. A French counter-attack that year put British forces in a precarious position, but Lord Wellington was given command of all Allied armies in Spain and created Marquess of Wellington on 3 October. Wellington led a new offensive in 1813, culminating in the Battle of Vittoria, which pushed the enemies back into France and for which he was Promoted to Field Marshal. He invaded France, and finally defeated the French forces at Toulouse; after this battle, Napoleon was exiled to Elba in 1814.

Hailed as the conquering hero, Wellington was created Duke of Wellington, a title still held by one of his descendants. He was soon appointed Ambassador to France, then took Lord Castlereagh’s place as First Plenipotentiary to the Congress of Vienna, where he strongly advocated allowing France to keep its place in the European balance of power. On 2 January 1815, the title of his Knighthood of the Bath was converted to Knight Grand Cross upon the expansion of that order.

On 26 February 1815, Napoleon left his exile on Elba and returned to France. Regaining control of the country by May, he then faced a reformation of the alliance against him. Wellington left Vienna to command the Anglo-Allied forces during the Waterloo Campaign. He ended up in Belgium, along with Prussian forces under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, and the Anglo-Allied forces fought the French in the inconclusive Battle of Quatre Bras. Two days later, on 18 June, Wellington and von Blücher finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. The French Emperor abdicated once again on 22 June, and was spirited away by the British to distant St Helena.

Later Life

Politics beckoned once again in 1819, when Wellington was appointed Master-General of the Ordnance in the Tory government of Lord Liverpool. In 1827, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life, except during his premiership. Along with Robert Peel, Wellington became one of the rising stars of the Tory party, and by 1828, had become Prime Minister.

As Prime Minister, Wellington was the picture of the arch-conservative, though oddly enough the highlight of his term was Catholic Emancipation, the granting of almost full civil rights to Catholics in the United Kingdom. The change was forced by the landslide by-election win of Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic proponent of emancipation, who was elected despite not being legally allowed to sit in Parliament. Lord Winchilsea accused the Duke of having “treacherously plotted the destruction of the Protestant constitution”. Wellington responded by immediately challenging Winchilsea to a duel. The duel is also one of the reasons for the founding of King’s College London. On 21 March 1829, Wellington and Winchilsea met on Battersea fields. When it came time to fire, the Duke deliberately aimed wide and Winchilsea fired into the air. He subsequently wrote Wellington a grovelling apology. In the House of Lords, facing stiff opposition, Wellington spoke for Catholic emancipation, giving one of the best speeches of his career. The Catholic Emancipation Act was passed with a majority of 105.

Wellington’s government fell in 1830. In the summer and autumn of that year, a wave of riots swept the country. The Whigs had been out of power for all but a few years since the 1770s, and saw political reform in response to the unrest as the key to their return. Wellington stuck to the Tory policy of no reform and no expansion of the franchise, and as a result lost a vote of no confidence on 15 November 1830. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Lord Grey.

The Whigs introduced the first Reform Act, but Wellington and the Tories worked to prevent its passage. The bill passed in the House of Commons, but was defeated in the House of Lords. An election followed in direct response, and the Whigs were returned with an even larger majority. A second Reform Act was introduced, and defeated in the same way, and another wave of near insurrection swept the country. During this time, Wellington was greeted by a hostile reaction from the crowds at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and eventually the bill was passed after the Whigs threatened to have the House of Lords packed with their own followers if it were not. Though passed, Wellington was never reconciled to the change; when Parliament first met after the first election under the widened franchise, Wellington is reported to have said “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life”. During this time, Wellington was gradually superseded as leader of the Tories by Robert Peel; when the Tories were brought back to power in 1834, Wellington declined to become Prime Minister, and Peel was selected instead. Unfortunately Peel was in Italy, and for three weeks in November and December 1834, Wellington acted as a caretaker, taking the responsibilities of Prime Minister and most of the other ministries. In Peel’s first Cabinet (1834–1835), Wellington became Foreign Secretary, while in the second (1841–1846) he was a Minister without Portfolio and Leader of the House of Lords.

Wellington retired from political life in 1846, although he remained Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, and returned briefly to the spotlight in 1848 when he helped organize a military force to protect London during that year of European revolution. He died in 1852, and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

In 1838 a proposal to build a statue of Wellington resulted in the building of a giant statue of him on his horse Copenhagen, placed above the Arch at Constitution Hill in London directly outside Apsley House, his former London home, in 1846. The enormous scale of the 40 ton, 30 feet high monument resulted in its removal in 1883 and the following year it was transported to Aldershot where it still stands near the Royal Garrison Church.

Apart from giving his name to “Wellington boots”, the Duke of Wellington also had several nicknames, such as the “Iron Duke” (after an incident in 1830 in which he installed metal shutters to prevent rioters breaking windows at Apsley House), “The Beau” (so called by his officers, thanks to him being a fine dresser ), and “The Peer” (after he was created a Duke) Regular soldiers under his command called him “Old Nosey” because of his long nose.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

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