Wellesley (Wesley), Arthur (1769–1852), 1st duke of Wellington , soldier and politician, was born 1 May 1769 at Mornington House, 6 Merrion Street, Dublin, the third surviving son of Garret Wesley (qv) (1735–81), 1st earl of Mornington, and his wife, Anne (née Hill; 1742–1831), daughter of 1st Viscount Dungannon (qv).
Family background and early years
Arthur re-styled his surname ‘Wellesley’ from 1798, following the example set by his eldest brother, Richard (qv), 2nd earl of Mornington and later 1st Marquess Wellesley. The Wesley family traced their origins in Ireland to ‘old English’ stock and were part of the landed protestant elite, owning 13,700 statute acres in Co. Meath, centred on the family seat of Dangan castle and the borough of Trim, as well as several thousand acres in Co. Kildare and property in Dublin city. Although Richard Wellesley was to sell this Irish property in instalments after 1781, the Wellesleys retained strong family and political connections with Ireland.
Arthur was educated at Trim and London, and at Eton College (1781–4), where he did not excel and from which he was withdrawn, subsequently attending the Academy of Equitation at Angers, in France. He emerged in 1786 with fluent French and gentlemanly manners, and was recommended by the proprietor, M. de Pignerolle, as ‘an Irish lad of great promise’ (Longford, 21). A military career was determined upon, and in 1787 Arthur was commissioned ensign in the 73rd regiment of foot, and quickly promoted to lieutenant and captain (1791). Through his family's influence (and to promote his brother's political ambitions) he was in 1787 appointed aide-de-camp to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, the marquess of Buckingham (qv). During the Irish residency which followed he also undertook the management of the family's estates in Meath. In 1790 he replaced his brother William as MP for Trim in the Irish parliament, after having publicly declared his opposition to the corporation's conferring the freedom of the borough upon Henry Grattan (qv). He did not make his maiden speech in the Irish commons until January 1793 and thereafter spoke sparingly, but in 1795 answered Grattan's attacks on the Irish administration for its failure to grant catholic emancipation. Promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of the 33rd regiment in 1793, in June 1794 he temporarily left Dublin for foreign service under the duke of York in the Netherlands. The campaign was a fiasco and the army was evacuated from Hanover in spring 1795, but Wesley acquitted himself well, while acquiring a highly critical opinion of the competence of his military superiors.
On returning from the continent, Wesley resumed his duties as aide-de-camp in Dublin and attempted but failed to secure political office in both the British and Irish administrations. Later in 1795 he resigned his Irish seat and the following year, after an abortive posting to the West Indies, followed his regiment to India. His personal position there was greatly enhanced by the appointment of his brother Richard as governor general of Bengal in 1797, and Arthur acted as his brother's unofficial military secretary and subsequently as his local representative and advocate for his expansionist policies to the Madras presidential government. Arthur was ambitious for military success and had occupied much of his time on the journey to India immersing himself in works on military theory and strategy and on Indian society and languages. He also found time to read Adam Smith's Wealth of nations, and retained an interest in political economy thereafter. At Madras he overhauled the military infrastructure, giving particular attention to matters of logistics and supply which would distinguish his subsequent military career. When war was declared against Tipu Sultan of Mysore in early 1799, Colonel Wellesley was given command of a large detachment of British and allied native forces, and after an embarrassing failure in a night attack near Seringapatam, was involved in the capture of that fortress and defeat of Tipu. His subsequent appointment as governor of Mysore was criticised by rival officers as nepotism, but proved successful. Although privately contemptuous of the native peoples of India, he was highly conscious of the public expediency of avoiding giving offence, and took care not to interfere with local religious or legal practices. Instead, he devoted his energies to repressing looting and campaigning against guerrilla groups.
In 1800–01 ill health and lack of military seniority prevented him taking independent command of an expedition against the French in Egypt, but in 1802 he was promoted major general and the following year was placed in charge of the campaign against the Maratha states of the Deccan. This was to prove the making of Wellesley's military reputation; his forces quickly seized the stronghold of Ahmadnagar and in September 1803 comprehensively defeated a much larger, French-trained Maratha army at the battle of Assaye, a victory which rapidly led his opponents to sue for peace. This dramatic success brought him a knighthood in August 1804 and a substantial sum in prize money. Having served his military apprenticeship in India, he returned to Britain in 1805 a man of some reputation and financial independence.
