The British soldier and statesman Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), was one of the pacifiers of British India, an important architect of the downfall of Napoleon I, and a major political figure.
The third son of the Earl of Mornington, Arthur Wellesley was born in Dublin, Ireland, on or about May 1, 1769. He was educated at Eton, in Brussels, and at Angers Military Academy. In 1787 he became a lieutenant of foot and aide-de-camp to the lord lieutenant of Ireland. From 1790 he was for five years a member of the Irish Parliament. In 1793, at the age of 24, he purchased a lieutenant colonelcy in the 33d Foot, whose colonel he became in 1806. In 1794 Wellesley participated in the Netherlands campaign, during which he was so struck by the inefficiency of British officers that the next year he began the serious study of warfare.
From 1797 to 1804 Wellesley was the commanding officer of the 33d Foot in India, where from 1797 to 1805 his brother Richard, Marquess Wellesley, was governor general. In India, Wellesley came into his own as a soldier, aiding in the capture of Mysore in 1799 and leading the two campaigns in 1799-1802 that crushed Dhundia Wagh, the robber chieftain. In 1802 Wellesley was promoted to major general, and from 1803 to 1805 he was chief administrator as well as military commander of the Deccan, where on Sept. 23, 1803, at Assaye he defeated the vaunted Marathas. Wellesley resigned when his brother was recalled in 1805.
The next year Wellesley became commander of a brigade at Hastings and was elected a member of Parliament. He married Kitty Pakenham on April 10, 1806, but she was never his equal and eventually became almost a recluse. In 1807 he moved to Ireland as chief secretary for 2 years; but in the same year he was sent on an expedition against the Danes. In 1808 he was posted to Portugal, beginning what was to be his major campaign.
Portugal and Spain
Wellesley had conceived the idea of thwarting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula, and in 1808 he led an expedition to assist the Portuguese in their revolt against the French. He defeated the French at Rolica and Vimeiro, but Sir Harry Burrard prevented his pursuit of the routed French. Both Wellesley and Burrard returned to England to stand courts-martial, but both were acquitted. In 1809 Wellesley resumed command in Portugal. He captured Oporto, advanced into Spain on the strength of Spanish promises of support, won at Talavera, and then retreated when the Spanish promises fell flat to carefully prepared lines at Torres Vedras. He did not reach Torres Vedras, however, until after he had been created Viscount Wellington and had bloodied André Massena's nose at Bussaco. The French commander made no progress at Torres Vedras in spite of the fact that Wellington was ill-supported from England both in the quality of his officers and in the number of reinforcements.
In 1811 Massena pulled back and Wellington pursued, but he soon found himself facing larger forces. In 1812 he incurred heavy casualties storming Ciudad Rodrigo and in the capture of Badajoz; he entered Madrid on August 12. His efforts to take Burgos were bloodily repulsed, and he then beat a hasty retreat to Ciudad Rodrigo. He was created Marquess of Wellington.
Late in May 1813, after mending political fences in Spain and Portugal, Wellington began his final advance into France, beating Joseph Bonaparte at Vitoria and crossing into France over the Pyrenees. After much hard fighting, he penned the French into Bayonne and defeated them at Orthez. Following this victory he went to Paris to negotiate a peace. On entering France he had been created field marshal, to which title was now added Duke of Wellington.
Waterloo and After
Wellington remained as ambassador in Paris only through late 1814, for he then joined other European leaders at the Congress of Vienna. He was participating in these negotiations when Napoleon returned from Elba. Wellington was at once sent to command the Allied armies in the Netherlands, where he cooperated with the Prussian general Gebhard von Blücher. Wellington was surprised by Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras and fell back on Waterloo, where on June 18 he held on until Blücher could fulfill his promise to come to his aid after the Prussian defeat at Ligny. Together they routed the French. At the age of 46 Wellington had fought one of the most decisive battles in history and won. After advancing on Paris, effecting Napoleon's abdication, and restraining Blücher from taking reprisals or territory, Wellington was variously engaged in France until the Allied army of occupation was withdrawn in 1818.
As a general, Wellington was respected by his troops, who admired his sangfroid and his imperturbability under fire. "Nosey" was a known battlefield figure who had the loyalty of his varied forces, and he carried this over into his later career as a political leader. His successes were due to his study of war, to careful planning including that of supply, and to his realism, which led him to rely heavily on his British infantry and to choose so often defensive positions in which he had to be attacked, usually uphill, because he flanked the enemy's line of advance.
