Arthur Wellesley, the third surviving son of the Earl of Mornington (1735–1781), and his wife, Anne (1742–1831), was born in Dublin on 1st May 1769. According to his biographer, Norman Gash: "Arthur lost his father at the age of twelve and was thought by his imperious mother to be foolish and dull in comparison with his elder brothers, Richard Wellesley, second earl of Mornington, and William Wellesley-Pole, later Baron Maryborough and third earl of Mornington. His only talents seemed to be for playing the violin (which may have come from his father, who was an accomplished amateur musician) and arithmetical calculation. But these minor gifts were obscured by his physical indolence and social awkwardness: signs perhaps of an unhappy and lonely childhood."
In 1781 he went to Eton College where he was "an unsociable and occasionally aggressive schoolboy who made little effort to learn." Arthur was removed from the college in the summer of 1784 and joined his mother in Brussels. After receiving French lessons he was sent to the Academy of Equitation at Angers in January 1786. In addition to fencing, horsemanship, and the science of fortification, there were lessons in mathematics, grammar, and dancing.
In March 1787 a commission was obtained for Wellesley as ensign in the 73rd foot, a Highland regiment then in India. Family connections enabled him to be appointed as aide-de-camp to George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, the lord lieutenant of Ireland. In December he was commissioned as lieutenant in the 76th foot and by June 1789 had been transferred to the 12th light dragoons. The following year he became a member of the Irish House of Commons for the family borough of Trim.
In June 1791 he was commissioned as captain in the 58th foot, before moving to the 18th light dragoons in October 1792. Norman Gash has pointed out: "In little more than five years he had held commissions in six different regiments, though there is no evidence that he served with any of them. As aide-de-camp in Dublin, member of the Irish House of Commons, and manager of the family estate at Dangan, he had more than sufficient occupation. His leisure pursuits were more conventional: drinking, gambling, and getting into debt. But he still played his violin and was showing an interest in serious reading."
After being promoted to the rank of major in 1793 he proposed to Lady Catherine Sarah Dorothea Pakenham, sister of Thomas Packenham, 2nd Duke of Longford. The offer was declined by her brother on the grounds that Arthur lacked the prospect of being able to support her properly. His response to this rejection was to set fire to his violin and to give up music.
In 1794 he was assigned to an expeditionary force under Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Earl of Moira, sent out as reinforcement for Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, in the Netherlands. During the campaign he earned an official commendation for checking a French column in a minor engagement in September 1794 at Boxte. He concluded that many of the campaign's blunders were due to the faults of the leaders and the poor organisation at headquarters. According to Richard Holmes, the author of Wellington: The Iron Duke (2002), he later recalled: "At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson".
In the autumn of 1795 his regiment joined an expeditionary force destined for the West Indies. However, ill-health meant the fleet sailed from Portsmouth without him. As Norman Gash points out: "This was good fortune for him, since it ran straight into a channel gale and seven transports were wrecked on Chesil Beach with great loss of life. When it was sent out again in December it was once more hit by bad weather and Wesley's ship was one of the lucky ones that found their way back to England in February 1796." In June of that year he sailed with his regiment to India.
With Napoleon gaining victories in Egypt, Wellesley was dispatched to deal with Tippoo Sahib of Mysore. At the Siege of Seringapatam in April 1799, Wellesley was ordered to lead a night attack on the village of Sultanpettah. Lewin Bentham Bowring later described what happened: "The Mysore troops took possession of the ground, and as it was absolutely necessary to expel them, two columns were detached at sunset for the purpose. The first of these, under Colonel Shawe, got possession of a ruined village, which it successfully held. The second column, under Colonel Wellesley, on advancing into the tope, was at once attacked in the darkness of night by a tremendous fire of musketry and rockets. The men, floundering about amidst the trees and the water-courses, at last broke, and fell back in disorder, some being killed and a few taken prisoners. In the confusion Colonel Wellesley was himself struck on the knee by a spent ball, and narrowly escaped falling into the hands of the enemy."
General George Harris was impressed with Wellesley efforts during the campaign and he was made administrator of the conquered territory. For the next 18 months he successfully stopped his men looting and was congratulated for persuading the soldiers to respect Indian customs. He was also able to deal with guerrilla leader Dhundia Wagh, who was defeated and killed in Hyderabad. Wellesley made himself responsible for the welfare and upbringing of Dhundia's four-year-old son, who was discovered among the enemy's baggage.
