Monday, March 27, 2017

Arthur Wellesley - First Duke of Wellington (The Iron Duke)

by Arthur Russell.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, garnered quite a few names over a long illustrious career – first as a military man, and later in life in a political career that saw him reach the highest position as a two term Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

His distinctive Roman nose gave him the name “Nosey” for the soldiers he led, while his military prowess and spectacular achievements on battlefields on two continents earned for him the name “The Iron Duke” or simply “The Duke”.

He was born in a house on Merrion Square, Dublin and spent most of his formative years in the Wellesley family demesne of Dangan Castle, in the rolling pastoral countryside between the village of Summerhill and the small provincial town of Trim in County Meath, Ireland. His upbringing was typical of many young men of his class, time and place, which is so well described in Philip Guedalla’s  masterful tome, “The Duke” about the life and times of the hero of Waterloo as well as his successful campaign in Portugal, Spain and France against Napoloen Bonaparte in the European wars of the early 19th century.

Guedella’s book, which was written and published in 1931, just eight decades after Wellesley’s death in November 1850; opens with a description  of the Wellesley family’s unique Anglo Irish aristocratic background of the late 1700’s.

“Castes mark their children deeply – and as a caste the English gentry resident in Ireland were pronounced. Every conquest leaves a caste behind it, since conquerors are always apt to perpetuate their victory in superior social pretentions. Had not the Romans been the noblemen of Europe? Even a Norman raid became an aristocracy in England; and in Ireland the Anglo-Norman conquest left a similar deposit. Such castes are frequently absorbed, assimilated by their subject populations. But where race combines with religious differences and recurrent insurrection to keep the two apart, the schism is absolute and the conquerors remain an alien caste. Such castes, where they survive, are aristocratic by necessity, since their hauteur is less a mannerism than the sole condition of their survival. For without a sinful pride the conqueror will vanish --
Anglo-Irish magnates knew themselves observed by long, resentful rows of Irish eyes; and what conqueror would condescend before such an audience? The silent watchers made and kept them prouder than ever; and in the last half of the eighteenth century the Anglo Irish magnate was indisputably “Grand Seigneur”. ----------------
A chasm yawned between the classes, as it yawned between Versailles and France. But safe on the hither side the gentry lived their lordly lives, drank claret, toasted the “glorious, pious, and immortal memory”, ran races, and matched fighting cocks. ---------
As their rents rose ever higher on the mounting tide of Irish population, they scattered their argosies (and mortgaged their remotest prospects) in the lordliest game of all. For they built as recklessly as kings. The trim Palladian facades rose gracefully in every Irish county ---------------
A light hearted gentry built with an increasing fervor, since rents could never fall while tenants swarmed in every cabin---------
They bore themselves with the immense patrician dignity that comes from super position on a foundation of slavery. For the native Irish, even in the last years of the eighteenth century, were not far removed from slavery ----------
The nearest social parallel to rural Ireland was to be found three thousand miles away, in the cotton fields of Carolina. There too a little caste lived on their acres. The grace of Southern manners on the white pillared porches of Colonial mansions matches the ease of Irish country houses. There is the same profusion, the same improvidence against the same background of slavery. The same defects recur------

Ireland at the end of the 18th century was truly a country of contrasts, social, religious, political. It was a country of native Irish and their Anglo Irish masters; of ruling class Protestant and oppressed Catholics; of a minority population of privileged haves and an overwhelming majority population of dispossessed and disenfranchised have nots. Ireland was a country that was ill-governed by a seriously unrepresentative Dublin based parliament which focused on serving the interests of those who made it up rather than the welfare of the country and the people it more rightly owed responsibility for protection and just legislation.

His privileged background inclined the future soldier politician to be an ultra conservative and non reformist. As a young man, he cut his political teeth serving under two Lord Lieutenants of Ireland (both appointed by the English House of Commons). He was also a member of the Irish parliament for the nearby borough of Trim in County Meath. As a young parliamentarian he was strong in his opposition to granting the Freedom of Dublin to the leading reformer in the Irish Legislature, Henry Grattan; precisely because Grattan and his Patriot party were reformers and its leader seen as being untrue and disloyal to his own (aristocratic) kind by many of his peers in the Dublin Parliament. 

His long career was both political and military, his spectacular success in the latter helped to propel him to the highest office in capital city of the Empire he helped to expand during his Indian campaign (1796-1806). India was where he made his reputation as a supreme strategist and military commander.

He was no social reformer, but is credited as being the British Prime Minister who guided the Catholic Emancipation Bill through a reluctant House of Commons in 1829. In doing this he was making good on a promise made in 1805, when as Chief Secretary for Ireland he stated that he would always refuse to observe the excesses of the oppressive Penal Laws that the majority population of Ireland had endured for more than a century. As a supreme pragmatist he could well see the shifts in the wind that informed that such legislation had no place in enlightened governance in the aftermath of the American War of Independence, and the French Revolution. Ultimately he furthered the process of righting the massive legislative wrongs that had been perpetrated against Catholics for so long.  His boyhood experience of Ireland and of the strictures the majority population lived under, may well have given him insights and motivation. It is a matter of record that the British Army that took to the field at the battle Waterloo under his command, was made up of 30% Irish soldiers, most of them Catholic. By that time they were allowed have their own chaplains, a reform made a mere 30 years before.
Of course his critics on both sides, argued that the pragmatist in him bowed to the inevitable only when it became inevitable. Against that, he had to operate against the not insignificant opposition of King William, who as head of the Established Church, saw Emancipation as an essential inherited Royal duty to deny, to protect and defend against a long perceived enemy – the Roman Catholic Church. Wellington’s threat to resign and collapse the Government quickly overcame whatever objections the King might have held. It was a risk the Duke was prepared to take, in the certain knowledge that civil war would have broken out in Ireland if the Act was not passed. Many of his Irish Ascendancy colleagues would find it hard to forgive what they saw as betrayal of his class.

