Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: the visit of the Duke of Wellington, 1842

The 250th anniversary of the birth of the Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769) seems a good moment to remember his visit to Magdalene College Cambridge on Monday 4 July 1842.

Cambridge was in festival mood for the installation of the Duke of Northumberland as the University's new Chancellor, which formed part of the summer degree ceremonies of 1842. (Since the conferrings marked the effective end of the academic year, they were of course called the Commencement.) A great deal of London Society decamped to the town, headed by a member of the royal family, the Duke of Cambridge, seventh son of George III. A delegation also came from the University of Oxford, and Wellington, their Chancellor, was anxious to show respect to the Duke of Northumberland. His fellow grandee had served as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1829-30, during Wellington's term of office as prime minister, at the time of the challenge of Catholic Emancipation. Wellington had stayed the previous night, Sunday, with Earl de la Warr at Bourn Hall, a few miles west of the town. He was determined to press on to spend Monday night at Hatfield House, as guest of the Marquess of Salisbury. Wellington was 73: Cambridge opinion openly speculated that this might be the last time the town would welcome the national hero, but he packed a great deal in to his brief visit, with apparently inexhaustible energy.

Many of the colleges rallied round to provide lavish hospitality over several days. Formally, the lead was taken by Emmanuel, since its Master, G.A. Archdall, was Vice-Chancellor that year. Since the Duke of Northumberland was a former student of St John's, his entourage was quartered on the Master's Lodge there. The Fitzwilliam Museum, a new feature of the local townscape, was cleared for a grand ball. Crowd control failed at a fireworks display in the grounds of Jesus: the Duke of Cambridge, who was wearing the insignia of the Order of the Garter, had his Star ripped off in the melée. Magdalene's contribution, on the Monday that Wellington came to town, was more sedate, being one of three colleges to provide a "breakfast", a tasty spread laid out in the Hall. (An afternoon function, it was closer to the modern idea of a wedding breakfast.) The College also hosted a "Promenade" – a garden party for the rich and famous – from four o'clock until six. This was presumably designed to allow the elite to fill the time between the Senate House and the Vice-Chancellor's banquet at Emmanuel. Joseph Romilly, one of the University's most senior administrators, referred to "the Promenade at the Master of Magdalene's", but so glittering an event could not have been confined to the grounds of the Lodge. Whewell referred to "Magdalen Gardens", which suggests that the Fellows allowed their own garden – nowadays open to all – to be used as well. Since the College had been re-founded (and renamed) in 1542, it would be pleasant to think of the event as part of a tercentenary celebration, but there is no evidence for this. Magdalene, of course, was one of the poorest colleges, but it had one of the richest Masters. George Neville-Grenville was no doubt doing his bit to entertain the visitors to Cambridge, making a splash that would incidentally divert criticism of the fact that his various interests and responsibilities ensured that he was rarely in College. In 1845, he became Dean of Windsor, and his increasingly rare appearances – sardonically referred to as "fly-away visits" – aroused discontent among the Fellows.

Wellington's impending arrival was not the only cause of considerable excitement on the morning of Monday 4 July. News reached Cambridge of an attempt on the life of Queen Victoria the previous day, the second such outrage that year. Barely three months earlier, the University had sent a high-level deputation to London to congratulate Her Majesty on her escape from the first. On Sunday 3 July, she was riding in her carriage, with Prince Albert, from Buckingham Palace to the Chapel Royal in St James's when seventeen year-old John William Bean pointed a pistol in her direction. He was quickly overpowered by onlookers, and he later pleaded that his gun was mainly loaded with tobacco. Bean suffered from a spinal deformity, and was barely four feet tall. His assassination attempt was little more than a desperate gesture by one of society's casualties, who hoped to get sent to (for him) the relative comfort of prison, although he may not have bargained for eighteen months with hard labour. However, as often happens, the first news of the incident made it sound much more serious than was really the case. It is possible that Wellington's decision to drop in to Magdalene was motivated by a desire to steady public nerves by the display of a reassuring national icon.

The Duke of Wellington's arrival was a major event. It is difficult now to recapture the enormous public stature of the man who had won the battle of Waterloo. Not even his fraught two-year term as prime minister could dent the adulation of the kind of conservative and respectable people who predominantly made up the Cambridge community. From the Observatory into town, Madingley Road was strewn with laurel branches, and almost every gentleman who owned a horse formed up alongside his carriage in an impromptu cavalcade of honour.

