King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
The Duke of Wellington


Wellington's reputation enhanced

Re-enactmentRe-enactmentSome newspapers, like the Morning Herald, were censoriously critical of the proceedings, declaring, at a time when reform of the electoral system and fear of the masses exercised the minds of the politically conscious, 'No wonder the multitude break laws when the law makers themselves, the great, the powerful and the famous, set them at open defiance'.

The political diarist, Charles Greville, who knew Wellington well, also thought the whole episode 'very juvenile'.

Popular opinion was similarly shocked and scandalised by news of the duel. Correspondents thought the Prime Minister the most unlikely man to be caught up in such an affair, and people was divided as to whether he should have needlessly exposed himself to mortal danger.

Generally, however, Wellington emerged from the event with his reputation enhanced - accounts describe his spirit of 'manly forbearance' that earned him 'great praise' within society, particularly from his protestant critics.

As Wellington's wife observed to their son, before 'the Mob were…abusing your father, now they are cheering him again'.

Wellington's conduct was contrasted unfavourably with Sir Robert Peel, who at the time was accused of cowardice for failing to challenge to a duel one of his most vociferous critics, the arch conservative and former Attorney General, Sir Charles Wetherell.

The true meaning of the duel

Wellington's conduct certainly reflected his undoubted bravery as a soldier, but also exactly suited his wider purposes in outflanking his political opponents with a gesture designed to impress public opinion and put a stop to the wildest of the slanders undermining his government.

The true significance of the episode as more than a colourful outing in the park was quickly grasped by Wellington himself, who later wrote:

'I immediately perceived the advantage it gave me and I determined to act upon it in such a tone as would certainly put me in the right. Not only I was successful in the execution of my project, but the project itself produced the effect which I looked for and intended that it should produce. The atmosphere of calumny in which I had been for some time living cleared away.'

The case of the mistaken handkerchief

The Wellington-Winchilsea dispute nearly flared up again into violence several days later and involved a humble handkerchief. Lord Holland had picked up a handkerchief from a seat in the House of Lords, which was monogrammed with the letter 'W'.

Since this was close to where Winchilsea had been sitting that day, he naturally assumed that it belonged to the Earl and returned it by post the following morning.

Winchilsea, recognising that the handkerchief was not his, however, hastily jumped to the conclusion that it had been sent by Wellington in a gesture designed to further humiliate him by alluding to his submission on the duelling range.

Perhaps having learnt the lesson of his recent imprudent public accusation, however, he held his peace, investigated and discovered the handkerchief actually belonged Lord Wellseley.

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