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  • Marcus Cribb

Wellington the boy.

I am writing this to tie into what would have been the 251st Birthday of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, on 1st May 1769.

[The earliest know image of Arthur Wesley (Wellesley) silhouette aged around 7 years old. C. Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust]


A Disputed Birth

The birth of the future Duke of Wellington, in itself has some interesting nuances in that some facts are still disputed. It is widely accepted that the 1st May is his birthday, his own father and mother wrote that it was the 1st May and Arthur himself celebrated it on this day. However; the baptismal register of the Parish of St Peter, Dublin records Arthur’s christening on 30th April 2 days before his birth. One possible explanation for this was that, sadly 2 of the Earl and Lady Mornington’s children had died in infancy, including a Arthur Wesley (the family name was changed later to Wellesley in order to Anglicise it), who dies in 1768 aged 6 or 7. As such there may have been some haste to baptise their second Arthur (the future Duke of Wellington) with some haste, in case he should die without having received such a blessing. There was already a surviving eldest son, Richard Wellesley and a second son William. In the baptismal register it is possible, albeit less likely, that the parish officials did not know what the date was. There is at least a little likelihood that these records have been falsified, either intentionally or otherwise. The entry above is dated 23rd April and the entry following is dated 24th May; all are in the same handwriting.




[Mornington House today - Wiki commons]


There is also a dispute ongoing about the place of birth, Mornington House, Dublin, or Dangan Castle, County Meath, the two family homes, town and country respectively. It is almost certain that the baby Arthur was born in Dublin as this is widely agreed upon, however some sources exist about whether the family were actually in residence there at that time, because the house may have been in the process of renovation until the summer of 1769, which would put Dangan Castle, the family seat, as a strong contender, it was also where the 2 eldest brothers were born, which is often proposed by local historians and the tourist trade. Dangan Castle is now, sadly a “romantic” ruin. Other sources have provided over 9 different locations in which Lady Mornington may have been in May 1769 and given birth to the infant Arthur, but the family (including the 9th Duke) maintain now, that it was in Dublin.


[Ruins of Danagan Castle today - wiki commons]

“Food for powder”

It’s fair to say, that Arthur was not a natural student. Following in his brother’s footsteps, he was sent to Eton, but unlike them, he did not settle in naturally and was thought to have learnt relatively little. This young Arthur stood out from his brothers, who were already progressing in their careers, Richard was sent to Christ Church, Oxford and excelled as a scholar, William entered a career in the Royal navy as an officer. Young Arthur did have his father’s passion for music, Lord Mornington is thought to have composed some pieces (a dance survives in his name, though it could be dedicated to him). Arthur we know played the violin, like his father and grandfather before them and had hopes to be a musician of sorts.

It was Arthur’s inability to excel academically and fit into his surrounding that caused his mother to lament: “I vow to God I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur. He is food for powder and nothing more.” Powder referring to gunpowder, Anne, his mother thought his fate was to join the army and probably die in some obscure battle. She was at least half right. Shortly after starting Eton, Garret Wesley, the Earl of Mornington died, giving the family some financial worries, along with the title passing to Richard as eldest son. They decided to send Arthur at first to a school in Brussels, where he picked up French quickly, apparently speaking the language with a slight Belgian accent for the rest of his life. From there, a military career apparently chosen for him, he was sent on to France. It was in the French, Angier Military School that this young Arthur learnt the basics needed to become a Army officer.



['Wellington's first encounter with the French' - National Army Museum, out of copyright]

By this point, with Richard having assumed the title of Lord Mornington and sitting in Parliament, William was commissioned in the Royal Navy and a elected Member of Parliament, younger brothers, Gerald Valerian was destined for the clergy with the youngest, Henry still at Eton, Arthur now found his natural habitat. The course at Angers proved not too difficult for Arthur Wesley, it consisted of, fencing, riding, dancing, French grammar, mathematics and the science of military fortifications. Arthur did well at dancing, fencing and riding, important skills for a young gentleman, he relaxed into the life, playing cards and walking his dog, a white terrier called Vick around the medieval town.

By the time he returned home in 1786, aged just 17, with the skills to equip him in a military life (along with being fluent in French), he agreed with his mothers derisory advice and embarked on a career in the army. He offered a commission in the 73rd (Highland) Regiment but the family used influence, to transfer him to the 76th (Hindoostan) Regiment with a promotion to Lieutenant and then a transfer to the 41st Regiment so he could take up duties in Ireland as the Lord-Lieutenant’s aide-de-camp based in Dublin castle.



[Chateau D'Angers today]

It is from here the man that would be, Wellington, a Lieutenant of now only 18 years old began a life in the army full of bureaucracy and administration, which would lead to a political career and fast advancement which would see a brilliant journey as commander in the filed in Flanders, then India, before the now famous Battles of the Napoleonic wars.

A young boy, with little talent outside of languages, riding and music who would become, arguably the greatest military talent of the age, if not the greatest ever in Europe.

Postscript note:

The Wesley family originally hailed from Rutland, England and moved (as the Colley or Cowley family in around 1500) they are described as Anglo-Irish, to label them as “Irish” would be anachronistic and unhelpful. With this Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington never did utter the quote “Though a man maybe born in a stable, that does not make him a horse” or words to that effect. This was probably said by Daniel O’Connell (‘The Emancipator’) or one of O’Connells close relations.

Sources:

Wellington: A Personal History: Hibbert, C.

The Great Duke: Bryant, A.

Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814: Muir, R.

Wellington: the Place and Day of his Birth Ascertained and Demonstrated. Murray, J. (1852)

https://www.waterlooassociation.org.uk/2019/03/29/the-birth-of-arthur-wesley/

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