Man on Horseback
In the years after his great victory, Wellington reverted more and more to the aristocratic mold from which he had been cast. Not only was he an 18th-century nobleman, but also he was a man whose career had been spent leading officers and men not noted for their intellectual brilliance. Thus he was used to speaking bluntly and to the point. At the same time he was accustomed to giving orders and to being obeyed. That was his public image. Yet privately he displayed a great sense of humor and was much beloved by the ladies.
In the second half of his life, Wellington had to spend a good deal of time dealing with politics and civilians, for neither of which he had much tolerance. Yet these were the difficult times of the Peterloo Massacre, the Great Reform Bill, the Chartists, and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Moreover, in these years he was exposed to examination by journalists and liberals who became unsympathetic to his outlook and actions since he was no longer leading victorious armies in popular wars. Yet he had emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the one great man in England, the man on horseback.
Political Leader and Prime Minister
On his return from France, Wellington divided his time between occasional attendance at international peace conferences and military and political appointments at home. From 1818 to 1827 he was master general of the ordnance with a seat in the Cabinet. In 1827 he became commander in chief. George Canning asked him to join the government when he succeeded Lord Liverpool, but Wellington professed himself happy as commander in chief. Moreover, he was staunchly Tory and Irish anti Catholic, while Canning leaned the other way. The upshot, when coupled to personal dislike, was that Wellington resigned both as master general of the ordnance and as commander in chief, and for the first time since he had joined the army in 1787 he was unemployed. Canning died within three months, and by September 1827 the duke was back as commander in chief.
But when Goderich's caretaker government faded early in 1828, the King sent for Wellington and asked him, as leader of the Tories, to form a new government. So at the age of 58, with doubts about the rising tide for Catholic emancipation, Wellington became prime minister. Suddenly he was back in public favor as he had not been since Waterloo.
Once in office, the duke, resigning again as commander in chief, discovered that he had to move to unite the Tories, especially after the Canningites left him. He therefore favored Catholic emancipation in an attempt both to unite his Party and to provide a sound government for Ireland. In this he was successful. The government survived until late 1830, when a combination of factors caused by the accession of William IV and the Revolution of 1830 in France made Wellington's position weak, even without his announced opposition to reform. The government resigned. The Tories were out of office for the first time in decades. Wellington refused to lead the opposition for he had been a royal servant too long.
Unpopular for a while, Wellington beat a gradual retreat on reform in the House of Lords and was willing in 1832 to be prime minister again if the King desired, but he could not form a Cabinet. He then withdrew his opposition to the Reform Bill to prevent the Whigs from packing the House of Lords. When the Whigs went out of office in 1834, the duke acted as prime minister and all three secretaries of state until Sir Robert Peel could return from Italy; then Wellington briefly retained the Foreign Office until the elections went against the Tories.
Nevertheless, Wellington's personal popularity was high once again, and he decided that the country would survive reform. In 1841 Peel formed a new government with Wellington as leader of the House of Lords. The next year the incumbent commander in chief died, and the "Iron Duke" resumed the post that he held until his death a decade later. He constantly worried about national defense. During the Chartist troubles in 1848 he organized the defense of London. He died on Sept. 14, 1852.
Deaf in his last years, Wellington was the elder states man of Great Britain, honored and consulted by many. A gradualist and a realist, he was one of the best-informed persons in the kingdom, especially on foreign affairs. He carried on a voluminous correspondence, and he was always careful of his dignity and honor. Plain of speech, sometimes tart, he generally cut to the heart of the matter. At the same time, his distinctive features made him one of the few personalities well known to the people in the days before photography. His reputation was enhanced by the publication of his dispatches (1834-1880) and his parliamentary speeches (1854).
Further Reading on 1st Duke of Wellington
The most useful biography of Wellington is Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: The Years of the Sword (1969), which carries his career through 1815 and whose bibliography provides the best starting point for research on him; a second volume is under way. The older standard work is Philip Guedalla, Wellington (1931). An excellent illustrated work on the duke is Victor Percival, The Duke of Wellington: A Pictorial Survey of His Life (1969), composed for the Victoria and Albert Museum. E. L. Woodward, The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 (1938; 2d ed. 1962), provides an adequate introduction to the later period of Wellington's life. Dealing with Wellington and the army are Godfrey Davies, Wellington and His Army (1954); Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula, 1808-1814 (1963), narrating the 6-year war against Napoleon's forces in Spain, and Wellington at Waterloo (1967); and Albert Tucker's chapter in Robin Higham, ed., A Guide to the Sources of British Military History (1971).
Additional Biography Sources
Barthorp, Michael, Wellington's generals, London: Osprey, 1978.
James, Lawrence, The Iron Duke: a military biography of Wellington, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992.
Thompson, Neville., Wellington after Waterloo, London; New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Wellington Commander: the iron duke's generalship, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986.