THE STORY OF MARENGO, NAPOLEON’S
FAVOURITE HORSE ~
Or Was He?
On the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras, before my post about Copenhagen, the mount of the ‘Iron Duke’ of Wellington, it seemed only fair to tell the story of Marengo, favourite battle horse of the Emperor of France. He was another courageous horse; perhaps in some ways more so than Copenhagen, for it would appear from accounts of the time that Napoleon was not in the same league as His Grace when it came to horsemanship. The story has been told for almost two hundred years, yet could it be that the legend is a mere myth?
Although standing a mere 14.1 hands (a hand is four inches, measured from the ground to the withers, at the base of the horse’s neck where it joins the back), Marengo was an Arab stallion, a breed renowned for courage, endurance and fire, the latter yet tempered with a calm, steady nature in most individuals. Marengo was imported from Egypt in 1799, after the Battle of Aboukir, when he was aged about six. He may well have been bred at the celebrated El Naseri stud. He carried Napoleon safely through the Battle of Marengo despite a cannon shot severing part of the Emperor’s left boot and wounding him in the foot. Napoleon was so impressed with his new charger’s prowess in the thick of battle, he named him after that successful conflict.
|Napoleon on Marengo at the Battle of Marengo|
Napoleon’s success as a general had much to do with his skilful deployment of his cavalry, so it should come as little surprise to the reader that his chargers were always superb Arab or Barb horses. Mostly cream or grey, they were specifically trained for their role at the Imperial Stud in St. Cloud. They had to remain calm but ready for action on the battlefield and move with a smooth, even pace for the Emperor’s comfort on long-distance marches. Marengo was no exception, although there is some debate over whether he was ‘white’ (light grey to horsemen) or a darker hue. In the famous painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David, a study which is considered an accurate portrayal, the horse is clearly a dapple-grey, with dark legs, whereas in the equally celebrated portrait by James Ward, painted in 1824, he is far lighter. Of course, both may be correct. Grey horses lighten in colour as they age and Marengo was about thirty-one years old at the time Ward took his likeness.
|Marengo by James Ward|
To be Napoleon’s horse was to be honoured, well housed and fed, but a risky position nevertheless. According to popular belief, the Emperor had eighteen chargers killed whilst riding them in battle. In spite of his lack of stature and reportedly being wounded eight times during the course of his military career, however, Marengo survived the jinx to become the horse most closely associated with the ‘little Corsican’. He carried his master at the conflicts at Austerlitz, Jena and Wagram, and also was often required to travel the eighty miles from Valladolid to Burgos, a distance he frequently covered in only five hours. He was one of fifty-two horses in the Emperor’s personal stables, which was raided by the Russians in 1812, forcing the entire stud to flee. Napoleon arrived in Moscow in September of that year to find the city in flames. It was a disastrous expedition, resulting in a retreat through the harshest of winter conditions. While he came through the three thousand mile journey to the Russian capital and back unscathed, it is purported that the nineteen-year-old Marengo stumbled or slipped on the frozen ground, unseating Napoleon on to his imperial behind. This was considered an ill-omen by those of a superstitious nature, since during the withdrawal thousands of the Grande Armée died of starvation and exposure.
When Napoleon was exiled to the Isle of Elba, it seems that Marengo was not chosen to travel with his master, but stayed at the Imperial Stables, his routine unaffected, awaiting the Emperor’s return. By the time Napoleon escaped his incarceration and arrived at Waterloo, Marengo had therefore attained the grand old age of twenty-two. He was stabled at La Ferme du Caillou, along with Marie and Désirée, the other war horses belonging to the French General, and was the Emperor’s mount during the early stages of the conflict. One source suggests he sustained a slight injury to his left hip, this being his eighth wound in combat, as mentioned above.
Accordingly, Napoleon was riding Marie when, late on in proceedings, he was forced to flee from the Allied cavalry. The mare being tired, he had, of necessity, to stop at La Ferme du Caillou for another horse. Since Marengo was apparently not saddled (which seems likely if he were injured) and the Emperor had only seconds, he took the first available mount and galloped on to Charleroi. Here he changed to a carriage and travelled non-stop for three days to reach Paris.
