Duke of Wellington Anecdotes: Stories From His Life

There are numerous Duke of Wellington anecdotes about the man named Arthur Wellesley who was born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family on 1 May 1769. His parents were Garret Colley Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington and Anne Wesley, daughter of Arthur Hill-Trevor, 1st Viscount Dungannon, for whom the Duke was named. However, although it seems clear as to who his parents were, questions linger as to precise place where he was born.

Duke of Wellington anecdotes

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

Some people believe the Duke was born at his parents’ townhouse, 24 Upper Merrion Street in Dublin. However, his mother recalled he was born at 6 Merrion Street, Dublin. His father suggested it was the Mornington House, the house next door on Upper Merrion. The Duke himself also weighed in on his birthplace but he mentioned the mansion in the family estate of Athy as the spot of his birth.

No matter where he was born, one of the interesting Duke of Wellington anecdotes people mention is related to his childhood. According to the West Kent Guardian:

“As a boy he went to Eton, with his brothers, but remained there only a short time. His mother, Lady Mornington, then took him abroad; but finding him troublesome in the carriage, dropped him at Douay. Here, luckily there was an artillery school and arsenal, and as the town is fortified and protected by a fort on the Scarpe … these circumstances may in some measure account for his early military studies.”[1]

Although he might have had a tendency in his youth towards what some people described as “unapproachableness,” no Duke of Wellington anecdotes circulated about this characteristic until he was much older. Then at that time one story mentioned how a book could not be delivered to him. It began when a literary gentleman recommended the Duke read a recently published work. The Duke agreed and requested that the gentleman send him the book. The gentleman tried several times only to have its delivery refused each time and, so, when he saw the Duke a few weeks later he told him.

“[W]hereupon the Duke observed: ‘If I were to take in all the trash sent to me, I might furnish a store-room as large as the British Museum.’ After writing a few words, he added: ― ‘Stick that on the outside, and I’ll get it.’ This was his own name and address written by himself. So to ensure delivery, it was necessary to have his own endorsement.”[2]

Duke of Wellington anecdotes

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington in his Wellington Boots. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Deliveries is only one of the Duke of Wellington anecdotes that demonstrates how people liked to give him things. In another case a Bermuda official wanted to show him “kindness and respect” and so began regularly sending him arrowroot, a fine-grained starch used in cooking and medicine. Wellington acknowledged and expressed thanks for the gift until one day he decided he had received enough:

“The supply of arrowroot at Apsley-house must have exceeded the consumption; and its accumulation appears to have been inconceivably large, for the Bermuda official was surprised to receive a note of which the following is a copy: – ‘F.M. the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to ――, and begs to inform him that he thinks he now has arrowroot enough.’”[3]

Another of the interesting Duke of Wellington anecdotes involves his favorite charger. The horse, who was named Copenhagen, was a mix of Thoroughbred and Arabian and was foaled in 1808. He stood 15 hands high and had a muscular physique on a small compact frame. The Duke was painted sitting atop him by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1818. Copenhagen was also reported to have been the only horse Wellington when defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo:

“[I]t is said, [the Duke] was eighteen hours on his back; but Copenhagen gave little signs of being beaten, for, on his rider patting him on the quarter as he dismounted after the battle, the game little horse struck out as playfully as if he had had only an hour’s canter in the park. For endurance of fatigue, indeed, he was more than usually remarkable; and for the duty he had to fulfil as proportionably valuable.[4]

Wellington on Copenhagen, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another of the Duke of Wellington anecdotes is also related to Waterloo. This story was reported in 1852 by the Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser:

“Speaking of the tree under which he was said to have taken up his position at Waterloo, some one mentioned that it had nearly been all cut away, and that people would soon doubt if it had ever existed. The Duke at once said that he remembered the tree perfectly, and that a Scotch serjeant had come to him to tell him that he had observed it was a mark for the enemy’s cannon, begging him to move from it. A lady said, ‘I hope you did sir.’ He replied, ‘I really forget, but I know I thought it very good advice.’”[5]  

Another anecdote about Waterloo and the Duke is particularly poignant because it involves the soldiers killed or wounded in that battle. In this case Doctor John Robert Hume, who was the principal medical attendant and who served as deputy inspector, was requested to provide soldier death and injury statistics to Wellington. Hume gathered the information, entered the Duke’s tent, and began to read the names. For more than an hour he read before his voice began to falter and he became choked with so much emotion he was unable to continue.

