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On June 18 1815, the Emperor Napoleon ate his breakfast outside an inn 12 miles south of Brussels. While he was at it, Marshal Soult, his chief of staff, urged a little caution for the day ahead. He was scoffed at.
“Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general,” said Napoleon. “And now I will tell you that Wellington is a bad general, that the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more serious than eating one’s breakfast.”
The battle of Waterloo — “this affair” — was more serious than breakfast. By nightfall, there were 50,000 casualties — and Napoleon was finished.
But Wellington — not such a bad general that day — was in no mood to gloat. “I don’t know what it is to lose a battle,” he informed Dr Hume, “but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.”
Two hundred years later — almost to the day — Charles Wellesley, 9th Duke of Wellington, is perched neatly beneath “The Battle of Waterloo” (1843) by Sir William Allan. The painting hangs in the striped drawing room at Apsley House, which looms on the corner of Hyde Park — and the duke, who is also the 9th Prince of Waterloo, thinks this might be a good spot to have his picture taken.
During a swift hour, we discuss the battle, the bicentenary and the duke’s family home, which has received new carpets for the commemorations. On these topics, this duke is in complete command.
Apsley House was built by Robert Adam for the 1st Baron Apsley between 1771 and 1778. It was red brick and refined; the original address was Number 1, London. In 1817, Wellington bought Apsley from his bankrupt brother Richard. And from 1819, he and the architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt made it bigger. The south façade was given a portico with four columns, and an extension was built to the northeast, adding a state dining room, bedrooms and dressing rooms.
“When Wellington became prime minister at the beginning of 1828,” says the present duke, cutting a spruce figure in the striped drawing room, “he added on two bays, added the huge Waterloo gallery and clad the whole house in Bath stone.”
In 1831, Wellington opposed the Reform Bill (passed in 1832) and his popularity dipped. During this period Apsley House acquired railings and iron shutters to counter the mob who were prone to throwing stones.
In 1947, the 7th Duke gifted the house to the nation. Today the Wellesleys have use of an apartment on the top floor and the library downstairs.
Although Adam’s original structure survives in the fabric of the building, what you see is the result of the 1st Duke and Wyatt’s creations. Is the house better for their improvements, I ask the duke? He defers to his illustrious progenitor: “It was better for his purposes.”
We move into the Waterloo gallery. Ninety feet long, two storeys high and decorated in the style of Louis XIV, the gallery is opulent and overblown. It is also plastered with masterpieces from the Spanish royal collection. These were looted by Joseph Bonaparte — Napoleon’s brother and puppet King of Spain — and recovered by Wellington at the battle of Vitoria in 1813. In peace time, the victorious duke tried to return them, but the grateful, liberated Spaniards refused. Today’s highlights include Correggio’s “The Agony in the Garden” (c1525) and four paintings by Velázquez.
Wellington hosted his Waterloo banquets in this gallery, and one was painted atmospherically by William Salter: “The Waterloo Banquet” (1836) — the old duke with silver hair, flanked by his officers — hangs in the state dining room.
On Thursday, the present duke will host his own Waterloo banquet — and to mark the occasion, we photograph the great-great-great grandson of the great general on the same spot as the Wellington in Salter’s picture.
The duke does not pretend Waterloo was a British victory exclusively. “The British troops in the allied army were in the minority,” he says. “The rest were Hanoverians, Brunswickers, Nassauers, Belgians, Dutch . . .” Nor does he downplay the intervention of the Prussians late in the day.
“However,” he says, “you can’t get away from the fact that the French attacked continuously — from 11 o’clock in the morning until about six o’clock in the evening — the British lines, the British squares. They were each time repulsed. And finally the Imperial Guard attacked and it was repulsed and at that point Wellington ordered the advance — which was, of course, a total rout.”
“So, who is coming to the banquet?” I ask, angling for an invitation.
“I’ve tried to find descendants of people who were at the battle,” he says. “I’ve got one of Blücher’s descendants, I’ve got a descendant of the Duke of Brunswick, who was killed at Quatres Bras.” The odd general will be there, too, but we can’t know who because generals are “always nervous about security”.
Clad in its armour of Bath stone, the house is impressive, imposing and rather devoid of charm. As the hero of Waterloo — not to mention Vitoria, Salamanca, Talavera and Assaye — the stateliness of his new home must have suited Wellington: here, he could sup with princes on equal terms. Yet the ostentatious interior seems out of step with how he is commonly perceived — reticent, noble, austere in his tastes and sensibility. In the spaces open to the public, that Wellington is absent.
Nonetheless, Wellington was in a position to be rather more ostentatious had he wished to be. After Waterloo, parliament gifted him £700,000 to build a new “Waterloo Palace” — a country residence to rival Blenheim. Yet his palace was never built. And he didn’t even change the name of Number 1, London to Wellington House.
How is he regarded by his family? “All his descendants have always had great reverence for him. It would be extraordinary if they didn’t,” says the duke.
By contrast, Wellington’s wife, Kitty, was seldom revered by anyone, least of all by Wellington. Is she a tragic figure?
“I think she’s a slightly tragic figure,” says the duke. “He went away for five-and-a-half years — didn’t see her or the children for five-and-a-half years.” The marriage started badly, too. At their wedding in 1806, Wellington — who had not seen his bride for 10 years — muttered, “She has grown ugly, by Jove!”
Lord Douro, the eldest son, did not remember an affectionate father: “He never even patted me on my shoulder when I was a boy, because he hated my mother”. Yet he grew up to revere him — and to flinch at the prospect of living up to his father’s name: “Think what it will be like when the Duke of Wellington is announced and only I come in.”
It must be a burden to be blessed with such a father, grandfather or, indeed, great-great-great grandfather. Is it something that this duke has been brought up to try to live up to?
“I’m not good at knowing how to answer that sort of very personal question,” he says.
At the top of the stairs, huge portraits of Wellington and Napoleon peer down. The hour is up and the duke starts descending his magnificent staircase in some haste, pursued by me. Is he similar to the first duke, I wonder?
“I wouldn’t dream of answering that! How could I?”
Is he motivated by a sense of duty?
“I don’t know. I try to be, I try to be.”
Is that the role the British aristocracy should have today?
“I can’t answer those sorts of questions.”
Like the allied squares at Waterloo, the 9th Duke repulses these impertinent attacks staunchly and vanishes into the library, passing as he goes “Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker” (1802—06) by Antonio Canova, a vast marble — stupendously homoerotic — statue of Napoleon in the buff.
The 9th Duke of Wellington is not known for his love of journalists. But nor was the 1st: “What can we do with these sorts of fellows?” he wondered, at the peak of his powers. “We have no power over them, God, for my part, I will have no communication with any of them.”
Alexander Gilmour is a commissioning editor on House & Home
Photographs: Phil Ripley/ English Heritage; Rick Pushinsky; AJ Photographics/ English Heritage; Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust; Jonathan Bailey/ V&A Images; English Heritage; Nigel Corrie/ English Heritage