The Marquess Wellesley by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

The Marquess Wellesley. [1]

It sounds like the tolling of funeral bells, as the annunciation is made of one death after another amongst those who supported our canopy of empire through the last most memorable generation. The eldest of the Wellesleys is gone: he is gathered to his fathers; and here we have his life circumstantially written.

Who, and of what origin are the Wellesleys? There is an impression current amongst the public, or there was an impression, that the true name of the Wellesley family is Wesley. This is a case very much resembling some of those imagined by the old scholastic logicians, where it was impossible either to deny or to affirm: saying yes, or saying no, equally you told a falsehood. The facts are these: the family was originally English; and in England, at the earliest era, there is no doubt at all that its name was De Welles leigh, which was pronounced in the eldest times just as it is now, viz. as a dissyllable, [2] the first syllable sounding exactly like the cathedral city Wells, in Somersetshire, and the second like lea, (a field lying fallow.) It is plain enough, from various records, that the true historical genesis of the name, was precisely through that composition of words, which here, for the moment, I had imagined merely to illustrate its pronunciation. Lands in the diocese of Bath and Wells lying by the pleasant river Perret, and almost up to the gates of Bristol, constituted the earliest possessions of the De Wellesleighs. They, seven centuries before Assay, and Waterloo, were ‘seised’ of certain rich leas belonging to Wells. And from these Saxon elements of the name, some have supposed the Wellesleys a Saxon race. They could not possibly have better blood: but still the thing does not follow from the premises. Neither does it follow from the de that they were Norman. The first De Wellesley known to history, the very tip-top man of the pedigree, is Avenant de Wellesleigh. About a hundred years nearer to our own times, viz. in 1239, came Michael de Wellesleigh; of whom the important fact is recorded, that he was the father of Wellerand de Wellesley. And what did young Mr. Wellerand perform in this wicked world, that the proud muse of history should condescend to notice his rather singular name? Reader, he was–‘killed:’ that is all; and in company with Sir Robert de Percival; which again argues his Somersetshire descent: for the family of Lord Egmont, the head of all Percivals, ever was, and ever will be, in Somersetshire. But how was he killed? The time when, viz. 1303, the place where, are known: but the manner how, is not exactly stated; it was in skirmish with rascally Irish ‘kernes,’ fellows that (when presented at the font of Christ for baptism) had their right arms covered up from the baptismal waters, in order that, still remaining consecrated to the devil, those arms might inflict a devilish blow. Such a blow, with such an unbaptized arm, the Irish villain struck; and there was an end of Wellerand de Wellesleigh. Strange that history should make an end of a man, before it had made a beginning of him. These, however, are the facts; which, in writing a romance about Sir Wellerand and Sir Percival, I shall have great pleasure in falsifying. But how, says the too curious reader, did the De Wellesleighs find themselves amongst Irish kernes? Had these scamps the presumption to invade Somersetshire? Did they dare to intrude into Wells? Not at all: but the pugnacious De Wellesleys had dared to intrude into Ireland. Some say in the train of Henry II. Some say–but no matter: there they were: and there they stuck like limpets. They soon engrafted themselves into the county of Kildare; from which, by means of a fortunate marriage, they leaped into the county of Meath; and in that county, as if to refute the pretended mutability of human things, they have roosted ever since. There was once a famous copy of verses floating about Europe, which asserted that, whilst other princes were destined to fight for thrones, Austria–the handsome house of Hapsburgh–should obtain them by marriage:

‘Pugnabunt alii: tu, felix Austria, nube.’

So of the Wellesleys: Sir Wellerand took quite the wrong way: not cudgelling, but courting, was the correct way for succeeding in Kildare. Two great estates, by two separate marriages, the De Wellesleighs obtained in Kildare; and, by a third marriage in a third generation, they obtained in the county of Meath, Castle Dengan (otherwise Dangan) with lordships as plentiful as blackberries. Castle Dangan came to them in the year of our Lord, 1411, i.e. before Agincourt: and, in Castle Dangan did Field- marshal, the man of Waterloo, draw his first breath, shed his first tears, and perpetrate his earliest trespasses. That is what one might call a pretty long spell for one family: four hundred and thirty-five years has Castle Dangan furnished a nursery for the Wellesley piccaninnies. Amongst the lordships attached to Castle Dangan was Mornington, which more than three centuries afterwards supplied an earldom for the grandfather of Waterloo. Any further memorabilia of the Castle Dangan family are not recorded, except that in 1485 (which sure was the year of Bosworth field?) they began to omit the de and to write themselves Wellesley tout court. From indolence, I presume: for a certain lady Di. le Fl., whom once I knew, a Howard by birth, of the house of Suffolk, told me as her reason for omitting the Le, that it caused her too much additional trouble.

