Wellington in History
In 1859, Queen Victoria founded Wellington College in England as a national monument to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
To have an entire school named after him begs the question, why? Why did Queen Victoria decide to establish a school in memory of the Duke of Wellington? Who was he? To piece together the history that founded Wellington College in England, our alma mater, Wellington College China would like to present you with our new column for the summer – Wellington in History. As the first edition, today's column will detail ten of the most interesting facts we could find about Arthur Wellesley, the Duke whom Queen Victoria donned “the greatest man [the United Kingdom] ever produced.”
The Wellington in History column aims to guide our readers through the history and stories that led to the establishment of Wellington College China. We hope that through this column, readers will develop a deeper understanding of the values and ideas that ground our educational philosophies.
The 1st Duke of Wellington was born in 1769 as the third surviving son of an aristocratic Irish family. One of Wellington’s biographers, Norman Gash, described the young Wellesley as “lazy” and “socially awkward,” with his early academic performance at school being somewhat uninspired. An often “unhappy” and “lonely” child, in his youth Wellesley exhibited few of the talents that would see his name etched into the history books.
As a child, Wellesley developed a passion for playing the violin.
He enjoyed playing this instrument so much that one of his earliest career aspirations was to become a musician. It is likely that this talent and love of music was inspired by his father, who was an accomplished amateur musician himself.
In 1781, the young Wellesley started studying at a private school in the United Kingdom (UK). Unfortunately, his primary school habit of retaining very little interest in academia meant that he developed few friendships or meaningful social connections; he left the school in 1784 to join his mother in Brussels. He used this time to brush up on his French, and in 1785 was sent to the Academy of Equitation in Angers, France. There, Wellesley developed his fencing skills, learned to ride a horse and studied the science of fortification – all skills that would help him advance his military career later in his life.
In 1787, Wellesley was appointed as a junior officer in the 73rd Regiment of Foot. He was shortly promoted to the role of aide-de-camp to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, and as the French Revolution progressed, his advancement within the military continued. In 1793, Wellesley obtained his commission to major, and subsequently lieutenant-colonel, in the 33rd Regiment.
In 1794, Wellesley and the 33rd fought against the French at the Battle of Boxtel. Although the 33rd was commended for its actions during this battle, the campaign was, as a whole, disastrous. His regiment was dejected and demoralised. According to Richard Holmes, the author of the biography Wellington: The Iron Duke (2002), Wellesley later referred to this loss as an educational experience: "At least I learned what not to do, and that is always a valuable lesson."
One of Wellesley’s biggest reflections from his time with the 33rd during the first years of the French Revolutionary Wars was that few of his fellow officers understood military strategy, and no one knew how to command an army. His first taste of defeat inspired him to delve deeper into the art of leading an army.
In 1796, the 33rd Regiment was sent to India. Wellesley was said to have brought several hundred books with him during this expedition, including many that detailed the world’s military history. He was committed to learning as much as he could so as not to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed first-hand during previous military engagements in Europe.
Wellesley was granted the title ‘Duke of Wellington’ in 1814. He was entrusted to command the Anglo-Allied forces of the Seventh Coalition, whose primary directive was to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1815, Napoleon escaped from his exile on the island of Elba (where he was sent after his disastrous campaign in Russia between 1812 and 1814 ended in defeat). His return to Paris marked the beginning of the Hundred Days War, which only came to an end after the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
Using all the skills and strategies he had learned throughout his military career, the Duke of Wellington helped defeat Napoleon at Waterloo and put an end to the twelve year-long campaign against him.
The Duke’s decisive victories throughout his career were recognised by several major European powers, and he remained a great and influential military figure throughout the 19th century. To date, the Duke of Wellington is remembered as one of the best military leaders in European history.
The Battle of Waterloo was the Duke’s last engagement in warfare. He returned to British politics and became a leading statesman, serving in the Conservative government from 1818 and becoming Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in 1827. He also served as Prime Minister twice, firstly from 1828 to 1830, and again in 1834.
The Duke of Wellington was known for his hard-line discipline and rule as a politician, which earned him the nickname the ‘Iron Duke’. It comes as no surprise that leading a country is quite different to leading an army, and although he was a briefly unpopular figure during his time as Prime Minister, by the time of his death the Duke had regained his position as a national hero. The name of the ‘Iron Duke’ has become synonymous with courage, strength and duty.
Despite his extraordinary military record, the Duke of Wellington strongly disliked the social impact and long-term consequences of war. He was deeply disturbed by the large loss of life at the Battle of Waterloo. Historians have noted that on the day after this historic victory, the Duke grieved before his physician and his family, and was reluctant to be congratulated for his efforts.
In a letter he wrote to Lady Frances Shelley, a close friend of his, he wrote. “I hope to God that I have fought my last battle... Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.”
The Duke of Wellington retired from his public career in 1846. He lived in a castle in the English countryside, where he continued to sleep in a camp bed and wake up before dawn every morning, despite his affluent accommodations. He returned to the spotlight briefly in 1848 when he helped organise a military force to protect London against mob violence during the European Revolution.
In 1852, Wellington died of a stroke at his favourite residence, Walmer Castle in Kent, aged 83. The nation mourned deeply over the death of the now-immortal Duke. He had served the Crown for 65 years, spending the last 40 as the country’s most trusted military advisor.
In a letter to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, Queen Victoria called the country’s loss “irreparable” and referred to the Duke of Wellington as “the GREATEST man this country ever produced, and the most devoted and loyal subject, and the staunchest supporter the Crown ever had.”
There are a number of places and objects in our daily lives that were named after the great Duke: the capital city of New Zealand, a small town in southern England, Mount Wellington in New York, Wellington boots, and even one of the UK’s national dishes, Beef Wellington, a dish that the Duke himself never tasted. Across the world, there are hundreds of pubs and bars that bear Wellington’s great name.
In 1859, to commemorate the great Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria established Wellington College in Berkshire, England.
Today, one can still find statues of, and commemorations to, the Duke of Wellington standing in streets and squares throughout the UK. The Duke’s name has become synonymous to victory in contemporary English, and the ‘last great Englishman’ – as the then-British Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, put it – remains well-remembered by individuals across the globe.
The Duke of Wellington’s experience on the battlefield taught him the true value and significance of human life. A public figure with great social standing, his years as a retiree were spent leading a simple and disciplined life. Courage, respect, integrity, kindness, and responsibility – these are but some of the values seen in the Duke’s character throughout his longstanding career. 160 years later, these values remain important in today’s society and are now central to the values upheld by Wellington College China.
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