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Useful Notes / The Duke of Wellington

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Portrait by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1815-16

"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 (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), was a British soldier and statesman, and one of the leading military and political figures of 19th-century Britain. His defeat of Napoléon 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 British generals of all time.

His rise through the ranks was rapid, reaching the rank of Colonel in 12 years thanks to the peculiar British system of purchasing promotions (there was an obligatory amount of time that had to be served before you could buy your way up to the next rank, but it was still fairly brief). 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 allied armies which defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. He is also credited with the defeat of the French under Marshall Massena in the Third French Invasion of Portugal due to him ordering the construction of the Lines of Torres Vedras (after one of the towns through which it passed), which is considered the most cost-effective fortification in military history - it was able to effectively accomplish its tactical (defend the Port of Lisbon)note  and strategic (defend Portugal)note  note  missions at a very low cost. In fact, Portugal had offered him the position of Marshall General of the Portuguese Army, which gave control of said army when in joint operations with the British Army. He used that title to reorganize the Portuguese, who were a demotivated and disorganized Ragtag Bunch of Misfits into a capable, cohesive, motivated and organized Army.

After the war, he ended up Commander-in-Chief of the British Army from 1827-1828 when he became Prime Minister and was also given the ceremonial role of Constable of the Tower of London in 1826, which is always given to a high-ranking officer, staying there until his death.

Even by British standards, he was a masterful Deadpan Snarker, making him one of Britain's more quotable war leaders after Winston Churchill. Notable examples include:

  • 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: " it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are."
  • On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, his second-in-command, Lord Uxbridge, asked him what his plans for the next day were. His response: "Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects, and as my plans will depend upon his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?"
  • While attending a diplomatic reception in Paris, some former officers of Napoleon's army turned their backs on him. The hostess began to apologize, and he responded, "don't worry, Madame, I've seen their backs before."
  • After Waterloo, one friend said he must have been pleased to have been cheered as a hero by the people of Brussels (most of whom were Belgian citizens who missed being part of the French Empire) on his return from the Waterloo battlefield; "Not in the least. If I had lost the battle, they would have shot me."

He was Tory Prime Minister 1828-1830, when his administration lost a vote on the Civil List (i.e. royal funding) that was essentially a confidence matter, and again for less than a month in 1834. The latter was a caretaker administration after the Tory victory in 1834; Wellington declined the job full-time as he felt it now had to be someone from the House of Commons (which remains the rule) and Robert Peel was in Sardinia, so he took the job until Peel got back to London.

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 ageing and hard-of-hearing Duke interjected, "Who? Who?", and behold! the First Derby Ministry is forever known as the "Who? Who? Ministry".

His political career is much less famous and far less celebrated mostly because it casts him in a less-than-positive light by modern standards, such as his anti-semitism which led him to veto a bill that provided increased rights for Jews.note  Indeed his general opposition to parliamentary reform earned him the nickname the Iron Duke, and while later supporters appropriated this sobriquet, it was originally an insult. So unpopular was the Duke, that his house windows were smashed by supporters angry at his opposition of a Reform Bill. In response, the Duke put in place iron shutters to better protect his home. The unrest provoked by the Duke's tone-deaf remarks on parliamentary reform, known as the "Days of May", is generally regarded as the closest Britain has ever come in the post-Napoleonic era to a revolution; unsurprisingly, despite the Duke's opposition, the 1832 Reform Bill was passed by the Whigs,note  though the Duke was bitter about its passage. Ironically, the impetus for the Reform Act partly came from a legislation to improve the lot of Catholics in Ireland which the Duke had passed in the teeth of serious opposition. Fearing increased rights for the Irish catholic community, a faction of the Tories allied with the Whigs to get the Reform Act passed.

Wellington ended up Foreign Secretary in Peel's first administration until that fell in a vote on the Church of Ireland in April 1835 and was Leader of the House of Lords in the second from 1841 to 1846 until that was ousted after a defeat on a bill on a security crackdown in Ireland.

He ended up becoming Commander-in-Chief again in 1842, holding that position until his death.

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, as is the mountain overlooking the capital of Tasmania, Hobart, and the dish Beef Wellington might be named after him.

His full list of Knight Fever titles, detailed at his death, was so long that it warrants its own section on the Wikipedia page dedicated to his honours. He received no less than eight Field Marshal's batons, of which seven (the Russian one was stolen in 1965 and has not been recovered) are on display at his former London townhouse of Apsley House, now run by English Heritage and mostly open to the public except for the 9th Duke's family apartments.

Apsley House also includes a lot of famous artwork - when Wellington's troops recovered part of the Spanish royal collection from Joseph Bonaparte who was fleeing back to France, he offered them back to King Ferdinand VII - and was told he could keep them!

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.
    • A later Blackadder TV movie has a more mellow depiction of the man at Waterloo, where he comes up with a Cunning Plan to beat Napoleon... only to get squashed flat by a time-machine.
  • He appears in all but one of the Sharpe films. David Troughton played the role in the first two instalments, before leaving for health reasons, after which the role was recast to Hugh Fraser. Running a mission for him earns Sharpe his Sergeantcy, and saving his life at the Battle of Assaye (the one mentioned in the page quote of Brits with Battleships) earns him his commission. His usually presented as a somewhat grudging Reasonable Authority Figure who uses Military Maverick Sharpe as a kind of proto-cruise missile - he points him at something that needs destroying, then waits for the bang, though also being willing to cut his losses if need be. He is also mentioned by one of Sharpe's friends as being the one man who actually properly scares Sharpe, and is therefore the only person who can wrangle Sharpe into doing what he wants him to do.


  • Appears as a secondary character in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, played by Ronan Vibert, as a Reasonable Authority Figure with Nerves of Steel who regards the entire city of Brussels being teleported to the Great Plains of America just prior to the Battle of Waterloo (Strange having essentially panicked) with little more than a raised eyebrow and a request to one of his aides to go and enquire of some Native American warriors he sees riding past if they'd like to join the battle the next day. His management style (once he is convinced of Strange's usefulness) mostly consists of telling Strange what magical thing he wants done, then leaving Strange to sort out the details, which makes him both a difficult and a supportive authority figure to Strange: when the latter seems to go completely insane, Wellington retains unwavering faith in him (partly because he reckoned that Strange was a bit weird to begin with) and stating that he won't be a problem or a threat to Britain - as it turns out, he's completely right. 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 at the end of the first novel where he receives a medal from Queen Victoria and a handshake from Wellington. Before parting ways, Wellington commends the young Flashman that today is the biggest day of his life, where he receives the greatest honour in his life. He notes that when he mentioned the incident to Robert E. Lee during his time in the American Civil War, Lee believed that the Duke meant his handshake rather than the Queen's medal. Flashman demurs that both of them were worth the same to him.
  • Has a fairly prominent role in the fifth book of the Temeraire series, Victory of Eagles, and later in the series, where he's a cold but begrudgingly Reasonable Authority Figure - he shrugs off Temeraire gaining a combat command as he doesn't care how something is done so long as it is done well (and gives him a memorable lesson in leadership by dressing him done harshly for trying to dodge the blame for Iskierka's disobedience), accedes to the idea of dragons being paid, adapts far better than any other leading military officer to the new Status Quo, dislikes but accepts Lawrence for his competence and usefulness, and he flat-out refuses to have Roland replaced with a male Air Admiral because she is simply the best.
  • 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.
  • Frequently referenced but never really appears in Horatio Hornblower as Hornblower is married to the Duke's fictional youngest sister, Lady Barbara.
  • In the Doctor Who novel World Game, the Duke is targeted for assassination by extra-dimensional immortals, as part of a competitive bid to warp Earth history.

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