He was a true-blue Dub, born Arthur Wesley in 1769. He probably never said that the ‘Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’. This is because he hated his former school with a passion and, when he was a pupil there, in the 1780s, Eton didn’t have any playing fields. But he did give his name to that piece of apparel we refer to affectionately as ‘wellies’. He would probably not have approved. And there is still controversy, if you can be said to stir up a good row concerning a hunk of meat, over whether or not the dish ‘Beef Wellington’ is called after him.
Today we know him as Arthur Wellesley, much grander than plain old Wesley, and the Duke of Wellington, much grander still. He was born on Merrion Street in Dublin, though the family home was in Dangan Castle, near Trim, in Co. Meath. Something else he never said—we’ll get around to what he did say a bit later—was that alleged disparaging statement about his Irishness—‘just because you are born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse’. This was actually an invention of that great Irish patriot and rogue, Daniel O’Connell. Though the Daily Telegraph was still ascribing it to the Iron Duke as recently as 2015. Well, they would, wouldn’t they.
He was educated at Whyte’s Academy in Dublin before transferring to the misery of Eton. This means that he went to the same school as Robert Emmet, though the two would not have been contemporaries. Neither, had they gone to school together, would they have seen eye to eye.
He was, according to his mother, an idle youth and she constantly worried about what he was going to do with his life. Eventually he went into the army and became an aide de campto two Lords Lieutenant in Dublin. His duties seem to have mostly involved some serious partying, which suited young Arthur perfectly. Think Dudley Moore’s Arthurin the film of the same name. His dissolute life included incurring a fine for ‘beating a Frenchman in a Dublin bawdy house’. You’d have to think that was an earnest of things to come.
Not only was he a Dubliner himself, he also married one, though Catherine Pakenham came from a family more associated with the Irish midlands, she was daughter of the Second Baron of Longford, Edward Pakenham. Longford didn’t much like young Wellesley at first and sent him off with a flea in his ear. Only when Arthur began to take his military career seriously was he allowed to swoop and carry off Catherine.
Some clichés about the Duke do appear to be true. He favoured dark clothing on the battlefield so as to make himself a more difficult target. He retired undefeated at the age of forty-six, never having lost a battle, although this can be ascribed to his tendency to withdraw his forces if things looked bleak. He always wore his hair short and did not favour wigs, contrary to the fashions of the early 19thcentury. His emphasis on the study of military strategy and his insistence on a more scientific approach to war, emanated from his contempt for British army tactics in one of his earliest campaigns, in Flanders in 1794.
Were it not for his signature success against a resurgent Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo, made even more famous in 1974 when Abba won the Eurovision song contest with the song of that name, he would barely be remembered today as an obscure Tory Prime Minister, overshadowed by his contemporary Robert Peel. In fact had he not been the victor of Waterloo it is unlikely that he would ever have risen to the status of Prime Minister.
He did Irish Catholics a great favour in that he was Prime Minister in 1829 when Catholic Emancipation was introduced in the House of Commons. That favour might have been seen in a more positive light had it not been offered so grudgingly. The Duke was utterly opposed to the idea of Roman Catholics in Parliament but was strong armed into it by the successful campaign of Daniel O’Connell, the same one who lied about horses and stables.
By the way, work began on the famous Wellington monument in Phoenix Park in Dublin as early as 1817, two years after he saw off Napoleon, with lots of Prussian help, and an army that was at least one third Irish. The project, however, ran out of funds very quickly and the obelisk wasn’t actually completed until 1861. There are more than ninety public houses named after him in different parts of England, which would make for an interesting pub crawl. There appear to be only two pubs named after him, however, in the country of his birth, both in Dublin.
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo, twice British Prime Minister, and the inspiration behind wellie throwing competitions the world over, died one hundred and sixty six years ago, on this day.