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So far the evidence seems in favor of Wellesley and against Wesley. But, on the other hand, during the last three centuries the Wellesleys wrote the name Wesley. They, however, were only the maternal ancestors of the present Wellesleys. Garret Wellesley, the last male heir of the direct line, in the year 1745, left his whole estate to one of the Cowleys, a Staffordshire family who had emigrated to Ireland in Queen Elizabeth’s time, but who were, however, descended from the Wellesleys. This Cowley or Colley, taking, in 1745, the name of Wesley, received from George II. the title of Earl Mornington: and Colley’s grandson, the Marquess Wellesley of our age, was recorded in the Irish peerage as Wesley, Earl of Mornington; was uniformly so described up to the end of the eighteenth century; and even Arthur of Waterloo, whom most of us Europeans know pretty well, on going to India a little before his brother, was thus introduced by Lord Cornwallis to Sir John Shore (Lord Teignmouth, the Governor-general), ‘Dear sir, I beg leave to introduce to you Colonel Wesley, who is a lieutenant-colonel of my regiment. He is a sensible man, and a good officer.’ Posterity, for we are posterity in respect of Lord Cornwallis, have been very much of his opinion. Colonel Wesley really is a sensible man; and the sensible man, soon after his arrival in Bengal, under the instigation of his brother, resumed the old name of Wellesley. In reality, the name of Wesley was merely the abbreviation of indolence, as Chumley for Cholmondeley, Pomfret for Pontefract, Cicester for Cirencester; or, in Scotland, Marchbanks for Majoribanks, Chatorow for the Duke of Hamilton’s French title of Chatelherault. I remember myself, in childhood, to have met a niece of John Wesley the Proto-Methodist, who always spoke of the, second Lord Mornington (author of the well-known glees) as a cousin, and as intimately connected with her brother the great foudroyant performer on the organ. Southey, in his Life of John Wesley, tells us that Charles Wesley, the brother of John, and father of the great organist, had the offer from Garret Wellesley of those same estates which eventually were left to Richard Cowley. This argues a recognition of near consanguinity. Why the offer was declined, is not distinctly explained. But if it had been accepted, Southey thinks that then we should have had no storming of Seringapatam, no Waterloo, and no Arminian Methodists. All that is not quite clear. Tippoo was booked for a desperate British vengeance by his own desperate enmity to our name, though no Lord Wellesley had been Governor-General. Napoleon, by the same fury of hatred to us, was booked for the same fate, though the scene of it might not have been Waterloo. And, as to John Wesley, why should he not have made the same schism with the English Church, because his brother Charles had become unexpectedly rich?

The Marquess Wellesley was of the same standing, as to age, or nearly so, as Mr. Pitt; though he outlived Pitt by almost forty years. Born in 1760, three or four months before the accession of George III., he was sent to Eton, at the age of eleven; and from Eton, in his eighteenth year, he was sent to Christ Church, Oxford, where he matriculated as a nobleman. He then bore the courtesy title of Viscount Wellesley; but in 1781, when he had reached his twenty-first year, he was summoned away from Oxford by the death of his father, the second Earl of Mornington. It is interesting, at this moment, to look back on the family group of children collected at Dangan Castle. The young earl was within a month of his majority: his younger brothers and sisters were, William Wellesley Pole (since dead, under the title of Lord Maryborough), then aged eighteen; Anne, since married to Henry, son of Lord Southampton, aged thirteen; Arthur, aged twelve; Gerald Valerian, now in the church, aged ten; Mary Elizabeth (since Lady Culling Smith), aged nine; Henry, since Lord Cowley, and British ambassador to Spain, France, etc. aged eight. The new Lord Mornington showed his conscientious nature, by assuming his father’s debts, and by superintending the education of his brothers. He had distinguished himself at Oxford as a scholar; but he returned thither no more, and took no degree. As Earl of Mornington, he sat in the Irish House of Lords; but not being a British peer, he was able to sit also in the English House of Commons; and of this opening for a more national career, he availed himself at the age of twenty-four. Except that he favored the claims of the Irish Catholics, his policy was pretty uniformly that of Mr. Pitt. He supported that minister throughout the contests on the French Revolution; and a little earlier, on the Regency question. This came forward in 1788, on occasion of the first insanity which attacked George III. The reader, who is likely to have been born since that era, will perhaps not be acquainted with the constitutional question then at issue. It was this: Mr. Fox held that, upon any incapacity arising in the sovereign, the regency would then settle (ipso facto of that incapacity) upon the Prince of Wales; overlooking altogether the case in which there should be no Prince of Wales, and the case in which such a Prince might be as incapable, from youth, of exercising the powers attached to the office, as his father from disease. Mr. Pitt denied that a Prince of Wales simply as such, and apart from any moral fitness which he might possess, had more title to the office of regent than any lamp-lighter or scavenger. It was the province of Parliament exclusively to legislate for the particular case. The practical decision of the question was not called for, from the accident of the king’s sudden recovery: but in Ireland, from the independence asserted by the two houses of the British council, the question grew still more complex. The Lord Lieutenant refused to transmit their address, [3] and Lord Mornington supported him powerfully in his refusal.

