Arthur Wellesley was the fifth son of the Viscount Garret Wellesly of Dangan, 1st Earl of Mornington. Dangan is south of Trim on the road to Summerhill.
No one is sure where exactly Arthur was born or when. His generally accepted date of birth is 1st May 1769 in the same year which saw the birth of his opponent, Napoleon Bonaparte. Wellington’s birthplace is less easy to pinpoint – some suggest the Wellesley’s townhouses at Trim or Merrion Square, Dublin, Athy, various other houses in Dublin or near Trim. The most likely places are Dublin or Dangan or maybe in a coach in between which may have given rise to his reputed saying ‘To be born in a stable does not make one a horse.’ Arthur’s father was a Professor of Music at Trinity College. Arthur also had an interest in music as he played the violin.
Talbot’s Castle in Trim was the Diocesan school in the 18th century and Wellesley received his early education there. One of the Duke’s schoolmates told Dean Butler that Crosbie (later Sir Edward) climbed to the top of the nearby Yellow Steeple. At the top he took out a piece of a paper and wrote his will in case he fell on the way down. When he arrived safely at the bottom he found the young Arthur crying. Crosbie told Arthur not to be afraid – that he was down safely. Arthur told him that was not why he was crying, he was crying because Crosbie had not left him any of his toys or playthings in the will!
Arthur’s father died in 1781 when he was only 12. In the same year Arthur was sent to school in Eton. His mother was left in rather straightened circumstances and later moved to Brussels where living costs were cheaper.
In 1785 Arthur entered the Military school at Angers in France. Here he learned riding and the French language. He grew familiar with the whole area around Brussels where he was later to fight the Battle of Waterloo.
In 1787 he entered the Army and was ordered to India but his mother used her influence to have him appointed Aide de Camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Arthur also became involved in local politics at the time. His name ‘A. Wesley’ appears on all the Acts of the Corporation from June 1789 to September 1793. In April 1791 he became Member of Parliament for Trim and continued as M.P. till 1797. From 1798 onwards he signed himself Arthur Wellesley rather than Wesley.
The young man fell in love with Katherine Packenham, the daughter of Lord Longford in 1792, but his lordship stated that Arthur’s income of £125 p.a. was too low. The couple got engaged sometime afterwards. Katherine contracted chicken pox and her complexion was scarred. She wrote to Arthur relieving him of his obligation to marry her. He replied ‘he wished to marry no-one else’ and finally in 1806 when his income was much more substantial they married after thirteen years of an engagement. However the marriage was not a happy one.
Arthur fought in the Flanders campaign in 1794. In 1796 he was made colonel in the army and sailed for India where he was to spend the next eight years. In 1798 his brother, Richard, second Lord Mornington, arrived in India as Governor General.
Arthur became a member of the British parliament in 1806 representing Rye in Sussex. The following year he joined the government as Chief Secretary of Ireland, a post he had to leave to take part in the Copenhagen expedition.
During the Peninsular War the Commander of the British forces Sir John Moore was killed in a rearguard action and Arthur was then made Supreme Commander. Following the victory at Tale he was made Viscount Wellington of Talavera and in 1811 was made Earl and Marquis of Wellington and Duke of Ciudad Rodrigo and Vittoria and after the successful campaign against the French was created Duke of Wellington and Marquis of Douro. The Parliament provided him a grant of £300,000.
While Napoleon was in exile on Elba the Duke of Wellington travelled Europe giving military advice to different nations. Early in 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and embarked on what was to be his 100 days reign.
Wellington took charge of a rather poorly equipped army and made Brussels his base. The battle of Waterloo took place in six to eight inches of mud with troops that had nothing to eat for more than a day and with some officers who spent their time at the lavish balls in Brussels rather than leading their soldiers. The battle swung back and forth sometimes favouring the British allies and other times the French. Finally around seven o’clock the tide turned in favour of the British. The Prussian troops then committed themselves and Napoleon had lost his first battle. The King of the Netherlands made Arthur Prince of Waterloo and all of Europe showered him with land, riches and honours.
The Duke was ultra Tory throughout his life. In 1828 he became Prime Minister and it fell to him to pass the Bill of Catholic Emancipation in April 1829. The King and the Parliament were against the granting of Emancipation but Daniel O’Connell’s election as M.P. for Clare made its passing a necessity. By 1831 the Duke was out of office but held the Prime Ministership for a short period in 1834.
From about 1840 onward he suffered ill health and died in 1852 after a stroke. His funeral was one of the biggest ever with almost one and a half million mourners. Twelve black horses drew the gun carriage carrying the coffin to its last resting place beside Admiral Nelson’s remains.
A Corinthian column, twenty three metres high, was erected in honour of the Duke of Wellington at the corner of the Fair Green in Trim. The inscription reads ‘This column was erected in the year 1817 in honour of the illustrious Duke of Wellington by the grateful contributions of the people of Meath.’ The monument was erected on this site as Wellington resided nearby while M.P. for Trim.
The column was designed by a local architect, James Bell of Navangate, and the statue of the Duke is by Thomas Kirk who also executed a statue of Nelson for Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin.