Assassination Attempts on the Duke of Wellington

Although the Duke of Wellington did not face as many assassination attempts as Napoleon did, there were at least two serious plots to assassinate him. In the first attempt, the bullet fired by the would-be assassin failed to hit the Duke. The second attempt, in which Wellington was one of many intended victims, was foiled before it could be carried out.

Studies for the Duke of Wellington, by George Hayter, circa 1820

Studies for the Duke of Wellington, by George Hayter, circa 1820. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Attempt to assassinate Wellington in Paris, 1818

After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and abdication from the French throne in 1815, Louis XVIII was again restored as the King of France. Concerned about the allegiance of the French army and the stability of peace in Europe, the victorious allies established a multinational army to occupy France for a minimum of three years. This would protect Louis XVIII against any revolutionary uprising and give him time to build a loyal military force and firm up his support within France. The Duke of Wellington was placed in charge of this army of occupation.

Some supporters of the French Revolution (Jacobins), as well as some supporters of Napoleon (Bonapartists), favoured using violence to bring about the downfall of the restored monarchy. They hated the army of occupation because it propped up Louis XVIII’s rule.

Wellington knew that they posed a danger. On June 25, 1816, he gave a ball at his residence in the Rue des Champs-Elysées. The rooms were crowded with guests when an alarm was given that the house was on fire.

It appeared, upon inquiry, that, in a cellar, of which the window opened to the street, a barrel of oil had been placed; shavings also had been scattered on the floor, in which some bottles filled with gunpowder were mixed, and the shavings were on fire when the discovery was made. A few minutes later, and the whole house must have been in a blaze. (1)

In July 1817 Wellington wrote to General William Beresford, who had just suppressed a conspiracy in Lisbon:

[T]he French Revolution has left in the world heaps of dangerous and unquiet characters…who are become a focus of mischief, of conspiracy, and rebellion, in nearly every country of Europe. … [At Paris] I never go into any blackguard mob or place in which a fellow might insult me with impunity. In other respects, I ride or walk alone, and unattended, and go to the theatres and everywhere as other people do. (2)

On January 15, 1818, Wellington’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Ulysses Burgh, received a letter from Paris signed “F.G.” warning of a plot to assassinate the Duke. Wellington, who was then at Cambrai, disregarded this communication. Then, on January 30, Lord Charles Kinnaird, a Scottish liberal who had been exiled from Paris because of his lack of respect for the royal family (he called the Bourbons “old women”), wrote to Wellington’s Chief of Staff, General George Murray, saying that he had been visited by a French exile in Brussels who told him of an assassination plot.

I asked him how he came to be aware of the intended crime? He answered that an officer (a demi-solde, I think) to whom he occasionally supplied the means of existence had communicated to him an offer which some months ago was made to him to undertake it; that he had refused, and that another had accepted it; that this latter has been four months in the pay of his employers, and after having been during that time constantly in the neighborhood of the Duke wherever he went, was now established in Paris, awaiting his arrival. (3)

The informant offered to go to Paris and point out the culprit if he could be guaranteed safe conduct and return. He also hoped that three of his exiled friends would be allowed to return to France.

Murray immediately took the letter to the Duke, who “treat[ed] the matter very lightly, as…he has always done everything of the kind; and if there were a chance of getting him in any way to intercede with the French government [in favour of the exiles], certainly the least likely means of doing so would be anything in the shape of intimidation to himself.” (4) Wellington said, “I could not do that to procure my own safety from assassination which I did not think it proper to do on other grounds.” (5)

Kinnaird’s information proved to be accurate. On the night of February 10, 1818, someone tried to shoot the Duke of Wellington in Paris just as he was returning to his residence from a party. Wellington described the assassination attempt to Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, in a letter dated February 12.