The Master of Trinity took charge of the Iron Duke. The son of a Lancashire carpenter, William Whewell had moved into the palatial Lodge the previous year. A self-taught polymath who is credited with coining the term "scientist", Whewell's astonishingly broad range of intellectual interests was unfortunately not matched by his conversational skills. Fortunately, the Duke was in voluble mood. The news of the attempted murder of the Queen prompted reference to similar incidents in European history. Wellington recalled that he had himself been the target of an assassination plot in Paris in 1818 while commanding the army of occupation. The attempt – obviously – had failed, but the exiled Napoleon had unsportingly left the would-be killer a legacy.

Wellington also had a great deal to say about the war in Afghanistan, where the British invaders were faring badly. Predictably, he could not comprehend the failure of Army commanders: one had claimed that "he was obliged to surrender for lack of water, when he was snowed up." The Duke had campaigned on the sub-continent forty years earlier. Now, he remarked sarcastically, India had "the blessing of a free press", undermining confidence in its British rulers. (Presumably Whewell tactfully abstained from mentioning that this was a by-product of the spread of the English language, a policy energetically pressed by a Trinity man, Thomas Babington Macaulay.) India was "quite unfitted for such a thing. You might as well try a free press on the quarter-deck of a man of war."

Wellington also displayed alarming bursts of physical activity. He insisted on visiting the Lodge at St John's to pay his respects to the new Chancellor. He dropped in at the Senate House for a short period to sample the arcane and interminable academic rituals. Whewell was finding the hyperactive national hero a challenging guest to entertain. In mid-afternoon, he suggested a visit to Magdalene, "where the Master had collected a party of distinguished visitors in the Lodge garden, with a band of music." (Whewell's precision was characteristic.) The Duke acquiesced, and happily, Whewell recorded the route that they took. "We went there by the back of the Colleges and through Northampton Street." This probably meant that they skirted St John's New Court, and took the side road that now gives access to Magdalene's Buckingham Court. The thought of the victor of Waterloo striding along Northampton Street is intriguing. Was he wearing his famous boots? Might some ageing and aching veteran of his campaigns have stepped from the front door of one of the cottages to find himself face to face with his celebrated commander?

It seems likely that the Duke had been holding forth too energetically for the taciturn Whewell to brief him about the party they were about to crash. As they walked down Magdalene Street approaching the College, Wellington suddenly enquired "who was the master of Magdalen?" (Whewell tenaciously maintained a spelling that the College had discarded in his undergraduate days.) Perhaps the carpenter's son portentously identified the host as the Honourable and Reverend George Neville-Grenville (the penultimate syllable was pronounced "green"), but in his account he simply referred to "Mr Neville Grenville". It was enough to jog Wellington's memory. "Oh, I know him, he officiates sometimes at the Chapel Royal." Neville-Grenville was a personal chaplain to Queen Victoria: when the Cambridge delegation had presented her with its congratulatory address on escaping assassination in March, he had been the only Head of House (along with the Vice-Chancellor) to be invited to kiss hands. "I usually go to the Chapel Royal," Wellington commented. "Sometimes I am alone with the reader." In an aside, as if talking to himself, he added, "Dearly beloved Roger."

Wellington's muttered comment was an allusion to a story attributed to Jonathan Swift. As a young Protestant clergyman, Swift was appointed to a country church at Laracor in County Meath, an overwhelmingly Catholic area. When he arrived to take his first service, he found only his parish clerk in attendance. The Book of Common Prayer required the incumbent to address his congregation, "Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness". For Swift, the solemnity of the occasion was outweighed by its absurdity, and he amended the liturgy, beginning, "Dearly beloved Roger — the Scripture moveth you and me in sundry places." Although Swift's more respectable admirers denied that he could have made mockery of a sacred act of worship, Wellington evidently accepted the tale as genuine. He had spent part of his childhood at Trim, barely four miles away: indeed, Laracor is one of many putative birthplaces that have been attributed to him. Although he famously denied being an Irishman, Wellington would have been familiar with stories about Jonathan Swift, who was remembered with much affection in Ireland. When he sailed for India in 1796, he took a 24-volume set of the Dean's works with him, intending to read them on the voyage. His sotto voce comment to Whewell was no doubt a sardonic allusion to the poor attendance at the Chapel Royal. It was no surprise that a Protestant clergyman should fail to attract a congregation in rural Ireland. It was a poor comment on the devotion of the royal household that an elite chapel in the heart of London should draw so few worshippers.

Joseph Romilly recorded that Wellington "showed himself at the promenade at the Master of Magdalene's", before walking on to Emmanuel, where preparations were under way for the Vice-Chancellor's banquet. However, keen to press on to Hatfield, the Duke had no intention of staying for dinner, but instead strolled around the college, deep in conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It may be tempting to regard his visits to Magdalene and to Emmanuel as – in modern terminology – celebrity appearances that added a touch of glamour to a social event. It is much more likely that Wellington intended to provide public reassurance by projecting his personal image of national stability at a moment of public agitation over the latest attack on the Queen. Archbishop William Howley had opposed him in the House of Lords over Catholic Emancipation, but now they stood shoulder to shoulder, locked in solemn discourse. As a Cambridge newspaper put it, the sight of "those two venerable and venerated men" engaged in "delightful converse" caused "great pleasure" to the onlookers. It was young Mr Bean's pantomime attack that impelled Wellington to make sure he was seen, wise and immoveable, at the peripheral parties in Magdalene and Emmanuel. Eventually, the Iron Duke tore himself away. "I must go. My carriage is at the gate, and I am very sorry for it. God bless you all – God bless you all!"

"The fête at Magdalen was numerously and fashionably attended," reported the Cambridge Independent Press. "The Duke of Wellington was present, as also was Lord Lyndhurst, with several others whose names we need not take up our space by recounting." A long-deceased scribbler earns the historian's curse for his dismissive and lazy journalism, but at least he gave us one colourful figure. Son of the American artist, John Singleton Copley, Lyndhurst had risen to the head of the legal profession, complete with a peerage, and was currently serving his third term as Lord Chancellor. His father, who specialised in portrait-painting, had moved from Boston to London in search of clients: Lyndhurst himself had been born in Massachusetts, and liked to unsettle visiting Americans by hailing them as his fellow countrymen. Perhaps he had tried this routine with Edward Everett, the black-coated American minister, who was in Cambridge that week as part of the diplomatic corps. Two decades later, Everett would be the warm-up orator when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Engaging if utterly reactionary, Lyndhurst was an all-round eighteenth-century figure who, for a time, had shared a mistress with the young Benjamin Disraeli. Since George Neville-Grenville had performed the marriage ceremony of the stern, unbending W.E. Gladstone, Magdalene was hosting the full gamut of emotional support to the great gladiatorial duo of Victorian political history.

We know the name of one other guest at the Magdalene garden party, for Whewell recorded that Wellington left for Emmanuel in the company of the Bishop of London. Charles John Blomfield was one of the more appealing ecclesiastical personalities of the era. A reformer, he insisted that the Church of England should tackle its own abuses before its enemies intervened to impose more radical remedies. Six years earlier, there had been a slight contretemps when Wellington had confused Blomfield, who signed himself C.J. London, with the horticulturalist J.C. Loudon (who must have had unusually bad handwriting). The story got around that Loudon, who was writing a book about trees, had requested permission to visit the Wellington's country estate, Stratfield Saye, in order to inspect his beeches, leading the no doubt perplexed Duke to confer permission upon the Bishop to examine his breeches. Perhaps their two Graces, spiritual and temporal, broke the ice that summer afternoon with some joke about the foliage shading the Master's garden – but neither was given to repartee and Wellington, in particular, was impervious to embarrassment.

The Duke of Wellington's visit to Magdalene formed part of a brief episode during academic festivities, giving us a glimpse of a privileged, gilded England on one of the lost summer afternoons of long ago. Two pleasant cameos stand out. We have the victor of Waterloo, striding along Northampton Street, probably ignored by passers-by and maybe still holding forth about Afghanistan and assassination. We have the Iron Duke quoting Jonathan Swift as he entered the College gardens. Magdalene has a long and distinguished history of doing honour to the great and creative names of literature. Perhaps the mighty Duke of Wellington should be regarded as its godfather of English Studies.

This note is based on:

Mrs Stair Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell.... (London, 1881), 269-71; M.E. Bury and J.D. Pickles, eds, Romilly's Cambridge Diaries 1841-1847 (Cambridge, 1994), esp. 14-17, which also quotes the Cambridge Chronicle, and 2, 181 for Neville-Grenville; Cambridge Independent Press, 9 July 1842; and standard biographical sources.