Wellington's famous battle horse ~
the full story
As we celebrate the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo and remember those heroes, both human and animal, who lost their lives to preserve our freedom from the Napoleonic threat, I look at the horse without whom it might all have been so very different...
I am just a little bit fond of horses so when, while researching Waterloo for the Anthology Beaux, Ballrooms and Battles, I came across an interesting fact about the Duke of Wellington's horse, Copenhagen, it was manna from heaven. It is something I suspect is not universally known and it was enormous fun fleshing out the story around that snippet of information. You will have to read the story, 'Copenhagen's Last Charge', to find out what that fact is! I really enjoyed writing this one and I hope you enjoy reading it.
This is an article I have written about Copenhagen and his relationship with the Duke. In my opinion he was a remarkable horse and when you read of his exploits, I think you will agree.
Copenhagen. The very name of the Danish capital conjures exotic images of a bustling, modern city with an infamous red light district; a centuries-old port, evolved from a fortification built in 1167 to protect a ferry crossing; battles on the high seas and an international political centre.
It was also the name of a horse.
That horse was not just any old horse, though. He was the famed mount of a revered general. He was the war horse of no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington and carried his master throughout the whole of the Battle of Waterloo.
|The Battle of Copenhagen, 1807|
Copenhagen’s story begins at the siege of the city which gave him his name. His dam was the half-bred mare, Lady Catherine, bred by Thomas Grosvenor and, it is believed, ridden by him during that conflict, where he was a brigade commander. Lady Catherine’s dam was by the Rutland Arabian, ‘out of a hunting mare not thorough-bred’ according to The General Stud Book and was put to the successful racehorse and stallion, John Bull. John Bull’s sire, Fortitude, was by Herod and his dam was by the legendary Eclipse. Copenhagen was sired by Meteor, a son of Eclipse, meaning Eclipse was both his grandsire and great, great grandsire (denoted 2x4 in a pedigree). Meteor’s dam was an unnamed mare by Merlin. Meteor was second in the Derby of 1786 and then went on to win his next twenty-one starts. All this means that Copenhagen was well bred, but not sufficiently so. He was not eligible for the General Stud Book because of his grand-dam’s hunter blood. Lady Catherine is the only half-bred mare included in the stud book, in deference to his honourable military career.
Historical sources seem divided as to whether Lady Catherine was shipped back to England in foal or whether Copenhagen was born on the Continent. The listing for Lady Catherine gives no indication that he was foaled anywhere but in Britain ‒ most likely at the Grosvenor Stud, Eaton Hall, in 1808.
Meteor was tiny by today’s standards, measuring about fourteen hands, but Copenhagen took after his grandsire in colour, height and temperament. He was chestnut (as was his father), stood about fifteen hands high (a hand is four inches, a horse being measured to the base of the neck where it joins the body) and could be bad-tempered, being prone to lashing out with a hind leg. He is described as being muscular and compact, having two white heels, a hollow back and poor shoulders… and, conversely, as being a handsome horse.
|The Duke of Wellington mounted on Copenhagen|
|Wellington at Waterloo, RA Hillingford|
In all three paintings, he is a striking individual, his proud bearing, fine legs and sturdy conformation clearly reflecting his Arabian bloodlines. There would even seem to be, in the Spode portrait, a hint of the classic dished face – but that may be merely artistic licence. The former qualities were appreciated by the knowledgeable cavalry soldier, for on campaign, horses may receive little in the way of fodder while enduring the harshest of conditions. Toughness was a prime requisite. Wellington is quoted as saying of his famous horse: ‘There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow.’ Such stamina is the hallmark, not only of the Thoroughbred, but of the three Arab stallions from whom the breed evolved.
However, the Duke of Wellington and his illustrious horse had yet to meet. Despite his lack of a full pedigree, Thomas Grosvenor had bred Copenhagen to race, but although a quick colt, he had not inherited either Meteor’s or Eclipse’s speed. He did not run as a two-year-old and his two seasons were undistinguished at best, resulting in only two wins. He retired from racing in 1812, at the end of his four-year-old season and was sold to Sir Charles Stewart, (later the Marquis of Londonderry) who took the stallion to the Peninsula.
Not a favourite of the future Duke of Wellington, Sir Charles fell foul of the Field Marshal on several occasions, finally, so the story goes, being reduced to tears for remarks made in the Morning Chronicle. Soon after, Stewart was offered a post as Minister to Prussia – possibly through the good offices of his half-brother and Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. However that may be, towards the end of 1813, Sir Charles, being short of funds and no longer in need of a stable of horses, sold Copenhagen and one other to Colonel Charles Wood (or Colonel Alexander Gordon) on behalf of one Arthur Wellesley.
When Copenhagen arrived in the Marquis’ stables (Wellington was not made a duke until 1814) he caused no small amount of concern. Not only was his temperament uncertain, he had a particularly unusual idiosyncrasy. All horses will lie down in their stable, given that the bed is deep enough and they are comfortable in their surroundings. However, they eat standing up; hay from a hay rack or net, feed from a manger or bucket. Copenhagen had a hearty appetite, for corn feed especially, but he would eat it whilst lying down. Until they determined that there was nothing wrong with their expensive new charge, he no doubt gave the Marquis’ grooms many a sleepless night!