[A] pistol was fired at my carriage, close to my own door, at about half-past twelve on the night before last, by a well-dressed person, who immediately ran away and made his escape. The sentries at the door were, at the time, within the porte cochère [carriage entranceway], as they usually are in the night; and it appears that the man had accompanied the carriage, at an accelerated pace about sixty or seventy yards along the street (Rue des Champs Elysées); he then took post behind the sentry-box while the carriage was turning to enter the porte cochère, and fired at the moment it was entering. I believe the horses had entered; and, in short, he was so close to the house and carriage, that I, who saw the flash and heard the report, conceived that one of the sentries had probably laid down his arms, and that, in taking them up awkwardly upon the approach of the carriage, his musket had gone off. Nobody was hurt, and the carriage was not even touched. …

[T]hough I did not see the assassin, I am quite certain he was a military person, and one of considerable intelligence. No common person would have ventured to commit the crime within two yards of my sentries, and none but a military man who had well observed the porte cochère and the mode in which the duty was done by the sentries, could have seen that while the horses and carriage were entering the sentries could not get out, and that the delay would give him time, after the shot was fired, to escape beyond the distance to which the sentries could pursue him.

He was very fortunate in his escape…. Two of my English servants were coming home from a public house, and heard the shot and saw the flash; and one of them observed to the other that the shot had been fired at my carriage. The assassin afterwards passed them in the street, and they deliberated whether they should stop him; but they determined they would not, as there was no cry or alarm from the house. (6)

Regarding his safety, the Duke added:

I have always been much more careful than people imagine. I know that no person in these degenerate days will risk his own life to take mine, or even that of a more obnoxious person; and therefore I conceive I run no risk by day, or those public places which are under the immediate guardianship of the police. I never go to any suspicious place, and have no particular place of resort at which an assassin might lie in wait for me; and it is very extraordinary that in discussing the subject with my friends after the receipt of the letter from Kinnaird, I stated my opinion that the only place in which I could be found alone and unguarded at night was in the neighbourhood of my own house. I have taken measures which I hope will ensure me here in future. I don’t propose to go any more in my own carriage at night, and I have a carriage so arranged as that the doors cannot be forced open, and I shall have arms in it, and a person armed upon the box; and whenever I go to any place where it is probable that the public would expect to see me, I shall be attended by gendarmes. (7)

Caricature of the assassination attempt on the Duke of Wellington in Paris

Caricature of the assassination attempt on the Duke of Wellington in Paris, by Charlet, 1818. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

When the police examined the carriage and the surrounding area, they found no trace of a bullet. Lord Kinnaird travelled to Paris to see Wellington, bringing with him his informant, Louis-Joseph-Stanislas Marinet, known as Nicolle. They were both arrested and interrogated, which greatly angered Kinnaird.

Kinnaird was soon released, but Marinet remained a suspect. The latter was a Bonapartist lawyer in exile in Belgium. He had been condemned to death by the French government for having aided Napoleon’s return to France in 1815. In Brussels, Marinet made the acquaintance of several other French refugees thought to be in on the plot, including a Colonel Brice, who had served in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard chasseurs à cheval on the latter’s return from Elba and also been condemned to death in absentia. It turned out that Marinet had hired a former sergeant of the imperial guard, Marie-André-Nicolas Cantillon, to carry out the assassination. Cantillon, who was around 37 years old, had been conscripted into the French army under Napoleon. He rose to become a sub-lieutenant in the hussars and served in many actions, being wounded in several places. In 1814, he retired on a soldier’s half-pay of 150 francs. During the Hundred Days, he served in a regiment of chasseurs commanded by Colonel Brice. After firing the shot that missed Wellington, Cantillon fled from Paris, tried unsuccessfully to enter Belgium, and then returned to Paris, where he was arrested on March 16. However there was insufficient evidence to bring him and Marinet to trial.

In July, Wellington expressed his frustration with the situation.

In these virtuous days the greatest crime a man can be guilty of is to dénoncer the crime of another, even though that crime should be a plot to assassinate a third person. Although…the government have plenty of proof of the plot, of those who formed it, and of those who carried it into execution, and…they have Marinet, who was one of the conspirators, and Cantillon, who was one of the assassins (for there were two employed), in Paris, all those who have given them the information having stipulated that they should not be brought forward as dénonciateurs, they have not positive proof to produce in a court of justice. The other conspirator was certainly Brice, and I believe Cauchois Lemaire and Guyet were concerned; and there was a second assassin employed. There is no doubt that in August [of 1817] Cantillon and his comrade were posted in the great alley of the park at Bruxelles to assassinate me. I had been observed returning to the Bellevue…after the table d’hôte hour of dinner. They dined at a café in the neighbourhood and went to their post; but I did not pass, and went away next morning. I believe that was the day I walked in another part of the park with Lady Charlotte Greville and Kinnaird, and I recollect having a breeze with Kinnaird about the protection and encouragement he gave to Jacobins. (8)

