Duke of Wellington: Things You May Not Know about Him

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was a well-known military and political leader of the nineteenth century who rose to prominence during the Napoleonic Wars when he became a field marshal after winning at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Over the course of his illustrious career, he supposedly fought more than sixty battles and came to be regarded as one of the greatest defensive commanders of all times because he could so easily minimize troop losses against numerically superior forces. In addition, one of his most remembered wins happened at Waterloo, where he ended Napoleon Bonaparte‘s reign of a “Hundred Days” on 18 June 1815. While you may know these facts, there are some other tidbits about the Duke of Wellington less known below:

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #1: Many people imagine that the Duke of Wellington was an imposing figure and that he stood over six feet tall. In fact, despite his imposing personality and unequaled skills in battle, he was of “middle height, being about five feet nine inches tall, but his shoulders were broad, his arms long, and his whole frame firmly knit, and capable of fatigue in an extraordinary degree.”[1]

Tidbit #2: Wellington was known for his coolness and decisiveness in battle and was unwilling to sacrifice his troops to achieve a quick victory. He was also known for his many maxims, with one of the most telling of his character being the following: “Believe me … that nothing, excepting a battle lost, can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”[2] In addition, after his death a Paris newspaper, the Constiutionnel stated in part:

“To sum up, Lord Wellington as an English general in the full acceptation of the word, cool, calm, methodical, without enthusiasm, but without any false brilliancy sure of himself, confident in his soldiers, and always firm both in good and bad fortune. It has been justly remarked that in the numerous despatches which he published, which form twelve enormous volumes, the word glory never occurs. His only dominant passion was love of his country.”[3]

Tidbit #3: Almack’s was an extremely popular social club that operated from 1765 to 1871. A committee of highly influential and exclusive ladies, known as the Lady Patronesses, determined who gained entrance. The Duke of Wellington enjoyed spending time there, and as he was extremely popular, it is almost unthinkable that on at least two occasions, the Lady Patronesses refused him entrance. The first incident happened when he arrived seven minutes after the accepted hour and despite begging for admission, he was denied and turned away. The second time he was refused entrance was when he appeared in black trousers. At the time only knee-breeches were approved, and, so, Wellington was turned away again. He left but did so “with a grim smile playing at the corners of his firm mouth.”[4]

Almack’s. Public domain.

Tidbit #4: How Wellington got his nickname the “Iron Duke” is interesting and controversial. He did not get his nickname from his troops, because in fact there seemed to be no general nickname given him by them, although at times they did call him “Atty, “Conkey,” “Hookey,” or “Nosey.” The most general conclusion about how he got the name “Iron Duke” is attributed to his iron will and constitution demonstrated by his opposition to parliament. This opposition resulted in rioting outside his house and him installing iron shutters, and according to History House that’s how he got the nickname “Iron Duke.” However, another website discredits this explanation and notes that at least a year before the riots and the installing of his iron shutters, the Freeman’s Journal began to refer to him as the “Iron Duke” in their columns. A third source offers a completely different explanation stating that his name arose “out of the building of an iron steam-boat which plied between Liverpool and Dublin, and which its owners called the ‘Duke of Wellington.’ The term ‘Iron Duke’ was first applied to the vessel; and by and by, rather in jest than in earnest, it was transferred to the duke himself.”[5]

Tidbit #5: The Duke of Wellington apparently had a crush, as did many other gentleman, on the French socialite Madame Juliette Récamier. He met her through her friend, Madame de Staël and called on her whenever he was in Paris. Although he may have been enchanted by Madame Récamier, she was less interested in him, but she did keep eight letters written to her from him of which the first was dated 10 June 1814, where he stated:

“I must confess, Madame, that I do not much regret that business prevents my calling on you this afternoon, as every time I see you I leave still more penetrated by your charms, and less inclined to give my attentions to politics.”[6]

Portrait of Madame Récamier by François Gérard with a Kashmir shawl. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit #6: Wellington married Catherine Sarah Dorothea Wellesley, but was commonly known as Kitty Pakenham. They were married on 10 April 1806 and had two sons. However, the couple had little in common and Kitty doted and concentrated on their children. The Duke of Wellington also found his wife vacuous and boring and once confided to his closest female friend, Harriet Arbuthnot, that he was unhappy in his marriage and she was sympathetic as she thought of Kitty as a “fool.” 

Tidbit 7: Wellington boots were named for the Duke Wellington and were a hard-wearing mid-calf boot based upon the Hessian style and modified by the Duke of Wellington. He wanted boots that could be worn in the field but also be worn with the new fashionable trousers of the time. His boots proved so comfortable, they were quickly adopted and worn by the British aristocracy to emulate him. In addition, the name was subsequently given to waterproof boots made of rubber and Wellington boots are now commonly worn for a range of agricultural and outdoors pursuits. 

