I am writing this to tie into what would have been the 251st Birthday of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, on 1st May 1769.
A Disputed Birth
The birth of the future Duke of Wellington, in itself has some interesting nuances in that some facts are still disputed. It is widely accepted that the 1st May is his birthday, his own father and mother wrote that it was the 1st May and Arthur himself celebrated it on this day. However; the baptismal register of the Parish of St Peter, Dublin records Arthur’s christening on 30th April 2 days before his birth. One possible explanation for this was that, sadly 2 of the Earl and Lady Mornington’s children had died in infancy, including a Arthur Wesley (the family name was changed later to Wellesley in order to Anglicise it), who dies in 1768 aged 6 or 7. As such there may have been some haste to baptise their second Arthur (the future Duke of Wellington) with some haste, in case he should die without having received such a blessing. There was already a surviving eldest son, Richard Wellesley and a second son William. In the baptismal register it is possible, albeit less likely, that the parish officials did not know what the date was. There is at least a little likelihood that these records have been falsified, either intentionally or otherwise. The entry above is dated 23rd April and the entry following is dated 24th May; all are in the same handwriting.
There is also a dispute ongoing about the place of birth, Mornington House, Dublin, or Dangan Castle, County Meath, the two family homes, town and country respectively. It is almost certain that the baby Arthur was born in Dublin as this is widely agreed upon, however some sources exist about whether the family were actually in residence there at that time, because the house may have been in the process of renovation until the summer of 1769, which would put Dangan Castle, the family seat, as a strong contender, it was also where the 2 eldest brothers were born, which is often proposed by local historians and the tourist trade. Dangan Castle is now, sadly a “romantic” ruin. Other sources have provided over 9 different locations in which Lady Mornington may have been in May 1769 and given birth to the infant Arthur, but the family (including the 9th Duke) maintain now, that it was in Dublin.
“Food for powder”
It’s fair to say, that Arthur was not a natural student. Following in his brother’s footsteps, he was sent to Eton, but unlike them, he did not settle in naturally and was thought to have learnt relatively little. This young Arthur stood out from his brothers, who were already progressing in their careers, Richard was sent to Christ Church, Oxford and excelled as a scholar, William entered a career in the Royal navy as an officer. Young Arthur did have his father’s passion for music, Lord Mornington is thought to have composed some pieces (a dance survives in his name, though it could be dedicated to him). Arthur we know played the violin, like his father and grandfather before them and had hopes to be a musician of sorts.
It was Arthur’s inability to excel academically and fit into his surrounding that caused his mother to lament: “I vow to God I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur. He is food for powder and nothing more.” Powder referring to gunpowder, Anne, his mother thought his fate was to join the army and probably die in some obscure battle. She was at least half right. Shortly after starting Eton, Garret Wesley, the Earl of Mornington died, giving the family some financial worries, along with the title passing to Richard as eldest son. They decided to send Arthur at first to a school in Brussels, where he picked up French quickly, apparently speaking the language with a slight Belgian accent for the rest of his life. From there, a military career apparently chosen for him, he was sent on to France. It was in the French, Angier Military School that this young Arthur learnt the basics needed to become a Army officer.
By this point, with Richard having assumed the title of Lord Mornington and sitting in Parliament, William was commissioned in the Royal Navy and a elected Member of Parliament, younger brothers, Gerald Valerian was destined for the clergy with the youngest, Henry still at Eton, Arthur now found his natural habitat. The course at Angers proved not too difficult for Arthur Wesley, it consisted of, fencing, riding, dancing, French grammar, mathematics and the science of military fortifications. Arthur did well at dancing, fencing and riding, important skills for a young gentleman, he relaxed into the life, playing cards and walking his dog, a white terrier called Vick around the medieval town.
By the time he returned home in 1786, aged just 17, with the skills to equip him in a military life (along with being fluent in French), he agreed with his mothers derisory advice and embarked on a career in the army. He offered a commission in the 73rd (Highland) Regiment but the family used influence, to transfer him to the 76th (Hindoostan) Regiment with a promotion to Lieutenant and then a transfer to the 41st Regiment so he could take up duties in Ireland as the Lord-Lieutenant’s aide-de-camp based in Dublin castle.
It is from here the man that would be, Wellington, a Lieutenant of now only 18 years old began a life in the army full of bureaucracy and administration, which would lead to a political career and fast advancement which would see a brilliant journey as commander in the filed in Flanders, then India, before the now famous Battles of the Napoleonic wars.
A young boy, with little talent outside of languages, riding and music who would become, arguably the greatest military talent of the age, if not the greatest ever in Europe.
The Wesley family originally hailed from Rutland, England and moved (as the Colley or Cowley family in around 1500) they are described as Anglo-Irish, to label them as “Irish” would be anachronistic and unhelpful. With this Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington never did utter the quote “Though a man maybe born in a stable, that does not make him a horse” or words to that effect. This was probably said by Daniel O’Connell (‘The Emancipator’) or one of O’Connells close relations.
Wellington: A Personal History: Hibbert, C.
The Great Duke: Bryant, A.
Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814: Muir, R.
Wellington: the Place and Day of his Birth Ascertained and Demonstrated. Murray, J. (1852)
Viewing the faintly yellow square of Apsley house rising above the east end of South Carriage Drive, which runs along the lower edge of Hyde Park from the corner, I was reminded that Wellington had a famous eye for choosing commanding position. His London home has excellent access to the royal palaces and is on more or less of a direct line to Whitehall up Piccadilly. From here he could reach Windsor without, at first, having to ride through the city and likewise it was close to the great west road which led to his country house at Stratfield Saye, a mere jaunt of 8 or 9 hours with fast horses.
You enter Apsley House as guests have done for hundreds of years. Across the cobbled forecourt, mounting the steps, and twisting the well-used knob on the grand old brown wooden door. Walking inside, the light dims and the traffic noise is audibly reduced. Accommodating English Heritage staff members direct you to the ticket counter and close the door behind you. To one side of the desk a psychedelic line drawing of Lawrence’s Wellington stares questioningly from a marble table as you pay your admission fee. He asks a question the Great Duke would never have thought to ask: ‘Why so matte and conventional?’
The art on the walls and the tables of gifts, which took a few casualties by the time I left, demand your attention. Here you can buy a book, postcards, pins and novelty mugs. Here you can peruse the great and rare works of biography and question why a Bernard Cornwell book is numbered amongst them. While upon the walls, famous artwork is already telling a story, the paint keeping vivid the faces of soldiers long faded, but just remember although this is the gift area, you can’t take those home, no matter how high your budget.
There are some stately homes that have an unmistakable air of dereliction but despite the patented stately home scent and echoing entrance hall Apsley is not one of them. It is the residence of an important man, it was where Wellington came when he had to fulfil his role as the ‘great man,’ and pillar of state. It was Number 1 London, the first house after the tollgates at Hyde Park Corner, a coordinate of London’s rich map that is resonant with history.
The house has a vibrancy to it and a wonderful thing about Apsley is that you can feel the personality of the Duke of Wellington imprinted throughout. The layout and decor are still very close to how he would remember it. Make no mistake that the houses of the Wellesley family depend on the lingering aura of the victor of Waterloo to draw the crowds and it is incumbent on those who manage them to maintain these ancestral holdings as closely as possible to what they would have been in Great Duke’s time.
The private rooms are not open to the public but the grand reception suite that covers the 1st floor is a remarkable window into his achievements. It is the house of a public figure, a place for ostentation and ceremony, used for entertaining and formal engagements. Yet despite the opulence of the Waterloo Banquet Hall, the imperial style mouldings that curl and gleam across the ceilings and the rich yellow golds, ivory whites and plum reds that pervade the colour palette of the rooms, there is an underlying reserve and a simplicity which when compared to other mansions and palaces is almost restrained.
The house does not shout about its great owner, rather, with force and persuasion it directs attention. It is more refined than triumphant, more gracious that showy, much like the first Duke it makes practical use of grandeur. It is one of the only houses that I have visited that allows the mind to clearly picture the social and official round that once played out in these chambers, the bygone age to be imagined from the pages of Jane Austin, Makepeace Thackery and Leo Tolstoy.
To those who know nothing about Wellington and his legacy, Apsley House is the best place to start, but should you have no interest in the Great Duke this building has another attraction. It is one of London’s best, yet often most overlooked galleries of classical painting. While holding nothing, in terms of scale, as the large national institutions in the City of Westminster, every wall of Apsley nonetheless is covered with portraits and paintings dating from the renaissance to the baroque and onwards. The exceedingly fine collection is not only important to the military and political legacy of the Great Duke but are incalculably significant to the history of western art.
It is also quite a thought for an admirer of Wellington to look at a painting that was already century’s old when it was originally brought to Apsley, and to say with 100% certainty that the Duke saw this right here. Should you care to view the vast painting of the Waterloo Banquet you can see in the background that the artworks in that chamber have remained where they have rested for over one hundred years. This is a wonderful personal touch to a gallery, as it forms a remarkable sense of contact with the past. An immediacy, derived from the presence of an object in the place where it was originally curated, and from which, time alone separates from the past.
It will come as no surprise to British ears, used to the demands of other countries to give up the treasures held in their national museums, that the bulk of this collection was looted, but interestingly, it was not looted by the British. The collection was ‘acquired’ by King Joseph Bonaparte of Napoleonic Spain and then briefly by British and allied soldiers rummaging around the King’s baggage train after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. The Duke, had the collection rescued and packed up in crates and then sorted, identified and catalogued. When it was compiled the list included names like Titian and Caravaggio, but also Velasquez and Morello, names that were almost unknown to wider Europe at the time. Wellington then offered to return the treasures to the restored rightful King of Spain, who declined them, saying that what the Duke had come by honestly, he must retain.
Since then the Dukes of Wellington have proved very generous in attempting to return artefacts in their possession. There would be many more items from the Duke’s India campaigns on view today had not one of his descendants returned the majority to the nation from whence they came. When Apsley House was gifted to the nation the art collection became accessible to the public and one could spend hours in the various chambers gazing into the endless, sombre, stare of Velasquez’s water seller, or the subtle chiaroscuro flamboyance of Caravaggio’s cheerful Musician.
Principally though, Apsley is resonant to the public life of one of Britain’s greatest public servants, whose international standing can be glimpsed by the rows of plates that gently gleam and glisten on their shelves in the subdued light of the Museum room’s many cabinets. There is so much of it that it seems as if in the years after the defeat of Napoleon, the royal porcelain factories of Europe were principally employed in making dinner Services for the Duke of Wellington.
My visit took a small party and myself through the echoing entrance hall, which is dark and cool, down a similarly recumbent flight of steps to the exhibition room. This part of the house must once have been part of servant’s quarters but now leads to a modest room which holds about four tall glass cases set into the walls which have been painted in midnight blue, gold and white, and serve as information boards explaining the course of the Mysore and Maratha campaigns.
Running until 3 November 2019 it is a repository of artefacts pertaining to the Duke’s time in India. He was of the opinion that he knew as much about soldiering as he ever did after returning from India. For a period of about eight years, beginning in 1797 and ending in 1805, Wellesley, as he then was, grew from a competent battalion commander to an uncommonly skilled general and administrator. ITV’s recent (mostly) historical drama, Beecham House is set in this period of Indian history. The British empire in India was growing at an alarming rate during this time due to Wellington’s elder brother, Governor General Richard Wellesley’s, ‘forward policy,’ which would establish the British as the major power in South Asia.
It was also the setting for the formation of a brilliant military mind which even reached the ear of Napoleon who, typically, derided Wellington as a mere general of Sepoys (a derivation of a Persian word that simply meant ‘soldiers’ in India). Wellington was thinking of himself in these terms on the very day of Waterloo when for the first and last time he faced the great disturber, it is said he remarked that Napoleon would now see how a general of Sepoys could defend a position and proceeded to do so. Though the apocryphal idea that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, I have never doubted that in reality the pillars of victory were established on the wide, dusty, famine haunted, plains of the Deccan in central India. It is by no accident that Wellington considered Assaye, fought in September 1803 as one of his most impressive military achievements. This was one of two battle honours which appeared embossed on the front of his funeral carriage, the other was Waterloo.
In the exterior hallway leading in, the gloom of the stairwell is banished. A gleaming cabinet containing plates illustrating events and battles of Wellington’s time in India is set into the right-hand wall. The cabinets are filled with interesting objects, some of which have been loaned from the Wellington estate at Stratfield Saye in Hampshire. A selection of aged books, that can be found listed as part of the famous library, quoted by Guedella stand in one. In another, two highly decorated drums silently fill their case, next to which are arrayed a brace of swords. One hefty blade belonged to Tipu of Mysore, while another appears to be the one General Wellesley is holding in several portraits and therefore is a contender as one of the few sabres he ever drew in anger. Opposite this is an intriguing display, including a brooch, clustered with gemstones, and a collection of carved and painted figurines showing the dress and daily activities of people in India.
An engraving of the dynamic Hopner painting of the then Major General Wellesley can be compared with a full colour reproduction of the original on the entrance wall. As you walk through the rooms on the first floor, the blue and white panels will continue, drawing your attention to other aspects of the Duke’s time in the east. The portrait of what Lady Longford described as a ‘dark eyed beauty’ of the porcelain skinned persuasion is prominent amongst a surrounding gallery of men in uniform. The delicate looks of Mrs. Freese, the wife of an officer who was in Srirangapatna (then Seringapatam) and who Wellesley was reputedly enamoured of, are a welcome feminine contrast and might be said to be among the first of the legion of ladies people imagine became his mistresses.
This exhibition serves as an excellent and insightful introduction to the formation of one of the most formidable military brains in history and will greatly inform the rest of what you see in the house. Take special note of the many portraits of Wellington as you go for a look at his evolving character. Compare the Robert Home portraits to the Hopner’s and fit them into a narrative. You can see through these the ambitious, promising, face of a younger brother to a great man; an unknown colonel of the 33rd just at the start of the Indian adventure and the increasingly confident, downright heroic in his own right, General by its end. In these sequences you can see a transformation of the image of a hero, with these in your mind fix your eyes on the Lawrence portraits of the victorious Marquess, Duke and Field Marshal of 1814 and 15, the face of the man who lived at Apsley.
Screened behind a near-impenetrable mask of command, Wellington the man is elusive, he is to be glimpsed not in portraits or artefacts but in the rooms themselves and the house and contents as a whole, the portraits of his friends and associates are as telling as any of the great man. The humour and taste, not least the remarkable reputation and personality of probably the greatest British public figure of the first part of the 19th century is indelibly stamped in luxuriant and gracious entertaining spaces of Apsley House.
In finishing I would like to thank English Heritage and the manager of Apsley House; Marcus Cribb, I am very grateful to you for arranging my visit. Thanks to Josephine Oxley, the able curator, for help with the images. Also to Robin who could not have been more helpful on my arrival and to the rest of the staff at Apsley who run and maintain this property for the nation.
Should anyone wish more information on visiting house and nearby Wellington arch, please visit https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/ . Remember that a joint ticket is available for Apsley House and Wellington Arch (which is located opposite) which houses a exhibition on the Battle of Waterloo along with the Duke of Wellington’s sword and famous Boots.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.
The Battle of Quatre Bras was a vital action for both sides. However it was of greater strategic significance to Blucher and Napoleon than Wellington and Ney. In some ways it is very similar to the Battle of Busaco in 1810, but not for the reasons most people think. Continue reading “Quatre Bras.”
How Napoleon stole a march on the allies, but stumbled at the first hurdle. The opening of the Waterloo campaign shows the type of Napoleonic warfare that not many people think about. Continue reading “Bridges and Crossroads.”
The Brussels Waltz. It was the age of the Waltz. That scandalous peasant dance that was exhibited at Almack’s in 1812 which had so many ladies of a certain age reaching for their smelling salts. With the hands in constant contact, palm to palm, with bodies pressed close and the gentleman’s arm around the lady’s waist, it was the romantic ideal that encapsulated the spirit of the age, a decade before Strauss wrote a note. The Times and oddly even Lord Byron had dressed it down in typically high minded prose but by 1814 this continental obscenity, this affront to good English taste, was the rage of all the fashionable house parties and balls in Brussels. Any dandy officer worth his salt would have paid good money to be taught how to masterfully twirl a lady around a dance floor with gentlemanly grace and manly reserve. It was as if a stage had been set by a genius of dramatic production. All the ingredients were there, elegant young ladies, fashionable gowns, brilliant uniforms and dashing young officers, a dinner party every night and a ball or two every week. With hindsight it is plain that there was almost a mathematical certainty that romance and tragedy had to collide at some point and create a legend. However at the time the large British expatriate community were blithely unconcerned with the march of history.
British Invasion. Almost as soon as peace was declared in 1814 the invasion began. The city had always been an attractive destination for the aristocracy before the French Revolution, indeed as a young man the Duke of Wellington had lived there with his mother for a while. It afforded a slightly cheaper cost of living, in a fashionable European city, that in many ways resembled a British Spa town, and had none of the current dreary political upheaval then occurring in other capitals. The Belgian capital was best accessed by canals from Ostend, after a sea crossing most civilians were unceremoniously dumped on shore but had the consolation of a barge trip through the countryside to the city. Separated into upper and lower towns and ringed by the old defensive walls, life in Brussels centred on the salons of the wealthy inhabitants, the fine lawns and landscaping of the park, the fine avenues and the grand hotels. Since the “Little Peace” of 1803 had afforded the well heeled in Britain little opportunity for travel, they quickly seized their chance to descend on the Low Countries in 1814 and live it up after 12 years of isolation. The British quickly made themselves at home & the Belgians were shocked and perplexed by the balls that usually lasted past midnight and the copious drinking habits of the newcomers. Yet these glitterati were not the first to besiege Brussels. There had been a British expeditionary force operating in the country under General Graham since 1813, and though he had not convinced the French to surrender a single fortress, he had at least managed to keep them bottled up inside them. Graham had briefly assumed command of the allied forces, and had his headquarters in Brussels, before giving up command to the Prince of Orange in August 1814. Thus there were already a good deal of scarlet uniforms and gold lace present in Brussels when in March 1815, news came that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was once more in control of France. If anything the slow buildup of British, Hanoverian, Dutch, Belgian and other troops across the country only added to the glamour of the social scene, and most likely extended its shelf life. Instead of packing up and going home the British expatriates stayed on, after all, the allied powers were to attack into France to fight Napoleon, not defend Belgium.
The Shadows Lengthen. Despite the endless minutiae of running an army Wellington somehow managed to mix business with pleasure. There is not a work on Waterloo that does not mention a “Dalliance” or “Affair” with the heavily pregnant Lady Harriet Webburn Webster. Since Wellington never disclosed a single personal remark about whom he spent his time with, I will not add to the weight of words theorising about the affair, as it can never be anything but unprovable gossip. Nevertheless what is certain that he was usually always entertaining or in attendance on fashionable ladies, probably as much for their company as the fact they probably knew more about what was going on in the city than did his adjutant general. More important was his social strategy of bluff. The capital was full of French sympathisers, and while he felt certain that Napoleon was going to advance against his western flank via Mons, he knew that this was an unsubstantiated hunch, and that the intelligence that had been gathered at this stage was nothing but an indicator. Since 1808 Wellington had worked only on firm information, therefore as he knew nothing of Napoleon’s intentions he dug his heels firmly into the ground, while watching over his right shoulder. While he waited, he played. In public he was the not a military commander, nor was he stern and distant as his formidable reputation suggested, he was an aristocrat on holiday. He was charming and witty and was always seen to be having a good time, but in private he was busy organising the army, arranging payment, food and supplies, sending for trusted officers, and scanning intelligence reports, while growing more and more concerned that Napoleon would strike first. Apart from his administrational work he would breakfast alone in his house on the Park and usually dine with his staff. He had large dinners every day and by the 4th of June he had held 3 large Balls and was planning to hold another on the 21st of June to mark the second anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria, which up till then had been his greatest victory. The Duke was a fixture of Brussels society, and the star around whom the little galaxy increasingly revolved. Because he maintained an air of carefree gaiety to the public nothing changed in Brussels, except that more officers became available to socialise with. Gentlemen still went to “Reading” Clubs to gamble, there was carriage and horse riding, strolls and picnics and outings into the country, cricket matches, military reviews, hunting parties and the racing days provided by the Prince of Orange and the Earl of Uxbridge were always popular and hostesses vied with each other to entertain. However the gay and carefree British expatriate community living in the Belgian capitol; like animals scenting the air for danger, felt the mood changing. Something was going to happen that would bring and end to their happy way of life, perhaps they felt things reaching a peak, and the only way to go now was down. It was no secret that the Duke of Wellington’s army was in Belgium to fight, but when it would do so was anybody’s guess. The wise heads suggested that the Duke was awaiting word that the Austrians and Russians had invaded France, which would be sometime in July. Until then there had been an air of tranquility, a miasma of springtime holiday activity in a little London created overseas. For almost a year now, hardly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape and the concentration of the Duke of Wellington’s army, they had danced on, cloaking the reality that Napoleon was massing troops on the borders of France. Now as spring turned to summer, the days began to stretch and the shadows began to lengthen over the lawns in Brussels park. But just as one can tell, after a long summer day of activity, that the night is fast approaching, both soldiers and civilians began to realise that they were playing on borrowed time. The constant passage of military couriers seemed to tell their own story.
Save the date for the 15th. Charlotte Duchess of Richmond was a noted socialite, who had presided over several balls already, and she was determined to pack in as much as possible before the army marched. Seeking out the Duke of Wellington, who himself was behind many of the balls and dinners in the city; entertaining most nights, she asked him in the true regency fashion of Austen or Heyer, whether she could give a ball without it being interrupted. She asked for no secrets, and no reasons, just if she could give her ball. “Duchess” Wellington said fatefully “You may give your Ball with the greatest safety without fear of interruption” in truth he could not say anything else and maintain the facade of calm. The date was set for the 15th of June. In the meantime the round of balls continued. The Duchess of Richmond knew how to do things properly, and she engaged two officers of the 7th Hussars to hand deliver her invitations to the officers of the cavalry when Lord Uxbridge held his next field day at Grammont. Despite the rumours of the army preparing to march, no one could be sure of anything except that on the 15th the Duchess of Richmond would be giving a very select and private ball at her home in the Rue de Blanchisserie. Roughly 230 invitations were sent out, over half of the recipients were to officers. Yet it was not really a large ball, though it was reasonably well attended, nor was it yet the event of the season. It was to be a private party thrown at private expense. Had it been on any other day it would have been little different than any other ball and faded into the parchment of history like all the others, but it was not to be.
Sources. The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball: David Miller. Dancing into Battle: Nick Foulkes. Wellington, the years of the sword: Elizabeth Longford. Freshly Remembered, The story of Sir Thomas Graham: Oglander. Your Obediant Servant: James Thornton Cook to the Duke of Wellington. Spencer and Waterloo, letters 1814-1816: Spencer Madan. Wellington, the iron duke: Richard Holmes.