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The Iron Duke
A SPRIG OF THE NOBILITY 1769–1790
In March 1787 Arthur Wellesley, third son of the first Earl of Mornington and at the time a few weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, was commissioned as an ensign in the 73rd Highland Regiment, for which he paid the regulation price of £400.
He was, and the evidence for this is largely anecdotal, an agreeable but torpid youth who, at Eton, had shown neither talent for nor interest in academic studies. Faced with his languid disposition and lack of intellectual curiosity, his mother Anne, dowager Countess, and eldest brother Richard, the second Earl, decided to place him in the army, where his shortcomings would pass unnoticed. Army officers enjoyed social prestige despite the common opinion that soldiering was 'an idle profession, that requires little intellectual ability'. So wrote Lewis Lochée, whose experience teaching aspirant officers at a military school in Chelsea convinced him that a regimental mess was 'the sure retreat of ignorance'. He was more or less correct; the junior, and for that matter senior, ranks of George III's army contained an ample sprinkling of dunces, idlers and fops, many of whom would give Wellesley much trouble later in his life.
Wellesley was better prepared for his profession than most. During 1786 he had attended an international finishing school for gentlemen, the Royal Academy of Equitation at Angers on the Loire. There he had studied the rudiments of military science; practised riding and swordsmanship; acquired a fluency in French; and absorbed those niceties of conduct which distinguished a gentleman. It was a year well spent. He always rode well, whether out hunting or on the battlefield – where his horsemanship once saved his life – and his manners were perfect, at least on those public occasions which demanded precision of etiquette.
The arrangements for Wellesley's education and his entry into the army had been supervised by his elder brother Richard. After their father's death in 1782, and following his deathbed wishes, Richard (b. 1760) had taken over the direction of his three younger brothers, William (b. 1763: he later took the surname Wellesley-Pole), Arthur and Henry (b. 1773). For the next twenty years he dominated their lives, chose their careers and in the process made them the partners of his swollen ambition.
Hitherto the Wellesleys had never amounted to much outside Ireland. For generations they had collected their rents, dispensed justice from the bench and loyally supported king and government in a variety of minor offices. Garret, the first Earl, had devoted his life to music and established himself as a noted amateur instrumentalist and composer. He was also an active patron who, in 1757, founded Dublin's Musical Academy, which admitted 'no mercenary performer' and whose elegant players entertained their peers with monthly concerts in aid of such good causes as the Charitable Loans Society for the Relief of Distressed Ladies. Arthur shared his father's love of music and inherited some of his skills as a violinist. Fiddle-playing was, he imagined, an inappropriate pastime for a soldier and so, in 1794 on the eve of his departure for the Flanders campaign, he destroyed all his instruments. He continued to enjoy music, although deeply conservative in all matters: he insisted that Mozart was the last composer whose works were worth listening to.
For all his musical accomplishments Lord Mornington, like his ancestors, remained a provincial backwoodsman. His eldest son Richard was infinitely more ambitious. He was determined to project himself and his brothers into the forefront of British political life. All shared a powerful sense of public duty which, in Richard, was flawed by a craving for admiration and reward; he died full of regret that he had never been offered the dukedom he had always coveted. A primadonna's temperament and vanity made him exaggerate his talents and political usefulness, neither of which ever outweighed his personal deficiencies. Mornington was an indifferent Parliamentary orator in an age when a flair for rhetoric counted, and he had no appetite for routine committee and administrative work.
Nevertheless Mornington's charm, vision and superficial brilliance made it easy for him to penetrate Tory circles at Eton and Christ Church, where he won the affection and goodwill of two influential sponsors, William Grenville and his kinsman William Pitt. These were felicitous attachments, for Pitt became Prime Minister in December 1783 and needed all the support he could get in both the Westminster and Irish Parliaments, in the latter of which Mornington controlled the borough of Trim. Grenville's influence was employed to secure Mornington's return as a British MP for the pocket borough of Bere Regis in Dorset early in 1784.
His subsequent advancement was sluggish and unspectacular. In 1784 Mornington joined the Irish Privy Council; two years later Pitt appointed him a junior lord of the Treasury; and in 1793 he entered the British Privy Council and was given a seat on the India Board. The trouble was that Mornington suffered intermittent ill-health which he tried to alleviate by regularly taking the waters at various English and continental spas. From late 1787 until 1791, he undertook a series of prolonged tours of France, Italy and the Low Countries. Often absent from the Commons, his political prospects were not helped by his marriage in November 1794 to his mistress, Hyacinthe Gabrielle Roland, who had already borne him eight children.
