Useful Notes: The Duke of Wellington

All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I called "guessing what was at the other side of the hill."

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, KG KP GCB GCH PC FRS (May 1, 1769 September 14, 1852), was a British soldier and statesman, and one of the leading military and political figures of 19th-century Britain. His defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 put him in the top rank of Britain's military heroes. He is often referred to as one of the greatest English generals of all time, except that he was Irish. Indeed his real name is Arthur Wesley, he added the "lle" later. His supposed response (not recorded until after his death) to people pointing out his Irish birth was something along the lines of 'If a man is born in a stable, that doesn't make him a horse', a sentiment which didn't stop him marrying an Irish woman or the Irish building a 200 ft tall monument in his honor. To be fair, his comments stemmed from a dislike of the Protestant and often power-abusing Irish aristocracy rather than the "normal" Irish (Catholic or Protestant), whom he regarded as reasonably good soldiering material and thought no worse of than the "normal" English, Scottish or Welsh (which is to say, he didn't think of them very often).

His military career was rapid, reaching the rank of Colonel in 12 years thanks to the peculiar British system of purchasing promotions. Despite an extremely impressive military career in India, he did not come to real prominence until the Napoleonic Wars,note  and was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal after leading the allied forces to victory against the French at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. Following Napoleon's exile in 1814, he served as the ambassador to the Congress of Vienna and was granted a dukedom. During the Hundred Days in 1815, he commanded one of the the allied armies which defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

One of Britain's more quotable war leaders after Winston Churchill. Perhaps his most famous quote is "Our army is the scum of the earth - the merest scum of the earth." This is something of a Beam Me Up, Scotty!, however, as it sounds far harsher than intended due to people leaving out the second part: "...so it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are."

He was Tory Prime Minister 1828-1830 and again for less than a month in 1838. He also named a third ministry: the short-lived first Cabinet of The Earl Of Derby in 1852 was the first time the Protectionist wing of the Conservative Party had governed, and so had a lot of new names (e.g. Benjamin Disraeli); when these unfamiliar names were read out in the Lords, the aging and hard-of-hearing Duke interjected, "Who? Who?", and behold! the First Derby Ministry is forever known as the "Who? Who? Ministry".

Yes, he had boots named after him. No, they were not rubber (not yet possible at the time — Westerners knew about rubber but couldn't yet make anything like that from it). They were leather, but the rubber ones are of the same style. The capital city of New Zealand was named after him, and the dish Beef Wellington might be named after him.

He ended at #15 in One Hundred Greatest Britons.


The Duke in fiction:

  • Stephen Fry does a most awesome depiction of him in Blackadder The Third as an ignorant, bellowing, violent bully, who sees tactical ability and inspired leadership as entirely secondary to the truly important quality needed for an army: shouting. This is rather unfair to the good Duke, though he does play along with Blackadder's plot to replace the incompetent Prince of Wales with the far more competent himself.
  • Obviously we see him in Sharpe.
  • Appears as a secondary character in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Gets his own short story, "The Duke Of Wellington Misplaces His Horse", in the followup short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu.
  • Flashman encounters the Duke once or twice, or at least references his opinions. Most notably in the first novel, where he receives a medal from Queen Victoria and a handshake from Wellington; it's the second one he is most proud of.
  • Has a fairly prominent role in the fifth book of the Temeraire series, Victory of Eagles.
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage takes place in an alternate timeline where the duke became Prime Minister on account of his superior bone structure and entertainment value.
  • The four surviving Bronte children, also Anglo-Irish, were obsessed with the Duke and made up elaborate sustained imaginative games about him, lasting into their twenties. They crafted an enormous paracosm around him, writing novels, short stories, plays and poems. They had him lead an expedition to colonize Africa, then leave his son Arthur in charge. Arthur became the Duke of Zamorna, a figure of almost superhuman courage, beauty and spirit.
  • Visual Innuendo in this satirical cartoon about the Duke's womanising. What a big cannon he's got.


Alternative Title(s):

The Duke Of Wellington