The Duke of Wellington and Religion
The Duke of Wellington, best known for commanding the coalition of forces that defeated Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo, was a man of sincere, unpretentious religious belief and habits.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was born as Arthur Wesley on May 1, 1769 in Dublin, Ireland. Although the majority of Ireland’s population was Catholic, Wellington’s parents were Protestants. They were members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and worshipped at the Church of Ireland, which was Ireland’s established church. When Ireland and Great Britain merged to form the United Kingdom in 1801, the Church of Ireland united with Britain’s established church, the Church of England. In short, the Duke of Wellington was an Anglican. He was baptized in St. Peter’s Church, Dublin. In 1806, he married Kitty Pakenham at St. George’s Church, Dublin, in a temporary chapel on Whitworth Road. The ceremony was conducted by Wellington’s clergyman brother Gerald. Wellington’s funeral was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1852.
The Duke of Wellington was a churchgoer. When he was resident in London, he went to the early morning service at St. James’s Church in Piccadilly. Sometime after 1822 he stopped going, as he found the London church too cold. However, he continued to regularly attend services at the local parish church when staying at Stratfield Saye (his country estate in Hampshire) or at Walmer Castle in Kent, where he spent every autumn in his role as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports from 1829 until his death.
In 1832, the Bishop of Exeter encouraged Wellington to attend public worship more often and show “before the world that you glory in being the servant of God.” (1) Wellington replied:
[T]hat which I am particularly anxious to remove from your mind is the notion that I am a person without any sense of religion. If I am so, I am unpardonable; as I have had opportunities to acquire, and have acquired, a good deal of knowledge upon the subject. …
I am not ostentatious about anything. I am not a ‘Bible Society Man’ upon principle, and I make no ostentatious display either of charity or of other Christian virtues, though I believe that, besides enormous sums given to hundreds and thousands who have positive claims upon me, there is not a charity of any description within my reach to which I am not a contributor….
Whenever or wherever my presence at church can operate as an example I do go. I never am absent from divine service at Walmer or when I am in Hampshire, or in any place in the country where my presence or absence could be observed.
But it must be recollected that some ten years ago I met with an accident which affected my hearing, and, in point of fact, I never hear more than what I know by heart of the Church service, and never one word of the sermon.
Then observe that during at least eight months of the year I should have to sit for two hours every week uncovered in a cold church: this would certainly have the effect of depriving me of the sense of hearing altogether. … [I]t is true that I do not attend divine service in any parish in London. But excepting that duty, which I never fail to perform in the country, I don’t know of any that I leave unperformed. (2)
One of the charities to which Wellington contributed was the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, of which he became a member in 1819. One of his biographers noted that, “having been reminded by a greatly daring secretary two years later that he had so far paid no subscriptions, he gave £50 that year and 5 guineas annually until practically the end of his life.” (3)
In 1839, the artist Benjamin Haydon stayed at Walmer Castle and attended church with the Duke of Wellington, sitting in the Duke’s pew.
From the bare wainscot, the absence of curtains, the dirty green footstools, and common chairs, I feared I was in the wrong pew… .The Duke pulled out his prayer-book and followed the clergyman in the simplest way. … At the name of Jesus Christ the Duke bowed his silvery hairs like the humblest labourer, and yet not more than others, but to the same degree. He seemed to wish for no distinction. At the epistle he stood upright, like a soldier, and when the blessing was pronounced he buried his head in one hand, and uttered his prayer as if it came from his heart in humbleness. (4)
The following year, in conversation with Viscount Mahon, Wellington condemned the practice of wealthy parishioners buying pews. “He said that if space were wanted in Stratfield Saye he should certainly offer to give up his pew, retaining only a chair for himself. ‘The system of a church establishment is,’ added he, ‘that every clergyman should preach the word of God, and that every parishioner should be able to hear the word of God. Is it not then quite contrary to that system that by means of handsome family pews twenty or thirty persons of rank should take up the space of two or three hundred?’” (5)
In 1849, Wellington explained his churchgoing to his friend Angela Burdett-Coutts as follows:
