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Arthur Wellesley,
Duke of WellingtonLondon
1769-1852

 

 

Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was born 1 May 1769 in Dublin, Ireland to Protestant Anglo-Irish parents. He never considered himself to be Irish although he was later showered with Irish titles.

Early Life
He was the fourth son and spent most of his early childhood at Dangan Castle, County Meath. He was an unremarkable child but a talented violinist.
 
When Arthur was 12 his father died and he and his elder brother, Gerald, were sent to school at Eton College in England. He did not try at school and was removed a couple of years later, to be replaced by his younger brother Henry.
 
Military Academy
Arthur’s mother moved to Brussels where it was cheaper to live and he was enrolled in the Academy of Equitation, at Angers, in France, as a military career seemed the only option for him.
 
He learnt fencing, horsemanship, fortification, mathematics, grammar, as well as dancing so that when he returned to London in 1787 he had acquired all the social graces.
 
A Military Career
Arthur’s eldest brother, Richard (Lord Mornington) was now head of the family and took charge of Arthur’s career. He obtained a commission for him as ensign in the 73rd Foot in the British Army.
 
Richard used his wealth and influence to ensure young Arthur’s rapid rise through the army ranks. By 1792 Arthur Wellesley had held commissions in six different regiments and had risen to the rank of Captain. He spent his time in Ireland looking after the family estate in Dangan, Co. Meath, and sitting in the Irish Parliament for the seat of Trim from 1790-97.
 
Disappointment in a romance with Kitty Packenham in 1793 led Arthur to think more seriously about his military career. He reformed his ways, giving up gambling, reducing his drinking and he even burned his beloved violin!
 
Engaging in Active Service
He studied military tactics and when Britain went to war with Revolutionary France, he applied for active service. He was given a commission as Major in the 33rd Foot and joined his regiment. He was soon promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and Commanding Officer of the Regiment.
 
His first active service in the Netherlands was a disappointment with the British Army being forced to retreat back to Britain. The main reason for failure was poor organisation and Arthur Wellesley noted this.
 
Service in India
In 1795 his regiment was sent to the Caribbean but luckily, due to illness, he did not go with them. Instead he was sent to India. He occupied himself on the 9 months voyage with books on the art of war and Indian affairs. Once again his elder brother played a pivotal role; Lord Wellesley was made Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief, a position of huge influence and patronage in Indian affairs.
 
Indian Military Success & Rewards
Arthur was given the opportunity to reorganise the Hyderabad Army. He then led it in a carefully planned defeat of the Sultan at Mysore. For this he was made Governor of Mysore and received £4,000 in prize-money. He was made a General and attained an independent command in 1803. His success in India secured his reputation.
 
Return to England & Marriage
By 1805 France, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, was threatening Britain’s allies again. Arthur was now very rich and his brother’s influence in India was coming to an end, so it was time to return home.
 
He renewed his acquaintance with Kitty Packenham and they were married in 1806. It was not a successful match and the marriage did not prosper due partly to Wellington’s absence on military duties. Their home was Apsley House in London.
 
Military Success & Rising Reputation
He was made a Major-General and Colonel of the 33rd Foot Regiment. His advice was sought by the Prime Minister and he led a number of expeditionary forces.
 
Iberian Peninsula Wars 1808-14
In 1808 Britain went to the aid of the Spanish and Portuguese armies in the Peninsular War. Wellesley had a number of victories but more troops and an overall commander were sent out and Wellesley lost control. The new commander signed a treaty with the French allowing them to return to France to fight another day.
 
Wellesley returned to Spain and Portugal as overall commander and spent five years fighting the French. He re-organized the British army in Portugal into autonomous divisions and started to drive the French out of the Iberian Peninsula.
 
Titles
In 1809 he was made Viscount Wellington. His military tactics were much admired and very successful. He drove the French out of Spain and in 1814 invaded France gaining a decisive victory at Toulouse. Napoleon abdicated and Wellington became a Duke.
 
An Unwilling Diplomat
He was appointed as British ambassador to the Congress of Vienna, which had met to decide the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe. Negotiations were so slow that Wellington returned to England to a hero’s welcome and a Government gift of £400,000 with which to buy an estate. In 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and French hostilities started once again. This much more suited Wellington’s temperament.
 
Battle of Waterloo 1815
Wellington took command of an army of mixed troops from Britain, Holland, Belgium, Hanover and Brunswick, totalling 93,000 men and stationed them on the north-eastern border of France. General von Blucher contributed 115,000 Prussian troops to the cause.
 
On June 14, 1815, Napoleon, secretly and speedily moved 124,000 troops up to the French border and engaged Wellington in a direct campaign for the first time. It was to great generals pitted against each other and Wellington later admitted ..it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw.”
 
By June 16 Napoleon had defeated the Prussians and managed to get between them and Wellington’s army. Wellington had held the French at bay and promised the Prussians that he would hold the line until they could join him again. The line chosen was near a small village named Waterloo. Wellington had chosen his defensive position very well.
 
Around 11:00 hours, on 18 June1815, the battle started and lasted just over 8 hours. The French made repeatded massive attacks but Wellington’s troops held firm. The Prussians eventually arrived on Napoleon’s right flank later in the day and around 19:00 hours the French Old Guard made their last losing attack. Wellington’s troops were too exhausted to chase them away so the Prussian troops attended to this.
 
News of the momentous victory arrived in England by air – attached to the leg of a homing pigeon!
 
Triumphant Return to Britain
By July the allies were in Paris and the French were defeated. A grateful Europe heaped honours on Wellington and he returned to Britain in triumph.
 
Still in the prime of life, his advice on all manner of things was sought and out of a sense of duty and loyalty to the people who had supported him in his military endeavours he agreed to work for the government.
 
He advised the Cabinet on diplomatic matters, or Indian affairs, and was a useful go-between in difficult situations. In the 1820s when the government split over the issue of giving Roman Catholics the vote, Wellington inadvertently became seen as the leader of the anti-Catholic faction.
 
He Became Prime Minister 1828
King George IV asked Wellington to become Prime Minister in 1828. As Leader of the Government he was responsible for forcing through unpopular legislation that privately he did not agree with. Eventually his Party lost power and in 1830 Wellington resigned and a new Whig government was formed. Wellington remained in politics serving with the Tories.
 
Died in 1852
In 1842 Wellington was again made Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, a post he retained until his death. As Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, his home was Walmer Castle, Kent, and on September 14, 1852, this is where he died. Arthur, 1st Duke of Wellington was accorded a magnificent state funeral and is buried in St Paul's Cathedral, London.
 
He was an immensely popular hero and he is commemorated right across the world by street names, a tree, the capital city of New Zealand, and the universally useful rubberised Wellington Boot.