From Lazy Teenager To Waterloo Hero

(c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Once upon a time a mother did not know what to do with her teenage son. He was lazy. He didn’t want to study. He didn’t want to get a job. But, years later, he would be the hero of Europe and the man who defeated Napoleon. Meet Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.

The Fourth Son

Arthur Wellesley had three older brothers. He was unlucky. Not that there’s any reason to suppose his brothers were mean, but in England, only the firstborn son inherited dad’s money and property. So the farther down the list of sons, the worse for you. Thus, when Arthur was born on May 1, 1769, he already faced a struggle.

However, as part of the English nobility, Arthur had the advantage of a good education as he grew older. He attended several schools and then enrolled at Eton. He hated school though, probably because he was lonely.

His father’s death and  lack of money forced Arthur and his mother to leave England to travel to Brussels, while the older brothers tried to manage the family property. Now in his early twenties, Arthur showed no inclination of finding a profession, much to his mother’s distress. Mrs. Wellesley remarked, “I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.”

A year at a French equestrian school improved the young man’s ambitions and, when he returned to England, his mother was pleased with his horsemanship skills and ability to speak French.

Burn The Violins

Arthur Wellesley as a young officer

Arthur Wellesley as a young officer

The Wellesley family was still short on money, but the older brothers did care about Arthur. They managed to purchase him a commission in the British army. (Yes, you could buy rank in the army and it was common practice to buy commissions for sons or brothers who needed something to do. See Jane Austen’s Military for more details.)

So Arthur joined the army in 1787…and ran up gambling debts. Several years of “regiment hopping”, more commission buying, and a brief session as a representative in Parliament, kept him “busy.” Arthur didn’t seem to excel at anything. He thought about becoming a musician, purchased several violins, and started practicing.

Then, something happened. Arthur fell in love. The girl was Miss Catherine Packenham. But there was a problem. In 1793 when Arthur asked the Packenham Family for permission to marry Miss Catherine, they said no. Miss Catherine could not marry a young man with no real profession, no money, and a bunch of debts. That was the turning point.

Furious, Arthur marched home…and threw his violins and music into the fire. He purchased a higher rank in the army – lieutenant colonel – and set off to learn a profession. He was studying the art of war. He had an ambition and purpose. His future enemies should beware!

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Indian War Era

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Indian War Era

Learning To Fight

Arthur’s practical military education began in 1793 during the Flanders Campaign of the Revolutionary Wars in Europe. There he observed the importance of leadership and campaign planning, learning from the failure of his superiors.

In 1797, Arthur arrived in India, where he would spend the next seven years defending the British colonies. He fought in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and the Second Anglo-Maratha War, winning several important victories and honing his skill as a battlefield commander.

He was promoted (no purchased commission here!) to major general for his military successes, and when he returned to England in 1804, he was made a Knight of the Bath. In the following years, Arthur served in Parliament and participated in some military operations in Continental Europe.

In 1805, Arthur – now a military hero – received some good news. The Packenham Family agreed that Miss Catherine could marry him! I wish I could say they lived happily ever after, but unfortunately that is not true.

Bleeding The Empire

1808 was a decisive year in World History. It’s the beginning of the often forgotten Peninsular War. Fought in Portugal and Spain (the Iberian Peninsula), this six year conflict severely weakened Napoleon’s empire…literally bleeding it to death.

1808 was also the decisive year for Arthur Wellesley. He became the commander of British troops on the Peninsula. It was not an easy task. The war was on-going, the Spanish and Portuguese “allies” left much to be desired. Success was very slow, but it was steady. By 1814 Arthur and his army were crossing into the southern part of France, and Napoleon – defeated in Spain and other parts of the Empire – surrendered. But there was another battle yet to come. (Also in 1814, Arthur became the first Duke of Wellington!)

"Wellington at Waterloo"

“Wellington at Waterloo”

Defeating Napoleon

In the spring of 1815, Napoleon escaped exile, raised a new army, and tried to revive his lost empire. Arthur rushed from the Congress of Vienna, back to England, and then to Belgium to command the British army.

One June 18, 1815, Arthur and about 92,000 British troops battled Napoleon. It was the first time the British commander had faced Napoleon across a battlefield. Arthur rode along his battle position, encouraging his troops and making the decisions which ensured a final victory. With the help of their Prussian allies, the British won Waterloo, and Arthur Wellesley defeated Napoleon.

The Iron Duke

Photograph of the Duke of Wellington in 1851

Photograph of the Duke of Wellington in 1851

Following the celebrations of victory, Arthur settled into politics. He was determined to never fight another battle, but he still wanted to serve his country. From 1818 to 1846, he served in many high offices of the British government, including prime minister. He supported reform and equality under law, which were not always popular ideas.

In fact, Arthur angered some of the people with his political stance and they threw rocks at his home, breaking the windows. His solution? He ordered iron shutters fasted over his new windows. Thus came the nickname “the Iron Duke.”

By 1846, Arthur was ready to retire. He spent time with family and friends, “commanded” regiments at home, and followed the political situation of the country. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington died on September 14, 1851, at age 83. He was honored with a state funeral in London.

What We Can Learn

Most of us will not command armies and win world changing victories. So what positive lessons can we learn from Arthur Wellesley’s life? Here’s my thoughts:

#1. Burn the Violins – which means get rid of the distractions in life and focus on what really matters

#2. Learn Your Job – Wellington didn’t arrive at Waterloo with inexperience. His victory over Napoleon is directly related to all that he learned during his lengthy military career. Experienced in about 60 battles, he was ready and capable to win the one that really counted.

#3. Serve Others – I like how Wellington didn’t stop serving his country after his great victory. He spent the next 30 years reforming English law and politics and watching over the military. Once he found a purpose in life, there was no stopping this hero.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What part of Wellington’s life was most interesting to you? Does knowing about his early life struggles and his quest to learn make him seem more real and relevant?


6 thoughts on “From Lazy Teenager To Waterloo Hero

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  3. I always wondered where the nickname “Iron Duke” came from. HMS IRON DUKE was Jellicoe’s flagship at Jutland, and there is a ship by that name still on service with Royal Navy today.

    • I was not aware of the Royal Navy ships with that name. Thanks for sharing! I wonder what Wellington would have thought about ships named after him?
      This reminds me of the account of the meeting between Wellington and Lord Nelson. If I remember correctly, Nelson didn’t recognize the army commander at first and talked down to him as a very junior officer which irritated Wellington. However, a few moments later, someone corrected Nelson and he went back to make amends…then the two British heroes of the Napoleonic Era had an amiable discussion for a few moments. What a scene for artists!

      • Fascinating. I had not realized that Wellington and Nelson met each other. Two of the British titans of that era having a chat – I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that.

        Not sure what Wellington would have thought about a ship being named for him, but there have been three ships named HMS IRON DUKE over time. For a brief history of each, see this link:

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