Commentary Explorer Results

Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Unsettled Childhood (1769—1788)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Date and Place of Wellington’s birth:

Sir Herbert Maxwell The Life of Wellington and the Restoration of the Martial Power of Great Britain vol 1 p 2-3 suggests that the baptismal register of St Peter’s may never have adopted the new Gregorian Calendar introduced into Britain in 1752, and was therefore running almost a fortnight out of kilter: 30 April OS was the equivalent of 12 May NS – a reasonable date for a baptism for a baby born on 1 May.   This is ingenious, but it seems unlikely that a baptismal register would remain out of step with the prevailing calendar for as long as seventeen years; and it does not explain the date given by Exshaw’s Gentleman’s Magazine.

The date of Wellington’s birth became important in 1790 when his election to the Irish House of Commons was challenged on the grounds that he was not 21 at the date of the election, but no evidence was taken on this point: see Murray Wellington: the Place and Date of his Birth  p 15-20 and p 22 of the main text of this biography.

Many other theories have been advanced for the date and place of Wellington’s birth, but there is little or no evidence to support them.   G. R. Gleig muddies the water by claiming that ‘an old Dublin newspaper’ states that Wellington was born in Dublin on 3 April 1769, and that the family nurse maintained that it was 6 March (G. R. Gleig The Life of Arthur, Duke of Wellington p 2).   The reference to the nurse is probably an echo of reports circulating at the time of the petition against his election, and it should be noted that it was clearly in the family interest to make the date of his birth before the election.

If Wellington was born on 29 April and baptized at St Peter’s on the following day, it is highly unlikely that he was born anywhere but Dublin; but there is little chance that conclusive proof will be unearthed for either the date or place of birth; while if the date is taken to be March or early April a wide variety of places become possible, if not probable.   For more on this see Guedalla The Duke p 479-80; Thomas Murray Where was Wellington Born?  (Trim?, no publisher, 1993: a sixteen page pamphlet not to be confused with the more substantial work of John Murray, cited above) passim ; J. J. O’Neil et al ‘Family Records and the Duke’ Times Literary Supplement  1, 8, 15, 22 and 29 Sept and 6 Oct 1921  p 564, 580, 596, 612, 628, 644 (correspondents advancing pet theories and some new evidence); Sir Bernard Burke The Rise of Great Families p 94-107 and C. C. Ellison ‘Dangan, Mornington and the Wellesleys: Notes on the Rise and Fall of a Great Meath Estate’  Riocht na Midhe (Records of the Meath Archaelogical and Historical Society) vol 3 1967 p 332 (on how Dangan became a tourist attraction in the 1840s on the supposition that Wellington had been born there – a supposition which it was not in the interest of the locals to dispel, even if they had known better.

A further complication is that Lord Mornington only signed the lease of no 6 Merrion Street (now no 24 Upper Merrion Street) on 16 August 1769, so either the family were in residence months before the lease was signed, or Wellington was born elsewhere; and the Complete Peerage records an oral tradition that they took a short lease on a house (now demolished) opposite no 6 while it was being painted.  This would still be compatible with the newspaper references to the birth ‘in Merrion Street’.  See Guedalla The Duke p 479-80 and the Complete Peerage.

AW’s Parentage:

On 12 March 1837 Lord Wellesley told his son-in-law Edward Littleton that while he, William Wellesley-Pole, and their sister Anne, ‘are Wellesleys, Arthur’s father was Mr Gardiner’, and that Henry’s father was someone else again (unspecified).   Gerald’s paternity was not discussed.   It is, of course, impossible to disprove this claim, but there is no other evidence for it, and it seems extremely unlikely that Lord Wellesley would not have mentioned it sooner – in one of his previous fits of jealousy with Wellington – if it had any real basis.   Portraits suggest that the Wellesleys were all physically alike, and there were clear similarities of temperament, character and ability.   Moreover, in the seventy odd years before the remark was made, they had behaved like a family, with all the jealousy, rivalry, affection and support that that implies.  Hatherton diary 12 March 1837 ‘Extracts from Lord Hatherton’s Diary’ edited by A. Aspinall Parliamentary Affairs vol 17 1964 p 259; Longford vol 2 p 393; Butler Eldest Brother p 540-1.

The Peerage promotion of 1760:

The Complete Peerage gives 2 Oct 1760 as the date for this; but it appears in the London Gazette of 26 August 1760, the date given in the text.