In November 1818, the allied occupation of France ended and the Duke of Wellington returned to Britain. In May 1819, Marinet and Cantillon were finally brought before a jury. They were acquitted, ostensibly due to a lack of proof but also because Cantillon’s lawyer argued that a guilty verdict would dishonour France. Cantillon was demoted to the rank of sergeant. After Louis Philippe became King of France in 1830, he appointed Cantillon as a gamekeeper at the Palace of Fontainbleau. Cantillon later became a grocer in Brussels.

Marie André Cantillon tried to assassinate the Duke of Wellington in 1818

Marie André Cantillon, 1818

Napoleon’s bequest to Cantillon

Cantillon was ultimately rewarded by none other than Napoleon, who died on May 5, 1821. In a codicil to his will, Napoleon bequeathed 10,000 francs to Wellington’s would-be assassin, noting:

Cantillon had as much right to murder that oligarch as the latter had to send me to perish on the rock of Saint Helena. Wellington, who had suggested murder, justified it as being in Great Britain’s interest. Had Cantillon actually murdered the lord, he would have been covered and justified by the same motives, France’s interests, in getting rid of a general who had violated the capitulation of Paris, and because of that was responsible for the blood of the martyrs Ney, La Bédoyère, etc., etc., and for the crime of robbing the museums, against the terms of the treaty. (9)

Wellington expressed regret that Napoleon had lowered himself to this point. The British public was outraged, particularly since Wellington had forbidden his troops to kill Napoleon at Waterloo.

Cantillon was paid part of the sum between 1823 and 1826. He received the remainder after Napoleon’s nephew came to power as Napoleon III. Cantillon died in July 1869.

Cato Street Conspiracy, 1820

In December 1818, the Duke of Wellington was appointed Master-General of the Ordnance, which made him a member of the British Cabinet under Prime Minister Lord Liverpool. He thus became a target of a plot to assassinate the entire Cabinet.

The conspirators were headed by radical activist Arthur Thistlewood. At first the plan was to pick off the various Cabinet members separately. The Duke of Wellington was to be taken care of by James Ings, a coffeeshop keeper and former butcher. Wellington later recounted:

Mr. Ings, it seems, had watched me often, but never caught me alone, till one afternoon in the beginning of February [1820] he saw me leave the Ordnance Office. He crossed the street and walked after me, intending, when I got into the Green Park, to stab me from behind. But before reaching St. James’s Palace, a gentleman with only one arm met me, and turning round, walked with me through the Park to Apsley House. Mr. Ings was afraid, in the circumstances, to go on with his job, and I escaped. And all this I quite believe, for I recollect meeting Lord Fitzroy Somerset that day; and just as we resumed our walk, I saw a suspicious-looking person pass us and go up St. James’s Street. (10)

Somerset had lost his right arm at the Battle of Waterloo.

The conspirators subsequently decided it would be easier to murder the Cabinet all in one go at a dinner at the Grosvenor Square mansion of Lord Harrowby, Lord President of the Council, on February 23, 1820. They would then seize some public buildings, including the Tower of London and the Bank of England, and proclaim a revolutionary government.

A spy named George Edwards warned the government of the plot. Wellington proposed meeting the conspirators head-on.

My proposal was to get a body of police quietly into the house, to send our dispatch-boxes there, each containing a brace of pistols, and to let them come. I thought it the readiest way of catching them in a trap, without creating alarm elsewhere. My colleagues, however, were of a different opinion, and perhaps they were right. (11)

Instead, the Cabinet dinner was used as a decoy (without the Cabinet actually attending), while soldiers and police attacked the conspirators at their hideout, a stable block on Cato Street in London. There was a fight in the loft, in which nine men were arrested. Thistlewood killed Constable Richard Smithers with a sword, before escaping with three other men. They were arrested a few days later.

