Lee W. Eysturlid
Review of John Severn, Architects of Empire:
The Duke of Wellington and His Brothers. Norman: Univ. of
Oklahoma Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 602. ISBN: 978-0-8061-3810-7.
In the book under review, John Severn (Univ. of
Alabama, Huntsville) paints, at times broadly, and at times in a
detailed fashion, a picture of Great Britain's most famous
combination of brothers, the Wellesleys. In so doing, he starts with
the father, a somewhat foppish member of the Anglo-Irish
aristocracy, and ends with the death of the Duke of Wellington more
than a century later. The narrative, like that of any good British
aristocratic family story, features a failed father and a
domineering mother. There are five brothers, in order: Richard,
Arthur (oddly named after a short-lived, much-adored elder sibling),
Henry, Gerald, and William (later William-Pole). Severn rightly
spends the bulk of his efforts on the careers and relationships of
Richard, Arthur, and Henry. As might be expected, the main
characters take the story to India and then to Spain, with numerous
interludes in the British Parliament. The text is often a
blow-by-blow account of the three brothers' interchanges with each
other, mostly seen through their voluminous correspondence.
Severn is excellently placed to write this book.
His first work in the area centered on the eldest brother, Richard.
Further, he makes copious use of archival material, especially
letters. Often the reader can follow the interaction of the
characters as if reading these directly, rather than mediated
through the interpretation of the author. Since Richard and Arthur
wrote constantly, the quantity of relevant source material is
daunting. Architects of Empire, in its meticulous use of
primary sources concerning the men and women involved, is unrivaled.
Writing in the present venue, I must stipulate
that Severn's book is not principally a military history in any real
sense. It is far more a study of the political nature of the British
Empire as it was emerging during the long era of the Napoleonic Wars
and the following late Georgian period. Much more space is given to
the parliamentary maneuvering of Richard and Arthur than to military
events in India or Spain. The battles of Assaye and Waterloo are
given less than a page each. Further, the book's title is
misleading: the term "architect" strongly implies that the brothers
Wellesley created the British Empire by design. But we are
specifically told of Richard in India that: "it must
be pointed out that Mornington [Richard's Irish title] was more than
an opportunist. Well schooled in the history and culture of the
subcontinent, he understood to a surprising degree the intricacies
of Indian rivalries, internal politics, and personal ambitions. He
had some sense of what could be done and what could not. Ambitious
he was, but it was an ambition tempered by realism. He did not
arrive in India with the aim of creating an empire [my emphasis]"
That the Wellesleys set the stage for "empire" in
the nineteenth century is not addressed, nor is the extent of their
role in winning the war in Spain. This makes it difficult to divine
a clear thesis driving Severn's narrative. What then is the purpose
of his book, other than relating many details of the relationship
among the three main characters?
Despite its subtitle,
the book does not focus principally on Arthur, the Duke of
Wellington, known of course to anyone with even a passing knowledge
of modern Britain or the Napoleonic Wars. No, the far less known
brothers, Richard and Henry, dominate the first half of
Architects of Empire.
Richard, a man of real intellect and ability but
afflicted with frailties and painful failings, is the central figure
in the family narrative up to 1809. He is, in Severn's unsparing
account, almost utterly unlikable, grubbing for titles and adulation
(though not money) at every turn. This egocentrism, not any plans
for empire in India, motivated him: "Material gain never entered into Mornington's calculations. Instead
he thought in terms of honors and public recognition (which, to him,
the honors represented). He wanted his king and colleagues to tell
him what a splendid job he had done and then convince the public of
their pride in and appreciation of him by conferring high honors. As
governor general, he had reason to expect a reward, but for
Mornington, the issue was whether the reward would match the
Throughout, Richard, and to a degree the Iron
Duke himself, often come off as petulant and angry at real or
perceived slights to their abilities and the importance of their
successes. In the end, Wellington's real successes after 1810 left
Richard to stew, an obnoxious, bankrupt philanderer, soon dependent
on his younger brother Arthur for advancement and cash.
Architects of Empire is replete with
interesting and informative vignettes of the brothers' repellent
personal lives. Had it not been for the meteoric success of Arthur
in Spain, the entire Wellesley clan might be consigned to the
dustbin of historically interesting and rather dysfunctional
Englishmen. Although seemingly well-positioned, Richard and Arthur
struggled to enter the inner circle of British high society. While
Arthur carried his eventual success and fortune easily, Richard was
a disaster. None of the five brothers had a consistently happy
domestic life, making bad marriages across the board. Henry is
perhaps most famous for his wife's deliciously lurid affair with the
dashing Lord Paget (later Uxbridge of Waterloo fame): the seven
pages devoted to the affair give valuable insight into divorce law
in England at the time. Sections of the book read like Pride and
Prejudice. Severn even imagines Richard seeing himself in the
part of the noble Darcy. How much all this applies to the actual
story is left unclear.
Severn occasionally makes broad assertions that
remain unqualified or go too far. For instance, we read of the
brothers and Spain in 1810 that: "The
arrangement differed from India in that the setting had changed.
This was the main stage drama played before an alert and critical
audience. That said, never before had three brothers played such a
central role in the fate of a nation…. From London Richard would
devise policy and promote it; Arthur would command; and in Spain,
Henry would mobilize the resources of a reluctant and hobbled ally.
Not only did Britain's future role as a European power hang in the
balance, so too did the careers of the Wellesleys" (296). True enough, but the accomplishments of Richard
or Henry would be forgettable without Arthur's stunning victories.
Worse, it is rather much to assert that the three of them were
creating Britain as a power by their activities in Spain. Would
defeat there really have left Great Britain a second-rate European
power? Would it have ended or changed the destabilizing Continental
System or English maritime dominance? Not likely.
In sum, the book is a mixed bag. First, at over
5oo pages, it is often a hard read, assuming a reader with a decent
background knowledge of the social, political, and military history
of the period and of the biography of the Duke of Wellington. It too
often descends into the complicated morass of English parliamentary
debates and proceedings, with lots of historical characters coming
and going. (For some reason, there are pictures of Bathurst,
Castlereagh, Jenkinson, and Canning, but not of the wives of Richard
or Henry.) Still, there is much to recommend the book: the image of
British society and its demands on outsiders comes into focus; the
constant reliance on the correspondence of the brothers, especially
Richard and Arthur, gives a vivid sense of the inner workings of
their minds; the ad hoc and rather sordid nature of British
rule in India also emerges clearly. So an informed, perseverant
reading will be rewarded.
In the end, the book will appeal primarily to
scholars or enthusiasts of the Duke of Wellington, the British in
India and during the Napoleonic Wars, and English social history
circa 1800. But the conscious design suggested in the title simply
does not materialize. The book might better have been titled
Agents of Empire.
Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
 A Wellesley Affair: Richard Marquess
Wellesley and the Conduct of Anglo-Spanish Diplomacy, 1809-1812
(Tallahassee: U Pr of Florida, 1981).
 And its dust cover--a portrait of the Duke of
Wellington (see above and <link>).