Regency Bicentennial:   The Best Birthday Gift — Ever!

As most of you are probably aware, yesterday was the bicentennial of the epic Battle of Waterloo. A battle which, in effect, was to result in peace for most of Europe for nearly half a century. If you are interested in the history of that battle, or the events which led up to it, there are plenty of sources of information available, so there is no point in rehashing that here. Instead, I would like to highlight the long relationship of mutual trust and respect between two friends which was to have a direct bearing on that crucial victory. A victory which came on the birthday of the least appreciated of those two good friends.

How Bob set the stage for Art to save the world . . .

Born on 1 May 1769, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was a little more than six weeks older than Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who was born on 18 June 1769. Both were born in Ireland, to families of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the Protestant Ascendancy, which essentially ruled the country. Though both were born in Dublin, their family seats were in different counties, the Wellesleys in County Meath and the Stewarts in County Down. They first met as young men, while representing their respective counties in the Irish Parliament. It is known that the Speaker, Sir John Parnell, invited both young men to dinner one evening in 1793, but it is almost certain they were well acquainted with one another long before that night. Both had been elected to the Irish Parliament in 1790. They were both unmarried aristocratic gentlemen enjoying the social life late eighteenth-century Dublin could offer young men of their class. It does seem, however, that young Arthur Wellesley was to be seen more often at the card tables than was young Robert Stewart. But both spent time enjoying the company of the pretty upper-class young ladies of the town at the many social events to which they were regularly invited.

There was another guest at the table that evening at that dinner with Sir John Parnell. Jonah Barrington, also a member of the Irish Parliament, found his fellow member, Mr. Wellesley, frank and open-hearted, though unpolished and juvenile in appearance and manner. Something of a contrast to Mr. Stewart, who, though quite reserved, had a sophisticated manner and was already an earnest and astute politician. Despite the fact that both were serving in Parliament, neither of the two friends were very good public speakers, a skill neither one of them would ever perfect.

It was during that same year, 1793, in the summer, that Arthur Wellesley came to a fateful decision. His suit for pretty young Kitty Pakenham had been refused by her family, due to his lack of prospects. He decided it was time for him to give up cards, poetry and playing his violin. Though he had loved music all his life, in the summer of 1793, Arthur burned his violin. From then on, Lt. Colonel Wellesley devoted himself solely to his military duties. After taking part in a brief and unsuccessful campaign in the Netherlands, in June of 1796, Lt. Colonel Wellesley set sail for India where he would join his regiment.

In contrast to Wellesley’s lack of success with Miss Pakenham, Robert Stewart had won the heart and hand of Lady Amelia Hobart. With her family’s blessing, Robert married his Emily in 1794 and they were to enjoy a long and happy marriage. In 1796, when his father was ennobled as the Earl of Londonderry, young Robert received the courtesy title of Viscount Castlereagh. In the fall of that same year, Castlereagh was involved in military actions of his own, when Belfast was put under martial law to protect against the threat of Irish radicals.

Wellesley remained in India for nearly nine years, steadily rising in the ranks and earning a large sum in prize money from his various campaigns. By 1804, General Wellesley had grown weary of life in India and applied for permission to return to England. Permission was granted and, as a reward for his service, he was made a Knight of the Bath. At the request of his elder brother, Richard, by then Marquess of Wellesley, who was Governor-General of India, he delayed his departure until it was convenient for Richard to leave. Now both wealthy men, the two brothers sailed for home in 1805.

During the nine years that Wellesley spent in India, Viscount Castlereagh had been steadily rising in prominence in first the Irish and then the British government. He presided over the Act of Union in 1800 and took his seat in the British House of Commons in 1801. The following year, he joined the Cabinet of Addington’s government as the President of the Board of Control, where he frequently had to deal with disputes between the East India Company and their often fractious Governor-General, Richard Wellesley. In 1804, William Pitt returned as Prime Minister and Castlereagh became the Secretary for War and the Colonies in his Cabinet. He was serving in that position when General Sir Arthur Wellesley returned from India.