[T]he law requires that we should all attend divine service in the church of our parish if possible; and I do so invariably excepting in London. My deafness and liability to catch cold in my head and ears render it necessary to attend divine service in a warmer place…. I have been satisfied with attendance once a day because, my public duties being very extensive, I find myself under the necessity of attending to them on Sundays, at times even till late in the night. I consider that the attendance at divine service in public is a duty upon every individual in high station, who has a large house and many servants, and whose example might influence the conduct of others. I have never thought it necessary to attend twice in the day at any time. But I may be altogether wrong; and I should be sorry to advise you to neglect a duty which, if not necessary, cannot be otherwise than meritorious and cannot do you an injury! (6)
A man of faith
The Duke of Wellington’s attention to religious observance was not just a matter of duty or keeping up appearances. He had faith in God, and a belief that he was under God’s protection. When he narrowly escaped from French forces after winning the Battle of Sorauren in Spain in 1813, he wrote to his brother William, “I escaped as usual unhurt and I begin to believe that the finger of God is upon me.” (7) After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he similarly wrote, “The finger of Providence was upon me, and I escaped unhurt.” (8) In one of his conversations with Mahon, Wellington “alluded to the religious state of England, and in very solemn and emphatic terms declared his confidence – which he said often rose in his mind – that God Almighty would not allow our Church to be subverted.” (9)
Wellington believed that the Lord’s Prayer contained “the sum total of religion and morals.” (10) And here’s a fun fact: he told Mahon more than once that he had learned Spanish while on his way to fight Napoleon’s forces in the Iberian Peninsula “by means of a Spanish prayer-book – that is, a translation into Spanish of the English Common Prayer.” (11)
Wellington also took to heart Christian teachings on forgiveness. “When an army colonel asked him how he could forgive and reinstate Sir Robert Wilson, a soldier who had intrigued so much against him, the Duke answered that he himself had done many things which required forgiveness, ‘& he hoped God who was a God of Peace would forgive him.’” (12)
Wellington called Alexander Keith’s Demonstration of the Truth of Christianity “the most interesting work upon any subject that I ever perused” and told a friend he sat up “half the night” reading it. (13)
The importance of religious education
The Duke of Wellington considered that religious faith was essential to civic peace and order. Mahon noted the “energy and earnestness of manner with which…he deprecated mere ‘secular education’ – knowledge without religion – and doubted whether the devil himself could devise a worse scheme of social destruction.” (14)
In December 1840, Mahon wrote:
I cut out the following from yesterday’s Standard; it is an extract from a speech of the Bishop of Exeter last week at his Diocesan Board of Education: ‘He had been told by a distinguished individual that when the Duke of Wellington returned from India, now about thirty years since, he found the whole country hot upon the subject of education, for the system of Lancaster was just then breached, and the matter appeared to have excited in every quarter the most lively interest. The Duke happened to be present one day at the house of a nobleman of high station when the subject was taken up with considerable earnestness by the company, and he then took occasion to say, ‘Take care what you are about, for unless you base all this on religion, you are only making so many clever devils.’ (15)
Two years later, Wellington had a long conversation with Mahon on the topic of education.
The Duke said that the necessity of national education, and the best means for it, often occupied his thoughts, and he explained to me the outlines of a plan which he thought would best meet the difficulties of the case. He spoke with much emphasis and deep and earnest feeling on the public duty as well as the public interest involved in teaching every man what he owes to the Almighty, to his neighbours, and to the State – recurring more than once to each of these three branches. …I remember these precise words on the Church: ‘It is the Church of England that has made England what she is – a nation of honest men!’ (16)
Role of the clergy
Wellington did not, however, believe that clergymen should get involved in “the broils of the county.” (17) He refused to appoint them as magistrates, and thought they ought to concentrate on ministering to their parishioners. In 1832, he responded to a rector of an Irish parish who, in the context of local disturbances, had written to him wondering whether he should remove his family to Canada.
You are a minister of the Church of England. You have, I understand, a cure of souls. Can you abandon your post in a moment of crisis and danger for worldly objects? Your flock ought to provide for your decent and comfortable subsistence, and they not only do not perform their duty, but they persecute you. Well, ought you then for this to abandon them? Is it not your duty to remain at your post and hope for better times? Make every exertion, every sacrifice, to enable you to do justice by everybody, including your family; but I confess that if I was in your situation I would not quit my post. (18)
View of other religions
The Duke of Wellington was tolerant of Catholics. When he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he worked hard to ensure passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act (also known as the Catholic Emancipation Act) of 1829, including threatening to resign if King George IV did not provide royal assent. The Act allowed Catholics to sit in Parliament.
