IT IS nearly 250 years since the birth of Arthur Wellesley, the future 1st Duke of Wellington, on May 1, 1769. The man who vanquished Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo has always been seen as haughty and stand-offish but there was far more to him than is often portrayed.
He was a lover of some repute…
As a passionate young musician Wellington fell for the charms of aristocratic Kitty Pakenham, but in 1793 her family opposed marriage because of his poor prospects. In a fit of temper he set fire to his violin.
Some 13 years later, after success in the Army, he would marry her after all. But the couple had little in common. Though they remained married and had two sons, the pair retained separate bedrooms.
Meanwhile, Wellington – known to have frequented brothels – pursued a string of affairs with British society beauties. In 1814, while an ambassador in Paris, in his forties, he enjoyed liaisons with “a score” of women in the Bois de Boulogne and elsewhere.
Fluent in French, his conquests included opera singer Giuseppina Grassini who had previously slept with Napoleon. The exiled French Emperor had once stuffed 40,000 francs between the breasts of another lover, Marguerite-Josephine Weimer.
But she also romped with the Duke, declaring him better in bed: “The Duke is stronger!” Wellington was somewhat blase about his reputation.When threatened with the publication of details of a steamy affair with courtesan Harriette Wilson he retorted: “Publish and be damned.”
Arthur Wellesley, the future 1st Duke of Wellington
He was a rotten shot…
As a young man, few thought the future Duke was Army material. His mother Anne wrote: “Anyone can see he has not the cut of a soldier.” Yet he would go on to be involved in 60 battles and no one ever doubted his bravery. During action in India, a fellow soldier recalled: “The general was in the thick of the action the whole time… I never saw a man so cool and collected as he was.”
Ironically, he was a notoriously “wild shot”. On a hunting trip in 1819, Lady Shelley recorded how he managed to shoot few pheasants but did wound a retriever, a gamekeeper and an unfortunate woman doing the washing at the window of her cottage.
On March 21, 1829 – while Prime Minister – he challenged the Earl of Winchelsea to a duel over barbed comments the Earl had made. The Duke fired and missed, later claiming he shot wide on purpose. Winchelsea, too, fired in the air deliberately. The debate over whether the Iron Duke really meant to miss still rages.
He gave us the boot named after him, seen on the cartoon
He was a sensitive fellow…
Wellington has been derided for labelling his troops the “scum of the Earth”, but this came not from hatred but because he loathed indiscipline and the hard drinking background of many recruits. He actually praised how the Army turned them into “fine fellows”.
Wellington, who rarely raised his voice to his soldiers, established hygiene standards and often sought to reduce casualties rather than pursue the enemy. He was known to have given up his own bed for injured officers.After victory at the Siege of Badajoz in 1812, he wept on seeing the British dead and also cried after the Battle of Waterloo when the list of those killed was read out.
Shocked at the carnage – there were 17,000 casualties – he told his doctor that he had never lost a battle, but now knew how painful it was to win one.
He was a wit…
With his famous no-nonsense attitude, who could have imagined that the Duke was funny? Once asked by a vicar if there was anything he wished his sermon to be about, the Duke replied: “Yes about 10 minutes.”
As a politician, when he saw the new intake of the Commons after it was reformed in 1832 he quipped: “I’ve never seen such shocking bad hats in my life.”
The Duke, who enjoyed up to a bottle of wine with dinner, had a real sense of fun too. He liked gambling, partying into the small hours, loved gossiping and his whoops of laughter were said to echo round rooms.
Before the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, he threw a chicken leg in the air with delight when he realised the French had made a strategic mistake. And after the Battle of Toulouse in 1814, when Napoleon announced his abdication, the Duke broke into a flamenco dance, spinning round and clicking his fingers.
The Duke of Wellington was involved in 60 battles and no one ever doubted his bravery
He wasn’t so vain…
In spite of his penchant for wearing a cocked hat and white trousers, the Duke was not as vain as he was frequently painted. He hated sitting for portraits, once complaining that there was no man who had sacrificed, “the best hour of his day to the artists to the same degree that I have”.
After Waterloo, Parliament voted him £700,000 for a Blenheim-style “Waterloo Palace” but he preferred the less grand Apsley House in London, shunning creature comforts by continuing to sleep on a camp bed for the rest of his life.
He is famous for giving us the Wellington boot, but beef in pastry was already a fashionable dish in Europe before it acquired the name “beef Wellington”.
One of the Duke’s best-known quotes is that: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
Except that he did not say it. Eton had no playing fields at the time. Despite attending the school from the age of 12, the young Arthur Wesley, as he was then, failed to shine, got into fights and, in later life, refused to give money to school collections.
However, the Duke did play cricket at a time when the game was in its infancy appearing in the first match played in Ireland, where he was born, in 1792. The Duke starred for an All-England side against a British garrison. He never thought of himself as particularly Irish, but also never said the much-quoted line: “Being born in a stable does not make one a horse.”
He was known as ‘Conkey’…
Many thinkWellington earned his Iron Duke moniker from his soldiering or the shutters put on his house during his opposition to parliamentary reform.
In fact it probably came from his role in Irish affairs. He forced through the 1829 law that allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament.
The nickname was not used by his soldiers who called him “beau” because of his sharp dress sense or, referring to his prominent nose, “Hookey” or “Conkey”.
In TV series and films the Duke is often portrayed as a lanky 6ft. Yet he was actually only 5ft 9in, just two inches taller than Napoleon who, it turns out, was not that short.