In September of 1805, Wellesley made a trip to the Colonial Office in Downing Street, to see the Secretary on behalf of his elder brother. Richard had been dismissed as Governor-General of India and replaced by Lord Cornwallis while the brothers had been at sea. Upon learning the news, Richard had sailed immediately for India while he had asked Arthur to intercede for him with Secretary Castlereagh. While waiting to see his old friend, it was in the ante-room of the Secretary’s office that General Wellesley and Admiral Lord Nelson would meet for the one and only time, spending nearly an hour talking together. The following day, Nelson left London for Portsmouth, from where he would depart for what would be his last battle, off the Cape of Trafalgar.

Lord Castlereagh felt the East India Company had been fully justified in dismissing Richard Wellesley, who should have been able to resolve the issues in India without the Mahratta War. But he was very impressed by the change in his old friend, who, during the negotiations, showed himself to be a man of strong character and personality, as well as great skill and thoughtfulness. At Castlereagh’s suggestion, Prime Minister Pitt invited General Wellesley to ride with him, from Wimbledon to London, a few weeks later. During that time, Wellesley had the opportunity to discuss his views on a number of current military and political issues as well as the system the Wellesley brothers had established to govern India. Pitt and Wellesley would meet once again in the weeks that followed, not long before the Prime Minister’s untimely death. By then, news of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great military victories on the Continent had reached Britain. Pitt confided to the General that he believed the only place to stop Bonaparte was in Spain. It was there that the British would have their best chance to defeat the French.

General Wellesley continued his military service through 1805. However, he took a leave of absence to return to Ireland in 1806 when he received news that Kitty Pakenham’s family had dropped their objections to her marriage to him, due to his new wealth and status. Due to the machinations of some of Kitty’s friends, Arthur traveled to Ireland and married Kitty, though he found her vastly changed since their last meeting. He then served a term in the British Parliament before being appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland. In 1807, he resigned his position to fight at the Battle of Copenhagen, after which he was raised to the rank of Lieutenant General, the youngest man holding that rank in the entire British army. When he returned to Ireland, in early 1808, he was making plans to lead an expedition from Cork to South America, to protect the Portuguese colonies there.

Then, in April 1808, Napoleon seized the throne of Spain, making his older brother, Joseph, King. Though some of the leading military figures in England had wanted to take Sicily as a base from which to fight the French, Lord Castlereagh, of the same opinion as his late mentor, William Pitt, was certain that the Iberian Peninsula was the key to Napoleon’s defeat. Though the senior military leaders were against it, Lord Castlereagh knew that General Wellesley shared his views and had a force assembled in Cork, ready to sail in a matter of days. Despite the reluctance of King George III, who relied heavily on the advice of Sir John Moore, a determined Castlereagh was able to secure the King’s agreement to give the young Lt. General Wellesley command of the first deployment of British troops to Portugal. Thus it was that the 9,000 troops assembled at Cork sailed, not to South America, but to Portugal, in July of 1808.

Early on, Wellesley showed himself a competent general officer. However, in August, when the second round of British troops arrived, they were under the command of the aging General Sir Hew Dalrymple, who took overall command of the army. Sir Hew was responsible for the disastrous Convention of Cintra, even though Wellesley had strenuously opposed its terms. In October, those involved with the lop-sided agreement were recalled to England and Lt. General Sir John Moore took command. For a time, Wellesley defended himself against accusations that he had supported the Convention of Cintra. Loosing patience with the political wrangling, after a few weeks, he returned to his civilian post in Ireland.

Then, in January 1809, the news came of Moore’s death at Corunna. He had lived long enough to be assured his troops had won the battle. Nevertheless, the British troops suffered heavy losses and withdrew from the Peninsula. In the Cabinet, opinions differed as to whether or not another attempt should be made in Portugal. In March, General Wellesley sent a memorandum to Lord Castlereagh in which he outlined his plans for how Portugal could be successfully defended and become a strong base from which to invade Spain and eventually defeat the French. Castlereagh believed in his friend’s vision and ability. He began a steady campaign to overcome the resistance of both the Cabinet and the King. First, resistance to the idea of a second expeditionary force to Portugal, and second, to the idea of placing Lt. General Wellesley at the head of that force. A determined Castlereagh eventually prevailed, and the British government authorized a new expeditionary force to sail for Portugal in April of 1809, under the command of Lt. General Sir Arthur Wellesley.