However, Wellington opposed a similar measure for the Jews. When the Jewish Civil Disabilities Bill came before the House of Lords in 1833, he said:
I have not the least doubt that there are many officers of that religion of great merit and distinction, but still I must again repeat they are not Christians; and, therefore, sitting as I do in a Christian legislature, I cannot advise the Sovereign on the throne to sanction a law to admit them to seats in this House, and the other House of Parliament, and to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by Christians. (19)
Wellington voted against the bill, which was defeated.
Anecdotes of the Duke of Wellington at church
In a book published over 40 years after the Duke of Wellington’s death, Anglican priest Samuel Hole wrote that Bishop Jackson, Rector of St. James’s Piccadilly, had told him that “one morning, when he was preaching in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s, he was much perplexed by the conduct of a verger, who, at the close of the sermon, opened the door of the pulpit, and just as the preacher was about to step through, suddenly closed it with all his force, and with a noise which rang through the building. ‘I looked at him for an explanation,’ the bishop continued, ‘and he informed me in a whisper that his Grace the Duke of Wellington was asleep, and that, not liking to touch him, they adopted this method of rousing him from his slumbers.’ There was no necessity to repeat the bombardment, as ‘that good gray head, which all men knew,’ was no longer nodding.” (20)
Closer to Wellington’s time, another cleric, Henry William Maddock, included the following in a sermon he preached at All Saints’ Church, St. John’s Wood on the Sunday after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral.
[O]n one occasion attending at his parish church the Lord’s Supper, [the Duke’s] fellow-worshippers, not at first aware of his presence, were advancing before him to the altar, and afterwards, perceiving him to be amongst them, were making way for him to pass, he waived the distinction, declaring, emphatically, we are all equal here. (21)
This anecdote was enthusiastically taken up and embellished by subsequent clergymen and Sunday School teachers. Here’s an example from an 1863 American publication.
It is related of the Duke of Wellington, that once when he remained to take the sacrament at his parish church, a very poor old man went up the opposite aisle, and reaching the communion table, knelt down close by the side of the duke. Someone (probably a pew owner) came and touched the poor man on the shoulder, and whispered to him to move further away, or to rise and wait until the duke had received the bread and wine. But the eagle eye, and the quick ear of the great commander caught the meaning of that touch and that whisper. He clasped the old man’s hand, and held him, to prevent his rising, and in a reverential undertone, but most distinctly, said, ‘Do not move – we are all equal here.’ (22)
At this point it is worth recalling Wellington’s poor hearing.
By 1889, the parishioner had become “a poor labourer who was making way for the duke to kneel first at the altar.” (23) In some renditions, the Duke puts his hand on the fellow’s shoulder, rather than clasps his hand, and so on. The anecdote continues to crop up even today.
You might also enjoy:
- Arthur Wellesley, Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, Volume VIII (London, 1880), p. 146.
- Ibid., pp. 148-149.
- Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State (New York, 1972), p. 88.
- Tom Taylor, ed. Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Second Edition, Volume III (London, 1853), pp. 125-126.
- Philip Henry Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851, Third Edition (London, 1889), pp. 234-235.
- Seventh Duke of Wellington (ed.), Wellington and His Friends (London, 1965), pp. 279-80.
- Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: The Years of the Sword (New York, 1969), p. 330.
- Arthur Richard Wellesley, ed., Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, Volume X (London, 1863), p. 531.
- Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, p. 160.
- Wellington: Pillar of State, p. 406.
- Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, p. 291.
- Wellington: Pillar of State, p. 406.
- Wellington and His Friends, 153-154.
- Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, pp. 179-180.
- Ibid., p. 261.
- Ibid., p. 282.
- Wellington: Pillar of State, p. 88.
- Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, p. 35.
- The Speeches of the Duke of Wellington in Parliament, Volume I (London, 1854), p. 674.
- Samuel Reynolds Hole, The Memories of Dean Hole, New Edition (London, 1893), pp. 126-127.
- Henry William Maddock, A Sermon, Preached on Sunday Morning, Nov. 21, 1852, Being the Sunday After the Funeral of the Duke of Wellington at All Saints’ Church, St. John’s Wood, pp. 10-11.
- H. Harbaugh, ed., The Guardian: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Social, Literary and Religious Interests of Young Men and Ladies, Vol. XIV (Chambersburg, PA, 1863), p. 100.
- C. Dunkley, ed., The Official Report of the Church Congress Held at Cardiff on October 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, 1889 (London, 1889), p. 98.
I never hear more than what I know by heart of the Church service, and never one word of the sermon.
Duke of Wellington