Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, was a leading military commander, politician and prime minister in 19th-century Britain. He is best remembered today for his actions during the Napoleonic Wars, most notably for victory at the 1815 battle of Waterloo.


“He was second only to Napoleon in his military skill at the time,” says historian Dr Zack White, who joined the HistoryExtra podcast to discuss the duke’s life and legacy.

“Wellington was a household name across Europe – an internationally revered figure both as a general and as a statesman, even described by some as the liberator of Europe.”

But Wellington was a controversial figure, especially when it came to his later political career. His tenure as prime minister is remembered for his opposition to the Great Reform Act, which aimed to tackle electoral corruption and extend suffrage beyond a small, privileged elite.

“Wellington was one of Britain’s greatest soldiers, and one of its worst prime ministers,” says White. “He was a devoted servant of the nation and the monarchy, and an exceptional general; a highly intelligent, skilled and often generous individual. But he could also be cutting and waspish, and he personified some of the worst elitist prejudices of the age in which he lived.

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Wellington at the battle of Waterloo
Wellington is best remembered today for his actions during the Napoleonic Wars, most notably for victory at the 1815 battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Ultimately, he is one of the most important figures in the history of Britain and of Europe. His role in the liberation of Europe from French domination was important, but it was his input as a diplomat in the peace negotiations that was integral to establishing stability on the continent after years of turmoil and war,” says White. “He is, like many figures from this period of history, impressive in his achievements, yet problematic in some of his views.”

Who was the Duke of Wellington?

Arthur Wellesley was born in Dublin in 1769, to a family in the Irish aristocracy. As the third surviving son of the Earl of Mornington, he didn’t stand to inherit a title, and after some unremarkable school years at Eton, he joined the army shortly before he turned 18.

Wellesley’s early military career saw him involved in campaigns in the Low Countries and India, where his brother Richard served as a governor.

“India is where Wellesley really cut his teeth as a commander,” says White. “During the Second Anglo-Maratha War of 1803–05, it was Arthur who led the British and East India Company forces in a series of impressive victories over much larger Maratha armies. His successes helped to tip the balance of power in Britain's favour on the subcontinent, and he himself did very well out of the war. He left a rich man, and a knight of the bar.”

The Duke of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars

Following his successes in India, Wellington’s skills on the battlefield were deployed during the Peninsular War. In 1808, he headed a small force sent to take on the French in Portugal.

“The speed with which Wellington began transforming the situation in Portugal made him a household name,” explains White.

“At the battles of Roliça and Vimeiro, he won two victories over the French in the space of a month, which basically forced the French to give up Portugal. That was electrifying, because the French had been the undisputed military might of Europe. It made everyone sit up and pay attention.”

Further successes against the French followed at the battles of Salamanca and Vittoria in Spain, which ultimately helped turn the tide of the Peninsular War in favour of the British.

How important was the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo?

Wellington’s most famous victory of all came at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. This decisive clash saw a coalition of forces under Wellington and Prussian leader Marshal Blücher deliver a final blow to Napoleon’s dreams of European dominance.

Arthur Wellesley
Arthur Wellesley, known as the 'Iron Duke'. "There was a famous saying that soldiers would rather see his long nose in a fight than a reinforcement of 10,000 men," says Dr Zack White. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Wellington played a really key role at Waterloo,” says White. “By this point he was widely recognised as the best commander the Allies had to field against Napoleon, and when the announcement came through that Wellington was going to command the British forces in Belgium, it’s said that the troops cheered, because they believed in his ability to win.

“There was a famous saying that soldiers would rather see his long nose in a fight than a reinforcement of 10,000 men any day.”

However, Wellington did not defeat the French conqueror singlehandedly. By 1815, a huge Allied coalition had amassed against Napoleon, including the Russians, Austrians, Prussians and the British – around three quarters of a million men, by some accounts.

“The story that’s often spun is that it’s the British that win the battle of Waterloo, under the command of a British general, Wellington,” says White.

“That’s a lovely little narrative if you’re British, but completely ignores the significance of Dutch troops and General Blücher’s Prussian army. Waterloo was Napoleon’s last defeat, but that defeat was coming anyway.”

When did Arthur Wellesley become the Duke of Wellington?

As a third son, Wellesley didn’t inherit his father’s title. Instead, he was awarded the title Viscount of Wellington in 1809, following his success at the battle of Talavera in Spain, before being elevated to Earl and then Duke, on 3 May 1814.

In recognition of his military achievements, he was also given other international titles, including Prince of Waterloo, Duke of Ciudad Rodrigo and Marquess of Douro.

The Duke of Wellington’s personal life and affairs

Despite his dogged dedication to his military and political career, Wellington found the time to gain a persistent reputation as a womaniser.

This was despite having a wife. In 1806, he had reluctantly married Kitty Pakenham following a long engagement, and the partnership was not a happy one.