According to A. P. W. Malcomson, a leading authority on the Irish peerage of the eighteenth century, Ireland was under-represented in the peerage in the mid-eighteenth century; that there were a number of peerages created in 1760 to mark the new reign; and that Garret Wesley’s control of the two member borough of Trim gave him some political weight.  So that the promotion was not quite as odd as it otherwise appears  (Private letter dated 30 September 2006).

Lady Mornington and AW

Evidence of AW’s relations with his mother, especially in childhood, is naturally scanty and unreliable, however there seems little reason to doubt the frequent statements of her lack of warmth and affection: see Gleig Life of Wellington p 2, H. Maxwell Life of Wellington and the Restoration of the Martial Power of Great Britain vol 1  p 4, Muriel Wellesley The Man Wellington p 10-11, S. G. P. Ward Wellington p 17 and Longford p 18-19.

Butler Eldest Brother p 27 and 49-50 and Glenbervie Diaries vol 2 p 226-7 and material quoted later in this chapter all point in the same general direction.

John Severn in Architects of Empire.  The Duke of Wellington and His Brothers p 16 gives a striking portrait of Lady Mornington:

 In maturity Lady Mornington was not an endearing character.  Because she became cold and demanding, none of her children much loved her – not even Richard, on whom she doted.  She nonetheless raised a remarkable brood: the brothers’ talent and intellect came from both parents, but their ambition and energy came from Anne.  There is, however, a very narrow line between ambition and pretension, and it is impossible to tell on which side of that line Lady Mornington stood. …. Reconstructing the relationship between Anne and Garret is impossible, but when their children arrived, the personalities of Lord and Lady Mornington went in opposite directions.  There is no question Anne dominated the marriage… (p 16)

 Severn also writes that ‘Poorly educated but very clever, Anne discovered that few took her husband seriously.’   And ‘Anne grimly pushed her family onward and upward; in the process she became a hard woman.  What she accomplished was nearly heroic: she bore nine children, supported a husband who needed as much care and discretion as the children, and successfully promoted her family despite diminishing means.  When the young Wellesleys reached school age, she patched together the family’s resources as best she could, and she did so very dispassionately.’  (p 20).   All of this is quite plausible, it is not clear that there is much evidence to support it and much of it appears to be Severn’s own speculative interpretation.   For example, what basis to we have for saying that Anne was “very clever”; that Lord Mornington was as ineffectual as Severn suggests; or that the success of her sons owed very much either to her character or to the start she gave them?

Mrs Calvert, who met Lady Mornington in 1804, gives a very different impression of her:  ‘As for Lady Mornington, she is a common-place character, with soft, gentlewoman-like manners, and has that sort of conversation and manner which makes her please more perhaps than would a more learned woman, or one of more distinguished intellect.  She is mother to Lord Wellesley, now Governor-General in India.’  (Calvert Irish Beauty of the Regency p 25).

AW’s father:

The History of the Irish Parliament gives his dates as 19 July 1735 to 22 May 1781, and notes that he was an enthusiastic Freemason – but gives no explanation of his peerage promotion.

When Lord Mornington died he left his eldest son a very considerable inheritance: 13,700 acres of rich farmland in County Meath and another 2-3,000 in County Kildare which should have produced total rents of almost £8,000 per annum (Jupp The First Duke of Wellington in an Irish Context the Ninth Wellington Lecture, University of Southampton, 1997 p 6).   His debts amounted to £41,000: a sizeable sum, servicing which is said to have absorbed 40 per cent of his income; but this still left a very respectable sum to live upon.  However it appears that in the last year or two of his life he felt seriously pinched for money (Guedalla The Duke p 17-18).   His letters to his agent do not suggest that he was either shrewd or careful in managing his affairs, although Richard Wellesley’s criticism of his father in this regard is a little rich given his own conduct.   (Lord Gerald Wellesley ‘Some Letters of the Mornington Family’ County Kildare Archaelogical Society Journal vol 12 p 20-52; Butler Eldest Brother p 35-37).

There is a respectful entry on him as a musician in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 12  p 586.

