The 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June

11 June 2015

By Pan Macmillan

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815, two hundred year’s ago this month.

To mark this anniversary, we present this guide to its victor, the Duke of Wellington.

1. Born in a Barn

Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, was born in Dublin in 1769 and into the ruling Anglo-Irish Protestant aristocracy. His father was the 1st Earl of Mornington and his brother Richard served as the Governor-General of India. Though Wellington probably didn't utter the much quoted bon mot about more than horses being born in stables, he never regarded himself as Irish. And while he attended Eton, it’s now also thought unlikely that he ever said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, though Samuel Smiles, among others, attributed the line to him.

2. The Military Man

Despite nursing ambitions to become a musician and playing the violin, Wellington joined the army in 1787, after studying at the French military academy in Anjou. Following campaigns against the French in the Netherlands, Wellington made his name in India fighting in the Mysore and Mahratta Wars, winning a famous victory during the latter at Assaye in 1803, for which he was knighted.

After successfully banishing French forces from the Iberian Peninsular after a five-year campaign, the crowning glory of his military career came with victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Though a brilliant tactician and commander, Wellington was a reactionary product of his class and believed that only gentlemen could make effective military officers, once stating that: ‘The description of gentlemen of whom the army was composed, made, from their education, manners and habits, the best officers in the world, and to compose the officers of a lower class would cause the army to deteriorate.’

He also approved of the system where military commissions were bought and sold, arguing that ‘it is promotion by purchase which brings into the service…. men who have some connection with the interests and fortunes of country.’

3. First Among Unequals

Before becoming a military hero, Wellington had held a seat in the Irish Parliament and on his triumphant return from India was elected MP for Hastings in 1806. He served twice as Tory Prime Minister, firstly between 1828 and 1830, and again, for just a few weeks, in 1834. On both occasions, he proved a mostly poor premier, perhaps having grown too used to giving orders rather than engaging in debate and building alliances. He did, however, succeed in passing the 1829 Catholic Relief Act, tirelessly supporting this bill as part of a wider scheme to grant Catholic emancipation.

4. The Iron Duke

A resolute Tory and outspoken critic of any extension of the franchise beyond landowners, his opposition to parliamentary reform in the 1830s made him a focus of popular hatred. He was attacked by angry mobs of the streets of the capital and iron bars were fitted on the windows of his London home, Apsley House at Hyde Park, to prevent them being smashed. These metal defences, some believe, are what first gave rise to the nickname, The Iron Duke.

5. Unhappily Married

Wellington had met Kitty Packenham, the daughter of Baron Longford, in 1791, when he was twenty-seven and she twenty-three. As the second son and a lowly army officer, he was considered a poor prospect and his offer of marriage rejected. Returning ten years later from India with a title and a string of military successes under his belt, the proposal was accepted. But in the intervening period, Kitty, in Wellington’s words, had ‘grown ugly’ and the couple lived separately for most of their marriage. The Duke had numerous lovers; among them was the courtesan Harriette Wilson, who later risked damnation by publishing a memoir containing details of their affair.

6. Trains of Thought

Though concerned that steam trains would allow the lower orders to move around more freely, the Duke travelled to Manchester for the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway on 15 September 1830. He shook hands with William Huskisson, the local MP and his political rival, moments before Huskisson fell under the wheels of Stephenson's Rocket and was fatally injured.

7. A Cool Customer

Notoriously stern, his aloofness was acerbated by deafness later in life, and the loss of his back teeth which affected his speech and made him increasingly taciturn.

8. Royal Appointments

On the death of George IV on 29 June 1830, Wellington acted as the king’s executor. Among his tasks was burning evidence of George’s ‘secret’ early marriage to his long-term mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert. Along with the then Prime Minister George Canning, Wellington was one of the dignitaries assembled to confirm the legitimacy of Queen Victoria’s birth in 1819.

9. Death of the Duke

Wellington died on 14 Sept 1852. Having just been offered some tea by his valet, his last words were, ‘Yes, if you please’.

He was given a full state funeral at St Paul’s cathedral and his coffin processed through London in a special funeral car partially fashioned from a cannon captured at Waterloo.

It is estimated that over a million people thronged to the capital to pay their respects, and the numbers of people squeezing themselves onto London’s streets was so vast that seven people were crushed to death in the melee.

>>The cad in The Angel and the Cad by Geraldine Roberts was the Duke of Wellington's nephew; find out more about him