Wellington, Duke of (Arthur Wellesley)

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WELLINGTON, DUKE OF (ARTHUR WELLESLEY) (1769–1852), British army general and politician.

The Duke of Wellington has been admired far more for his command of the British army than for his contribution to parliamentary politics. He was Britain's most revered and respected army general during the nineteenth century, but also a very unpopular prime minister. Born in Ireland into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Arthur Wesley (later Wellesley) was the third surviving son of Garret Wesley, the first Earl of Mornington, and Lady Anne. His family's difficult financial circumstances after the early death of his father in 1781, in addition to his poor performance at Eton and a French military academy, dampened his prospects. His ambitious but less talented eldest brother, Richard, launched Wellington's military career in 1787 by obtaining for him a commission in the 73rd regiment.

Wellington started at the bottom of the officer ranks but quickly worked his way up by transferring from regiment to regiment and by serving as aide-de-camp to the lord lieutenant of Ireland beginning in 1787. With the outbreak of war between Britain and revolutionary France in 1793 came Wellington's first serious battlefield test. In 1794 he sailed for the Netherlands with the 33rd regiment, and while it was a disastrous campaign, he later claimed to have learned from his commanders' mistakes. Success in the field would have to wait for India, where he served from 1797 to 1805. He gained notable victories in Mysore (1799), where he was appointed governor, and at Assaye (1803). At the same time, he obtained valuable experience in administration and diplomacy.

Though recognized for his military success in India with a knighthood, Wellington's greatest renown came during the Napoleonic Wars, especially in the Iberian Peninsula, where Napoleon's military occupation caused deep anger and resentment. Wellington arrived in 1808 to assist the rebelling Spanish and Portuguese. He drove off the French at Rolica and repulsed a French attack at Vimeiro, but was ordered by a newly arrived senior officer to sign an armistice. The unpopularity at home of the Convention of Cintra resulted in an official inquiry, but Wellington suffered no serious harm. In 1809 he was in command in Portugal and by 1814 had pushed the French out of Spain and back across the French border. A series of major victories, for example at Talavera (1809), Salamanca (1812), and Vitoria (1813), catapulted him to war-hero status and earned him the titles of duke and field marshal. Wellington's military success can be attributed to his stunning grasp of defensive tactics, his attention to supply lines, and his ability to act decisively under pressure. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, he was appointed ambassador to the restored Bourbon court and served as a delegate to the Congress of Vienna, but was recalled to the army when Napoleon escaped from Elba. Wellington and Napoleon faced each other for the first and last time at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Napoleon suffered a terrible defeat after the Prussians, commanded by Gebhard von Blücher, joined Wellington's battered but unyielding troops.

In command of the army of occupation in France until 1818, Wellington never fought another military battle, just political ones. His political career began early. He represented Trim in the Irish Parliament (1790–1797) and served as member of Parliament (MP) for Rye (elected 1806) and chief secretary to Ireland (1807–1809). When he returned from France, he joined the cabinet of Lord Liverpool (Robert Banks Jenkinson; 1770–1828) as master-general of the ordnance (1818–1827). While positioning himself above party politics, he was firmly aligned with the Tories. He distrusted the liberal wing of the party but was more pragmatic and less reactionary than the ultra-Tories. He thus opposed the expansion of democracy but retreated from entrenched positions in the interest of political order. This pragmatism helps to explain why during his term as prime minister (1828–1830) progressive reforms were enacted, including the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (1828) and the passage of Catholic Emancipation (1829), which together opened political office to Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholics.

Wellington's most costly political blunder was refusing to compromise over parliamentary reform and the expansion of the electorate, which brought the opposition Whigs into power. Wellington continued to be politically active, serving in Robert Peel's cabinet as foreign secretary (1834–1835) and minister without portfolio (1841–1846). Though his opposition to parliamentary reform tarnished his public standing, by the time of his death he had recovered his status as a selfless elder statesman, which a state funeral, burial in Saint Paul's Cathedral, and numerous public statues make abundantly clear.

See alsoFrench Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Great Britain; Tories.


Primary Sources

Gurwood, John, ed. The Dispatches of…the Duke of Wellington. 13 vols. London, 1834–1839.

Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of…the Duke of Wellington…Edited by His Son, the Duke of Wellington. 15 vols. London, 1858–1872.

Secondary Sources

Gash, Norman, ed. Wellington: Studies in the Military and Political Career of the First Duke of Wellington. Manchester, U.K., 1990.

Longford, Elizabeth. Wellington. 2 vols. London and New York, 1969–1972. Remains the classic account.

Thompson, Neville. Wellington after Waterloo. London, 1986.

Elisa R. Milkes

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Wellington, Duke of (Arthur Wellesley)

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