He would not be Wellington till 1809; till 1798 he was Wesley, though far removed from Methodism. He was born in Dublin, May 1, 1769 (105 days before Napoleon), being the fifth son of Garret Wesley, first Earl of Mornington, the English proprietor of an estate north of the Irish capital. He was sent to Eton at the age of twelve, but was called home after “three inglorious years.”13 There is no indication that he did better in sports than in studies, and he later disclaimed authorship of the now anonymous remark that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”14 He did better with tutors, but still his mother mourned, “I vow to God I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.”15 So he was surrendered to the Army, and was sent, aged seventeen, to the Académei Royale de l’Équitation at Angers, where noble sons learned mathematics, a touch of the humanities, and much of the horsemanship and swordsplay useful to officers.
When he had won his spurs he was appointed—through family influence or plain purchase—to be aide-de-camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and to a seat in the Irish House of Commons as representative of the borough of Trim. In 1799 he was made lieutenant colonel and led three regiments in the Duke of York’s invasion of Flanders. He came back from that aborted venture so disgusted with war, mud, and titled incompetence that he thought of abandoning the Army for civil life. He preferred the violin to the barracks, suffered a succession of ailments, and impressed his brother Mornington as so deficient in ability that not much could be expected of him.16 A portrait of him, aged twenty-six, by John Hoppner made him look like a poet, as handsome as Byron. Like Byron, he proposed to a noble lady, was rejected and sampled surfaces incontinently. In 1796 he went to India as a colonel under his brother Richard, who, now Marquess Wellesley, became governor of Madras, then of Bengal, and added some Indian principalities to the British Empire. Arthur Wellesley (as the future Duke now spelled himself) won some profitable victories in these campaigns, and was knighted in 1804. Returning to England, he secured a seat in the British Parliament, proposed again to Cathey Pakenham, was accepted (1806), and lived unhappily with her until they learned to live mostly apart. She gave him two sons.
He continued to rise from post to post, now not so much by purchase as by earning a reputation for careful analysis and competent performance. William Pitt, near death, marked him out as a man who “states every difficulty before he undertakes any service, but none after he undertakes it.”17 In 1807 he became chief secretary for Ireland in the ministry of the Duke of Portland; in 1808 he was made lieutenant general; in July he was commissioned to lead 13,500 troops and expel Junot and the French from Portugal.
On August 1 he landed his men at Mondego Bay, a hundred miles north of Lisbon. There he received some 5,000 Portuguese allies, and a letter from the War Ministry promising him another 15,000 men at an early date, but adding that Sir Hew Dalrymple, aged fifty-eight, would accompany these reinforcements and assume supreme command of the entire expedition. Wellesley had already designed his campaign, and did not enjoy subordination. He decided not to wait for those 15,000 men, but to march north with his 18,500, and seek a battle that would decide Junot’s fate and his own. Junot, who had allowed his army to deteriorate with all the pleasures of a capital, led his 13,000 men out to meet the challenge, and suffered a costly defeat at Vimeiro, near Lisbon (August 21, 1808). Dalrymple arrived after the battle, took command, stopped pursuit, and arranged with Junot the Convention of Cintra (September 3) by which Junot surrendered all the towns and fortresses that the French had occupied in Portugal, but obtained consent for the unhindered exit of his surviving forces; the British agreed to provide shipping for those who wished to return to France. Wellesley signed the document, feeling that the liberation of Portugal by one battle justified some British courtesies.
This was the convention that Wordsworth and Byron, agreeing now and rarely afterward, denounced as an incredible stupidity; those released Frenchmen, if able to walk, would soon be conscripted to fight Britain or her allies again. Wellesley was summoned to London to face a court of inquiry. He was not entirely sorry to go; he did not relish the prospect of serving under Dalrymple; and—incredible as it may seem—he hated war. “Take my word for it,” he was to say after many victories, “if you had seen but one day of war you would pray to Almighty God that you might never again see an hour of it.”18 He seems to have convinced the court of inquiry that the Convention of Cintra, by dissuading further resistance, had saved thousands of British and Allied lives. Then he retired to Ireland, and waited for a better opportunity to serve his country and his good name.