In September of 1809, Castlereagh fought a duel with George Canning, in part because he had learned of Canning’s secret efforts to foil the appointment of General Wellesley to command the force sent to Portugal. Partly as a result of the duel, Castlereagh was forced to resign his Cabinet position and he remained out of government until 1812. In October, when he learned of the events which had triggered the duel, General Wellesley, now Viscount Wellington, was shocked and horrified by the treatment of his friend. He was even more shocked to learn that two of his brothers had been implicated in the plot against Castlereagh and sent his friend a letter assuring him of his full support and complete lack of involvement with his brothers’ machinations.

Wellington continued to prosecute the war in the Peninsula and was still doing so when Castlereagh returned to government in 1812. Castlereagh joined the Cabinet as the Foreign Secretary, and also became the leader of the House of Commons after the assasination of Spencer Perceval. Though he was no longer Secretary of War, Castlereagh did what he could to support Wellington as the war continued to progress. However, Wellington confided to close friends that the support and communication from the War Office was nowhere near as effective as it had been under Castlereagh’s administration.

As Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh was at the center of the British effort to maintain the coalition of European countries against France. This was particularly difficult for him when the war in the Peninsula was going against the British. But each of Wellington’s victories strengthened the British position with their Allies. Wellington sent Castlereagh a report on every battle. As soon as Castlereagh received the report on the great victory at Vitoria, he had it translated into German, Dutch and French and sent copies to all his counterparts on the Continent. Such reports helped hold the coalition against the French together.

Once Napoleon had been defeated and exiled to Elba, Wellington assumed his days as a soldier were over and knew he had to find some other occupation. Though he had served in both the Irish and English Parliament, he was also aware that due to some of the actions of his brothers, he would not easily find a place in the British government. Castlereagh was also aware of Wellington’s situation, and arranged to have him offered the position of British Ambassador to the restored Bourbon court. Wellington was very happy to accept the appointment and took up his duties in Paris in 1814. Castlereagh spent a few days in Paris, conferring with Wellington, before he traveled on to the Congress of Vienna.

Though Wellington was popular with most of the French people, there were a few die-hard Bonapartists who were bent on his assassination. There were multiple attempts on his life in late 1814. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, was informed of these attempts, and strongly suggested that Wellington should leave Paris and return to Britain. Never a coward, and a man who took his duty seriously, Wellington refused to leave France. Finally, in January of 1815, Lord Castlereagh hit upon a means by which to remove his friend from Paris and danger. He informed Wellington that urgent government business required his presence in London and he asked Wellington to come to Vienna to take his place at the Congress. Wellington left Paris at the end of January and arrived in Vienna in early February 1815. After a few days conferring with his replacement, Castlereagh left Vienna and returned to London.

In the end, Wellington was to serve as a delegate to the Congress of Vienna for a little over a month. On 7 March 1815, the news reached Vienna that Napoleon had escaped Elba and was marching on Paris. Before the month was out, Wellington was named Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces and by early April, he was in Brussels to begin gathering his troops in preparation for facing the French. Though Bonaparte was not expected to attack the Allied forces until early July, he was able push into Belgium in mid-June. And so, it happened that Wellington and his forces faced Napoleon and the French near the village of Waterloo.

The French were defeated in the Battle of Waterloo on Sunday, 18 June 1815, Lord Castlereagh’s forty-sixth birthday. Though Wellington did not plan it, his victory at Waterloo was a most fitting birthday gift to the friend who had staunchly advocated to ensure his command in the Peninsula. Though Castlereagh was not to live to see it, that same victory ensured peace in Europe for more than a half century. A peace he worked hard to ensure in the negotiations which followed the victory at Waterloo.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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One Response to Regency Bicentennial:   The Best Birthday Gift — Ever!

  1. It’s nice to see the human side of names out of history

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