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The man who dominated the headlines…

Continuing the theme of my previous blogs on historical research for my current novel, I discovered that 1852 was a quite a significant year. Did you know that Arthur Wellesley (né Wesley) was twice Prime Minister of England and was given a state funeral at the insistence of Queen Victoria? Do you know who he was better known as – this man of Anglo-Irish heritage from a noble but indebted family? He was commissioned as an ensign in the British Army in 1787 and quickly rose through the ranks, earning himself the nickname ‘The Iron Duke’. He was 83 at his death on 14 September 1852. He was better known as the Duke of Wellington.

Wellington was an important identity in Victorian England. His death created intense interest and huge outpourings of grief, as people remembered his deeds – and what, if any, involvement they or their families had had with the great man. Over a two-day period in early November some 9000 local people queued on the Walmer beach to file past the coffin inside the castle.

His death also inspired several creative endeavours. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote an Ode to the Duke that was generally not considered one of Tennyson’s best endeavours, despite his admiration for the Duke. Likewise, a symphony written by Beethoven (Op.91) in 1813 after the Battle of Vitoria to honour ‘Wellington’s Victory’ once again became popular.

For all that, Wellington is best known for his military career, for those that care to read about it, even though his political and personal life attracted similar interest. He had wanted to be buried at Walmer Castle, his favourite home, but Queen Victoria wished otherwise. Needless to say, her wishes overruled his and he was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The State Funeral, on 18 November 1852, some two months after his death, was on a grand scale costing in the vicinity of £10,000 (equivalent to £1,155,966 in 2021). The funeral car, mostly of solid bronze was enormous and required a team of twelve draft horses to draw it. The procession itself involved some ten thousand troops and estimates of the throngs that crowded into St Paul’s for the service varied between ten and twenty thousand mourners. In all cases, the details are explained, discussed and analysed at great depth. References can be found in newspapers of the time, in history books, and now online ad infinitum.

The dilemma, as always, is how much of this research to include in a novel. Usually, not that much. Unless it fits the story and the character – and, as importantly, the readers. Military experts would gladly read about the Duke’s exploits. Classical music aficionados would want to know more about Beethoven’s Op.91 and his association with Johann Maelzel, the inventor of the Panharmonicon, the instrument Beethoven ‘Battle Symphony’ was composed for. Equally, poetry lovers would spend endless hours analysing Tennyson’s verses, and let’s not forget the historians who would recite the facts of Wellington’s life and the details of his death with relish. But while, today, we can find information on every aspect of Wellington’s life and career, how much did the average person on the streets of Bristol know in 1852?

More importantly, how much did my protagonist Sarah know – or care – about this military man who was old when he died, who had lived the most important parts of his life before she was born, and who represented the past not the future?

For that I can read the newspapers – just like they did.

Thanks for your interest in my blogs. I look forward to your feedback. You can see my previous novels here.

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