British title of nobility. There have been eight dukes in total, but used in common conversation the term invariably refers to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (May 1?, 1769-September 14, [). British soldier and politician, nicknamed the "Iron Duke".
Born in Dublin, Ireland, the younger son of Garret Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington, his exact date of birth is a matter of some contention. All that exists is a church registry of the event marked a few days after it must have occurred. The most likely date is May 1st, but any day for a few days before or after is possible.
Young Wellesley entered army in 1787, where he rose rapidly in rank and soon held a command in Flanders. During this time he was also elected as an member of the Irish Parliament (in 1790), which position he held until 1797.
In 1796 he went with his division to India. The next year, his elder brother Richard was appointed governor general of India, and when war broke out in 1799 against the Sultan of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, Arthur commanded a division of his own. Following the successful conclusion of that campaign, Arthur was appointed to the supreme military and political command in the Deccan; while in that position he defeated the robber chieftan Dhundia Wagh (who had ironically escaped prison in Seringapatam during the last battle of the Mysore war) and the Marathas (in 1803). When his brother's term was up in 1805, he returned with him to England, and was knighted. He was elected as MP for Rye (in the British Parliament this time) in 1806, and was appointed Irish Secretary soon after.
It was in the years following his return to England that the younger Wellesley undertook the events that made his place in history. Since 1789, France had been embroiled in the French Revolution, and Napoleon Bonaparte had reached the heights of power in Europe. The British government was casting about for ways to end Napoleon's threat to them, and Wellesley began to supply it to them.
First came an expedition to Denmark in 1807, which soon led to Wellesley's appointment as Lieutenant General in the Peninsular War. Though that war wasn't going particularly well, it was the one place where the British (and the Portuguese) had managed to put up a fight on the European mainland against France and her allies. He defeated the French at the Battle of Roliça and the Battle of Vimeiro in 1808. The resulting Convention of Cintra (the French pulled out of Lisbon, but their army was repatriated on British ships) was controversial, and Wellesley was briefly recalled to Britain. In the meantime, however, Napoleon himself had come to Spain, and when the chief commander Sir John Moore died, Wellesley was given his position.
Returning to Iberia in April 1809, he defeated the army of King Joseph (Bonaparte) of Spain at the Battle of Talavera in 1809, then drove French forces out of Portugal entirely in 1810-11. Driving into Spain he defeated the French again the Battle of Salamanca, then took Madrid in 1812. A French counter-attack put British forces in a precarious position, but Wellesley was given command of all allied armies in Spain. A new offensive in 1813, culminating in the Battle of Vitoria pushed French forces back across the border with France. A follow-up invasion of southern France had reached Toulouse when Napoleon abdicated for the first time on April 12, 1814.
Returning to England hailed as the conquering hero, Wellesley was appointed Duke of Wellington, a title his descendants hold to this day. He was soon appointed ambassador to France, then took Viscount Castlereagh's place at the Congress of Vienna, where he strongly advocated allowing France to keep its place in the European balance of power.
On February 26, 1815, Napoleon left his exile on Elba and returned to France. Gaining control once again over the country by May, he then faced a reformation of the alliance against him. Wellington left Vienna to command the British forces. He ended up in Belgium, along with Prussian forces under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, where after a complicated series of events the joined armies finally defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The French Emperor abdicated once again on June 22, and was spirited away by the British to distant St. Helena.
Politics beckoned once again in 1818, when Wellington was appointed Master-General of the Ordnance in the Tory government of Lord Liverpool. In 1827, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the British Army, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life. Along with Robert Peel, Wellington became one of the rising stars of the Tory party, and by 1828, had become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
As Prime Minister, Wellington was the picture of the arch-conservative, though oddly enough the highlights of his term was Catholic Emancipation, the granting of almost full civil rights to Catholics in the United Kingdom. The change was forced by the landslide by-election win of Daniel O'Connell, a Catholic proponent of emancipation, who was elected despite not being legally allowed to sit in Parliament. Fearing insurrection, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed.
Wellington's government fell in 1830. In the summer and fall of that year, a wave of riots swept the country. The Whig Party had been out of power for all but a few years since the 1770s, and saw political reform in response to the unrest as the key to their return. Wellington stuck to the Tory policy of no reform and no expansion of the franchise, and as a result lost a vote of non-confidence on November 15, 1830. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Earl Grey.
The Whigs introduced the first Reform Act, but Wellington and the Tories worked to prevent its passage. The bill passed in the House of Commons, but was defeated in the House of Lords. An election followed in direct response, and the Whigs were returned with an even larger majority. A second Reform Act was introduced, and defeated in the same way, and another wave of near insurrection swept the country. During this time, Wellington was greeted by a hostile reaction from the crowds at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and eventually the bill was passed after the Whigs threatened to have the House of Lords packed with their own followers if it were not. Though passed, Wellington was never reconciled to the change; when Parliament first met after the first election under the widened franchise, Wellington is reported to have said "I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life." During this time, Wellington was gradually superseded as leader of the Tories by Robert Peel, and when the Tories returned to power in 1834, Peel was Prime Minister.
Wellington resigned his seat in 1846, returning only briefly to the spotlight in 1848 when he helped organize a military force to protect London during that year of European revolution. He passed away in 1852, and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.