Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman and one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century, is born at 6 Merrion Street, Dublin, on May 1, 1769.
Wellesley is born to Garret Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington and Anne Wellesley, Countess of Mornington. Fatherless at an early age and neglected by his mother, he is a reserved, withdrawn child. He fails to shine at Eton College and instead attends private classes in Brussels, followed by a military school in Angers, France. Ironically, he has no desire for a military career. Instead he wishes to pursue his love of music. Following his mother’s wishes, however, he joins a Highland regiment.
Wellesley fights at Flanders in Belgium in 1794, and directs the campaign in India in 1796, where his elder brother Richard is Governor-General. Knighted for his efforts, he returns to England in 1805.
In 1806 Wellesley is elected Member of Parliament for Rye, East Sussex, and within a year he is appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland under Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond. He continues with his military career despite his parliamentary duties, fighting campaigns in Portugal and France, and being made commander of the British Army in the Peninsular War. He is given the title Duke of Wellington in 1814, and goes on to command his most celebrated campaigns in the Napoleonic Wars, with final victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. When he returns to Britain he is treated as a hero, formally honoured, and presented with both an estate in Hampshire and a fortune of £400,000.
After the Battle of Waterloo, Wellesley becomes Commander in Chief of the army in occupied France until November 1818. He then returns to England and Parliament, and joins Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool’s government in 1819 as Master-General of the Ordnance. He undertakes a number of diplomatic visits overseas, including a trip to Russia.
In 1828, after twice being overlooked in favour of George Canning and F. J. Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, Wellesley is finally invited by King George IV to form his own government and set about forming his Cabinet. As Prime Minister, he is very conservative; known for his measures to repress reform, his popularity sinks a little during his time in office. Yet one of his first achievements is overseeing Catholic emancipation in 1829, the granting of almost full civil rights to Catholics in the United Kingdom. Feelings run very high on the issue. George Finch-Hatton, 10th Earl of Winchilsea, an opponent of the bill, claims that by granting freedoms to Catholics Wellesley “treacherously plotted the destruction of the Protestant constitution.”
Wellesley has a much less enlightened position on parliamentary reform. He defends rule by the elite and refuses to expand the political franchise. His fear of mob rule is enhanced by the riots and sabotage that follow rising rural unemployment. His opposition to reform causes his popularity to plummet to such an extent that crowds gathered to throw missiles at his London home.
The government is defeated in the House of Commons and Wellesley resigns on November 16, 1830, to be replaced by Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. Wellesley, however, continues to fight reform in opposition, though he finally consents to the Great Reform Act in 1832.
Two years later Wellesley refuses a second invitation to form a government because he believes membership in the House of Commons has become essential. The king reluctantly approves Robert Peel, who is in Italy at the time. Hence, Wellesley acts as interim leader for three weeks in November and December 1834, taking the responsibilities of Prime Minister and most of the other ministries. In Peel’s first cabinet (1834–1835), he becomes Foreign Secretary, while in the second (1841–1846) he is a Minister without portfolio and Leader of the House of Lords. Upon Peel’s resignation in 1846, he retires from politics.
In 1848 Wellesley organises a military force to protect London against possible Chartist violence at the large meeting at Kennington Common.
Arthur Wellesley dies at Walmer Castle, Kent, England on September 14, 1852 after a series of seizures. After lying in state in London, he is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Wellington Arch in London’s Hyde Park is named in his honor.
(From: “Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,” GOV.UK (wwww.gov.uk) | Pictured: “Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)” by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas)