Arthur Wellesley was born in Dublin on 1 May 1769 and was the third of five surviving sons of Garret Wellesley, 1st Earl of Mornington, and Anne Hill-Trevor, the eldest daughter of Arthur Hill-Trevor, 1st Viscount Dungannon.
Wellesley was enrolled at Eton College in 1781, however he hated his time there as he often felt lonely and wasn’t unhappy when a lack of funds forced him to move to Brussels with his mother. Wellesley didn’t do well at Eton and the lack of direction in his life worried his mother who felt he was being idle. the following year, Wellesley enrolled in the French Royal Academy of Equitation in Angers where he became a good horseman and learned to speak French proficiently much to his mother’s delight. However, Wellesley still seemed uncertain about what he wanted to do with himself so his older brother, Richard, who had inherited their father’s title, arranged for Wellesley to receive an army commission.
Wellesley was assigned as aide-de-camp to the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham, before being transferred to the new 76th Regiment where he was made a lieutenant. While in Dublin, Wellesley’s duties were mainly social and he attended balls, entertained guests and provided advice to Buckingham. On 23 January 1788, Wellesley transferred into the 41st Regiment of Foot, before transferring to the 12th Regiment of Light Dragoons on 25 June 1789. At this stage, Wellesley also began dabbling in politics and he was elected as a MP for Trim, County Meath, in the Irish House of Commons, where he would serve for two years.
On 30 January 1791, Wellesley was promoted to captain and he transferred to the 58th Regiment of Foot where he remained until 31 October after which he was transferred to the 18th Light Dragoons. During this point in his life, Wellesley fell in love with Kitty, the daughter of Edward Pakenham, 2nd Baron Longford, and wanted to marry her. When Wellesley asked for permission, he was refused by Kitty’s brother who felt Wellesley had no real prospects. Distraught, Wellesley vowed to concentrate on his military career instead and he became a major by purchase in the 33rd Regiment in 1793. A few months later, he secured a loan from his brother to purchase a lieutenant-colonelcy in the 33rd.
In June 1794, Wellesley and his regiment set sail for Ostend as part of an expedition bringing reinforcements for the army in Flanders, however they arrived too late so they joined the Duke of York as he was pulling back towards the Netherlands. Wellesley got his first experience of warfare at the Battle of Boxtel on 15 September 1794 where his regiment held back the French cavalry so fellow regiments could retreat safely. During the harsh winter, the British army suffered heavily losses and Wellesley’s health was affected by the dampness. The campaign ended badly for the British but Wellesley learned valuable lessons and blamed inadequate leadership and poor organisation.
Back in England, Wellesley was re-elected as MP for Trim and he hoped to be given the position of Secretary of War in the new Irish government but he was post of Surveyor-General of the Ordnance which he declined. On 3 May 1796, Wellesley was promoted as full colonel by seniority and set sail for Calcutta with his regiment where he spent several months. Wellesley was sent on an expedition to the Philippine, and when he returned to India, he discovered his brother, Richard, had been appointed as the new Governor General of India.
In 1798, the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War broke out against Tipu Sultan and Wellesley’s regiment joined an armed force sent to capture Seringapatam and defeat Tipu. Due to his brother’s position, Wellesley was also appointed as chief advisor to the Nizam of Hyderabad’s army which had been sent to accompany the British forces and this caused friction with the other senior officers. However, any bad feelings were soon laid to rest when Wellesley’s regiment helped force Tipu’s infantry to retreat at the Battle of Mallavelly, some 20 miles from Seringapatam. On 5 April 1799, the Battle of Seringapatam began and Wellesley was ordered to lead a night attack on the village of Sultanpettah but the attack failed and Wellesley suffered a knee injury. After sending in scouts to reconnoitre, Wellesley used the new information to launch a successful attack the following day and he learned another valuable lesson about the importance of intelligence on the enemy.
A few weeks later, an attack led by Major-General Baird secured the fortress of Seringapatam, while Wellesley secured the rear and then stationed his regiment at the main palace. The Tipu Sultan had been killed in the attack and Wellesley was the first to confirm his death. Growing concerned by the drunken behaviour of the soldiers, Wellesley flogged and hanged at least four men as punishment. After rate main forces left, Wellesley was appointed as the new Governor of Seringapatam and Mysore, however the climate was beginning to take its toll on his health and he was unable to take part in an expedition to Egypt in 1801. The illness saved Wellesley’s life as the ship he was due to sail on was lost at sea.
In September 1802, Wellesley learnt he had been promoted to the rank of major-general on 29 April 1802 but the news had taken months to reach him and he was sent to command an army in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. Wellesley decided to attack the nearest Maratha fort on 8 August 1803 so he could extend control southwards to the river Godavari and split his army into two forces to pursue and locate the main Marathas army. On 23 September, at the Battle of Assaye, Wellesley reorganised his infantry into several lines and advanced against the Maratha infantry. The British forces came under heavy fire, and Wellesley himself had two horses shot from beneath him. The British won the day but losses were heavy with 409 dead, 1,622 wounded and 26 reported missing, and this would weigh heavily on Wellesley.
A few months later, Wellesley successfully attacked a larger force near Argaum which resulted in only 361 British casualties. A further successful attack at Gawilghur, combined with the victory of General Lake at Delhi forced the Maratha to sign the Treaty of Surji-Anjangaon. Tired of India, Wellesley applied for permission to return home in June 1804 and he was made a Knight of the Bath in recognition of his service in India. Along with his brother, Richard, whose term as Governor General of India had come to an end, Wellesley returned to England where he requested a new assignment. After serving in the abortive Anglo-Russian expedition to north Germany in 1805, Wellesley took and extended leave from the army and he was elected as a Tory member of the British parliament for Rye in January 1806 and was later appointed as Chief Secretary for Ireland, under Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond.
Due to his new wealth and status, Wellesley was now in a position to marry Kitty and they were married in Dublin on 10 April 1806. The marriage proved to be an unhappy one as the couple spent a lot of time apart due to his career, however two sons were born, Arthur, in 1807, and Charles, in 1808. Wellesley and Kitty eventually lived separate lives as she became increasingly depressed and he pursued other women.
In May 1807, Wellesley decided to step down from his political offices to command an infantry brigade in the Second Battle of Copenhagen. When he returned to England, Wellesley was raised to the rank of lieutenant general on 25 April 1808 and he was preparing to take his men on an expedition to South America when he received orders to go to Portugal to take part in the Peninsular Campaign. Even though Wellesley defeated the French at the Battle of Rolica and the Battle of Vimeiro in 1808, command was given to General Dalrymple who ordered the Royal Navy transport the French army out of Lisbon with all their loot. Dalrymple and Wellesley were recalled to Britain to face a Court of Enquiry but Wellesley was cleared.
When Wellesley returned to Portugal, he did so as head of the British forces and he immediately routed the French at the Second Battle of Porto. With Portugal secured, Wellesley turned his attention to Spain where he united with General Cuesta’s forces in an effort to take Talavera, however Cuesta hesitated too long allowing the French to retreat. Cuesta sent his forces after the French but he suddenly found himself facing the entire French army at New Castile. The Spanish were forced to retreat and Wellesley had to send two British forces to cover the rear.
The Battle of Talavera took place on 27 July 1809 and the British managed to hold back the French several times during the day but the retreating French attempted to block Britain’s route to Portugal and Wellesley had to abandon 1,500 wounded men into the care of the Spanish. With the route secured, Wellesley returned to discover his wounded men had been abandoned to the French and Cuesta was also refusing to replenish the British with much needed supplies. Furious with their supposed allies, Wellesley decided the best course of action was to retreat to Portugal. After his victory at Talavera, Wellesley was elevated to the Peerage of the United Kingdom as Viscount Wellington of Talavera and of Wellington in the County of Somerset.
In 1810, the French invaded Portugal once again and the British government came under pressure to withdraw their forces, however Wellington managed to slow the French down at Buçaco; and halted their progress by building the Lines of Torres Vedras, lines of forts built in secrecy to defend Lisbon, and the French finally retreated after six months. For the next two years, Wellington would engage the French in various battles, culminating in the Storming of Badajoz in 1812 which left Wellington sickened when he saw the bloody carnage left in its wake. As Wellington’s army advanced into Spain, they fought the French at many famous battles, such as the Battle of Salamanca and the liberation of Madrid. As a reward, Wellington was given an earldom on 22 February 1812 and made Marquess of Wellington on 18 August 1812.
