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Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

One of history's great soldier-statesmen, Arthur Wellesley, the future 'Sepoy General' so badly underestimated by his great adversary Napoleon, was born in the same year as Bonaparte, entering the British army in 1787 and, aided by his brother Richard (later Marquess Wellesley), rose rapidly.

He held a command in Flanders (1794–95) and in 1796 went with his regiment to India. After his brother's appointment (1797) as governor-general of India, he received command of a division in the invasion of Mysore and became (1799) governor of Seringapatam. In 1800 he defeated the robber chieftain, Dhundia Wagh, and in 1802 he was made major general.

'I considered Napoleon’s presence in the field equal to forty thousand men in the balance' - Wellington

In 1803, he moved against the Maratha, breaking their force of about 40,000 with an army of about 10,000 in a surprise attack. A valuable civil and military adviser to his brother, he returned with him to England in 1805 and was knighted. His election (1806) to Parliament and appointment (1807) as Irish secretary did not prevent him from leading (1807) an expedition against the Danes.

A younger Arthur Wellesley by Stroehling

In 1808, Wellington led an expedition to assist Portugal in its revolt against the French. He defeated the French at Rolica and Vimeiro, but lost his command. In 1809 he returned to the Iberian Peninsula, where he ultimately assumed command of the British, Portuguese, and Spanish forces in the Peninsular War.

This is an excellent print of the Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Taking advantage of the irregular terrain, Portuguese and Spanish nationalism, and Napoleon's preoccupation with other campaigns and projects, Wellington enjoyed tremendous success in Spain and drove the French beyond the Pyrenees by 1813, though his campaigns were rendered difficult by poor support from the British government. Late in 1813 he invaded southern France, and he was at Toulouse when news of Napoleon's abdication (April 1814) arrived.

Wellington by Lawrence

Returning to England, he received many honors and was created Duke of Wellington. He served for a short time as ambassador to Paris, where he enjoyed spending quality time with Napoleon’s mistresses Mlle. George and the singer Madam Grassini.  Wellington then succeeded Viscount Castlereagh at the peace conference in Vienna. 

But when Napoleon escaped fromhis exile on Elba, he immediately took command of the allied armies. Then came Wellington’s most famous victory, that at Waterloo which closed the Belgian campaign of 1815, a battle won largely due to the timely arrival of Prussian forces under Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Wellington, again lavishly honored by his government, took charge of the army of occupation in France, exerting his influence to restrain harsh treatment of the defeated French.

This charming Winterhalter portrait shows England's national hero presenting a gift to the young future King Edward VII

Political Life

Wellington, 'The Iron Duke' with the soldier's taste for discipline and order and the aristocrat's distrust of democratic institutions, lent his great prestige to the Tory policy of repression at home and took a cabinet post as Master General of the Ordnance (1819).

Wellington represented England at the Congress of Verona (1822), where he opposed intervention in the Spanish revolt, and at the conference at St. Petersburg (1826) that concerned itself with the revolt in Greece, but he was not in sympathy with the liberal foreign policy of George Canning and resigned (1827) when Canning became Prime Minister.

Wellington's Tomb in St. Paul's Cathedral

In 1828 Wellington himself reluctantly became Prime Minister.  He bowed to public clamor and allowed the repeal of the Test Act and Corporation Act and the passage of the Catholic Emancipation bill (reforms he had previously opposed), but he lost the support of much of the Tory party as a consequence. When he declared against parliamentary reform, his ministry fell (1830) and his unpopularity subjected him to an assault by a mob.

Wellington refused to form a government in 1834, but served under Sir Robert Peel (Father of the famed 'Bobbies') as Foreign Secretary (1834–35) and again (1841–46) as minister without portfolio. On the repeal of the Corn Laws he supported Peel, while not wholly approving his policy. In 1842 he was made Commander-in-Chief for life.

Wellington rests today in his magnificent tomb in St. Paul's Cathedral.