MP and chief secretary for Ireland
In London Wellesley was consulted on Indian and military affairs by the prime minister, William Pitt, and by Lord Castlereagh (qv), and he established a lasting friendship with the latter. After an abortive posting to Hanover in early 1806, he accepted Lord Grenville's suggestion that he take a seat in parliament to defend his brother Richard's record in India, and was elected MP for Rye. In early 1807 he was again returned, for the government's Cornish pocket borough of Mitchell, before transferring in May to the seat of Newport, Isle of Wight. In March the incoming Portland ministry offered him the post of chief secretary for Ireland, which he accepted on the condition that it could be held simultaneously with the pursuit of his military career. Wellesley was to occupy this office, under the duke of Richmond (qv) as lord lieutenant, for two years, albeit punctuated by two periods of overseas campaigning, during which John Wilson Croker (qv) served as his deputy. Taking up the chief secretaryship in the wake of the Irish republican rebellions of 1798 and 1803, and with French invasion still a possibility, Wellesley's principal concern was for security and he gave particular attention to bolstering the island's defences. Convinced that any concessions by the government, especially on the catholic question, would not alter the antagonistic feelings of the people, he was persuaded that the Irish must be kept down ‘by main force’ (Larpent, vol. i, 119) if the union was to be upheld. At the same time, he proved conscientious and hard-working in his management of the 1807 elections, in allocating Irish patronage and in shepherding Irish business, including the Dublin police and Irish insurrection bills, through the house of commons.
Wellesley strengthened his Irish connections in April 1806 through his marriage to Catherine (‘Kitty’) Sarah Dorothea Pakenham (d. 1831), daughter of the 2nd Baron Longford and friend of the novelist Maria Edgeworth (qv). They had first met in the early 1790s, but Arthur's approaches in 1793 had not then been welcomed by her family. With his circumstances much changed on his return from India, he felt under a reluctant obligation to renew his proposal, which was accepted. It was not a happy marriage, and Wellesley remained notorious for his many liaisons, but the marriage cemented his ties with Anglo–Irish landed society. Two sons were born in 1807 and 1808.
The Peninsular campaign
Despite the relative success of his political appointment, Wellesley was eager to return to active service, and volunteered for a command on the expedition against Denmark in summer 1807, being present at the siege of Copenhagen. A further opportunity arose in the wake of the Spanish rebellion against Napoleonic rule in May 1808, and Wellesley lobbied strongly for British military intervention to assist this legitimist revolt. Now a lieutenant general, he was despatched with an advance force of 9,000 from Cork to Portugal in July 1808. As in India, on his arrival Wellesley made a point of insisting that his forces defer to the religious sensibilities of his hosts; he was subsequently to establish a respectful friendship with Patrick Curtis (qv), head of the Irish college at Salamanca and later catholic archbishop of Armagh. Several weeks after landing, his Anglo–Portuguese army inflicted a defeat on the French occupying force under Marshal Junot at Vimeiro. Shortly after the battle Wellesley lost command of the expedition to his superior, Sir Hew Dalrymple, who concluded the ‘convention of Cintra’ with the French, allowing them to evacuate Portugal with their army, materiel, and plunder intact. Wellesley signed reluctantly and returned to Britain as quickly as possible, but did not escape a share of the unpopularity attached to the treaty and was obliged to defend his conduct at a board of inquiry.
Following the death of General Sir John Moore (qv) at Corunna in early 1809, the British command in the Peninsula was again vacant, and, with Castlereagh's strong advocacy, the cabinet agreed that Wellesley should be his replacement. In April 1809 he resigned his ministerial office and seat in parliament and sailed to Lisbon with the initial objective of securing the defence of Portugal against another French invasion. As commander of the British forces in Iberia, he quickly demonstrated what would be the characteristics of his military style – careful preparation and attention to logistical support and supply, a stress on the importance of military intelligence and the selection of advantageous terrain, the imposition of harsh (if not always effective) military discipline, and the employment of companies of riflemen as skirmishers in the American style. A high proportion of Wellesley's soldiers were Irish catholics, of whom he did not hold a particularly high opinion, though there is no evidence that his disciplinary regime treated them any differently from other soldiers.
