Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Iron Duke



Novels set in the Regency period tend to feature an abundance of rich, charming and eligible dukes, fair game for match-making mamas determined to see their daughters well settled. In actuality dukedoms, the highest rank below royal princes, were comparatively scarce. Titles were, and still are, devolved to eldest sons, with the monarch holding the power to create dukedoms in recognition of services to the nation. Probably the best known beneficiary of royal largesse in that respect during the Regency period was Arthur Wellesley, later to become The Duke of Wellington.

Much is known about Wellington's successes in the Napoleonic Wars but his early years are less well documented. He was born The Honourable Arthur Wesley, fourth son of the Irish Earl of Mornington. Until his early twenties he showed few signs of distinction and his mother grew concerned about his idleness, stating, “I don't know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.” A year later he enrolled in the French Royal Academy of Equitation in Angers, becoming a proficient horseman and learning the French that would later serve him so well. But despite his promise he had yet to find a job. His brother Richard asked his friend the Duke of Rutland to consider Arthur for a commission in the army and in 1787 he was gazetted ensign in the 73rd Regiment of Foot, becoming a lieutenant by Christmas. In Dublin his duties were mainly social but included the role of providing advice to Buckingham.

Two years later he transferred to the 12th Light Dragoons and reluctantly became embroiled in politics, eventually becoming Member of Parliament for Trim in the Irish House of Commons. Two years later he'd been promoted to the rank of Captain and was transferred to the 18th Light Dragoons. On a personal level he was growing increasingly attracted to Kitty Pakenham, daughter of the 2nd Baron Longford but his proposal was rejected on Kitty's behalf by her brother, who considered Wesley to have very poor prospects. Devastated, Wesley vowed to pursue his career in earnest and a few months later was a lieutenant colonel in the 22nd. Part of the unsuccessful campaign headed by the Duke of York in 1793 in Flanders, Wesley came away from the battle a great deal wiser, concluding that many of the campaigns blunders were due to the faults of the leaders and poor organisation at Headquarters.

During his ensuring campaigning years in India, Arthur changed the spelling of his name from Wesley to Wellesley. After a long campaign he received permission to return home in 1804 and was made a Knight of the Bath. Ironically, he broke his journey on the tiny island of Saint Helena, staying in the same building to which Napoleon was later exiled. Having amassed a fortune during his time in India his request for Kitty Pakenham's hand met with success this time and they married in Dublin in April 1806. The union wasn't successful and they spent much of the ensuing years apart.

Arthur took extended leave from the army and was elected to the English Parliament but when he heard about the British expedition to Denmark in 1807 he stepped down from politics and was appointed to command an infantry brigade in the Second Battle of Copenhagen. Its successful conclusion saw him elevated to the rank of lieutenant general. When he lefty Cork in 1808 to participate in the war against French forces in Iberia his skills as a commander had been tested and were the basis upon which his later successes were founded since he knew all about command from the ground up.

Wellesley's brilliance and tactical superiority during the Napoleonic wars culminated in success in the Battle of Waterloo. He was hailed as a conquering hero by the British and created “Duke of Wellington”. There can be no doubt that he was an exceptional soldier but also a man of principle. He was christened the “Iron Duke” because of the iron shutters he had fixed to his windows to stop the pro-reform mob from breaking them. He was twice Prime Minister and oversaw the passage of the Catholic Relief Act. This remarkable man was a leading figure in the House of Lords until his retirement and remained Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until his death in 1852.


Less well documented is the fact that Arthur enjoyed his pleasures of the flesh as well as the next man and was known to be a regular visitor to Harriette Wilson, a famous courtesan, pictured above. When she could no longer attract enough wealthy protectors to support her lifestyle she sought to make money by publishing her memoirs, offering gentlemen the opportunity to purchase her silence about their individual indiscretions. But our iron duke wasn't about to submit to blackmail and coined the phrase, “publish and be damned.” 

Hariette did so and wasn't partly kind about the duke. "My own Wellington," she said, "who has sighed over me by the hour, talked of my wonderful beauty, ran after me...only for a single smile from his beautiful Harriette. Did he not kneel? And was I not the object of his first, his most ardent wishes, on his arrival from Spain? Only it was such a pity that Argyle got to my house first...my tender swain Wellington stood in the gutter at two in the morning, pouring forth his amorous wishes in the pouring rain, in strains replete with heartrending grief."


In my Carina Press Regency romance, Of Dukes and Deceptions, due for publication in March, my hero is a duke. He too distinguished himself at Waterloo but upon his return to England he's relentlessly pursued by the aforementioned match-makers. Perhaps understandably he's taciturn, disinclined to do anything other than please himself. But when he meets a woman who's unimpressed by all his grandeur, he's forced to take a closer look at the way he conducts himself.

More about Of Dukes and Deceptions next time.

Happy New Year everyone.

10 comments:

Patricia Preston said...

Hariette sounded like a rather enterprising woman!! Good for her.

Fenella Miller said...

What happened to his wife? Did he have any children?
Can't wait to read your title -sounds exciting.

Taryn Kincaid said...

For a second there, I thought this was going to be about Meljean Brook's steampunk/Regency romance!

I'm always fascinated when the realIron Duke pops up as a secondary/minor character in Regencies. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject!

Susanna Fraser said...

Fenella, he had two sons, and still has living descendants to this day--the current Duke of Wellington is in his 90's, I believe. The original Wellington's marriage was never what you'd call good, but they seemed to understand and accept each other better in their later years.

Wellington is one of my favorite figures of the era. He was smart, and snarky, and cared more about results than making himself popular, all of which appeal to me. He's actually a major character in my historical fantasy WIP--the beauty of historical fantasy and alternative history for me is getting to play with real people as characters more because everything doesn't have to turn out exactly as it did in real life.

Jan Sprenger said...

V. interesting. My German ancestors came to England when my gt, gt, gt grandfather fought for Wellington at Waterloo.

Erastes said...

Very interesting! I love this era , there's always so much going on and so many interesting characters

Katherine Bone said...

Cool post! Hariette was quite the courageous woman to test the Duke of Wellington, or a fool. LOL!

Wendy Soliman said...

Thanks for stopping by. I find it fascinating that Wellington's mother despaired of him and he continued on to such great things. Didn't Winston Churchill have a similar unprepossing start?

Heather Boyd said...

I've not read much about Wellington himself , that was fascinating. I might have to move him up my research list. Great post!

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