A true horseman, Wellington quickly realized that his chestnut charger needed plenty of occupation. He already maintained his own pack of hounds as well as a pair of hunters for his leisure hours in the Peninsula, since his battle horses were not suitable for the sport. Copenhagen, on the other hand, revelled in the work and the freedom from his stable. The discipline of standing quietly and then galloping when hounds set off developed the five-year-old’s fitness and hardened his legs and tendons. Days in the field developed a relationship between horse and rider which was to be indispensable. The two seasons Copenhagen had spent on the race courses of England had accustomed him to noise and clamour. The pieces of the jigsaw were fitting together to create a legend; a horse whose name would go down in history.
During the battle of Quatre Bras, on 16th June, Wellington and his aide, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, were left exposed when the Brunswick and Netherland troops took fright and abandoned their position. With a detachment of French cuirassiers too close for comfort, they had to put spur to their horses and gallop for the nearest place of safety. This happened to be a square formed by the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, under the command of Sir Thomas Picton. A square of massed bayonets is an effective defensive measure against cavalry, since horses will not, even under the strongest coercion, charge at such a fearsome wall of steel. As Wellington galloped Copenhagen at his own infantry ranks, he ordered them to lie down. As the astonished men hastily withdrew bayonets and flattened themselves, he drove Copenhagen into a mighty leap that saved both their lives. The gallant Highlanders resumed formation as Lord Somerset joined their illustrious commander and repelled the French onslaught with Wellington calmly giving orders as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. A lesser horse would, in all likelihood, have baulked. Had Wellington fallen that day, there can be little doubt that history would have recorded a different outcome. The trust and obedience honed on the hunting fields of Spain and Portugal had proved invaluable.
In her diary, Lady Frances Shelley states that: ‘On the day before the battle, the Duke rode Copenhagen to the Prussian headquarters, to ascertain whether he might depend on old Blücher’s co-operation.’ This belief is also reflected by the Reverend Charles Young, who was staying with the Rt. Hon. Henry Pierrepoint in 1833 when the Duke himself apparently related the tale. The Duke is reported to have said, ‘Before ten o’clock I got on Copenhagen’s back… I never drew bit, and he never had a morsel in his mouth, till 8pm, when Fitzroy Somerset came to tell me dinner was ready in the little neighbouring village – Waterloo.’ He went on to claim that he sent Fitzroy Somerset off on an errand, ‘ordered Copenhagen to be re-saddled, and told my man to get his own horse and accompany me to Wavre, where I had reason to believe old ‘Forwards’ was encamped.’ Wavre was some twelve miles away and the Prussian actually two miles further on, according to the Reverend’s account. The Duke further added that he had got the information he wanted and made the best of his way homewards. ‘Bad, however, was the best; for, by Jove, it was so dark I fell into a deepish dyke by the roadside; and if it had not been for the orderly’s assistance, I doubt that I should ever have got out. Thank God, there was no harm done, either to horse or man!’ Some modern historians believe this tale to be a fabrication and that an aide-de-camp had made the journey and returned with the message promising assistance from the Prussians. It is a more likely version of events, but if not… the possibility of having carried his master another twenty-eight miles on top of his day’s work, including stumbling into a ditch, and then be ridden the following day during the battle itself, adds immeasurably to Copenhagen’s already considerable lustre and reputation for bottomless endurance.
What is irrefutable fact, however, is that while Napoleon rode probably three or four horses during the battle and covered considerably less ground, the cranky chestnut stallion was Wellington’s sole mount for the whole of that long, momentous day ‒ a stretch of almost eighteen hours. Calm and composed amidst the smoke and mayhem of the battlefield, the very sight of the powerful horse and his rider cheered the Allied forces into greater endeavours and helped them stand firm when the odds were against them. Afterwards, he wrote to Lady Frances Webster and said, ‘The finger of Providence was upon me…’ So it must have been, because neither he nor Copenhagen took hurt, in spite of being in prominent positions on the famous ridge throughout the battle. Possibly the nearest they came to sustaining mortal injury was when, sometime before eight pm, Wellington, standing in his stirrups beneath the elm tree that had been his vantage point throughout, espied the arrival of the Prussians. Waving his troops onwards, he galloped Copenhagen into the confusion, accompanied by Lord Uxbridge. In what must have been one of the last volleys of artillery fire from the French guns at La Haye Sainte, a single shot passed between Wellington and his charger’s neck.
In his book on the life and letters of his forebear, the Marquis of Anglesey confirms the popular story of the incident. ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ Uxbridge is supposed to have exclaimed. Wellington, surveying the proceedings through his telescope and, one presumes, with his attention elsewhere, then duly took a cursory glance and answered, ‘My God, sir, so you have!’ The truth must have sunk in within seconds, for he leaned over and gave the Earl a supporting hand until he could be taken to safety. The grapeshot had shattered the knee joint and Uxbridge had his leg amputated. The saw used for this grisly service is now in the National Army Museum, donated by a descendant of James Powell, the surgeon who probably performed the operation.