Mary Wesley, 1772-1794:

The Times 4 March 1794 reports her death on the previous day, suggesting that she was living in or near London at the time. Guedalla The Duke p 14 calls her Mary-Elizabeth and makes her the youngest child, but the family tree in Joan Wilson A Soldier’s Wife.  Wellington’s Marriage p 171 gives her name and dates as above, and this supported by Muriel Wellesley The Man Wellington p 3n and John Severn Architects of Empire  p 58

“Born in a Stable”

Many biographies claim that Wellington remarked, of his Irish roots, “That to be born in a stable does not make a man a horse” (e.g. Corrigan Wellington: A Military Life p 3).   However it does not appear to be attributed to him in any contemporary source, and the remark seems to owe its origins to Daniel O’Connell, of all people, who on trial in 1844 said in evidence “The poor old duke!  what shall I say of him?  To be sure he was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.”  (A Special Report of the Proceedings in the case of the Queen against Daniel O’Connell, Esq., M.P. … for Conspiracy and Misdemeanour  edited by John Flanedy p 161, 179; Shaw’s Authenticated Report of Irish State Trials 1844  (Dublin, Henry Shaw)  p 93, 123.)  This raised a laugh in the gallery, and the bon mot was evidently repeated until its origin was forgotten, when it was attributed to Wellington and with striking injustice was then used as evidence of his supposed disdain for Ireland.

AW at Eton:

Edward John Littleton, first Baron Hatherton, was Lord Wellesley’s son-in-law.   His diary records that at dinner many years later Bobus Smith ‘told us that when at Eton he fought with the Duke of Wellington & was beaten by him.  “Hankey, the Banker, encouraged Arthur Wellesley to pelt me with Stones while I was bathing – so I tried to thrash him, which produced a long set to, in which I had the worst.  That was the Duke’s first Victory.  But he was one year older than me, though he was below me in the School.  He was not at all a Book boy – & rather dull.”‘ Staffordshire Record Office D260/m/f/5/26/30 f 8-9.  Ellesmere (Personal Reminiscences p 102) who tells the story of the fight, does so on Hatherton’s authority.

Canning was among AW’s Eton contemporaries, and as they were the same age they may have known each other – although there is no reference to this on either side, so any contact was evidently inconsequential and probably forgotten.

Lord Holland was also at Eton at the time and in his Further Memoirs of the Whig Party p 229 he says: ‘I remember him, though he is older than myself, at Eton.  He was in no way distinguished there.  Soon afterwards, both in his regiment and in Ireland, he was, perhaps from contrast with his elder brother, reckoned below mediocrity.  In Dublin Castle his companions treated him as a good-humoured, insignificant youth.’   This is plausible, but needs to be treated with care: Holland knew him at Eton, not in Ireland, and the rest of his account (p 222-32) is that of a decided political opponent, and is neither fair nor accurate.

In 1820 Wellington, at a time his own sons were at Eton, urged Lady Shelley to send her boy to Charterhouse ‘which I believe is the best school of the all’.   She replied that he would only spend one year at school before joining the navy, and that the head of Charter House doubted that this would be of much value.   While accepting this, Wellington added, ‘I confess, however, that I have known so many instances of boys going through Eton without learning anything, that I should not like to send one there without a private tutor who should force him to learn something.’   (Wellington to Lady Shelley, 22 March 1820 Diary of Lady Shelley vol 2 p 102-3)  This is a striking contrast to the enthusiasm of the Duchess of Wellington for ‘the only school in the world’.  (Duchess of Wellington to Lady Shelley, 11 Jan 1821 ibid vol 2 p 109).

In 1844 Bentley’s Miscellany (vol 16) published a series of articles ‘Eton Scenes and Eton Men’ ‘by the Author of ‘Doctor Hookwell’ of which the third part opens with a number of anecdotes of Wellington at Eton, stressing his hardiness and spirit of daring and mischief (p 434-5).  There seems no good reason for regarding any of this material as trustworthy or authentic.

The Standard of 21 October 1844 reported that on the previous Saturday but one the Duke paid an impromptu visit to Eton whilst on a visit to the Queen at Windsor accompanied by the Duke of Rutland, and was shown his old room and ‘was much gratified in recognizing and pointing out to his illustrious companion several relics which were familiar to his grace’s recollection, although it is 65 years since he occupied this apartment.’  [The story makes no mention of the ‘playing fields’ which tends to support the idea that the remark was invented later – see below].

The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton

Elizabeth Longford has debunked this famous remark attributed to Wellington, stating that it first appeared in print in 1855 by the French writer and parliamentarian, Count de Montalembert, after he visited Eton (Longford p 16).   This appears to be correct, even though Google Books shows it appearing in 1850 in Home Truths the eighth in a series of tracts by John Ryle, the Bishop of Liverpool p 254.   Home Truths was published between 1850 and 1872, the eighth volume appeared well after 1855.  Longford’s statement appears to be based on a letter from the seventh Duke of Wellington to The Times published on 14 August 1951 (p 7), which draws conclusions from the correspondence produced by a previous letter, also from the Duke, published on 17 July 1951.

