The Duke of Wellington and Children

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was fond of children and children were very fond of him. Like the tales of Napoleon with Arthur Bertrand on St. Helena, anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington with his young friends provide a tender picture of Britain’s great soldier and statesman. Wellington’s niece wrote:

The kindness of his heart showed itself in his love of children from the earliest age, the delight he took in their prattle and remarks, and his dislike to any severity being used towards them. He liked to praise them, and always said the best way to make a child good was to show him that he was considered a good child. (1)

Duke of Wellington & his Grand Children

Wellington and His Grandchildren, by Robert Thorburn, 1852

The playful Duke of Wellington

Spencer Madan, tutor to the children of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond, described the Duke of Wellington in 1815, not long before the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duke of Wellington seems to unite those two extremes of character which Shakespeare gives to Henry V. – the hero and the trifler. You may conceive him at one moment commanding the allied armies in Spain or presiding at the conference at Vienna, and at another time sprawling on his back or on all fours upon the carpet playing with the children….

In the drawing room before dinner he was playing with the children, who seemed to look up to him as to one on whom they might depend for amusement. When dinner was announced they quitted him with great regret saying, ‘Be sure you remember to send for us the moment dinner is over,’ which he promised to do, and was as good as his word. (2)

This was not the only occasion when children were reluctant to quit the Duke’s company. Another friend noted:

I afterwards learnt from Mademoiselle Brun that the Duke stopped at the corner-house of Walmer village, and got out to take leave of Lady Wilton’s children. They had received so many kindnesses from him, and bore him so much attachment, that all three – poor little things – ran to the door when he wished to go again, and attempted to bar his way. (3)

The Duke of Richmond’s daughter Georgiana recollected:

When we assembled for dinner, we usually found the Duke, who had dressed early, engaged in a regular game of romps with the children, who came down on purpose for what they called the Battle of Waterloo, which commenced by one of them throwing a cushion at the newspaper the Duke was reading. (4)

When the artist Benjamin Haydon visited Walmer Castle in 1839 to paint Wellington’s portrait, he found Wellington unperturbed to have his breakfast interrupted by children.

In the midst, six dear healthy noisy children were brought to the windows. ‘Let them in,’ said the Duke, and in they came, and rushed over to him saying, ‘How d’ye do, Duke? How d’ye do, Duke?’ One boy, young Grey, roared, ‘I want some tea, Duke.’ ‘You shall have it, if you promise not to slop it over me as you did yesterday.’ Toast and tea were then in demand. Three got on one side and three on the other, and he hugged ‘em all. Tea was poured out, and I saw little Grey try to slop it over the Duke’s frock coat. Sir Astley said, ‘You did not expect to see this.’ They then all rushed out on the leads by the cannon, and after breakfast I saw the Duke romping with the whole of them, and one of them gave his Grace a devil of a thump. (5)

Wellington wrote to a friend in October 1851:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoy and prize the affection which children have for me. When they become familiar with me I believe that they consider me one of themselves, and make of me a sort of plaything! They climb upon me and make toys of my Hair and my fingers! They grow up into friends. (6)

The Duke of Wellington’s kindness to children

When he was not romping with children, the Duke of Wellington found other ways to show kindness to them. Georgiana Lennox wrote:

[W]hen he invited his friends to visit him, their children were always included; and on one occasion, passing through the room where some of his juvenile guests were at tea…he was very angry at finding they had no jam, and instantly gave orders it was never to be omitted. When my little girl of five years old – his goddaughter – worked him a pincushion, he apologized for his delay in writing to thank her. (7)

Wellington made “medals” to give to his young friends.

The Duke…kept in a cabinet several half-sovereigns, having a hole drilled through them, through which was passed a blue ribbon; and whenever any of the young nobility visited him, they frequently went away in raptures, having had one of these now precious mementoes placed over their shoulders by the kind old man…. It is a well-known fact that his Grace frequently carried about his person a number of new shillings, for the purpose of distributing among the juveniles of the more humble classes of society. (8)

When the Duke of Wellington was sitting for a portrait by Henry Weigall:

An interesting little girl was present during the sitting, and amused herself with some childish attempts at drawing what she called the ‘windows of the opposite house,’ which she desired to draw the Duke’s attention to. Patting her on the head, he observed, ‘Very meritorious! Very ingenious! I’m considered a great favourite with children. I was at the house of Lord S– the other day, and a fine little fellow was there who had evidently been told that I was coming, and was on the look out for me. He called soldiers ‘Rub-a-dubs.’ As soon as I went in he came up to me, and said, ‘You are are not a Rub-a-dub at all, for you don’t wear a red coat!’

