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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

Wellington and King's

A picture by Thomas Jonesdepicting the duel between the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea in Battersea, 1829King’s Colledge to witIn the aftermath of Waterloo Wellington was a celebrated figure throughout Europe. Initially staying on in France as a diplomat and as commander-in-chief of the Army of Occupation, he returned to England in 1818, where a position was created for him in the Tory government of Lord Liverpool. 

Thus began a political career which culminated in his appointment as prime minister in 1828. Wellington’s defining act as prime minister was to push through the Catholic Relief Act (1829). Passed only with the support of the opposition Whigs – and losing him the support of many of his own party –the Bill secured the right for Catholics in the United Kingdom to sit in Parliament.

One of his most vehement opponents in this matter was the Protestant peer George Finch-Hatton, the Earl of Winchilsea (1791-1858). In a letter to the secretary of the newly established King’s College London, Winchilsea accused Wellington of hypocrisy in his simultaneous support for the new college – set up as a Church of England alternative to the secular University College – and for the Relief Bill, suggesting the former to be a ‘cloak’ by which to allow for the ‘introduction of Popery into every department of the state’. In order to avenge these damning accusations, Wellington challenged Winchilsea to the duel depicted in the cartoon on display here. Though shots were fired, neither man was hurt.

Wellington brought many of the same traits to political leadership that he had to the military; industrious, determined and highly self-reliant, he had little patience for the opinions of others. Consequently he was not popular with many of his own cabinet. Moreover, fearful of the kind of political instability that had torn France apart, he remained characteristically unswerving in his opposition to parliamentary reform or reform of property rights. As a result he found himself dangerously out of touch with the public mood, and his term as prime minister lasted just two years.

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