Surprise of the Cato Street Conspirators

Surprise of the Cato Street Conspirators

On February 27, in a letter to Marianne Patterson, Wellington explained why Cabinet had let the plot go forward.

In the course of the Tuesday & Wednesday [22 and 23 February] we received information not only from spies but from persons implicated more or less in the plot who were horrified by its turpitude, & gave information to put us on our guard but which they desired might be kept secret. We were still therefore under the necessity of letting the conspiracy work its way, as we should have made but a poor figure in a Court of Justice with the support of the testimony of spies only…we were saved certainly by Divine Providence. (12)

The accused men argued that Edwards had instigated and organized the plot. This defence was unsuccessful. Most of them were convicted of treason. On May 1, the five ringleaders – Thistlewood, Ings, Richard Tidd, William Davidson and John Brunt – were hanged in front of a crowd at Newgate Prison. Half an hour later, their bodies were decapitated. Each head was held up to the crowd and proclaimed to be that of a traitor before being placed into a coffin with the rest of the body.

A May Day Garland for 1820, caricature of the execution of the Cato Street conspirators

A May Day Garland for 1820, caricature of the execution of the Cato Street conspirators

Plots in the 1830s

In 1828, the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister of Great Britain. He faced considerable agitation for parliamentary reform, which was encouraged in 1830 by the July Revolution in France. In September of that year, Wellington received a letter denouncing the name and address of an individual in Manchester who purportedly intended to assassinate him. He said, “I never neglect and never believe these things.” (13) A police enquiry found nothing.

In November 1830, Wellington began to receive threatening letters from “Captain Swing,” a pseudonym for a leader (or leaders) of rioting agricultural labourers. When a mob jostled Wellington in a park, a letter warned: “Pride not yourself upon your late escape….Remember Percival [sic] of old.” (14) British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated in 1812.

There were warnings that a large riot was going to take place on November 9, Lord Mayor’s Day, in which King William IV was going to be imprisoned and Wellington murdered. The King cancelled his planned visit to the City of London, but Wellington scoffed at the idea of danger to himself: “They can try, but they will not do it. It is not so easy to kill a man.” (15) He nonetheless kept pistols in his carriage and carefully secured his London home, Apsley House: “all shutters on ground floors and in Waterloo Gallery to be closed; gates into yard and stable to be locked; armed men to be stationed at various windows, especially the Duke’s little ground-floor bedroom which looked on the Park; if a crowd collected they should be told that the house would be defended and they ‘had better go somewhere else’; no one to fire unless the gates or railing were broken down.” (16)

As things turned out, there was no insurrection on the 9th, just some clashes with the police. Wellington’s wife, Kitty, wrote to her sister: “In my heart I think that in the Duke’s warlike life, he never did anything so valiant, and that no Government ever did wiser than preventing the Lord Mayor’s dinner… London might have been flowing with blood that night and all England drowned in tears now!” (17)

On November 15, Wellington’s government lost a vote of confidence in Parliament. He ceased to be Prime Minister.

On the evening of April 27, 1831, households in London were called upon to light up their windows to demonstrate their support for the Reform Bill, which Wellington opposed. Kitty had died three days earlier and Wellington was out of town, so Apsley House remained dark. The house was attacked by rioters throwing stones. They broke thirty windows, at which point one of Wellington’s servants climbed onto the roof and fired two guns into the air, which dispersed the mob.

“Taking an Airing in Hyde Park; a portrait, Framed but not yet Glazed,” by John Doyle. Wellington looks through his broken windows at Apsley House in 1831.

“Taking an Airing in Hyde Park; a portrait, Framed but not yet Glazed,” by John Doyle. Wellington looks through his broken windows at Apsley House in 1831.

In August 1831, a spy told the Duke of a plot to attack him on the Dover road between London and Walmer Castle. Volunteers escorted him along the route without incident.

On October 12, 1831, another reform mob stoned Apsley House. This time Wellington was at home.