His Grace soon, however, remarked that he was not always fortunate with children. ‘I was lately,’ said the Duke, ‘in the house of a French marquis; they brought in a little child to see me; I wanted to take it in my arms, but the child seemed to have a great aversion to me, and shrunk from me; so I said to the little thing, ‘Pourquoi?’ and clinging to the nurse, it said, ‘Il bat tout le monde!’ I suppose she had heard her nurse say so, and thought I should beat her.’ (9)

In 1851, the Duke of Wellington sent Mary, Lady Salisbury “a machine called a Jump Baby,” for her youngest child’s amusement. Wellington was very concerned that the machine be securely hung up before the child sat in it. “I cannot think this screw sufficiently secure! but Lord Salisbury, or the House Carpenter, who must screw it into the ceiling will know whether it is sufficiently secure to bear the weight. My opinion is that there ought to be some Key upon it, if inserted in a beam in the Ceiling.” Upon learning that the baby jumper was properly installed, he expressed his satisfaction. “It is certainly a delightful instrument!” (10)

The following year, Irish politician John Croker visited the Duke of Wellington and noted:

Lady Barrow’s five little girls were with us, and he won their hearts by writing his name in their albums; in the signature of one, the best written of the five, he wrote his name with a single l. His good humour and kindness to the children, and indeed to everybody, was very pleasing. (11)

And there is reportedly a letter, dated 1837, in which Wellington informs young William Harries that his toad is alive and well.

In the country, one day, the Duke saw in the garden a young boy, whom he recognised as belonging to the gardens, but who was busily engaged in some inscrutable occupation on the ground. The Duke went close and looked, but still could not solve the mystery. ‘What are you about?’ he asked, in his point-blank way. ‘It’s a pet toad I’m feeding,’ answered the boy; ‘and they’re going to send me to school, and the toad will die.’ ‘Never mind; go to school,’ said the great captain; ‘I’ll take care of the toad.’ And so he did. The boy when to school; and subsequently he received a letter which reported the well-being of the toad, in the well-known autograph writing of ‘[Field Marshal] the Duke of Wellington.’ (12)

The Duke of Wellington as babysitter

Friends and relatives of the Duke of Wellington often left their children in his care when they were away. He treated the children with great thoughtfulness, as this anecdote from 1837 at Walmer Castle indicates.

The Duke has now staying with him two little children of Lord and Lady Robert Grosvenor [Wellington’s niece], who are gone abroad, and his conduct to these chicks displays a kindheartedness and warmth of feeling such as their own parents could not surpass, but such as the Duke displays to all. Lady Mahon was told by Lady Mary Grimston who was staying in the house, that the children having expressed their desire to receive letters by the post, the Duke every morning writes a little letter to each of them, containing good advice for the day, which is regularly delivered to them when the post comes in.

It also appears that the Duke gratifies Bo, as they call little Robert, by playing almost every morning with him at football on the ramparts. We saw him playing with them with cushions in the drawing-room before dinner. (13)

Every summer, Wellington’s other niece Priscilla Fane (Lady Burghersh) and her children spent several months at Walmer Castle. “Every possible occasion for giving pleasure or advantages to them was seized by the Duke. Lady Burghersh’s only complaint was that the Duke spoiled the children so outrageously.” Wellington told Priscilla that he was happy to have any of the children stay with him. “I can lodge them all if they were ten times more numerous.” When Priscilla was away, Wellington wrote to her reporting that the children “are looking in the highest health. They come and run and play here upon the rampart. But I don’t think they would come if I was absent. (14)

Priscilla’s son Julian was a special favourite of the Duke’s.