“Instinctively he raised his eyes to the Duke. The Duke was still sitting, with his hands raised and clasped convulsively before him. Big tears coursing down his cheeks, and dropping one by one on his decorated breast. In a moment the Duke was conscious of the Doctor’s silence, and recovering himself, looked up and caught his eye. ‘Read on,’ was the stern command, and while his physician continued for hours, the Iron Duke sat by the bedside clasping his hands, and rocking his body to and fro with emotion.”[6]

John Robert Hume. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another of the Duke of Wellington anecdotes related to Waterloo demonstrates the Duke’s sense of humor. Once when the British painter Benjamin Robert Haydon who specialized in grand historical pictures was busying preparing to paint “The Duke of Wellington describing the Field of Waterloo to King George IV,” it was reported:

“[Haydon] was desirous of having a hat and other matters to paint from, so that perfect accuracy of detail might be ensured. He had occasion to see his Grace, and took the opportunity of expressing his wish. The Duke’s reply was characteristic: ‘I neither sell nor lend my old clothes, Mr. Haydon.’ [However] he afterwards dropped a hint about his servant; and through Mr. Greville, Haydon became possessed of all he required.”[7]

Although Waterloo was an important moment in the Duke’s life there are other Duke of Wellington anecdotes that have nothing to do with that event or war. For instance, one day as the Duke was walking in his garden, he observed a small boy whom he recognized as belonging to one of his gardeners. The boy was busy in a corner of the garden and when the Duke asked what he was doing, he told the Duke that he was supposed to be at school but that he feared if he didn’t feed his pet toad, it would die. The Duke shooed the boy off to school promising that he would take care of his pet. Later, at school, the boy received a note from the Duke “informing him the toad was quite well.”[8]

Duke of Wellington anecdotes

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by John Jackson, 1830–31. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Perhaps one of the most scandalous Duke of Wellington anecdotes is related to his well-known “vigorous sexual appetite.” Because of it he engaged in many amorous liaisons despite his marriage to Kitty Pakenham. One of these affairs came back to haunt him in 1824 when one of his mistresses, Harriet Wilson, wrote a tell-all book. Her publisher offered to refrain from publishing information about the Duke in exchange for money. Supposedly, the Duke replied, “Publish and be damned.”[9] Such a note has never been found but several historians assert that it is certain that Wellington replied and that he refused to be blackmailed.

Another of the Duke of Wellington anecdotes involving women is related to the beautiful French socialite Madame Récamier. The Duke met her after achieving victories in the Peninsular War and was immediately smitten and attempted to woo her. Unfortunately for the Duke, Madame Récamier was unimpressed and claimed he was not “animated or interesting.” After his win at Waterloo, the Duke called again upon Madame Récamier and boasted to her about beating Napoleon. That supposedly incensed her and “according to her adopted daughter … because her patriotism was so wounded she forever ‘closed her door upon him.’”[10]

Madame Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many of the Duke of Wellington anecdotes mention how the Duke embraced a spartan lifestyle. For example, he never complained and always slept on a “hard, uncurtained couch” with an even harder horsehair stuffed pillow for his head. He also enjoyed regularity in his daily routine, rising early and adopting daily exercise that involved walking or horseback riding. Furthermore:

“The Duke’s diet was as simple as his habits, consisting of the very plainest dishes. He had, indeed, a French cook, but had his grace always lived alone, the office would have been a perfect sinecure. The cook … was often chagrined at having so little opportunity of displaying his artistic powers. The bill of fare was duly placed before his master, but was nearly always returned with, in addition to a plain joint of meat, some such words as ‘pudding and tart,’ occasionally varied by the transposition of the words into ‘tart and pudding’ … Another source of disquiet to the cook was positively that the Duke never complained. ‘If I cook a good dinner,’ the desponding artist would say, ‘the Duke remarks ‘It is well;’ and if I cook a bad dinner, he says ‘It is well.’ No complaint ever evinced dissatisfaction, or marked a ruffled temper.”[11]

 

“Take up your bed and walk!!!” a satirical hand colored etching that states: “During the Duke’s Temporary sojourn at Walmer Castle he invariable reposes on the Camp bedstead which form’d his Grace’s couch throught the Peninsular Campaigns —the highly prized article of furniture being regularly convey’d from Downing Street to Walmer Castle when ever the Duke, visits the latter place, vide Morning Herald.’ Oct 1 1829.” Courtesy of the British Museum.