In April 1802, Wellesley was promoted to the rank of major-general. The following year he declared war on Sindhia and Berar, the two leading Maratha states, and in a surprise attack captured almost without loss the great fortress of Ahmadnagar, regarded as one of the strongest in India. He marched his troops 120 miles north-east and came into contact with whole Maratha army of some 50,000 men. Norman Gash has argued: "His force, reduced by his questionable decision to send Colonel Stevenson's Hyderabad contingent round by a different route, numbered only 7000. His men had already marched 20 miles that day and retreat would have been almost as hazardous as an advance. He took the bolder course. Guessing correctly that there must be a ford between two villages on opposite sides of the river, he crossed below the left flank of the Maratha position and placed his force in a narrow angle between the Kaitna and a tributary river, the Juah: a position which shortened his front and protected his flanks, but would have been a death-trap had he been beaten. The Marathas, under their French officers, skilfully changed front to meet him, and a desperate battle followed before victory was assured. Wellesley's right flank advanced too far and came under heavy artillery fire near Assaye village. Of approximately 5000 men who crossed the Kaitna over a third became casualties, a disproportionate number being among the British troops. Wellesley contributed by his personal example to the result. In the thick of the fighting throughout, he had one horse killed under him and another wounded."
Wellesley returned to England in 1805 and the following year he married Lady Catherine Sarah Dorothea Pakenham. In 1806 he was elected as the MP for Rye in Sussex. A year after entering the House of Commons, the Duke of Portland appointed Wellesley as his Irish Secretary. Although a member of the government, Arthur Wellesley remained in the army and in 1808 he was sent to aid the Portuguese against the French. After a victory at Vimeiro he returned to England but the following year he was asked to assume command of the British Army in the Peninsular War.
Winston Churchill argued in The Island Race (1964): "These were testing years for Wellington. He commanded Britain's sole remaining army on the continent of Europe. The French had always bent every effort to driving the British into the sea. In 1810 they were massing for a fresh attempt. In September there was a stiff battle at Busaco. The French were badly mauled and beaten." In 1812 the French were forced out of Spain and Wellesley reinforced his victory against the French at Toulouse.
In 1814 Wellesley was granted the title, the Duke of Wellington. He was then put in command of the forces which took on Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in June, 1815. It was a savage and bloody encounter which lasted from the opening cannonade of the French guns at 11.30 a.m. until dusk fell soon after 8 p.m. That night Wellington wrote to Thomas Creevey, "It has been a damned nice thing - the nearest run thing you ever saw... ‘I never took so much trouble about any Battle and never was so near being beat".
One military historian has pointed out: "The French troops, as always, had fought with immense courage and tenacity. Now, for the first time in Wellington's experience, their morale collapsed. What started as a retreat turned into a rout.... On both sides casualties were very heavy: about 17,000 in Wellington's army, nearly 7000 among the Prussians, about 26,000 among the French, with a further 9,000 taken prisoner and up to 10,000 missing or deserted." Advancing rapidly into France, Wellington secured an armistice on 3rd July and three days later their troops entered Paris.
Wellington was disturbed by the large loss of life at Waterloo. He wrote to Lady Frances Shelley saying “I hope to God that I have fought my last battle... Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” Parliament rewarded this military victory by granting Wellington the Hampshire estate of Stratfield Saye. Wellington purchased Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner. He then appointed the fashionable architect Benjamin Wyatt to "enlarge and reshape the appearance of the house to make it a fitting depository for all the war trophies, pictures, statues, and other immense and elaborate presents (mainly gold, silver, and porcelain) given to him by foreign governments and public authorities at home". In 1817 parliament rewarded Wellington for his military victory by buying the Hampshire estate of Stratfield Saye for the sum of £263,000 (£18,485,712 at 2012 prices).
Wellington developed a reputation as a womanizer. One of his mistresses, Harriette Wilson (1786–1845), tried to blackmail him by disclosing her intention to write about their relationship. Wellington famously replied: "publish and be damned". His most important relationship was with Harriet Arbuthnot (1793-1834), the wife of Charles Arbuthnot, a member of the House of Commons.
In 1818 the Duke of Wellington returned to politics when he accepted the invitation of Lord Liverpool to join his Tory administration as master-General of the Ordnance. He also served the role of general adviser to the government on all military matters. After the suicide of Lord Castereagh in 1822 Wellington took his place at the Congress of Verona. He also played a significant role in persuading George IV to appoint George Canning as the new foreign secretary.
Over the next few years Wellington clashed with Canning over foreign policy. Wellington, as someone who disliked democracy, thought it wrong to recognise the independent republics of the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies. In December 1824, he offered to resign but this was rejected by Lord Liverpool and eventually a compromise was reached.
In April 1825 Sir Francis Burdett, managed to persuade the House of Commons to pass the Catholic Relief Bill. Both the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and the home secretary, Robert Peel, threatened to resign over this issue. Wellington worked hard behind the scenes to stop this happening. Although he also disliked Burdett's bill, he believed the time had come to settle the dispute and produced a plan of his own for legalizing and endowing the Roman church in Ireland by means of a concordat with the pope. The cabinet crisis ended in May with the defeat of Burdett's bill in the House of Lords.