[W]hen the old gardener at Walmer was objecting to a raid on the fruit trees by a party of children, Julian (about 7 or 8 years old) was heard to say, ‘Never mind, let’s go to the Duke; he always allows everything and gives you what you like directly.’ (15)

Priscilla’s daughter Rose remembered Wellington as “some one extraordinarily kind and indulgent, always ready to play with them, and who gave her delicious thrills by carrying her shoulder-high so that she could look down on the lighted lamps.” (16)

In October 1851, a friend of the Duke’s left her children in London while she was away. On learning that the children were nearby, Wellington went to visit them and wrote to their mother:

They were in health, appearance, spirits, and every other respect, as you could wish that they should be…. I desired [their governess] to let me know if any of them should be sick! and gave her my address, and desired her to write to me in case anything should occur to any of them. … You may rely upon it, that if any interference on my part should be necessary, I will do by them exactly as I would if they were my grandchildren. (17)

When two of the children came down with measles, Wellington interviewed the landlady and the governess, met with the apothecary, visited the children in their sick room, and wrote to their mother daily with reports on the children’s health.

Other anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington with children

The Duke’s old Waterloo charger was a great favourite with his master, who would sometimes walk by his side while the groom led him out for an airing. On one occasion our friend’s little boy, a fine, frank fellow, attended by his nurse, was about to pass through the archway at the Horse Guards, in London, when they saw the Duke coming, walking by the side of his horse. By some means ‘Georgie’ attracted his notice, and he began to talk to him. Presently he asked the child whether ‘he would like to be a soldier?’

‘O, that I should!’ was the childlike reply.

‘And to ride on a war-horse, should you my boy?’

‘O, yes!’

‘Up with him; up with him!’ said the Duke, at the same time holding the reins, to allow the groom to hoist master ‘Georgie’ on to the charger’s back.

Great was the child’s delight, proud was his nurse; but quite as happy as either was the renowned warrior who that morning contributed so much to a little fellow’s enjoyment.

We have also another pleasing incident connected with the Duke when out hunting.

A farmer was wishful to prevent the hunters riding over his newly-cultivated fields. He therefore sent a boy to watch at the gate telling him to keep it shut whoever might come. During the day the hungers, as was expected, arrived. ‘Open the gate my boy,’ said one of them. ‘No! I shan’t,’ was the reply. ‘Boy,’ said another horseman, ‘do you know whom you are speaking to? This is His Grace the Duke of Wellington.’ ‘I don’t care,’ said the lad. ‘Master sent me here to keep the gate shut, and I won’t open it for any of you.’ The Duke seeing that the boy was doing his duty smilingly commended him, gave him a sovereign, and rode off another way. (18)

The following anecdote involves the son of Kendall, the Duke’s valet, who was spending the day with his father at Wellington’s London residence, Apsley House.

The Duke’s bell rang; Kendall, answering it, was followed by the lad into the study. ‘Whose boy is that?’ asked the Duke quickly.‘ Mine, your Grace,’ replied Kendall, ‘and I humbly ask your Grace’s pardon for his coming into the room, not knowing your Grace was here.’‘Oh!  that is nothing,’ quoth the Duke; ‘but I didn’t know you had a son, Kendall. Send him in and leave him with me.’

So the boy – greatly trembling – was sent in to the Duke, who asked him if he knew to whom he was speaking. ‘Yes, sir – your Grace, I mean.’ ‘Oh, my little fellow,’ answered the Duke, ‘it will be easier for you to call me ‘sir.’ You call your schoolmaster ‘sir,’ don’t ye? Call me ‘sir’ too, if you choose. Now I wonder if you can play draughts.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Come on then; we’ll have a game, and I’ll give you two men.’

Down they sat; the boy said afterwards that he really thought he was going to win the second game, but his doughty antagonist laid a trap for him, and chuckled mightily when he fell into it. The games over, the Duke asked the boy a lot of questions in geography, and then said –

‘Well, you shall dine with me to-day; but I shall not dine yet: would you like to see my pictures?’ and he trotted him round the great gallery. Then the Duke took him among the statues – ‘important fellows’ he said they were – but the boy said he preferred the pictures. ‘I thought so,’ observed the Duke; ‘but tell me – which of these is most like your schoolmaster?’