The attack on Burgos proved to be a step too far as Wellington’s army lacked enough weapons and he was forced to retreat with the loss of over 2,000 casualties and Wellington found himself withdrawing to Portugal once again. In 1813, Wellington regrouped and launched an attack on French communication lines north of Burgos, and he crushed Joseph Bonaparte’s army at the Battle of Vitoria for which he was promoted to field marshal. However, Wellington was outraged when his soldiers broke ranks to loot French wagons instead and he wrote his famous dispatch to Earl Bathurst, denouncing his common soldiers as the scum of the earth, until he had calmed sufficiently to praise their deeds in the battle.
At the end of July, Wellington turned his attentions to San Sebastian but the French proved to be stubborn foes and Wellington decided to abandon the siege after losing 693 men, however the city’s supply routes were being blocked by the Spanish and the French eventually surrendered. Wellington followed the dispirited French soldiers through the Pyrenees into the south of France and he fought his last battle against his enemy, Marshal Soult, at Toulouse where the British were soundly defeated. After the battle, news came of Napoleon’s abdication and a ceasefire allowed Soult to evacuate the city.
On 3 May 1814, Wellesley was made Duke of Wellington and was later appointed as Ambassador to France, taking part in the Congress of Vienna where he fought for France to keep its place in the European balance of power. However, it seemed Napoleon was far from finished as he escaped from Elba on 26 February 1815 and returned to France. On 18 June, the Battle of Waterloo commenced with Wellington in command of an Anglo-Dutch-German army consisting of approximately 73,000 troops, 26,000 of whom were British. It was also the first time Wellington had engaged Napoleon in battle and the French were soundly defeated by Wellington and a Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal Blucher. Napoleon was forced to abdicate on 22 June and the Bourbons were restored to the throne by the allied forces. Napoleon tried to flee to the United States but the Royal Navy were blocking every port so he had no choice but to surrender. He was eventually exiled on the island of Saint Helena where he died on 5 May 1821.
With the Napoleonic Wars finally at an end, Wellington resumed his political career and he was appointed Master-General of the Ordnance in December 1818, Governor of Plymouth in October 1819, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in January 1827 and Constable of the Tower of London in February 1827. On 22 January 1828, Wellington started his first tenure as prime minister and his term is mostly remembered for the granting of almost full civil rights to Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland. Many Tories voted against the Act and Wellington had to rely on the Whigs to give him a majority, but even so, Wellington was accused allowing “popery” to infiltrate the state by George Finch-Hatton, 10th Earl of Winchilsea, and Wellington called him out. On 21 March 1829, Wellington and Winchilsea met in a duel on Battersea fields but Wellington missed his shot and Winchilsea chose not to return fire.
Wellington was forced to resign as prime minister on 16 November 1830 after a vote of no confidence as he had stuck to the Tory policy of no reforms which had made him unpopular with the public. After the Whigs took over, they introduced the Reform Bill 1832 but it could not be passed as Wellington and his fellow Tories refused to back it. After the bill failed a second time, a new wave of unrest swept the country and Wellington was often greeted by hostile crowds. The Whig government fell but Wellington was unable to form a Tory government and William IV had no choice but to restore the Whigs to power.
Wellington gradually lost his place as Tory leader to Robert Peel and when the Tories were returned to power in 1834, Wellington declined to become prime minister in favour of Peel who was in Italy. Wellington was appointed as interim prime minster for three weeks until Peel could take his place. Wellington was appointed as Foreign Secretary for Peel’s first term and Leader of the House of Lords during the second. Wellington was also re-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Army on 15 August 1842 following the resignation of Lord Hill.
Wellington retired from political life in 1846 and became Chief Ranger and Keeper of Hyde Park and St. James’s Park in August 1850. Wellington’s wife, Kitty, had died in 1831 and while they were estranged, he was saddened by her death but had the consolation of a close friendship with Harriet and Charles Arbuthnot. When Harriet died in 1834, Wellington and Arbuthnot consoled each other and spent their last years together at Apsley House. Wellington died at Walmer Castle in Deal on 14 September 1852 and was one of only a handful of British subjects to be honoured with a state funeral. Wellington was interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral next to Lord Nelson.