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Ten years after this hot collision of parties, Lord Mornington was appointed Governor-General of India, and now first he entered upon a stage worthy of his powers. I cannot myself agree with Mr. Pearce, that ‘the wisdom of his policy is now universally recognized;’ because the same false views of our Indian position, which at that time caused his splendid services to be slighted in many quarters, still preponderates. All administrations alike have been intensely ignorant of Indian politics; and for the natural reason, that the business of home politics leaves them no disposable energies for affairs so distant, and with which each man’s chance of any durable connection is so exceedingly small. What Lord Mornington did was this: he looked our prospects in the face. Two great enemies were then looming upon the horizon, both ignorant of our real resources, and both deluded by our imperfect use of such resources, as, even in a previous war, we had possessed. One of these enemies was Tippoo, the Sultan of Mysore: him, by the crushing energy of his arrangements, Lord Mornington was able utterly to destroy, and to distribute his dominions with equity and moderation, yet so as to prevent any new coalition arising in that quarter against the British power. There is a portrait of Tippoo, of this very ger, in the second volume of Mr. Pearce’s work, which expresses sufficiently the unparalleled ferocity of his nature; and it is guaranteed, by its origin, as authentic. Tippoo, from the personal interest investing him, has more fixed the attention of Europe than a much more formidable enemy: that enemy was the Mahratta confederacy, chiefly existing in the persons of the Peishwah, of Scindia, of Holkar, and the Rajah of Berar. Had these four princes been less profoundly ignorant, had they been less inveterately treacherous, they would have cost us the only dreadful struggle which in India we have stood. As it was, Lord Mornington’s government reduced and crippled the Maharattas to such an extent, that in 1817, Lord Hastings found it possible to crush them for ever. Three services of a profounder nature, Lord Wellesley was enabled to do for India; first, to pave the way for the propagation of Christianity,–mighty service, stretching to the clouds, and which, in the hour of death, must have given him consolation; secondly, to enter upon the abolition of such Hindoo superstitions as are most shocking to humanity, particularly the practice of Suttee, and the barbarous exposure of dying persons, or of first-born infants at Sangor on the Ganges; finally, to promote an enlarged system of education, which (if his splendid scheme had been adopted) would have diffused its benefits all over India. It ought also to be mentioned that the expedition by way of the Red Sea against the French in Egypt, was so entirely of his suggestion and his preparation, that, to the great dishonor of Messrs. Pitt and Dundas, whose administration was the worst, as a war administration, thus ever misapplied, or non-applied, the resources of a mighty empire, it languished for eighteen months purely through their neglect.

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In 1805, having staid about seven years in India, Lord Mornington was recalled, was created Marquess of Wellesley, was sent, in 1821, as Viceroy to Ireland, where there was little to do; having previously, in 1809, been sent Ambassador to the Spanish Cortes, where there was an affinity to do, but no means of doing it. The last great political act of Lord Wellesley, was the smashing of the Peel ministry in 1834 viz. by the famous resolution (which he personally drew up) for appropriating to general education in Ireland any surplus arising from the revenues of the Irish Church. Full of honors, he retired from public life at the age of seventy- five, and, for seven years more of life, dedicated his time to such literary pursuits as he had found most interesting in early youth.