Wellington caricatured as a Wellington Boot
'A Wellington Boot- or the Head of the Armye', a satirical political cartoon of the Duke of Wellington, published in 1827 after Wellington was appointed Commander-in-Chief. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

“He was an awful husband, truly awful,” explains White. “The problem was simple: he married Kitty out of duty, and she idolised him, which was precisely what he didn't want and didn't need.

“He wanted someone who was his intellectual and social equal; a sparring partner. He loved the company of highly intelligent women who could argue and debate with him, and sadly that wasn't Kitty.”

Wellington’s affairs with a succession of mistresses were well-known by the public and mocked in the press. And one of these liaisons led to one of the most famous quotes attributed to the duke, when courtesan Harriette Wilson threatened to expose their relationship by publishing a tell-all memoir.

Wellington’s response was characteristically uncompromising: “Publish and be damned”.

The Duke of Wellington as prime minister

Wellington had long dabbled in politics. In between military campaigns, he was elected to the Irish Parliament in 1790, when he was just 21, and later became a British MP in 1806.

He was also frequently engaged in international diplomacy on behalf of the British government. Then on his return to Britain following Napoleon’s defeat, Wellington turned his attention to politics full time.

In 1818, he became Master General of Ordnance in the government of Lord Liverpool, and by the late 1820s, he was being considered as a candidate for the next Tory leader and prime minister.

“Wellington was initially favoured for leadership because of his international reputation,” says White. “He was the obvious choice in many respects, but it's questionable whether he actually had the right mindset to be prime minister. After his first cabinet meeting, he’s said to have remarked how odd it was that after he'd given orders, rather than just obeying, everyone seemed to want to discuss them.”

Regardless of his suitability for the role, Wellington served as prime minister from 1828–30. His title meant he had to sit in the House of Lords, and he developed a close working relationship with leader of the Commons, Robert Peel.

“Wellington and Peel had this symbiotic relationship that made them a dynamic, really powerful combination,” says White.

One of the greatest successes of the duke’s time as prime minister was the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act, which removed restrictions on Catholics entering parliament and other important offices in the British establishment. Wellington even threatened to resign to convince the reluctant King George IV to sign the act into law.

The Duke of Wellington and the Great Reform Act

But perhaps the biggest failure of Wellington’s tenure as prime minister was his opposition to the growing campaign for electoral reform.

At this point, Britain’s electoral system was plagued by ‘rotten boroughs’, where some boroughs such as Old Sarum could elect MPs with just a handful of voters, while large new industrial centres were not represented at all. The system was wide open to corruption, and the ability to vote was limited to men with a certain amount of personal wealth.

Duke of Wellington in a caricature pursued by a Protestant mob
A cartoon entitled 'A Scene In Palace Yard', 'Leaving The House of Lords Through The Assembled Commons', depicts British Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington running the gauntlet of a Protestant mob as he leaves the House of Lords through Palace Yard, London, March 1829. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wellington fought against the expansion of the franchise and refused to reform the rotten boroughs system. This position eroded his popularity, ultimately leading to a vote of no-confidence and the collapse of his government.

“Even when he’d been shown the door, Wellington didn’t let this go,” says White. “I don’t think he was ever reconciled to this idea of the expansion of the franchise. It’s said, although possibly apocryphally, that when he saw the Commons sit for the first time after the Reform Bill was finally passed, he commented, ‘I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life.’”

That didn’t signal the end of Wellington’s political career, however. In 1834, he briefly took on the role interim prime minister while Peel was on holiday overseas, and served as Foreign Secretary from 1834–35, commander-in-chief of the army from 1842, and leader of the House of Lords from 1841–46. In 1846, he retired from politics, but kept up his work in international diplomacy.

Why was Wellington known as the ‘Iron Duke’?

Despite what you might assume, Wellington’s nickname was not a nod to his intimidating military persona. It actually originated during his political career, when his opposition to the Reform Bill saw angry crowds gathering outside his London home, Apsley House.

The nickname was a sarcastic reference to the fact that, rather than dealing with the problems that had triggered the riots, Wellington simply installed iron shutters to keep the mob out.

What does the Duke of Wellington have to do with the Wellington boot?

The Duke of Wellington was well-known as a fashionable figure in British society and was even known to his officers as ‘the Beau’. He was said to be particularly proud of his calves, so he ordered his shoemaker to cut his boots shorter in order to show them off better.

The fashion caught on, and the name stuck.

“The type of boots he wore were very different from the modern welly, but if you’ve ever wondered where the name comes from, that’s your answer,” explains White.

When did the Duke of Wellington die?

The Duke of Wellington died at Walmer Castle on 14 September 1852, at the age of 83. “By the time of his death, Wellington was widely regarded as one of the great statesmen of his age,” says White. “Queen Victoria was absolutely bereft”.


The duke was given a state funeral and, against his wishes, buried in St Paul’s Cathedral – in a tomb opposite Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Wellington's funeral procession passing through Pall Mall
Wellington's funeral procession passing through Pall Mall, London. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.