After outflanking the French army at Oporto by his successful crossing of the river Douro, Wellesley's army advanced into Spain, but he failed to receive the military and logistical support he had expected from his Spanish allies. A military catastrophe was prevented by success at the ‘murderous’ defensive battle of Talavera on 27–8 July 1809. Typically, Wellesley directed operations personally and expected implicit obedience from his subordinates. Talavera earned him a state pension and elevation to the peerage as Viscount Wellington (the title was chosen on his behalf by his brother Richard), but was followed by a retreat back to Portugal rather than an advance to Madrid. Anticipating a full-scale French assault, Wellington used powers granted him by the Portuguese authorities to order the construction of a triple defensive line at Torres Vedras on the road to Lisbon, and to prepare plans for the evacuation of large portions of the population, and their foodstocks, behind these lines. The French assault under Marshall Masséna in spring 1810 found the allied forces seriously outnumbered, but the defences proved impregnable. However, British attempts to advance into Spain in 1811 foundered with bloody failed assaults on the strongly defended fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz; it was only after the withdrawal of parts of the French garrison to other fronts and the reinforcement and resupply of the attackers that the forts fell in January and April 1812, in both cases with very heavy casualties and followed by an orgy of destruction, looting, rape, and murder of civilians on the part of Wellington's forces. Wellington was promoted to an earldom and awarded a Spanish dukedom and pension.
The price paid for these operations had been high, but they had opened the way for an allied advance against a dispirited and depleted French army. A more skilful and decisive victory at Salamanca in July was followed by the political coup of occupying Madrid, but the marquess of Wellington (as he became in October 1812) again found his forces outnumbered by the regrouping French and was obliged to fall back to his supply base at Ciudad Rodrigo. This pattern of advance and retreat was finally broken in 1813, when French withdrawals to defend their German front and British reinforcements finally gave Wellington a numerical advantage. Now advancing north of the river Douro and using naval supplies landed at the Asturian ports, Wellington pushed the French army back towards the frontier, defeating them at the Basque village of Vitoria in June, and cutting the supply route to Madrid. After pausing to consolidate his position, Wellington launched an invasion of southern France in October, and by the time hostilities ended in April 1814 had occupied Bordeaux and Toulouse.
Waterloo and cabinet office
Wellington emerged from the Peninsular campaign with an international reputation for successful generalship and considerable political clout. He was elevated to duke and voted £400,000 by parliament, with which he purchased the Stratfield Saye estate in Hampshire and his brother's London residence of Apsley House. His old ally Castlereagh, now foreign secretary, had him appointed British ambassador at Paris with a view to employing him at the forthcoming Vienna congress, but the duke's diplomatic career was cut short by the escape of Napoleon from Elba. Immediately appointed commander of the Anglo–Dutch forces in the Netherlands, he was given the responsibility, shared with the Prussian commander Marshal Blücher, of defending Brussels from a French assault. Wellington's army met the slightly larger force of Napoleon at a prepared defensive position south of the village of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Despite heavy casualties, his army held its position until the arrival of the Prussians forced the French army into flight. Within three weeks Paris had fallen and Napoleon had abdicated. Wellington's military prestige had reached its apogee, and he was hailed as a popular hero in Britain.
As commander-in-chief of the allied army of occupation in France, Wellington was determined to stabilise the restored Bourbon monarchy, while at the same time securing the payment of war reparations and the repatriation of property appropriated by French armies over the preceding decades. His success in these activities enhanced his political reputation, and on the withdrawal of the occupation armies in 1818, he joined Lord Liverpool's tory cabinet as master general of the ordnance. In practice he was most heavily involved in issues of military and foreign policy; he served as the British representative at the Congress of Verona in 1822 and increasingly found himself at odds with the policy of George Canning as foreign secretary. From 1824 he was being considered by George IV (d. 1830) as a potential prime minister, not least because of his ‘sound’ views on the catholic question. Wellington was acutely suspicious of the foreign secretary's support for the national liberation movements in Greece and the Spanish colonies of South America, particularly in the context of the revival of mass agitation in Ireland led by Daniel O'Connell (qv) and the admiration the Irish leader also expressed for Bolívar's example. Lacking any intense personal religious opinions, and with long experience of sensitive diplomatic relations with catholic rulers and clergy, Wellington tended to regard the vexed issue of catholic political rights as a question of expediency. However, this ‘cosmopolitan’ side of his character was always in tension with an ‘Irish’ side rooted in his upbringing and connections, in which the preservation of ‘protestant ascendancy’ and of the Anglo-Irish landed class from which he had emerged remained a political objective. If Wellington's glittering military career had facilitated his acceptance into the British political elite, his Irish ties remained stronger than those of Marquess Wellesley, whose more liberal policies as lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1822–8 led to some estrangement between the brothers. In 1833 Wellington dismissed the reappointment of his brother as viceroy by a whig government as an insult to the landed class.
