Wellington: The Iron Duke Unmasked – BBC 2


Word PressWe’re just over four weeks away from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which made Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, a national hero.  He was probably the number one celebrity of his day – 35 years later, Queen Victoria even named one of her sons after him! – and today his name always crops up in lists/polls of the Greatest Britons Ever.  We are talking a military hero extraordinaire.  However, this programme focused almost entirely on what a rotten husband he was!

It all started so romantically.  A young gentleman and a young lady fall in love, but her family decide that he hasn’t got sufficient prospects or wherewithal, and send him packing.  Several years later, he comes back, having made his name and his fortune.  He could have his pick of nubile young women, but he marries his original sweetheart.  Aww.  Just like Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott in Persuasion!  Unfortunately, it soon went rather pear-shaped … and he ran around with a lot of other women, whilst telling them that his poor wife was stupid and boring, whilst she (her diaries, which survive, sound like they’d make for very interesting reading) got so depressed that she even contemplated suicide, the poor woman.  So it was all very sad, really :-(.

In between discussing Wellington’s shortcomings as a husband, it discussed his time as Prime Minister.  In some countries, there’s a tradition of military leaders becoming great political leaders.  It doesn’t work here.  There was Oliver Cromwell.  Hmm.  And then there was Wellington.  Here in Manchester, where plans are already being made for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, which’ll be in 2019, political leaders who opposed parliamentary reform are not generally looked on very favourably :-); and Wellington was certainly up there on the list of those in favour of maintaining the status quo.  The nickname “Iron Duke” comes across now as a compliment, but it certainly wasn’t meant as one when it originated due to his staunch opposition to what became the Great Reform Act of 1832.  Having said which, he was strongly in favour of Catholic emancipation, which you wouldn’t necessarily have expected from a member of the Protestant Ascendancy aristocracy; and I thought it was rather unfair of the programme, especially given how much it talked about his arch-conservatism being the result of the trauma of the Wolfe Tone uprising, not to emphasise that.

So, all in all, it was a strangely negative programme.  What a shame.  OK, he made himself very unpopular as Prime Minister, and there’s no denying the fact that he seems to have been a bloody awful husband, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he was a military hero, one of the greatest generals of all time.  Just think of some of the words we use.  To meet one’s Waterloo.  Wellington boots!! Wellington, New Zealand, for that matter.  Nobody’s perfect and, whilst I appreciate that the BBC were trying to do something other than regurgitate the history of the Peninsular Wars and the Waterloo campaign, I’m not very impressed that they chose to focus so much on all the negative aspects of Wellington’s life and so little on the positive.  Could’ve done better, BBC.




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