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The women who made the Duke of Wellington – by his descendant Jane Wellesley

Blog | By Jane Wellesley | Mar 28, 2022

The Duke by Thomas Lawrence (Credit: Apsley House)

A new show, Wellington, Women and Friendship, opens at Apsley House on April 21. He owes his success to a stern mother and a bad marriage, says his descendant Jane Wellesley

By the time he died in 1852 at the age of 83, Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, was the most famous man in the land. His death prompted Queen Victoria to dub him ‘The greatest man this country has produced.’

This pre-eminence at the end of his life was in stark contrast to the relative obscurity of his upbringing and birth, 250 years ago this week. There is even some confusion about the actual date on which he was born, though his family always said (and we continue to say) it was 1st May, 1769, in Dublin.

The middle son of six surviving siblings – five boys and a girl – his early years were unremarkable, and largely unrecorded. Arthur was a solitary child, who excelled at little, though he had a talent for playing the violin, likely encouraged by his father, the Earl of Mornington, a gifted musician. His death when Arthur was 12 (by which time the family was living in London), left him to the mercy of his stern, unforgiving mother, who famously dismissed him with the words ‘I vow to God, I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur. He is food for powder and nothing else.’

It was not just his mother. Though the brothers would go on to help each other in their careers, there is little evidence of any strong sibling affection. These 18th-century Wellesleys did not grow up in a warm, loving family. From an early age, Arthur learnt to rely on his own inner resources. As he said in later life, he liked to ‘walk alone’.

The awkward son was removed from Eton since he showed no aptitude for his studies or sport. Arthur was shy and idle, and made few friends, and during his three years at the College he lived in the wake of the dazzling scholastic achievements of his oldest brother Richard.

After some private tuition, Arthur was finally sent to a military academy in Angers, France; aside from learning to speak fluent French, his time there planted the seed in him as a lifelong Francophile. He also experienced the matronly kindness of a French duchess, married to the commandant of the academy. It left a deep impression on him; years later, he claimed that, in her society, he had passed the happiest time of his life. No doubt he would have wished for something like this kindness from his mother.

The army was his destiny, and, as a young soldier, he returned to Ireland to serve at Dublin Castle, where his duties were more to do with socialising than soldiering. He started to court Kitty Pakenham, a young woman from another Anglo-Irish family. Having plucked up the courage to propose to her, he was turned down not once but twice by her family, who had no intention of throwing away the pretty, sought-after Kitty on a young man with no money and, seemingly, poor prospects.

To rub salt in the wound, her father, Lord Longford, gave Arthur a stern lecture, citing all his faults and inadequacies, and accusing him of devoting his energies merely to ‘gaiety and music’. After this devastating rejection, he cast his violin aside; some say he burnt it.

In 1796, Arthur Wellesley headed off to India with a crushed heart, a trunk full of self-educating books (which survive and are in a new show at Apsley House), and a determination to make something of his life, and to confound all those, be they Pakenhams or Wellesleys, who had already written him off. So far, he had made little impact on the world. Though there were some romantic distractions, in nine formative years he dedicated himself to learning his trade. Crucially this included ‘what not to do’.

On his way back from India, Arthur’s reading material was distinctly different to that of his outgoing journey, with titles like Love at First Sight and Lessons for Lovers. Through a protracted correspondence, a matchmaking mutual friend of his and Kitty’s had, disingenuously, persuaded him that Kitty had been waiting for him all this time.

Soon after stepping on English soil, he proposed again, and not surprisingly this time the Pakenhams accepted him. And why would they not? He had returned as a rich, highly-successful major general, and been knighted to boot.

With admirable caution, Kitty wanted to be sure she was the woman he would choose for ‘a companion, a friend for life’, and she begged him to go over to Ireland to see her before he made the final commitment. However, Arthur was far too busy climbing up military and political ladders. Their first meeting for over ten years was when he arrived in Dublin to marry her, thereby breaking one of his battlefield maxims of seeing ‘everything for myself’. It was rumoured that, when he spotted her, he muttered to one of his brothers, ‘She is grown damned ugly, by Jove.’ I can only hope he did not say this but, whatever his thoughts, it was too late to change his mind.

Not surprisingly, the union was to be a disaster. Kitty was not the young girl of his youthful memories, either in appearance or character. Where he had gained in confidence, she had lost. In India, Arthur Wellesley had become clear-visioned, practical, confident in his judgement and, above all, adept at military strategy and tactics. But these lessons had not translated into his private life.

Why did Arthur cross so many of his red lines? The blame cannot be put fully on the matchmaker. I suspect that it was a mix of naivety in matters of the heart, and arrogance; even a desire to get his own back on the Pakenhams - to regain control.

You could say that it was the worst decision of his life, but I believe that a bad marriage helped to ensure my ancestor would become one of Britain’s greatest military leaders. When, in 1809, he set off for the Peninsular War for five long years, he was rarely distracted by thoughts of home. He disapproved of his officers asking for leave, and rarely gave them permission. His letters to Kitty, who perhaps unsurprisingly suffered from depression, were scarce and often very short. And he rarely asked after his two small sons.

As well as being an imperfect husband, given his lack of a parental role model he was inevitably an inadequate father. Tellingly, when, as an old man, my ancestor was asked whether there was anything he regretted, he replied, ‘Yes, I should have given more praise.’

I wonder whether he was thinking of his sons. But arguably – and ironically – the paucity of praise in his own early life was likely one of the spurs that drove him, determinedly, forward to Waterloo, and beyond. The Duke of Wellington would become the quintessential public servant, twice becoming Prime Minister, his duty always to crown and country. The public man took precedence over the private. His marriage lasted for 25 uneasy years, until Kitty’s death in 1831.

Arthur could have remarried – there were plenty of women in the land who set their cap at him, but he chose to remain on his own. He formed strong attachments to his daughters-in-law and grandchildren, and had several enduring friendships, but ultimately something of the solitary child lived on in him.