Wellesley-Pole: the man who named ‘Wellington’
In previous blog posts I have described how Wellesley-Pole’s orchestrated The Great Recoinage (1817), the Waterloo Medal (1816), and modernised Royal Ascot (1822-1830). But he was also responsible for the ‘birth’ of Wellington: for it was our man Wellesley-Pole who created the iconic title under which Arthur Wellesley’s glories came to pass.
R.I.P. Arthur, long live Wellington!!
The circumstances of Wellington’s creation are revealed in the Raglan MS at Gwent Archives, containing correspondence between Wellesley-Pole and Arthur from 1807-1818. This very important primary source is often used to illustrate Arthur’s unvarnished opinions about the performance of government, progress of the war, and the conduct of his family during these momentous years. Yet the many letters FROM Wellesley-Pole TO Arthur are barely ever cited – despite the fact they contain an equally rich vein of personal insight into the political intrigues of the time. It is quite amazing – and sad to see Wellesley-Pole so overlooked – in his own archives to boot.
Historians love to lay into William Wellesley-Pole. They portray him as ‘opportunistic’, ‘not a little devious’; ‘the worst type of hanger-on’; and harshest of all: ‘a nonentity’. Even his obituary is nowadays considered to be one of the most savage ever printed
From an early period of his career it was evident to all … that he was by no means destined to fulfil so prominent a position in public life as his brothers…Journalists and demagogues denounced him as a Minister who not only deserved to be degraded and punished, but as a criminal for whose enormities no amount of penal infliction could be excessive…His spirit quailed before a crisis…at no time in his life did he display Parliamentary talents of a high order…Mr Wellesley-Pole was simply angry- angry at all times with every person and about everything.; his sharp, shrill, loud voice grating on the ear…an undignified ineffective speaker, an indiscreet politician…advancing in years without improving in reputation.
The Times, February 24th 1845
Over the years I have presented various papers (including the Wellington Congress), and written a number of blogs aimed at setting the record straight about Wellesley-Pole. My contention is that in any other family he would have been feted – however, Wellesley-Pole will always be overshadowed by his other brothers; Richard, Governor General of India (1797-1805); and Arthur, probably Britain’s greatest military leader. I believe that – far from being a ‘nonentity’ – Wellesley-Pole was actually a very loyal and trustworthy brother, content to stay out of the limelight, & blessed with the one gift that eluded all the Wellesley clan: a long and happy marriage.
So, if you read both sides of the Raglan MS it becomes clear that, from his position at the heart of government, Wellesley-Pole DID play a vital role on Arthur’s behalf; acting as a kind of ‘remote-secretary’. His services ranged from provision of tea and other home comforts, through to supplying a new sword or replacement horses. Crucially he relayed the latest news, gathered opinions, and soothed often fractious relations between the Cabinet and the Peninsular Army.
Victory at Talavera raised Arthur to the peerage
It is not really surprising therefore that, following Arthur’s victory at Talavera in 1809, Wellesley-Pole was asked to find a suitable title for his feted brother. He was reluctant to be saddled with such an important responsibility, but King would not wait, and an immediate decision was required. So Wellesley-Pole took up his pen and wrote to Arthur:
After ransacking the peerage… I at last determined upon Viscount Wellington of Talavera and of Wellington, and Baron Douro of Welleslie in the County of Somerset. Wellington is a town not far from Welleslie, and no person has chosen the title. I trust that you will not think there is anything unpleasant or trifling in the name of Wellington, but [in the] circumstances… I could not easily have done better. I own I feel in rather an embarrassing situation for it is impossible for me to know whether I have acted as you would have had me…but you should have explained to me your wishes before ever you left England, in case of such an event.
In the anxious days awaiting a reply from the Peninsula, Wellesley-Pole’s nerves would hardly have been soothed when Arthur’s wife Kitty declared
Wellington I do not like for it recalls nothing. However, it is done & I suppose it could not be avoided.
The fact Wellesley-Pole did not consult Kitty says a lot about the role of women in society at that time, for it seems odd that she was only told after the deed was done, and literally had to live with Wellesley-Pole’s decision for the rest of her life.
Eventually and to Wellesley-Pole’s immense relief his choice of title met with unqualified approval from Arthur:
My opinion is that you have done exactly what you ought to have done… You have chosen most fortunately, and I am very much obliged to you. I could not have been better off for a name if we had discussed the subject twenty times
It seems obvious to me that a greater study of Wellesley-Pole’s close relationship with Wellington not only offers a fuller understanding of this great military genius, but could provide Wellesley-Pole much needed relief from his critics: The creation of ‘Wellington’ was not an egotistical act on Wellesley-Pole’s part, for a quick perusal of the relevant letters shows that Wellesley-Pole had no choice but to stand proxy, and that his motives were honourable as he tried to balance the needs of government with the wishes of his beloved brother.
This article is a modified version of a guest blog I wrote for the award winning numberonelondon website
In this momentous year celebrating the bicentennial of Waterloo, you may be interested in the forthcoming Wellington Congress which has a great programme of speakers lined up, at the University of Southampton April 10-12th 2015. I will be doing a talk on Sunday 12th focussing (of course) on Wellington’s relationship with the Wellesley-Poles.
If you live in London, why not visit Apsley House and see the Duke of Wellington’s home
Any comments or feedback is always welcome – and a big thanks to all those kind souls on Twitter who do so much to promote my blog – it really is appreciated.