Another of the Duke of Wellington anecdotes shows he believed in being self-sufficient and to that end was reportedly the same “abstemious, active, self-denying” person at the close of his life as he had been at the beginning. According to The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette:

“[W]e learn that to the last his [the Duke of Wellington’s] daily toilet was performed without the slightest assistance, we can appreciate how fully he acted up to a favourite motto of his own – that if a man wanted to have anything properly done he must do it himself. It took him from half-past six o’clock till nine every morning to dress; but even to the operation of shaving he did all himself, and at this age that must have been nearly as difficult a feat as wining a battle in early life.”[12]

Duke of Wellington anecdotes

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

The 84-year-old Duke passed away around 3:20pm on 14 September 1852 from the after-effects of a stroke culminating in a series of seizures. He died at Walmer Castle, his favorite residence where he had been staying prior to his death. Afterwards several Duke of Wellington anecdotes appeared lauding his benevolent nature. For instance, although his name was said never to have appeared on any charitable subscription lists, there were plenty of stories about his generosity. One such story came from a correspondent of the Morning Advertiser who reported:

“The son of one of his officers in India, himself a cavalry officer, got into difficulties and sold his commission. The Duke got him appointed a barrack-master in Canada and advanced £200 for his outfit. The officer died on the passage to Canada, when his Grace advised his widow and family to return home, he established the widow as a teacher, and gave her a cheque for the amount of an assurance on her husband’s life. Her eldest son he got into a military school [and] the lady has now a flourishing establishment in a watering-place.”[13]

During his life the Duke reportedly hated railway travel because he had witnessed the death of William Huskisson, who became known as the world’s first reported railway passenger casualty after being run over and fatally wounded by Robert Stephenson’s pioneering locomotive called Stephenson’s Rocket. Yet, the Duke’s body traveled by rail to London where he was given a state funeral just like Horatio Nelson had been given one in 1805. In the Duke’s case his funeral took place on 18 November 1852, which results in the last of my Duke of Wellington anecdotes.

Although authorities estimated there were would be throngs wanting to view Wellington’s body everyone was caught off guard by the actual number of people who appeared. The crowds show how important it was for the public to honor the great Duke. Reports of these crowds filled newspapers with the Tyrone Constitution reporting:

“As early as eight o’clock the approaches to the covered way were densely crowded with persons eager to be first to gain admission; and, as the hour of nine approached, omnibusses, cabs, carriages, and vehicles of every description, filled, indeed crammed, with well-dressed persons, the great proportion of whom were females, began to arrive in continuous succession through every street … [until streets] were completely blocked up … The numerous steam-boats on the river brought thousands upon thousands of persons … Hundreds of persons who, for hours, had toiled through the crowd in desire of gaining admission, were compelled, from sheer exhaustion, to abandon the idea as a forlorn hope. … At the entrance gate the crowd exceeded anything which was seen for many years … Men, women, and children crowded to pass through the gate by which admission was obtained, and regardless of all other considerations except those of curiosity, they perilled their lives on the venture.”[14]  

Duke of Wellington anecdotes

Wellington’s tomb, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] West Kent Guardian, “Anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington,” October 9, 1852, p. 2.
  • [2] Illustrated London News, “Anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington,” November 20, 1852, p. 456.
  • [3] Leicestershire Mercury, “Anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington,” October 9, 1852, p. 4.
  • [4] Newcastle Journal, “The Duke’s Charger,” May 22, 1852, p. 7.
  • [5] Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser, “Anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington,” October 9, 1852, p. 1.
  • [6] Leicestershire Mercury, p. 4.
  • [7] Illustrated London News, p. 456.
  • [8] Dublin Evening Mail, “Anecdote of the “Duke”,” September 22, 1
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  • 852, p. 1.
  • [9]Rear Window: When Wellington said publish and be damned: The Field Marshal and the Scarlet Woman,” Independent.
  • [10] G. Walton, Napoleon’s Downfall: Madame Récamier and Her Battle with the Emperor (London: Pen and Sword History, 2020), p. 149.
  • [11] Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette, “Personal Habits and Anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington,” October 2, 1852, p. 4.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Inverness Courier, “Traits and Anecdotes of the Duke,” September 23, 1852, p. 4.
  • [14] Tyrone Constitution, “The Duke of Wellington’s Funeral,” November 19, 1852, p. 2.

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