In broad daylight the stones came hurtling through the plate-glass windows for fifty minutes before the police arrived on the scene. One narrowly missed the Duke’s head as he sat at his writing-table and broke a glass-fronted bookcase behind him; another cut through the canvas of Lady Lyndhurst’s portrait by Wilkie, hanging on the wall. The garden was full of stones, though the stone-throwers themselves were kept outside the railings by the sight of armed men posted round the house. Having withdrawn to the Park, the mob circled menacing around the Achilles statue but found it too heavy to overturn. ‘It is now five o’clock, and beginning to rain a little,’ the Duke wrote to Mrs. Arbuthnot from his beleaguered citadel, giving her a blow-by-blow account of the affair; ‘and I conclude that the gentlemen will now go to their dinners.’ (18)

Wellington left the windows unrepaired until 1833, as a sign of contempt for efforts to intimidate him, although he did have iron shutters installed.

On June 18, 1832, two weeks after the Reform Bill received royal assent, the Duke of Wellington faced another alarming crowd. People attempted to drag him off his horse and threw stones and mud at him.

I rode to Pistrucci, in the Mint. He had made a bust of me, but wished for another sitting. So I went without giving him notice…at 9 o’clock, and mounted my horse at half-past 10 to leave him; when I found a crowd at the gate, and several groaned and hooted. Some cried, ‘Bonaparte forever!’ I rode on at a gentle pace, but they followed me. Soon a magistrate (Ballantine) came and offered his services. I thanked him, but said I thought I should get on very well. The noise increased, and two old soldiers, Chelsea Pensioners, came up to me. One of them said he had served under me for many a day, and I said to him, ‘Then keep close to me now;’ and I told them to walk on each side; and whenever we stopped, to place themselves, each with his back against the flank of my horse. Not long afterwards, I saw a policeman making off, and I knew it must be to the next station for assistance. I sent one of my pensioners after him; and presently we got another policeman. We then did pretty well, till I reached Lincoln’s Inn, where I had to call at an Attorney’s Chambers. Sugden and many others came out of the Chancery Court to accompany me, and a large reinforcement of police came from Bow Street. (19)

With their assistance, Wellington made it safely back to Apsley House.

After the passage of the Reform Bill, the physical threats to Wellington diminished. The hero of Waterloo resumed his place in the hearts of the British people and died of a stroke on September 14, 1852.

Thanks to Robert Anderson for suggesting a post about assassination attempts on the Duke of Wellington.

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  1. R. Gleig, The Life of Arthur Duke of Wellington (London, 1869), p. 280.
  2. Arthur Richard Wellesley, ed., Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, Volume XI (London, 1864), p. 745.
  3. Arthur Richard Wellesley, ed., Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, Volume XII (London, 1865), p. 274.
  4. Ibid., p. 260.
  5. Ibid., p. 271.
  6. Ibid., pp. 271-272.
  7. Ibid., pp. 272-273.
  8. Ibid., p. 601.
  9. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 733-734.
  10. Gleig, The Life of Arthur Duke of Wellington, pp. 292-293.
  11. Ibid., p. 293.
  12. Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State (New York, 1972), p. 65.
  13. Francis Egerton, Personal Reminiscences of the Duke of Wellington (London, 1904), p. 62.
  14. Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State, p. 231.
  15. F. Leveson Gower, ed., Letters of Harriet Countess Granville, Vol. II (London, 1894), p. 66.
  16. Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State, p. 234.
  17. Ibid., p. 235.
  18. Ibid., p. 271.
  19. Samuel Rogers, Recollections (Boston, 1859), pp. 247-249.

2 commments on “Assassination Attempts on the Duke of Wellington”

  • Frank G says:

    Napoleon said about Cantillon (originated from Wavre in Belgium) and about the fact that the fired bullet went above the head of the duke “il pensait que c’était un grand homme” which means “he thought he was a tall man” but in French it is a pun. “Grand” has two meaning in French: great and tall depending where you put the word in the sentence. “Grand homme” is translated “Great man” but “Homme grand” is translated “Tall man” so by saying “il pensait que c’était un grand homme”, Napoleon ridiculed Wellington by suggesting “he thought he was tall but not great”. I hope you understand my explanation.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Frank. It’s wonderful to have that quote from Napoleon, and the explanation of its meaning in English.

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[A] pistol was fired at my carriage, close to my own door, at about half-past twelve on the night before last, by a well-dressed person, who immediately ran away and made his escape.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington