The Duke of Wellington's years of the sword ended abruptly while he was still in his prime. Weeping for the dead of Waterloo, he prayed he had fought his last battle. So he had; it might be supposed that the rest of his career would prove to be one long aftermath. Yet such was the power of this... show more
The Duke of Wellington's years of the sword ended abruptly while he was still in his prime. Weeping for the dead of Waterloo, he prayed he had fought his last battle. So he had; it might be supposed that the rest of his career would prove to be one long aftermath. Yet such was the power of this extraordinary man to propel himself into the path of great events that the second half of his active life was as eventful as the first--and, as a subjective story that rocketed between the zenith and the nadir of fortune, it was unique. If he was indeed the Iron Duke, it was iron which had been returned again and again to the fire.
Wellington was in one sense a ready-made "Pillar of State" for the new Europe. During the first years after Waterloo he was the ruler of occupied France in all but name. When he returned to his native land he was full of good resolutions to be a public servant rather than a Tory party politician. But the tragedies of Peterloo and the Cato Street Conspiracy, followed by the rowdyism of Queen Caroline's trial, quickly alienated him from the parties of change and welded him to that of law and order. He spent the next twenty-five years discovering that repression is not enough.
The violent death of his close friend Lord Castlereagh left him to maneuver with the antipathetic Canning, and he finally found himself at the head of a divided Tory party and Prime Minister of a country loudly demanding every variety of reform. The granting of "Catholic emancipation," highlighted by a personal duel in Battersea Fields, raised him to be a pinnacle of fame which neither he nor anyone else had enjoyed since Waterloo. Then as anti-hero in the struggle over the constitutional Reform Bill, a victim of his own delusion that reform was tantamount to revolution, Wellington's character acquired a lurid glint. Yet in the end it seems that the Bill was his crucible as well as his torment--for he emerged years later, at the time of the Irish famine, as the statesman who dared to say "Right about face!" to the Tory peers and so enable Peel to abolish the Corn Laws.
Many other strands had gradually come together in Wellington's character, to make of it at last the ideal he had always held out for himself: "the retained servant of king and people." Lady Longford's first part of this biography, Wellington: The Years of the Sword, was greeted with enormous acclaim, and this second and final volume is a pleasure to read: lucid, sympathetic, balanced, rich in personal details, but solid and scholarly, too. It triumphantly succeeds in making the Duke of Wellington into an unforgettable, appealing and human character.