Was the 1st Duke of Wellington more than ‘just a conservative general’? Beatrice de Graaf thinks so

Schilderij van Arthur Wellesley, de 1st Duke of Wellington

Last October, professor Beatrice de Graaf delivered the 33rd Wellington Lecture. De Graaf’s lecture, illustrated with a mass of satirical cartoons, provided a fascinating insight into how the allied powers cooperated to curb the alleged ‘terror’ of Napoleon Bonaparte and his allies in the years after the 1815 peace settlement.

The Duke of Wellington

After the victory over Napoleon, Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia founded the Allied Council in 1815. This Council in Paris was set up to control and manage the transformation of revolutionary France into a peaceful and orderly state. In her lecture, De Graaf showed that Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), was a man with an eye for both the domestic and foreign aspects of European freedom and a decisive figure in the new Allied Council.

Beatrice de Graaf en Charles Wellesley, the 9th Duke of Wellington. © University of Southampton
Beatrice de Graaf and Charles Wellesley, the 9th Duke of Wellington. © University of Southampton

Going against the grain of seeing Wellington simply as a deeply conservative general, De Graaf contrasted him with the reactionary Foreign Minister of Austria, Prince Klemens von Metternich, arguing for Wellington’s reappraisal in European affairs, a diplomat eager to instill respect for constitutional government abroad, and carrying out various interventions that were considered ‘liberal’ at the time (such as arguing for a constitution in France and Spain, advocating abolition of slavery, the prevention of war with the Ottoman Empire and defending freedom of the press in the newly founded Kingdom of the Netherlands).

The decade after 1815 is often seen as the start of international summit diplomacy. De Graaf’s lecture uncovered a subject that deserves even more attention from historians, not least because of Europe and Britain have extensively profited from mutual involvement and cooperation, something that could be stressed in a post-Brexit situation.

Wellington Prize 2022

During the event, Dr. Zack White, a historian, author, podcaster, battlefield guide, teacher and Chair of the Napoleonic & Revolutionary War Graves Charity received the Wellington Prize 2022 for his doctoral thesis ‘Pragmatism & Discretion: Discipline in the British Army, 1808-1818’.

White remarked: “It’s a privilege to have been awarded the Wellington Prize for the second time in my career, having worked with the Wellington Papers collection on various projects for a decade. The Wellington Collection at the University of Southampton is a hugely valuable resource, and the associated annual Wellington Lecture is a wonderful event. To have been awarded the prize at an event delivered by my good friend and colleague historian professor De Graaf made the occasion doubly special.”