By contrast, 2 years later (1831) he adamantly opposed the First Reform Act which sought to widen voting rights and suffrage in the United Kingdom. He was no great believer in the capacity of the “plain people” to engage in political processes, which he considered to be more rightly the preserve of their “betters”. His attitude no doubt drew on his inherited aristocratic perception of the social order, which was further reinforced by strong military experience garnered on 60 battlefields in India and Europe. So much depended on his ability and capacity as a military leader to know what was best for those under him. Because of these influences in his life and career, he would always find it hard to accommodate completely to the notion that the business of running a country is not quite the same as running a military campaign.  Imposing discipline on soldiers is one thing, doing the same for a diverse population quite something else. To his credit, it has to be noted that at a time when the lives and welfare of rank and file soldiers drawn from what were considered “the lower orders”, was not set at high account in the scale of things; Wellington was always conscious of his responsibility for the lives and welfare of those under his command. This trait earned this aristocratic and rather aloof leader of men a well deserved reputation for his defensive as well as offensive approach to warfare, earning him the respect, loyalty and even sometimes the love of those who served with and under him.
In his day he was something of a fashion leader and did much to popularise the short tunic, tight breeches and high shiny boots so beloved by Society of the early 1800's.

Lady Catherine - First Duchess of Wellington

Catherine Packenham - Duchess of Wellington 
When it came to his interaction with the fair sex, Wellesley had a questionable record. As a young military man at the start of his career in 1793, he had cast his eye on Catherine (Kitty) Packenham, the daughter of Edward, 2nd Baron of Longford, but was found by her family to be wanting in terms of wealth and prospects. He found this rejection hurtful, causing him to throw all his energy into his military career. His spectacular Indian exploits won him the plaudits he lacked so that when he returned to Ireland a decorated hero 12 years later; he was pushing an open door in his quest for Kitty’s hand. 

As so often in life, long absence coupled with the excitement and uncertainty of the chase could well have outshone the attainment of the prize. Winning that particular battle as part of the upward trajectory of his career, was no guarantee of “happy ever after”.  His life with Kitty was not what either of them had hoped for, though the marriage produced two boys, Arthur (1812) and Charles (1815). He had a series of mistresses and sexual dalliances during his long life, in a parallel life to his domestic life. Nor did he make any great secret of this as evidenced by his retort to a would be blackmailing newspaper publisher who threatened to expose one of his many affairs in exchange for payment.  He is credited to have told him “Publish and be damned”.

Despite all of this, he was reported to be extremely saddened when Kitty died of cancer in 1831. It is reported that his one comfort was that after "half a lifetime together, they had come to understand each other at the end". Three years later he was equally saddened by the death during a cholera epidemic, of one particular mistress friend, diarist Harriet Arbuthnot.

This brilliant complex man, soldier and statesman died in Walmer castle on September 14th 1852 at the age of 83, and was accorded a state funeral in November of the same year, at which thousands paid their respects to one who had done so much during a long and interesting life of service to the Empire he had helped to establish.  He was laid to rest in an imposing sarcophagus in St Paul’s Cathedral, beside another hero of the Napoleonic wars, Lord Horatio Nelson.

Memorials to Wellington in Ireland

"This column erected in the year MDCCCXV11 (1817)
in honour of the illustrious Duke of Wellington
by the grateful subscriptions of the County Meath
The country that birthed and nurtured Wellington did not forget him in the aftermath of his greatest victories and death. Two years after Waterloo, his native Trim raised an imposing commemorative column close to the town centre, while a huge memorial, the largest obelisk in Europe; was raised to him in Dublin’s Phoenix Park after his death.

The Wellington monument in Dublin's
Phoenix Park, the largest obelisk in Europe.
Completed in 1861
While most Irish Nationalists in the wake of Irish independence almost a century ago are no great lovers of the Duke; the Wellington monuments in Trim and Dublin have been spared the fate of similar memorials to King William III (of Battle of the Boyne fame) on College Green and Horatio Nelson in the centre of O’Connell Street as somewhat uncomfortable reminders of Ireland’s sometimes difficult history as part of the British Empire. While their presence sometimes give cause for debate and flurries of letters to newspapers, (pro as well as contra); as time passes, and the nation comes to terms with its past; the desire to remove or destroy may lessen rather than increase. With growing National confidence comes the realisation that history cannot be changed by such acts, and in so many ways, the actions and achievements of those who went before, from all sides of political, social and religious divides, contribute to who we in Ireland are.


Arthur Russell is the Author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. ‘Morgallion’ was awarded the IndieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post, thank you! I always liked that portrait by Lawrence, quite handsome...Goya shows the same man, but with a very different expression


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