Tidbit #8: Wellington was said to be a good, thoughtful, and kind employer. The Freeman’s Journal reported:

“His household arrangements were conducted on a scale of suitable elegance; while owning to his quiet and temperate habits, he never gave the servants the least unnecessary trouble, which made him beloved as a master. In the management of his extensive estates, the same sound sense, correct judgement and practical wisdom appear as have marked his grand career. The vast sums he expended on building labourers’ cottages show the attention he bestowed on the wants and comforts of the working classes under his control. … A single instance will suffice to prove his humanity. One of his keepers was killed in an affray with poachers, who were arrested and convicted. He immediately ordered his well-stocked preserves to be thrown open, saying that he would not allow his men to be murdered and other people transported for the sake of a parcel of birds and some paltry game.”[7]

Tidbit 9: Madame Tussaud established a Napoleon Bonaparte exhibit that had many relics related to the French emperor, but she also had several items that once belonged to the Duke of Wellington, such as a coat and waistcoat worn by him. In addition, Madame Tussaud’s son once found the Duke contemplating a display of his nemesis Napoleon as he lay on his bedstead, wearing a green uniform, with his arm crossed. Of the moment Joseph said:

“There stood his Grace, contemplating with feelings of mixed emotions the strange and suggestive scene before him. On the camp bed lay the mere presentment of the man who, seven-and-thirty years before, had given him so much trouble to subdue. No feeling of triumph passed through the conqueror’s mind as he looked upon the poor waxen image, too true in its aspect of death; he rather thought upon the vanity of earthly triumphs, of the levelling hand of time, and how soon he, like his great contemporary might be stretched upon his own brier.”[8]

Tidbit #10: The Duke of Wellington died at the age of 83 on September 14, 1852. He was given a state funeral on 18 November 1852 and after his body lie in state, it was reported by the Isle of Wight Observer that shocking large numbers of people attended and that he had “been visited by 65,073 during the day.”[9] The newspaper also described the mourning scene stating:

“Women were knocked down or fainted away; children were held aloft to escape suffocation; strong men were seen with the perspiration falling in great drops from their faces; and fathers and brothers strove in vain to recover their relatives torn from them in the crowd. The multitude actually smoked like a heated haystack … [There were also] long lines of cabs and carriages filled with visitors … and thousands upon thousands of people who … turned back … So great was the pressure that some had their clothes almost completely torn off their backs, and one woman was even happy to avail herself of the shelter of a gentleman’s great coat; other sought refuge in cabs, while a few appeared in the hall of death with crumpled bonnets and torn dresses, their hair all hanging loose over their shoulders, and their faces still filled with the excitement through which they had passed, but with the tenacity of purpose peculiar to the sex, determined to see all that was to be seen since they had incurred so much and come so far to do so.”[10]

But what may be most shocking about Wellington’s funeral was that two women were squeezed to death by the crowd — Mrs. Bean, the wife of a livery stable keeper, and a domestic servant named Charlotte Cook.

Daguerreotype of the Duke of Wellington, then aged 74 or 75, by Antoine Claudet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tidbit 11: Perhaps the most iconic sculpture of the Duke of Wellington is the equestrian statue of him located at the Royal Exchange Square in Glasgow, Scotland located outside the Gallery of Modern Art near the end of Ingram Street. It was sculpted by Italian artist Carlo Marochetti and erected in 1844, but it became famous in the mi8 1900s after local residents began to cap the statue with a traffic cone to show their humor.

Equestrian statue of Wellington in Glasgow with a traffic cone on its head. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Soane, George, Life of the Duke of Wellington, Volume 2, 1840, p. 452.
  • [2] A Short Detail of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815, p. 26.
  • [3] “Comments of the French Press on the Duke of Wellington,” in Freeman’s Journal, 21 September 1852, p 4.
  • [4] Chancellor, Edwin Beresford, Memorials of St. James’s Street, 1922, p. 210.
  • [5] Frey, Albert Romer, Sobriquets and Nicknames, 1887, p. 165.
  • [6]  Herriot, Edouard, Madame Récamier, Vol. 1, 1906, p. 306.
  • [7] “The Duke of Wellington,” in Freeman’s Journal, 23 September 1852, p. 2.
  • [8] Tussaud, John Theodore, The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s, 1920, p. 154.
  • [9] “The Duke of Wellington’s Funeral,” in Isle of Wright Observer, 20 November 1852, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.

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