Mr. Pearce, who is so capable of writing vigorously and sagaciously, has too much allowed himself to rely upon public journals. For example, he reprints the whole of the attorney-general’s official information against eleven obscure persons, who, from the gallery of the Dublin theatre, did ‘wickedly, riotously, and routously’ hiss, groan, insult, and assault (to say nothing of their having caused and procured to be hissed, groaned, etc.) the Marquess Wellesley, Lord-Lieutenant General, and General Governor of Ireland. This document covers more than nine pages; and, after all, omits the only fact of the least consequence, viz., that several missiles were thrown by the rioters into the vice-regal box, and amongst them a quart-bottle, which barely missed his excellency’s temples. Considering the impetus acquired by the descent from the gallery, there is little doubt that such a weapon would have killed Lord Wellesley on the spot. In default however, of this weighty fact, the attorney-general favors us with memorializing the very best piece of doggerel that I remember to have read; viz., that upon divers, to wit, three thousand papers, the rioters had wickedly and maliciously written and printed, besides, observe, causing to be written and printed, ‘No Popery,’ as also the following traitorous couplet–

‘The Protestants want Talbot,
As the Papists have got all but;’

Meaning ‘all but’ that which they got some years later by means of the Clare election. Yet if, in some instances like this, Mr. Pearce has too largely drawn upon official papers, which he should rather have abstracted and condensed, on the other hand, his work has a specific value in bringing forward private documents, to which his opportunities have gained him a confidential access. Two portraits of Lord Wellesley, one in middle life, and one in old age, from a sketch by the Comte d’Orsay, are felicitously executed.

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Something remains to be said of Lord Wellesley as a literary man; and towards such a judgment Mr. Pearce has contributed some very pleasing materials. As a public speaker, Lord Wellesley had that degree of brilliancy and effectual vigor, which might have been expected in a man of great talents, possessing much native sensibility to the charms of style, but not led by any personal accidents of life into a separate cultivation of oratory, or into any profound investigation of its duties and its powers on the arena of a British senate. There is less call for speaking of Lord Wellesley in this character, where he did not seek for any eminent distinction, than in the more general character of an elegant litterateur, which furnished to him much of his recreation in all stages of his life, and much of his consolation in the last. It is interesting to see this accomplished nobleman, in advanced age, when other resources were one by one decaying, and the lights of life were successively fading into darkness, still cheering his languid hours by the culture of classical literature, and in his eighty-second year drawing solace from those same pursuits which had given grace and distinction to his twentieth.

One or two remarks I will make upon Lord Wellesley’s verses–Greek as well as Latin. The Latin lines upon Chantrey’s success at Holkham in killing two woodcocks at the first shot, which subsequently he sculptured in marble and presented to Lord Leicester, are perhaps the most felicitous amongst the whole. Masquerading, in Lord Wellesley’s verses, as Praxiteles, who could not well be represented with a Manon having a percussion lock, Chantrey is armed with a bow and arrows:

‘En! trajecit aves una sagitta duas.’

In the Greek translation of Parthenopaeus, there are as few faults as could reasonably be expected. But, first, one word as to the original Latin poem: to whom does it belong? It is traced first to Lord Grenville, who received it from his tutor (afterwards Bishop of London), who had taken it as an anonymous poem from the ‘Censor’s book;’ and with very little probability, it is doubtfully assigned to ‘Lewis of the War Office,’ meaning, no doubt, the father of Monk Lewis. By this anxiety in tracing its pedigree, the reader is led to exaggerate the pretensions of the little poem; these are inconsiderable: and there is a conspicuous fault, which it is worth while noticing, because it is one peculiarly besetting those who write modern verses with the help of a gradus, viz. that the Pentameter is often a mere reverberation of the preceding Hexameter. Thus, for instance–

‘Parthenios inter saltus non amplius erro,
Non repeto Dryadum pascua laeta choris;’

and so of others, where the second line is but a variation of the first. Even Ovid, with all his fertility, and partly in consequence of his fertility, too often commits this fault. Where indeed the thought is effectually varied, so that the second line acts as a musical minor, succeeding to the major, in the first, there may happen to arise a peculiar beauty. But I speak of the ordinary case, where the second is merely the rebound of the first, presenting the same thought in a diluted form. This is the commonest resource of feeble thinking, and is also a standing temptation or snare for feeble thinking. Lord Wellesley, however, is not answerable for these faults in the original, which indeed he notices slightly as ‘repetitions;’ and his own Greek version is spirited and good. There, are, however, some mistakes. The second line is altogether faulty;