AW’s removal from Eton:

The explanation usually given is the need for economy, and this was clearly a consideration, but it was not the whole truth.   Lady Mornington told Richard as early as July 1781, when Arthur and Gerald had barely started at the school, ‘I fear the Boys cannot be kept at Eton’, the expense being the problem (Butler Eldest Brother p 36).   Nonetheless, Arthur remained for three years, Gerald for longer, and was followed by Henry, so the expense was not an insurmountable problem.

The History of the Irish Parliament says that he was removed ‘”owing to straightened means”‘ apparently quoting from the Eton College Register, but this does not override Lady Mornington’s account as told to Glenbervie.

John Armytage:

John Armytage: born 15 December 1768, died 25 March 1861.  He was the son of Sir George Armytage MP (see History of Parliament 1760-90  vol 2  p 27-8) who died in 1783.  Married in 1790 Anne (or Annette ?) daughter of John Harvey Thursby of Abington Abbey, Northamptonshire.  One son, two daughters.

Armytage received his commission as cornet in the Royal Horse Guards on 10 November 1784, before his year at Brussels, but was presumably given leave to study abroad (he was very young).   He was promoted lieutenant on 6 February 1788 and sold out of the army in 1790.  (Information in both these paragraphs from Ron McGuigan, drawing on the Complete Baronetage and the Army List, respectively).

AW joins the army:

John Armytage knew AW at the time the decision was made to send him into the army, so his impression that AW was reluctant may be correct, especially as it was not the obvious thing for him to say; however it would carry more weight if we had it directly, rather than filtered through Gleig.   The Duchess de Gontaut claims that when she met AW at Cheltenham in 1805 he told her that ‘I had an ardent desire to enter the army’, however this is embedded in an account of his wooing of Kitty Pakenham almost all of the details of which are wildly inaccurate, so it does not carry very much weight.  (Memoirs of the Duchesse de Gontaut   vol 1 p 101).

Food for powder:

Falstaff remarks ‘food for powder, food for powder: they’ll fill a pit as well as better: tush man, mortal men, mortal men’  Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1 Act 4 scene 2; but presumably the phrase had passed into more general use, and Lady Mornington did not mean to be quite so disparaging as this suggests.


There is not much direct evidence for how long AW spent at Angers, and the statement in the text that he was there from early 1786 to late 1787 (longer than is usually stated) is an assumption.  We know that he was ‘perfectly idle’ in Paris with Mornington and their mother on 8 December 1785 for Mornington wrote to Rutland:  ‘[Let me remind you] of a younger brother of mine whom you were so kind as to take into your consideration for a commission in the army.  He is here at the moment and perfectly idle.  It is a matter of indifference to me what commission he gets provided he gets it soon.’  (HMC Rutland vol 3 p 266).  But it was sixteen months before he received his first commission.

AW’s first commission was received in March 1787, but there is no evidence that he was in England then, while Mornington’s letters of late October and early November 1787 (HMC Dropmore  vol 1  p 286-7, Memoirs of the Court and Cabinet of George III  vol 1  p 334) speak of his imminent arrival, “He was expected every day when I left London, so that I have no doubt that he will be in England nearly as soon as he gets the commission” (Dropmore).   This strongly suggests, but does not prove, that he was arriving from overseas, and leaves the presumption that he was coming from Angers via a short stop in Paris.

AW’s education:

When AW drew up his will in July 1807 he expressed the wish that his children receive ‘the best education that can be given to them and then to choose their profession; but let it not be believed that a finished classical education is not necessary for a gentleman in a military profession.’  (Quoted in Joan Wilson A Soldier’s Wife p 101).  Clearly AW felt that he had suffered from not having gone to university before joining the army.

AW’s first commission and subsequent promotion:

Mornington had obtained Wesley’s first commission, as an ensign in the 73rd Foot, from Sir George Yonge, the Secretary at War, in the spring: the commission was dated 7 March 1787.   The 73rd were then serving in India, and Mornington also obtained extended leave for his brother to pursue his studies at Angers. (Mornington to Rutland,  London, 8 March 1787, HMC Rutland p 377 announces that Sir G. Yonge has given AW an ensigncy in a regiment now in India, and that Mornington intends to apply for long leave to ensure that AW need not join the regiment).  Before Arthur returned from France, Mornington was seeking to have him promoted and exchanged into another regiment.   Normally a young officer was expected to serve for two years as an ensign before being allowed to purchase promotion to the rank of lieutenant, but some exceptions were made.   Under pressure from Mornington and Grenville, the Secretary at War explained that if Ensign Wesley could produce twenty recruits for the ranks, he would be given his next step immediately and without payment.   Mornington was delighted at the offer and at first thought of raising the men from Ireland, although in the end they were purchased from a Charing Cross crimp – or professional recruiting agent – so that the young officer would not be sullied by personal exposure to the often sordid business of army recruiting. (Pimlott ‘Administration of the British Army’ p 86-87 (normal term of two years as ensign; the twenty men); Mornington to Grenville, 27 Oct 1787 HMC Dropmore vol 1 p 286-7 (Grenville’s role; Yonge’s terms; Mornington’s delight);  Buckingham to Mornington, ? Nov 1787, Memoirs of the Court and Cabinets of George III  vol 1  p 335.).

Yonge’s offer was not exceptional, and even during the Peninsular War a militia officer who persuaded twenty men to volunteer into the line would receive a free commission in the regulars, Michael Glover ‘Purchase, Patronage and Promotion in the Army at the time of the Peninsular War’ Army Quarterly vol 103 1972-73 p 213.   For more on the context of this promotion, see J. L. Pimlott ‘The Raising of Four Regiments for India, 1787-88’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 52  1974 p 72 and n.

First appearance in uniform:

Longford quotes Lady Mornington’s reaction on first seeing Arthur in uniform: ‘“Arthur has put on his red coat for the first time today,” his mother had written to a friend in 1787, “Anyone can see he has not the cut of a soldier.”’  However the source for this is rather unsatisfactory:  ‘Copy of a letter in possession of Mr Gerald Liddell, from Lady Mornington to an unnamed friend, and transcribed in the margin (p. 27) of Guedalla’s The Duke by Lady Trotter.  Information given to the author by the Countess of Limerick.’  (Longford Wellington – Pillar of State p 142 and 435).   While there is nothing inherently implausible about the quote there are rather too many steps between the original letter and the Longford’s biography for it to be accepted without some corroboration.

Appointment as ADC to Lord Buckingham:

There is some good material on this in the letters from Mornington to Grenville and Buckingham in HMC Dropmore vol 1 and Memoirs of the Court and Cabinet of George III vol 1.   Mornington’s delicacy in not asking for the appointment – his mother rushing in – Buckingham’s good-humoured assurances.   Then there is the sudden threat to AW’s appointment when Sir George Yonge attempts to put him and Fremantle on half pay which Buckingham and Mornington both equally resented; Mornington even threatening that AW would be sent to join his regiment in India (Buckingham to Grenville, 1 Jan 1788, HMC Dropmore vol 1 p 296 and Mornington to Buckingham, 8 Jan 1788, Memoirs of the Court and Cabinet of George III  vol 1 p 347).

One detached observer commented with disapproval on the appointment: Mrs Cornwallis wrote to Lord Cornwallis:  ‘Arthur [Wesley], instead of going with his regiment to the East Indies has made an exchange, and is now Aide-de-Camp to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland – a much worse thing for him in my opinion’.  (Mrs Cornwallis to Lord Cornwallis, Seymour Place, 19 June 1788, Cornwallis Correspondence vol 1 p 391).   But then, Cornwallis was in India at the time, so her disapproval is natural.

Portrait of the young officer of the 76th c1787:

A few caveats need to be entered here: I have not seen the original of this portrait, and I have relied on Christopher Bryant’s statement that the uniform is that of a lieutenant in the 76th in 1787 or 1788.   The style of the portrait and the powdered hair make the similarity of features less immediately obvious, but comparison of the nose and mouth with the 1804 portrait by Home suggests a common identity, as well as the earlobe.   Yet it is surprising that AW should have been painted in the uniform of the 76th, when he was only in the regiment for a few weeks, and knew before his commission was gazetted that he would have to exchange into another regiment (Lady Mornington’s letter to the Ladies of Llangollen, 17 Dec 1787 in Armytage ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’ p 249-50).   On the whole, I believe that the balance of probabilities is in favour of this being a portrait of the young Arthur Wesley, but I do not think that the evidence available can support a more definite conclusion.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

© Rory Muir

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.