Regency Superhero: The Duke of Wellington

Superhero movies have been big box office lately, especially with this summer’s blockbuster Man of Steel, the latest retelling of the Superman legend. Earlier this year Ironman 3 capitalized on the success of Ironman 1 and 2, and movies based on other DC and Marvel comic book heroes such as Spiderman, The Avengers, Batman and Thor have been wildly successful as well.  

Though there was no caped crusader coming to the rescue of London during the Regency, the period did have its superheroes, and like the comic book heroes I referenced these men were regarded by the populace as saviors. Chief among these was Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington.

Born in Ireland in 1769, young Arthur joined the British Army as an ensign in 1787 and went on to play a key role in the Peninsular Wars, rising eventually to the rank of Field Marshall.  Under his leadership the French were defeated at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, and that victory earned him a dukedom.  

When Napoleon escaped from his exile on Elba in 1815 and tried to reclaim his empire, Wellington soundly defeated him again at Waterloo. 

Wellington’s decisive victory ended a series of wars that had begun in 1803, and it collapsed once and for all Napoleon’s dream of dominating Europe. Wellington died in 1852, after receiving numerous accolades and serving two terms as an elected Prime Minister. He was officially the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until the day he died. 

Fun Facts about Wellington

  • In later life he was known as the Iron Duke, mainly for his firm political stances. (He was a Tory.)
  • Despite his long political career, he is perhaps best known for his role in the Battle of Waterloo. This battle has been immortalized in paintings, pop songs and films, including a song by the Swedish group Abba and a 1970 Dino de Laurentiis film. The film was produced jointly by Italy and the Soviet Union, and it starred Christopher Plummer as Wellington, Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Orson Welles as King Louis XVIII of France.
  • As a soldier, Wellington was particular about his footwear. He disdained the Hessian-style boots of his day, and had a boot custom-designed. Compared to the Hessian boot, Wellington's boot came up only to the mid-calf rather than just under the knee, and wasn't tasseled. It had a lower heel, too. his boot became very popular and displaced the Hessian boot in men's fashion by the end of the Regency. Though the Wellington boot eventually went out of style by the mid-19th century, to this day Brits commonly refer to their boots as “wellingtons” or “wellies.”
  • A number of statues have been erected in Wellington’s honor throughout the UK. One notable example is in Glasgow, Scotland. Despite the best efforts of local officials to deter them, Glaswegians persist in climbing the iron statue to put a traffic cone on the Iron Duke's head.

  • Many memorable quotes are attributed to Wellington, but my favorite is “Publish and be dammed.” That was the Duke’s supposed reply to a former mistress, the notorious Harriet Wilson, when she tried to extort money from him in return for keeping his name out of her memoirs.

The Iron Duke and the Ironman – the parallels between Wellington and a comic book superhero aren’t so far-fetched. And I’ll bet that like Ironman and other superheroes, Wellington wore a cape occasionally, too, even if it was just the shoulder cape (or capes) on his great coat. 

In any event, Wellington will always be regarded as a superhero to the British for his decisive defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Wellington at Waterloo, by Robert Alexander Hillingford


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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