Young Kendall picked out a bust without mustaches, which happened to be a likeness of the Duke himself. ‘Oh! well,’ laughed the Duke, ‘that is a very good man of his sort. Come now, we’ll go to dinner. I have ordered it early, as I suppose you dine early at school.’ ‘At one o’clock, sir,’ said the lad. ‘A very good hour,’ said the Duke. ‘I used to dine at one when I was at school.’

They sat down tête-a-tête, the anxious father being told that the bell would ring when he was required. Having said grace, the Duke told the boy that he would give him a little of every dish, as he knew boys liked to taste all they saw. Dinner over, the lad was dismissed with the injunction – ‘Be a good boy; do your duty; now you may go to your father.’ (19)

Wellington’s godchildren

The Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria and Prince Arthur

The First of May 1851, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the Duke of Wellington offering a gift to Queen Victoria and his godson Prince Arthur

The Duke of Wellington had many godchildren, including Dorothea Lieven’s youngest son Arthur, as well as Lady Salisbury’s three oldest children, all of whom had Arthur in their names, even the girl, Mary Arthur. In 1842, when meeting with his four-year-old godson Arthur Stanhope, the son of the 5th Earl Stanhope and his wife Emily, “he showed – as he always does to children – the greatest possible kindness and good-nature, conversing with and questioning the young fellow for some time. Little Edward [Arthur’s two-year-old brother] showed a disposition to cry; [Wellington] said, “You will not do so when you come to know me better.” (20)

Wellington’s most notable godson was Queen Victoria’s and Prince Albert’s seventh child, Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, who served as Canada’s 10th Governor General. Arthur was born on May 1, 1850, which was the Duke of Wellington’s 81st birthday. On his 82nd birthday, Wellington presented a jewelled casket to one-year-old Arthur. May 1st, 1851, was also the day the Great Exhibition opened at the Crystal Palace in London. Later that year, Wellington wrote to one of his correspondents regarding his royal namesake:

I have seen my Godson, who is in a very prosperous state. He trots about in hand perfectly. He saluted me in my fashion! Put his hand up to his head! He is a fine and clever child. (21)

Wellington with his own children

Although Wellington was delightful with other people’s children, he had less effusive relations with his own sons, Arthur (born in 1807, known as the Marquess of Douro) and Charles (born in 1808).

They were born in the first two years of his marriage and scarcely knew their father before he returned permanently to England in 1818. Wellington was always afraid that they would disgrace him by falling short of the high standards expected of his sons. He thought he saw in them too much of their mother, who did indulge them and shield them from their grim father, and perhaps too much of what he had been in his own youth, and feared that without the goad of poverty they would never develop his discipline but drift through life in an aimless and even dissolute manner. These fears were not entirely groundless. His sons could not remember when their father was not a great man and grew up accepting their place at the top of society as perfectly natural…. (22)

Wellington in quarantine with his grandchildren

In 1851, the Duke of Wellington found himself in quarantine with Charles’s children (Arthur was childless), as he reported to Lady Salisbury.

I have not been able to fix a day on which I should go down to Hatfield to pay you a visit; nor can I yet do so, as I consider myself at present in a State of Quarantine! My grandchildren have had the measles since Friday. The two eldest have had it and they are considered well; but still confined to the House on account of the cough! The two younger ones, although in the same room, have not caught the infection! Lady Charles came to town yesterday and expects and intends to have the disease which she has never had! I desired Lady Douro not to come here after Friday! She was to be in waiting on this day, and it is very fortunate that I did so, as the Queen sent Sir James Clark yesterday to see how she was and enquire about the chances of her carrying the infection.

I believe that we are all over cautious about infection. If it is so easily carried, how does it happen that Physicians and Apothecaries do not carry it?

The only precaution that they pretend they take is that they change their clothes and wash their hands.