Wellington's resignation in April 1827 from the cabinet and as commander-in-chief of the forces (a post he had held since the start of that year) was provoked by the accession of his rival Canning to the premiership. Wellington was now widely regarded as the leader of the ‘protestant’ wing of the tory party, but when asked to form a ministry in January 1828, following Canning's death and the failure of the short-lived Goderich administration, he sought to build one that would be ‘neutral’ on catholic emancipation. Temperamentally unsuited to political negotiation and compromise, the duke's premiership was crisis-racked and largely unsuccessful. He was unable, or unwilling, to prevent the defection of the liberal-tory Canningite ministers in May 1828, and came under increasing pressure over his conservative foreign and economic policies and inflexible opposition to parliamentary reform.
The success of Daniel O'Connell at the Clare by-election in May 1828 provoked a political crisis. Wellington feared that this electoral revolt of the forty-shilling freeholders would now be replicated elsewhere in the counties, undermining the government of Ireland and raising the spectre of widespread sectarian violence. While acutely concerned for the security of the protestant interest in Ireland, he was now convinced that catholic emancipation could no longer safely be postponed, and urged the king to permit the concession, if accompanied by adequate guarantees. Wellington's authority was ultimately sufficient to sway the king, and the catholic emancipation bill, accompanied by the suppression of the Catholic Association and a major reduction in the county franchise, but not by the other securities that the duke had initially sought, was carried in 1829. This ‘betrayal’ of protestant principles caused outrage among many Irish and British tories; Wellington became the object of personal vituperation on the part of many of his former admirers, and his administration was further weakened by the defection of the alienated ‘ultras’. It finally collapsed in the wake of the duke's declaration of uncompromising opposition to parliamentary reform in November 1830.
Wellington's stolid opposition in the house of lords to the Great Reform Bill in 1831–2 added to his personal unpopularity (Apsley House was twice attacked by mobs), but permitted a degree of reconciliation with the ultra-tories. He also vigorously opposed the whigs’ Irish church reforms, which he regarded as a more serious threat to protestant interests than catholic emancipation, but would not take opposition to the extent where it might damage the survival of the house of lords as the bulwark of the landed interest, or risk the replacement of the whigs in power by a radical administration. By 1834 he had reestablished a close relationship with Sir Robert Peel (qv), and when offered the premiership again by William IV in November 1834, insisted on the younger man's suitability for a post he no longer relished. Nevertheless, he regarded the brief conservative ministry of 1834–5 as a crucial check to the campaign against the Irish church, and he welcomed the party's subsequent electoral revival, based in part on antagonism towards O'Connell and catholicism.
Wellington worked closely with Peel in opposition and office, managing the conservative lords to the best of his ability, and usually deferring to Peel's sounder grasp of political tactics. On the return of the conservatives to power in 1841 the duke, who now suffered from partial deafness and fluctuating health, became a minister without portfolio, and the following year was again made commander-in-chief. He relinquished the leadership of the lords in 1844, but remained loyal to Peel and the ‘queen's government’ in the political crises of 1845–6, despite his personal misgivings over both the Maynooth grant and the repeal of the corn laws, and his fatalistic attitude towards famine mortality in Ireland. The union remained a constant concern: he was in regular correspondence with the Irish peers and continuously urged his colleagues to take a stronger line against O'Connell, and in 1843–4 he lobbied for the revival of the Irish yeomanry and the suppression of the Repeal Association, and suggested he be given personal command in the island to prevent a repetition of 1798. Wisely, his colleagues in the administration ignored these demands.
After Peel's fall in 1846, Wellington left government for good, although he remained commander-in-chief until his death. Despite his age, he continued to speak as a senior statesman in the lords, particularly on defence matters. In 1850 he intervened in the debate over the proposed abolition of the lord lieutenancy to insist that the security of Ireland required the retention of a resident executive officer. He died 14 September 1852 at his residence at Walmer Castle, Kent, and was buried at St Paul's cathedral after an ostentatious state funeral. A memorial obelisk in Phoenix Park, Dublin, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, was completed in 1861.