Apsley House, Townhouse of the Dukes of Wellington (History)
What is Aspley House?
Apsley House is the former home of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and a leading military figure of 19th-century Britain
History of Aspley House
‘Number 1, London’. This is the city’s most prestigious postal address, home to one of its most celebrated sons. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, lives on in collective memory as the hero of Waterloo. He is lionised for command of the Anglo-allied Army (the Seventh Coalition), which vanquished Napoleon Bonaparte and the First French Empire in 1815. His former home, Apsley House, has become a museum, a treasure trove of trinkets collected on his international expeditions. These include an elaborate Achillean shield, stolen French standards, a hoof preserved from his favourite horse, and a number of paintings from Flemish, Italian and Spanish masters.
Though a wildly popular military commander, he did not enjoy similar success in his term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In a catastrophically unpopular ruling, Wellesley granted civil rights to Irish Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland. Born and raised in Dublin, Wellesley grew up in an Irish city, surrounded by both Protestants and Catholics. He fought alongside a multitude of Irish soldiers in the Peninsular and Napoleonic wars, many unwillingly conscripted into a remote fighting force perceived as foreign. His support of Irish Catholics, whether empathetic or out of fear of revolt, was the key to attaining voting rights, land rights and schooling for Catholics in Ireland.
His fellow parliamentarians didn’t share his compassion. The Earl of Winchilsea deemed his actions ‘an insidious design for the infringement of our liberties’, to which Wellesley promptly responded with the challenge of a duel. Winchilsea fired into the air, Wellesley missed his target, and thus the political dispute was settled with a bloodless gun fight at Battersea Fields.
Rioters, angered in part by this extension of civil rights, arrived in the dead of night at the gates of Apsley House. Glass cascaded to the approaching streets as, illuminated by tall torch fires, the enraged crowd pressed forward. The newly established Metropolitan Police stood guard outside Apsley House, poised and armed, prepared for the onslaught. It didn’t last long: contemporary reporters described the police as having ‘laid unmercilessly’ upon the riotous throng. Many were seriously injured, but the house and its tenant remained largely unscathed. As windows were smashed and the safety of his family threatened, Wellesley was forced to construct iron shutters and railings around the building. This earned him his nickname, ‘The Iron Duke’.
Wellesley was ousted by a vote of no confidence in 1830. Unrest had grown into the ‘Swing Riots’, and increased in ferocity, as citizens protested under the banner of ‘Bread or Blood’. He remained an undisputed military hero, despite an ignoble exit from politics. Serving as Commander in Chief of the British Army until his death, he is still renowned as one of Britain’s greatest soldiers and strategists. Apsley House, preserved as a building of utmost historical significance, remains a testament to his accomplishments today.
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