Lord Liverpool had a stroke on 17th February 1827 and he was forced to resign from office. George IV interviewed Wellington, Robert Peel and George Canning for the post of prime minister. Wellington advised the king that he would not be able to serve under Canning. When the king appointed Canning, Wellington, Peel and several other leading Tories resigned from the government. Canning was forced to rely on the support of the Whigs to hold on to power. Those Whigs who accepted government posts had to promise not to raise the issue of parliamentary reform.
George Canning died on 8th August 1827 and he was replaced by Lord Goderich. Wellington now agreed to resume command of the army. Goderich's government collapsed on 8th January 1828, and Wellington agreed to form an administration. Although Wellington and the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, had always opposed Catholic Emancipation they began to reconsider their views after they received information on the possibility of an Irish rebellion. As Peel said to Wellington: "though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger". George IV was violently opposed to Catholic Emancipation but after Wellington threatened to resign, the king reluctantly agreed to a change in the law.
In 1830 unemployment in rural areas began to grow and the invention of the threshing machine posed another threat to the economic prosperity of the farm labourer. The summer and autumn of 1830 saw a wave of riots, rick-burnings and machine-breaking. In a debate in the House of Lords in November, Earl Grey, the Whig leader, suggested that the best way to reduce this violence was to introduce reform of the House of Commons. The Duke of Wellington replied that the existing constitution was so perfect that he could not imagine any possible alternative that would be an improvement on the present system. As Harold Wilson has pointed out: "Wellington was completely out of touch with the people, ignorant of matters of industry and trade and the vast social changes which had come about through the Industrial Revolution".
Wellington's close friend, Harriet Arbuthnot, wrote in her diary: "The Duke is greatly affected by all this state of affairs. He feels that beginning reform is beginning revolution, and therefore he must endeavour to stem the tide as long as possible, and that all he has to do is to see when and how it will be best for the country that he should resign. He thinks he cannot till he is beat in the House of Commons. He talked about this with me yesterday."
James Grant argued: "One of the greatest defects in the character of the Duke as a statesman is, his neither anticipating public opinion, nor keeping abreast with it. He generally resists it until it has acquired an overwhelming power... The Duke of Wellington is not a good speaker. His style is rough and disjointed. His manner of speaking is much worse than his diction. He has a bad screeching sort of voice, aggravated by an awkward mode of mouthing the words. His enunciation is so bad, owing in some measure to the loss of several of his teeth, that often, when at the full stretch of his voice, you do not know what particular words he is using."
In the speech on 8th November, 1830, Wellington made it clear that he had no intention of introducing parliamentary reform. Charles Greville wrote in his journal: "The Duke of Wellington made a violent and uncalled for declaration against Reform, which has without doubt sealed his fate. Never was there an act of more egregious folly, or one so universally condemned by friends and foes." When news of what Wellington had said in Parliament was reported, his home in London was attacked by a mob. Now extremely unpopular with the public, Wellington began to consider resigning from office.
Wellington's biographer, Norman Gash has argued: "The duke made his celebrated declaration, in the debate on the king's speech at the beginning of November, that the constitution needed no improvement and that he would resist any measure of parliamentary reform as long as he was in office. Couched in his usual peremptory and uncompromising style, his statement was probably intended not so much to win back the ultra-tories (the usual interpretation placed on it at the time) as to make his own attitude plain and so put a stop to all the talk of parliamentary reform which had been going on, both outside and inside the administration, for several weeks."
On 15th November, 1830 Wellington's government was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons. The new king, William IV, was more sympathetic to reform than his predecessor and two days later decided to ask Earl Grey to form a government. As soon as Grey became prime minister he formed a cabinet committee to produce a plan for parliamentary reform. Details of the proposals were announced on 3rd February 1831. The bill was passed by the Commons by a majority of 136, but despite a powerful speech by Earl Grey, the bill was defeated in the House of Lords by forty-one.
Wellington attended the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway but was deeply upset by the way he was booed and hissed by the crowds as his train entered Manchester. This was a reaction to his views on the Peterloo Massacre and his opposition to the 1832 Reform Act. This experience made him hostile to the railways and he warned that cheap travel may result in revolution. However, Wellington later changed his mind about the railways after he developed a close relationship with George Hudson. Hudson helped Wellington make a great deal of money by advising him when to buy and sell railway shares.
William IV dismissed the Whigs in November 1834 and with Robert Peel absent in Italy, Wellington became temporary head of a new government until his colleague's arrival three weeks later. He then became foreign secretary. Peel immediately called a general election and during the campaign issued what became known as the Tamworth Manifesto. In his election address to his constituents in Tamworth, Peel pledged his acceptance of the 1832 Reform Act and argued for a policy of moderate reforms while preserving Britain's important traditions. The Tamworth Manifesto marked the shift from the old, repressive Toryism to a new, more enlightened Conservatism.
