Arthur Wellesley

10 things you may not have known about the First Duke of Wellington.

Today marks 250 years since the birth of the First Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. Known for his triumph over Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he is considered a British Military Hero. But here are 10 things you may not have known about the First Duke of Wellington.


Is today actually the Dukes Birthday?

We don’t know exactly which day he was born on.  The family nursemaid, contemporary newspaper announcements and even his baptismal record all suggest dates between March and April.  But his mother insisted that he was born on the first day of May, and he would dutifully celebrate his birthday on this day for the rest of his life. 


A slow start

He was lonely at school, and did not make friends easily.  He was also not a natural scholar, and preferred to spend his time alone with his violin rather than study and engage in social activities. His mother, Lady Mornington, despaired at him for showing such little academic promise. 


A natural in the military

As a young man he enrolled in the French Royal Academy of Equitation in Angers.  To his family’s surprise he thrived under military discipline, and quickly became both a skilled horseman and a fluent French speaker.  Mastering these skills were to prove very useful in his chosen career, and they also impressed his mother.


The end of his musical interests

When he first proposed marriage to Catherine Pakenham, the daughter of the Second Baron Longford the family disapproved of the match. He had no realistic hope of inheriting either a title or money and his prospects as an aspiring musician were considered poor. When he was informed of the family’s decision he was so upset that he went home and burned his violin in anger.  He would never play the instrument again. 


The origin of ‘Tommies’

He first saw combat in Flanders.  It is possible that a chance encounter with a wounded young soldier on the battlefield led to the word ‘Tommy’ becoming a slang expression for the British soldier.  When Wesley went to offer assistance, Private Tommy Atkins told him, “It’s all right sir. It’s all in a day’s work” before dying of his injuries. Deeply impressed with his bravery, Wesley would go on to describe British soldiers as ‘Tommies’ and the name stuck for well over a century.   


A chance survival

In India he battled crippling diarrhoea, a severe fever, and a painful skin condition caused by parasites. Ironically, his ill health may have saved his life when, in April 1801, he was ordered to attack the French in Egypt. He was forced to postpone his departure on health grounds, and the vessel on which he was scheduled to sail sank in the Red Sea with no survivors.


An amazing coincidence

During his six month voyage home from India in 1805, he stopped for a month at the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Here, he is believed to have lodged in the building that his great adversary Napoleon would occupy at the start of his exile ten years later.   


An inspiring meeting

While waiting to speak to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, he found himself sharing a waiting room with Admiral Lord Nelson. Wellesley was deeply impressed with his knowledge, and later reported that “I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more.” Seven weeks after their chance meeting, Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar


From military to politics

After beating Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington had a very successful career as a politician.  In 1828, he became Prime Minister. The move from a military to a political career was clearly an adjustment.  After chairing his first cabinet meeting in 1828, the new Prime Minister wrote; “An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.”


A royal friendship

He became a close personal friend and advisor to the young Queen Victoria.  When her seventh son was born on 1 May 1850 she named him Arthur in honour of the man who’s birthday he shared, and invited Wellington to become his godfather. 


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