Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, 1st duke of

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Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, 1st duke of (1769–1852). Soldier and prime minister. Arthur Wellesley was the third surviving son of the earl of Mornington, an impoverished Irish peer. Educated at Eton, he was regarded by his family as a dreamy introspective youth; the army was thought to be the only possible career for him. After a year at a French military academy at Angers, he entered the army by purchasing a commission. Early experience in the campaigns in the Low Countries during the first years of the Revolutionary War showed how things should not be done. His great chance came in India, where his elder brother was governor-general. Arthur established his military reputation by winning the spectacular victories of Assaye and Argaum over the Mahrattas in 1803. His campaigns in India were invaluable in preparing him for the type of war he was to fight in Portugal and Spain. In 1808 he was sent as commander of the first detachment of British troops to Portugal. Winning the battle of Vimeiro he was prevented from following up his victory by the caution of his superiors, and he was recalled with them to face a court of inquiry after the armistice of Cintra, which was seen in England as craven. Wellesley had signed the agreement under orders, but was bitterly attacked by opposition politicians. Cleared by the inquiry he resumed command of the British army in Portugal after the death of Moore. Shrewdly exploiting natural features and the engineering skills of the British army to construct the lines of Torres Vedras he ensured that the British army would not be pushed into the sea. Thereafter his Portuguese base was firm, and although collaboration with the Spaniards was often fraught with difficulties, he repeatedly challenged the French, proving the superiority of the British line over the French column. But he was more than a defensive general. He was bold when necessary, as the assaults on the fortresses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo showed, and in the battles of Salamanca, Vitoria, and the Pyrenees he was as resourceful in attack as he had been in defence. The end of the Peninsular War saw him as the most famous British general since Marlborough. The battle of Waterloo in 1815 confirmed his stature and his fame. He was without vanity and had little time for romantic delusions about military glory. For Wellington the greatest misery next to a battle lost was a battle won. He cared for his men and husbanded their lives, scorned extravagant gestures, and despised popularity.

After 1815 Wellington was prominent as a diplomat and politician. He had owed much to Castlereagh; now he became one of his trusted lieutenants in the complex diplomacy of the post-war era. He also became a member of Liverpool's government, believing that it was his duty to serve the state in whatever capacity might be required of him. After the death of Canning and the failure of the Goderich ministry, Wellington became prime minister in January 1828. Many Conservatives saw him as pledged to the maintenance of the existing order in church and state, but while he did not desire catholic emancipation he was aware that it might be unavoidable. When in 1828 a crisis erupted in Ireland he chose to grant catholic emancipation rather than risk civil war. This earned him the hatred of the ultra-Tories and he fought a duel with Lord Winchilsea. He had already lost the support of the liberal Tories because of his dislike of Canning's foreign policy. In 1830 Wellington attempted to rally conservative opinion by affirming his resolute opposition to parliamentary reform. The tactic failed to restore confidence in his administration. In November 1830 he was defeated on the civil list in the Commons and resigned. Although Wellington opposed the Reform Bill he realized that opposition had to be attuned to the realities of politics. He therefore led 100 Tory peers from their seats in the Lords to allow the Reform Bill to pass in June 1832, preferring reform to the prospect of the Upper House being swamped by newly created peers. In 1834, during the crisis provoked by Melbourne's resignation, Wellington became a caretaker prime minister for some three weeks and after 1835 he played an important role as an elder statesman. The service of the crown and the preservation of public tranquillity were his chief priorities. He helped to secure the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. His final years saw him as a popular figure and on his death in 1852 he was mourned as a great soldier and outstanding public servant.

Wellington's attitudes were those of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. He distrusted democracy, had little time for the vagaries of popular opinion, and saw politics in terms of fending off disaster rather than inaugurating utopia. His influence upon the army was conservative, though he was more perceptive than many contemporaries in understanding the role of the army in peacetime. Gifted with a cool intellect, the capacity to penetrate to the essentials of any problem surely and quickly, and the ability to express himself with lucid incisiveness, Wellington deserves his reputation as a great commander and a man of selfless integrity.

John W. Derry


Bryant, A. , The Great Duke (1971);
James, L. , The Iron Duke (1992);
Longford, E. , Wellington: The Years of the Sword (1969);
——Wellington: Pillar of State (1972).

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Arthur Wellesley 1st duke of Wellington

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