The general election gave Peel more supporters although there were still more Whigs than Tories in the House of Commons. Despite this, the king invited Peel to form a new administration. With the support of the Whigs, Peel's government was able to pass the Dissenters' Marriage Bill and the English Tithe Bill. However, Peel was constantly being outvoted in the House of Commons and on 8th April 1835 he resigned from office.
In August 1841 Robert Peel was once again invited to form a Conservative administration. Wellington, who was now seventy-two years old, became a minister without portfolio as well as leader of the House of Lords. Over the last few years Britain had been spending more than it was earning. Peel decided the government had to increase revenue. On 11th March, 1842, he announced the introduction of income-tax at sevenpence in the pound. He added, that he hoped that this was enable the government to reduce duties on imported goods.
Peel's attempts to improve the situation in Ireland was severely damaged by the 1845 potato blight. The Irish crop failed, therefore depriving the people of their staple food. Peel was informed that three million poor people in Ireland who had previously lived on potatoes would require cheap imported corn. Peel realised that they only way to avert starvation was to remove the duties on imported corn. Wellington disagreed with Peel over the issue he urged his cabinet colleagues in a memorandum of 30th November 1845 to support the prime minister since "a good Government for the country is more important than Corn Laws or any other consideration". The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, but the policy split the Conservative Party and Peel was forced to resign.
The end of Peel's ministry, in June 1846, marked the effective end of the Wellington's political career. He now developed a close relationship with Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of the richest women in the world. At first he advised her on business matters. At the time she was in dispute with Edward Marjoribanks, who ran Coutts Bank. Burdett-Coutts wanted to raise the salaries of the clerks in the bank. Wellington helped her draft a letter to Marjoribanks that stated: "There are points connected with the management of my House upon which I cannot alter my opinions, founded as they are upon the invariable practice of my grandfather.... I am anxious to know whether you will consent to have prepared by next week our arrangement for a general rise in public salaries of the clerks of the House; which contrary to the practice of my grandfather has not taken place for some years."
On 19th August 1846, the Duke of Wellington wrote: "I hope you will always write to me whenever you wish to communicate with a friend." When they were apart he wrote to her daily, sometimes twice a day. It has been estimated that during the relationship Wellington sent Miss Burdett-Coutts, over 800 letters. They often sent each other the "product of their walks", a flower, a delicate leaf, a fragrant herb. Edna Healey, the author of Lady Unknown: The Life of Angela Burdett-Coutts (1978), has speculated: "Was he her lover? Undoubtedly their relationship was very close. The tone of his letters, the winding staircase to his private rooms, the intertwined locks of hair show how close it was. But it is easier to believe that she secretly married him than that she was his mistress. There is no proof of such a marriage, only persistent rumours in both their families."
Granville Leveson-Gower recorded in his diary: "The Duke of Wellington was astonishing the world by a strange intimacy he has struck up with Miss Coutts with whom he passes his life, and all sorts of reports have been rife of his intention to marry her. Such are the lamentable appearances of decay in his vigorous mind, which are the more to be regretted because he is in most enviable circumstances, without ny political responsibility, vet associated with public affairs, and surrounded with every sort of respect and consideration on every side - at Court, in Parliament, in society, and in the country."
On 7th February 1847, Angela Burdett-Coutts proposed to the Duke of Wellington, despite the age difference, he was seventy-eight and she was thirty-three. Wellington answered her in a letter the following day: "My dearest Angela, I have passed every moment of the evening and night since I quitted you in reflecting upon our conversation of yesterday, every word of which I have considered repeatedly. My first duty towards you is that of friend, guardian, protector. You are young, my dearest! You have before you the prospect of at least twenty years of enjoyment of happiness in life. I entreat you again in this way, not to throw yourself away upon a man old enough to be your grandfather, who, however strong, hearty and healthy at present, must and will certainly in time feel the consequences and infirmities of age... My last days would be embittered by the reflection that your life was uncomfortable and hopeless."
Wellington retired from public life but on 10th April 1848 he organised a military force to protect London against possible Chartist violence at the large meeting at Kennington Common. That evening Wellington wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts: "The mobs have dispersed. There are but two or three hundred people about Palace Yard... not a shot has been fired or an individual injured - nor has a single soldier been seen."
Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington died at Walmer Castle on 14th September, 1852 and was buried at St Paul's Cathedral on 18th November. Norman Gash claims that "the occasion for probably the most ornate and spectacular funeral ever seen in England, the procession from Horse Guards via Constitution Hill to St Paul's being witnessed, it was estimated, by a million and a half people."