- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007


By John Severn

University of Oklahoma Press, $34.95, 602 pages


While traveling with Tsar Alexander and the allied army campaigning against Napoleon in 1813, the Earl of Aberdeen remarked to Lord Harrowby that “the heroes we read of at a distance with respect dwindle into minor figures at a near approach.” Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, never dwindles in stature, but a more complex picture emerges from viewing Wellington’s career through relations with his family. If fortune and genius favored Wellington, his brothers’ allowed him to put them to effect.

John Severn makes a very strong case for viewing the Wellesleys among the great political families of early 19th-century Britain. Wellington’s collaboration with his brothers fills out aspects of his personality obscured by a heroic reputation while sketching the dynamics behind the politics and career-building of the age.

The brothers operated as team for much of their career, providing vital mutual support. With little wealth and coming from an obscure family of Irish nobility, they nonetheless made their way through the thickets of society and political life to carve out prominent roles. Indeed they became pillars not only of Britain’s ancien regime, but also of the transnational conservative aristocracy that dominated Europe for decades after Napoleon’s fall.

Wellington needs little introduction, but he rose in the shadow of his eldest brother Richard, Lord Wellesley, who served as India’s governor general and Britain’s foreign secretary. Henry became a noted diplomat and aide to both brothers, while William managed their business affairs and dabbled in politics. Gerald, in many ways the most appealing Wellesley, entered the church, where he built a successful career despite marital scandal when his wife left him for another man.

Mr. Severn notes that, with the significant exception of Richard, none of the brothers showed early promise. Richard, a star scholar at Eton and Oxford, had the expectations of being an eldest son to spur him along. When their father died Richard became head of the family, and their domineering mother pressed him to launch his siblings into public life.

Richard’s friendship with Lord Grenville, another intellectual-turned-politician with an awkward personality, who became foreign secretary under Pitt the Younger, brought him forward as an important government supporter. Talent brought preferment, especially under an administration that needed articulate spokesmen in the House of Commons. Lord Wellesley, as Richard later became, parlayed his connections into army commissions for Arthur and Henry and a parish for Gerald.

Patronage and connections mattered, as did loyalty. Mr. Severn notes that all the brothers hated revolution, and their exposure to ancient regime France had a lasting effect. Arthur even studied at the French equitation academy at Angiers, which provided his first chance to truly shine outside his family’s shadow. Wellesley had earlier made the grand tour in France, and Henry escaped capture by the French revolutionary army in an incongruous adventure that has risked his life.

Wellesley’s great opportunity came when Pitt appointed him governor general of India. The job carried risks, not least the possibility of losing touch with British politics while on the other side of the world. But others had made great fortunes in India, and Wellesley also saw the chance to gain a reputation there that would catapult him to high political office.

He brought Arthur and Henry to India, leaving his affairs to William’s management. Once there, Wellesley systematically proceeded to overthrow Indian rulers who might challenge British primary. Robert Clive and Warren Hastings laid the foundations for the British Raj, but Wellesley constructed the edifice itself.

Herein the partnership comes into focus. Henry became a skilled diplomat, managing Indian princes brought under British control, while Arthur won a series of campaigns that put Wellesley’s plans into effect. Success bred confidence, and Arthur developed habits in India that would last a lifetime. Wellesley, however, let vanity distort his judgment with a series of actions that foreshadowed later missteps. On returning to Britain, he stood aloof from his natural political allies by refusing cabinet office, even when his three brothers all joined the government in junior posts.

Spain’s break with Napoleon in 1808 opened a new theater that gave Arthur his chance with an expedition to defend Portugal. Arthur won a victory at Vimero, but a politically disastrous agreement negotiated by senior generals who superceded him allowed the defeated French army passage home with booty looted from the Portuguese. The public backlash gave Arthur a political near-death experience. Wellesley protected his brother and put the government behind the Peninsular War. He and Henry managed relations with Portugal and Spain, keeping the new alliance alive so that Arthur could turn the tide against the French by 1812.

By this point, Wellesley’s star waned as vanity led him to miscalculate his importance. Failure to appreciate the personal nature of politics was Wellesley’s tragic flaw. Although the Prince Regent approached him to form a government in 1812, key politicians distrusted him and leadership instead went to Lord Liverpool. Mr. Severn shows how Arthur, now Duke of Wellington, eclipsed Wellesley.

They took opposing sides on a range of issues during the 1820s, and the brothers sided increasingly with Wellington. Wellesley then sniped at Wellington’s failure to secure preferment for their family in an environment where reform has steadily reduced the patronage available. Consequent bitterness divided the two men for almost two decades. As an observer remarked poignantly that “if Virgil and Ceasar, Pope and Cromwell, had been brothers the contrast could hardly have been more striking.”

Only in the 1830s, as a new political order emerged and old age overtook the brothers did a rapprochement of sorts occur. With politics finally closed to him, Wellesley returned to scholarship and wrote his memoirs. Wellington settled into the role of elder statesmen, and longevity made him a kind of living monument to a past age. Although Wellington determined who he would become through a remarkable act of self-definition, his brothers helped him get there. Mr. Severn’s account of that vivid tale brings out their role in Wellington’s life.

William Anthony Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.”

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