Mornington saw his brothers as useful political allies who, distributed in the British and Irish Parliaments, could strengthen his power base. Within six months of purchasing Arthur's commission in the 73rd, Mornington was contriving his appointment as an aide-de-camp to the Marquess of Buckingham, who had just been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was anxious that his brother should not join his regiment, which was then stationed in India, and he saw the Irish post as an opening for a political career. 'My intention is,' he told the Marquess's brother, William Grenville, 'whenever I have the opportunity, to bring Arthur into Parliament for Trim and this plan would agree very well with a situation in the Lord Lieutenant's family.' His request was granted by Buckingham and, with the 'kind and anxious' assistance of the ever accommodating Grenville, Arthur was transferred to the home-based 76th, where a lieutenantcy was purchased for him. Arthur sailed for Ireland in April 1788 and was warmly welcomed by Buckingham, who gave a reception in his honour.
This episode is instructive. Mornington was in no doubt that Arthur's future lay in politics and, it must be assumed, that he possessed sufficient intelligence to hold his own in the admittedly undemanding Irish House of Commons. It went without saying that Mornington was willing, as was his mother, to exert pressure on their friends to secure patronage, but this was more than normal familial duty, for the Wellesleys were not rich. Their Irish lands were mortgaged; insolvency dogged them, William's and later Arthur's careful estate management, and despite the £8,000 received in 1791 from the sale of Mornington's Dublin house; there was also the burden of the widowed Countess's £1,500 annuity, a matter about which her eldest son was often irritatingly casual. Small allowances also had to be given to the three brothers, whose service pay was insufficient for them to live as gentlemen. Even Arthur, who throughout his life husbanded his resources carefully, was believed to have run up debts of over £500 in eight years. No wonder Mornington was perturbed when, shortly before his brother's departure, he heard a rumour that his aide-de-camp's daily allowance of five shillings was about to be halved. Memories of cheese-paring may have prompted Arthur to plead forcefully for increases in subalterns' pay during a Commons debate in 1806.
An equally strong feeling, based on experience, lay behind his views on patronage. In principle he accepted the system of string-pulling by which ministers traded pensions, administrative posts, sinecures and service promotion for political support. And yet he opposed the distribution of favours regardless of recipients' merits or needs. As Secretary for Ireland, he was confronted by an appeal from the Archbishop of Tuam for an office worth £400–£500 a year for his son-in-law. Wellesley reacted strongly. Since the beneficiary stood to inherit a fortune and 'would not much like to undertake the duty of any officer' it seemed to him that 'the Archbishop might as well make a temporary provision for his son-in-law as throw him upon the Irish government'.
That same Irish government provided for him until 1796, when he resigned his post as aide-de-camp, having served three successive Lords Lieutenant: Buckingham, the Earl of Westmoreland and Lord Camden. He had been a courtier soldier attached to the staff of a civilian official and his duties were largely decorative. He was an elegant butterfly who flitted around the Lords Lieutenant on such state occasions as balls and levées and sometimes undertook small errands. Lessons in conduct learned at Angers were put to good use and he was able to polish those social graces which would, in time, serve him when he combined the roles of commander and diplomat. He changed uniforms frequently; in the course of five years he switched from the 76th to the 41st, to the 12th Light Dragoons, to the 58th and to the 18th Light Dragoons, in which last regiment he purchased a captaincy. Furthermore, and in fulfilment of his brother's plans, he took over as MP for Trim when he came of age in 1790, replacing William Wellesley-Pole, who was transferred to Westminster, where he swelled Pitt's majority as member for the pocket borough of Looe in Cornwall.
At this and later stages of his life, Wellesley owed everything to the favours of his eldest brother,. Mornington influence was indispensable, but, as Wellesley recognized, an elder brother who could smooth an officer's path to promotion was a mixed blessing. Manipulations of his family's ministerial connections provoked mistrust and envy among less fortunate officers. Many years later, Wellesley recalled the strength of animosity towards him in the Horse Guards (the Commander-in-Chief's Department). There 'they looked on me with a kind of jealousy, because I was a lord's son, "a sprig of the nobility" who came into the army more for ornament than use'. This was an overstatement since aristocratic blood flowed abundantly throughout the senior ranks of the army. What was resented was an officer with powerful friends in political circles who could, when required, circumvent the military hierarchy. There were also wider misgivings about the compass of Wellesley's ambition, especially after his return from India in 1805, and the pace of his promotion. For their enemies, many of whom were political adversaries and men who had been displaced or passed over, the Wellesleys were a clan of self-seekers greedy for offices and titles.
Arthur Wellesley was proof against such slurs. Throughout his life he treated his critics and their charges with patrician disdain. In July 1810 he wrote contemptuously of the great numbers of 'idle and malicious officers' who would not 'mind their business', but instead wrote dismal letters home in which his strategy was questioned and every setback exaggerated. Such reports were accepted unquestioningly by newspapermen and used as ammunition against him by the government's opponents in Parliament. The 'licentiousness of the press' dismayed Wellesley, its collective incomprehension of reality enraged him. A naive press, he told his friend the Irish lawyer and MP John Croker, made the British 'the most ignorant people in the world of military and political affairs'. His countrymen would be wise to leave alone what they could never understand, and he added, revealingly, 'I act wisely and honestly towards them to do what I think is good for them, rather than what will please them.'
These words lay at the heart of his philosophy. They were the statement of an aristocrat who, in youth and early manhood, had absorbed a creed based on the natural right of gentlemen to command in peace and war. It was a commonplace doctrine during Wellesley's earlier years and its principal features were outlined by the schoolmaster Lochée:
In public life gentlemen are born to assist in composing the councils of the nation, or in conducting her fleets and her armies; to be the bulwarks of the constitution; to sustain parts that require the continual execution of wisdom, fortitude, and the most highly improved talents: and, in private life, to contribute by study to intellectual and moral improvements, to be depositaries of upright principles and pure manners, illustrious examples of temperance, justice, benevolence and pity, diffusing order and happiness all around them.
All that today we most admire about eighteenth-century Britain, its architecture, music, landscape gardens, literature and scholarship, owed their creation to the patronage and taste of gentlemen. Their country houses still dominate the countryside and convey that same sense of eminence, pride and certainty about one's position in the world which distinguish the faces portrayed by Gainsborough.
Wellesley inherited this patrician self-confidence and cultivated a sense of reserved self-possession. This was founded on his unshakeable conviction that only men of his temper were fit to govern Britain. He told Croker in 1833 that 'the aristocratic influence of the landed gentry' was the only guarantee of just and honest government. Furthermore, he insisted that the Anglican clergy, who were 'the best educated gentry in the country', were the natural disseminators of 'piety, morality, good manners and civilization'.
Gentlemen were a caste which shared certain unique inner qualities, of which, for Wellesley, the most important was an overwhelming confidence. This was vital for command in battle, where the slightest sign of interior doubt or nervous tension would signal irresolution to men already confused and fearful. Wellesley's self-assurance struck onlookers as close to nonchalance. Mountstuart Elphinstone, attached to Wellesley's staff during the battle of Assaye in September 1803, watched him gallop unwittingly towards the enemy's lines. 'Somebody said, "Sir, that is the enemy's line." The General said, "Is it? No, Damme so it is." (You know his manner).' That manner became famous; visiting Paris soon after Waterloo, Sir Walter Scott noticed that 'All the young men pique themselves on imitating the Duke of Wellington in nonchalance and coolness of manner.'
Wellesley's impassivity in the face of danger, like his patrician confidence in his own judgement, was a product of his upbringing. He grew up at the end of the Augustan age that prized calculating reason and disapproved of emotion which was labelled 'enthusiasm'. This was broadly Wellesley's view of things, although he also set much store by good sense and pragmatism. As he remarked in Spain, 'men with cool heads and strong hearts' made better generals than 'men of talent and genius', of whom past experience had made him wary. He was equally disapproving of officers who let their feelings run away with them; one, whom he thought 'too rash – over brave', was told 'such boyish impetuosity would not do'. Wellesley believed that no man in the public service could afford to let passion sway judgement. Nor could he permit himself the dangerous indulgence of introspection. It bred self-doubt, which undermined the outward confidence so necessary to reassure those who expected unfaltering leadership.
An Augustan by temperament and conviction, Wellesley never allowed emotion to tamper with his judgement or to override the interests of the public service. When, in 1811, the family of a lady, said to be 'dying of love' for a major, asked permission for his transfer back to England, he responded sharply. Ladies so afflicted 'contrive in some manner, to live and look tolerably well ... and some have been known to recover so far as to be inclined to take another lover'. He was most scathing towards officers who shirked their duties. 'It appears most extraordinary', he wrote at the end of operations in Mysore in 1800, 'that Lieutenant McDonnell should have been so sick as to have been obliged to quit his regiment at the moment when it was ordered into the field, and that he should have subsequently recovered so suddenly.' The sarcasm here was controlled, but often such backsliders roused him to wild fury. He fell into a 'passion' whenever he disagreed with a court-martial verdict on a negligent officer or criminous soldier or a recommendation for mercy.