May 06, 2004
Wellington at Eton
Napoleon & Wellington by Andrew Roberts is what you might call a comparative double biography. What did the two have in common? How did they differ?

Here is the bit that deals with Wellington's schooling, at Eton. Note the mention of the Wall Game.

I found the picture of Wellington here.

Since Wellington's refusal to be overawed by Napoleon primarily stems from his invincible self-assurance, which in turn came largely from the nature of his schooling, it is worth while examining his psychology up to the time, in the summer of 1793, when he, in an action pregnant with symbolism, burned his violin and embarked on a serious professional military career.


Wellington's remark about the battle of Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton might well not have been a reference to the cricket pitches. An Eton historian, Lionel Cust, believes he was more probably alluding to 'the mills at Sixpenny Comer', which was where the boys went to fight one another. It was there, where the Wall Game is now played, that Wellington had a fight with Robert Percy 'Bobus' Smith, although sources differ on the outcome.' In the three years that he was at Eton before being withdrawn, probably but not certainly for financial reasons, Wellington entirely failed to distinguish himself in any capacity. 'A good-humoured, insignificant youth' was all a contemporary, the 3rd Lord Holland (admittedly later a political opponent), could remember about him there. Although it might be too hard to call him 'the fool of the family', as the Eton beak George Lyttelton did in one of his letters to the author Rupert Hart-Davis, he was intellectually far behind his eldest brother Richard, who had so shone at the school that he chose to be buried there.

A glance at the Eton College register for the three years that Wellington was a pupil there, from 1781 to 1784, shows how many of his contemporaries were drawn from the aristocracy. Although Winchester and Westminster had rivalled her socially in the past, by the late eighteenth century Eton was pulling away to become, as she unquestionably was by the early nineteenth century, the grandest school in the country. Wellington was educated with the offspring of three dukes, a marquess, thirteen earls, five viscounts, seven barons and a countess whose title was so ancient that it also went through the female line.

His Etonian contemporaries were a colourful lot, and provided a number of his senior officers later on. Robert Meade, son of the 1st Earl Clanwilliam, was a lieutenant-general by 1814, as was William Lumley, son of the 4th Earl of Scarborough. Hugh Craven, son of the 6th Lord Craven, was a colonel in 1814, a major-general in 1825, and shot himself in his house in Connaught Place in 1856 owing to his losses on the racecourse at Epsom. At least his exit was intentional; Lord Barrymore, son of the 6th Earl of Barrymore, died in an accidental explosion of his musket while conveying French prisoners from Folkestone to Dover in 1795. George Evans, son of the 3rd Baron Carbery, died at Reddish's Hotel in London from a burst blood vessel on New Year's Eve 1804, and George de Grey, son of the 2nd Baron Walsingham, was burned to death in bed at his home in Upper Hariey Street. Robert King, son of the 6th Baron Kingston, was tried at Cork assizes in 1798 for the murder of Henry Fitzgerald, who had eloped with his sister. It was a pretty dear-cut case but, astonishingly even for eighteenth-century justice, he was unanimously acquitted by the House of Lords.

One of Wellington's school contemporaries. Henry Fitzroy, son of Lord Southampton, married Anne, Wellington's sister, but he was less fortunate in two others. Lord Holland, son of the 2nd Baron Holland, and Charles Grey, son of Earl Grey, became leading Whigs and political opponents of his. Holland was later a bitter personal critic, describing Wellington in his memoirs as 'destitute of taste, wit, grace or imagination', and a man whose vanity even 'exceeds his ambition' and who little care[s] what troops he leads or what cause be serves, so that he, richly caparisoned in the front, be the chief pageant of the show and reap the benefit of the victory and the grace of the triumph'. (The Whig hostess Lady Holland, an heiress of forceful personality, great beauty and ten thousand pounds a year, had heard Robespierre speak to the National Assembly during her five-year Grand Tour and had been most impressed.) The exaggerated loathing of the Whigs for the man who threatened and finally defeated their idol Napoleon was to be a constant feature throughout Wellington's career. They emerge from this story not as witty, brilliant, big-hearted Olympians of politico-social mythology, but as quotidian, nit-picking, mean-minded quasi-traitors.

Napoleon went to Brienne Military Academy speaking a Corsican patois and returned speaking French, but there is no suggestion that Wellington had even a smattering of an Irish brogue before attending Eton. Indeed throughout his life Wellington felt himself to be markedly superior to the Irish, once saying, albeit perhaps apocryphally, that they required 'only one thing to make them the world's best soldiers. White officers.' He is also believed to have quipped that his own Irish birth no more made him an Irishman than being born in a barn made one a horse.

Eton gave Wellington a belief in himself and his capabilities that his ten subsequent years of doing very little indeed entirely failed to dent. There are suggestions that he was taken away from school not because the Wellesleys were too poor after the death of his father the 1st Earl of Mornington in 1781, but because his academic prospects were so unpromising. This is somewhat discounted by the fact that Lady Mornington took him to Brussels, where the cost of living was noticeably lower, and where Wellington was taught by a local lawyer.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
Category: Famous educationsHistory