[Greek: Choria Mainaliph pant erateina theph
Achnumenos leipon

does not express the sense intended. Construed correctly, this clause of the sentence would mean–‘I, sorrowfully leaving all places gracious to the Maenalian god:’ but that is not what Lord Wellesley designed: ‘I leaving the woods of Cyllene, and the snowy summits of Pholoe, places that are all of them dear to Pan‘–that is what was meant: that is to say, not leaving all places dear to Pan, far from it; but leaving a few places, every one of which is dear to Pan. In the line beginning

[Greek: Kan eth uph aelikias]

where the meaning is–and if as yet, by reason of my immature age, there is a metrical error; and [Greek: aelikia] will not express immaturity of age. I doubt whether in the next line,

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[Greek: Maed alkae thalloi gounasin aeitheos]

[Greek: gounasin] could convey the meaning without the preposition [Greek: eth]. And in

[Greek: Spherchomai ou kaleousi theoi.]

I hasten whither the gods summon me–[Greek: ou] is not the right word. It is, however, almost impossible to write Greek verses which shall be liable to no verbal objections; and the fluent movement of these verses sufficiently argues the off-hand ease with which Lord Wellesley must have read Greek, writing it so elegantly and with so little of apparent constraint.

Meantime the most interesting (from its circumstances) of Lord Wellesley’s verses, is one to which his own English interpretation of it has done less than justice. It is a Latin epitaph on the daughter (an only child) of Lord and Lady Brougham. She died, and (as was generally known at the time) of an organic affection disturbing the action of the heart, at the early age of eighteen. And the peculiar interest of the case lies in the suppression by this pious daughter (so far as it was possible) of her own bodily anguish, in order to beguile the mental anguish of her parents. The Latin epitaph is this:

‘Blanda anima, e cunis heu! longo exercita morbo,
Inter maternas heu lachrymasque patris,
Quas risu lenire tuo jucunda solebas,
Et levis, et proprii vix memor ipsa mali;
I, pete calestes, ubi nulla est cura, recessus:
Et tibi sit nullo mista dolore quies!’

The English version is this:

‘Doom’d to long suffering from earliest years,
Amidst your parents’ grief and pain alone
Cheerful and gay, you smiled to soothe their tears;
And in their agonies forgot your own.
Go, gentle spirit; and among the blest
From grief and pain eternal be thy rest!’

In the Latin, the phrase e cunis does not express from your cradle upwards. The second line is faulty in the opposition of maternas to patris. And in the fourth line levis conveys a false meaning: levis must mean either physically light, i.e. not heavy, which is not the sense, or else tainted with levity, which is still less the sense. What Lord Wellesley wished to say–was light-hearted: this he has not said: but neither is it easy to say it in good Latin.

I complain, however, of the whole as not bringing out Lord Wellesley’s own feeling–which feeling is partly expressed in his verses, and partly in his accompanying prose note on Miss Brougham’s mournful destiny (‘her life was a continual illness’) contrasted with her fortitude, her innocent gaiety, and the pious motives with which she supported this gaiety to the last. Not as a direct version, but as filling up the outline of Lord Wellesley, sufficiently indicated by himself, I propose this:–

‘Child, that for thirteen years hast fought with pain,
Prompted by joy and depth of natural love,–
Rest now at God’s command: oh! not in vain
His angel ofttimes watch’d thee,–oft, above
All pangs, that else had dimm’d thy parents’ eyes,
Saw thy young heart victoriously rise.
Rise now for ever, self-forgetting child,
Rise to those choirs, where love like thine is blest,
From pains of flesh–from filial tears assoil’d,
Love which God’s hand shall crown with God’s own rest.’


[1] Memoirs and Correspondence.

[2] ‘As a dissyllable:’–just as the Annesley family, of which Lord Valentia is the present head, do not pronounce their name trisyllabically (as strangers often suppose), but as the two syllables Anns lea, accent on the first.

[3] Which adopted neither view; for by offering the regency of Ireland to the Prince of Wales, they negatived Mr. Fox’s view, who held it to be the Prince’s by inherent right; and, on the other hand, they still more openly opposed Mr. Pitt.

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