Of course I keep out of the sick Nursery and there is no chance that I should carry the infection. I am on the ground floor and the children two stories above me! But still I think it best not to go down [to Hatfield] or to think of paying a visit till every-body in the measles has recovered and gone out. (23)

You might also enjoy:

The Duke of Wellington: Napoleon’s Nemesis

The Duke of Wellington and Women

Napoleon and Arthur Bertrand

The Duke of Wellington’s Shooting Adventures

The Duke of Wellington and Religion

Charades with the Duke of Wellington

When the Duke of Wellington Met Napoleon’s Wife

  1. Rose Weigall, ed., Correspondence of Lady Burghersh with the Duke of Wellington (London, 1903), p. 211.
  2. Herbert Maxwell, The Life of Wellington, Vol. II (London, 1900), p. 10.
  3. Philip Henry Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851, (London, 1889), p. 213.
  4. Georgiana, Dowager Lady de Ros, “Personal Recollections of the Great Duke of Wellington,” The Living Age, Vol. 180 (Boston, 1889), p. 314.
  5. Edith Walford, The Words of Wellington (London, 1869), p. 165.
  6. “Selections From Wellington’s Letters,” The Century Magazine, Vol. 39 (December 1889), p. 172.
  7. “Personal Recollections of the Great Duke of Wellington,” p. 314.
  8. William Hamilton Maxwell, Life, Military and Civil, of the Duke of Wellington (London, 1852), p. 444.
  9. John Timbs, Wellingtoniana: Anecdotes, Maxims, and Characteristics of the Duke of Wellington (London, 1852), pp. 129-130.
  10. John Gurwood, ed., Speeches of the Duke of Wellington in Parliament, Vol. II (London, 1854), pp. 226-228.
  11. John Wilson Croker, The Croker Papers, Vol. 3 (London, 1885), p. 280.
  12. Walter K. Kelly, A Life of Wellington for Boys (London, 1853), p. 301.
  13. Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851, pp. 107-108.
  14. Correspondence of Lady Burghersh with the Duke of Wellington, pp. 52, 122, 117.
  15. Ibid., pp. 199-200.
  16. Caroline Rachel Selina Weigall, Lady Rose Weigall: A Memoir Based on Her Correspondence and the Recollections of Friends (New York, 1923), p. 5.
  17. “Selections From Wellington’s Letters,” pp. 174-175.
  18. The Child’s Friend (London, 1875), p. 175.
  19. The Life of Wellington, Vol. II, pp. 378-379.
  20. Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851, p. 278.
  21. “Selections From Wellington’s Letters,” p. 177.
  22. Neville Thompson, Wellington After Waterloo (London, 1986), p. 22.
  23. Speeches of the Duke of Wellington in Parliament, Vol. II, pp. 220-221.

10 commments on “The Duke of Wellington and Children”

  • Constantine Tung says:

    Extremely interesting. It is a very moving story about the very moving aspect of a great general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Perhaps, you can present all these into a book? About Wellington, I do have something to ask you, Shannon, the expert. When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, he, according the book I read, did wish to go to the U.S. if the British navy were not waiting outside the harbor. In Jan, 1815, just a few months before Wellington defeated Napoleon, the U.S. defeated the British troops in New Orleans. In the battle, the British commander Sir Edward Pakenham was killed. Sir Pakenham was Duke of Wellington’s brother-in-law. What if Napoleon did succeed to get himself into the U.S. in 1815 instead of 1821? Would Napoleon get more support from the U.S., and fight another war with the Duke of Wellington on the soil of the U.S. or of Canada?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Constantine. That’s a nice suggestion, to collect all the blog posts into a book. It’s an interesting and plausible scenario to have Napoleon arrive in the United States in 1815, rather than in 1821 as he does in Napoleon in America. As you note, with the frosty relations between the U.S. and Britain at that point, it might have led to a different outcome than the one posited in the novel. You might enjoy my post on why Napoleon didn’t escape to the United States, if you haven’t already seen it.

  • Rise says:

    Hi ! Do you know a website that talks about his life?

  • Rise says:

    Thank you so much 🙂

  • Tom Vance says:

    Great article! Another interesting account is the meeting of Wellington and Napoleon and Marie Louise’s son (King of Rome, Napoleon II) who had the title of Duke of Reichstadt when Wellington met the 11-year old in Vienna in September 1822. According to Alan Palmer (Napoleon & Marie Louise: The Emperor’s Second Wife, 2001), Wellington reflected, “a fine lad, educated like the archdukes” and “very civil to me” (p. 217).

  • Cd says:

    Thank you for the article. It’s so very sad that he was unable to have a happy relationship with his children when they were little.

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When they become familiar with me I believe that they consider me one of themselves, and make of me a sort of plaything! They climb upon me and make toys of my Hair and my fingers!

Duke of Wellington