Meanwhile, the Duke and Copenhagen – clearly unfazed by the close shave with death – followed the advance, oblivious of the last, desperate bursts of fire from the enemy. Perhaps one or both were charmed. It is little wonder that the illustrious pair were fêted by all and sundry when they finally arrived home victorious.
Once the despatches and other concerns had been completed, including a ride to Mont St. Jean to oversee the burial of the dead, the Duke and Copenhagen travelled on to Paris. The Austrian and Russian Emperors, bedecked in full ceremonial regalia, rode into the city on white horses. The Duke of Wellington, who had also favoured a white steed when entering the same city in May 1814, this time mounted his old friend and accepted the accolades of the populace plainly dressed in a red coat, a star upon his chest.
The Duke and Copenhagen remained in Paris for some time, Wellington being involved with the Paris Peace Conference and his military commitments as Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Occupation. Although they did not have as much time for hunting as formerly, they both enjoyed being the centre of attention of the fairer sex, both French and English. Many ladies clamoured to be allowed to ride Copenhagen, even though he was far from an easy ride. Lady Frances Shelley considered it a dubious pleasure, but although married, was half in love with the Duke. In her diary, she wrote in 1815:
I dined at three o'clock to-day, in order to ride with the Duke, who offered to mount me on Copenhagen. A charming ride of two hours. But I found Copenhagen the most difficult horse to sit of any I had ever ridden. If the Duke had not been there, I should have been frightened. He said: “I believe you think the glory greater than the pleasure in riding him!”
Towards the end of 1815, or early the following year, the Duke rented a house in Mont St. Martin as being more convenient for his official headquarters at Cambrai. Here the pair once more indulged their love of hunting, while Wellington held house parties, ceremonials and mock battles. In her Reminiscences, Georgiana, Lady Lennox, recalls the Duke announcing one of the latter, where the ladies were to be taken prisoner. As she was riding Copenhagen it was a simple matter for her to stay close to his master. She found herself ‘…the only one with him in a square, where they were firing. To the Duke's great amusement we heard one of the soldiers saying to another, “Take care of that ’ere horse, he kicks out; we knew him well in Spain,” pointing to Copenhagen! He was a most unpleasant horse to ride, but always snorted and neighed with pleasure at the sight of troops.’
While Wellington returned to England on occasion during the next year or two, the stallion remained peacefully in France until the close of 1818, when the Army of Occupation came home. With every care taken for his comfort as the honoured mount of the Duke of Wellington’s charger, his short journey across the English Channel must have been very different from the long voyage to Lisbon as a five-year-old. He came home to a hero’s welcome and yet more adulation from the ladies. The Government had purchased the Hampshire estate of Stratfield Saye for His Grace in recognition of his achievement and the Duke acquired Apsley House near Hyde Park Corner from his brother, Lord Richard Wellesley. Wellington continued to ride his famous horse around London but when his duties took up more of his time, he sent Copenhagen to Hampshire, bringing him back for one very special occasion. When he was elected Prime Minister in 1828, he rode his old friend up Constitution Hill and to the door of Number 10, Downing Street.
|Wellington Statue, Courtesy Victoria Hinshaw|
Copenhagen enjoyed a peaceful retirement at Stratfield Saye, petted by the Duchess of Wellington and many other ladies, whom, for the price of a sponge cake, a crust of bread or an apple, would request a lock of hair to be made into jewellery. Although he became blind and deaf, he had the best of care and was finally laid to rest with full military honours in his paddock near the Ice House on 12th February 1836, having died in the ‘pink-washed’, ‘rococo curves’ of his palatial stall. He was twenty-eight.The Duke had been absent from the estate, but went immediately to the stables on his return, there to erupt in a towering rage because one of Copenhagen’s hooves was missing. There are two versions of the story – one being that a farmer had bought the hoof and returned it directly to the Duke; the other that a servant had taken it, only daring to confess thirty years later after the Duke’s death, whereupon the second Duke had it made into an inkwell. Ironically, this version mirrors the fate of Marengo’s hooves. In another parallel, the Duke was approached by the United Services Museum with a request for Copenhagen’s skeleton, so it might be displayed alongside that of Marengo. Claiming he was unsure where the horse was buried and that he would make enquiries, Wellington did no such thing. He had no intention of desecrating his old friend’s memory, nor yet of disturbing his final resting place.
Mrs. Apostles, the Duke’s housekeeper, planted the Turkey Oak which now casts shade over the stallion’s grave, to commemorate her twenty years of service and the marble stone was laid by the second Duke, some years following the Iron Duke’s death.
The inscription upon it reads:
The Charger ridden by
THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON
The entire day at the
BATTLE OF WATERLOO.
Born 1808. Died 1836.
God’s humble instrument, though meaner clay,
Should share the glory of that glorious day.
|Copenhagen's Grave, Courtesy Victoria Hinshaw|