Discovered in the stables, Marengo was brought back to Britain by Lord William Henry Francis Petre and later sold to Lieutenant-Colonel (afterwards General) John Julius Angerstein, a member of the Grenadier Guards, for the purpose of breeding racehorses. He retired to stud at New Barnes near Ely, being advertised for a ten guineas fee as late in his career as 1820, even though he was by then twenty-seven. As a sire he proved of little worth, although when proclaimed ‘Bonaparte’s Personal Charger’, he drew huge crowds to London’s Pall Mall in 1823, many coming from far afield to marvel at the little stallion with the brand of the Imperial Stud – a letter ‘N’ surmounted by a crown – on his left flank and a bullet embedded in his tail.
Contemporary reports conflict – as they do with the Duke of Wellington’s Copenhagen – as to whether Marengo was the personification of Arabian beauty and elegance, or whether he was actually bad-tempered and of poor conformation. We shall never know, but he died in 1831, having reached a venerable thirty-eight years. His skeleton was given to the Royal United Services Institute before later moving to Chelsea in London, where it is a prize exhibit in the enormous Waterloo Gallery at the National Army Museum. One hoof was made into a snuff box and was presented to his fellow officers in the Brigade of Guards by General Angerstein. It has occupied a position of honour at St. James’ Palace since then, on a highly polished sideboard in the Officers’ Mess. Another hoof, raised on a silver base and with a silver inkwell fashioned into the top, was kept by the family. It is currently on loan to the Household Cavalry Museum, complete with a lock of white hair in the well.
|Skeleton of Marengo at National Army Museum|
But does it belong to Marengo?
In April this year, The Times printed an article suggesting that the whole story of Marengo may actually have been a hoax. Gareth Glover, Treasurer of the Waterloo Association, claims in his book, Waterloo: Myth and Reality, that research by Jill Hamilton (Marengo: The Myth of Napoleon's Horse) into French records has put the whole legend in doubt. It would seem that not only is there no horse named Marengo entered in the books of the Imperial Stables, neither does his description fit any of the 1,372 which are listed.
Is it possible that the favourite charger of Napoleon Bonaparte was a myth; a huge piece of nineteenth century spin doctoring?! Was he, in fact, just an invention produced by someone with an eye for the main chance, out to fleece the British public, as indeed purveyors of ‘relics’ have done since the Middle Ages? Were all the artists who painted his portrait conned by this almighty scam? Can we really suspend disbelief long enough to consider the likelihood of such a scheme? If true, it is the most astonishing piece of deceit, for how could it possibly have not been exposed as such at the time? The question also has to be asked, why was – if, indeed, he was – Napoleon so insistent that Jacques-Louis David paint an exact likeness of his favourite horse in his portrait, which dates from the turn of that century? Another consideration also springs to mind… since Napoleon rode mainly grey and cream Arab horses, how can anyone be sure, now, that their descriptions did not match that of Marengo? Nowadays, DNA testing and diagrammatical marking of a horse’s ‘whorls’ – swirls of hair as individual as fingerprints – can easily verify identity. From a simple, written description, it would be far less conclusive. It is, after all, always possible that Marengo was listed under a stable name or other identification… or were records of the Emperor’s personal horses kept separately from those of the Imperial Stables… or indeed, have those records at some time been altered? It is interesting there would appear to be little reverence of Marengo in France, unlike Copenhagen in Britain. Unless a DNA test can be done on the skeleton and bloodlines traced back to the El Naseri stud, or some unquestioned documents exist which tell the true story, it is doubtful we shall ever know for certain.
The media may well continue to debate whether the skeleton belongs to Ali or Jaffa or any other of Napoleon’s horses; whether it was merely a light cavalry horse or any old Arab stallion, but in the absence of real evidence, I prefer to believe that after all his great service, Marengo enjoyed a long and peaceful life at stud. While it is of great personal relief that the Duke of Wellington ‘could not remember’ where Copenhagen was buried and therefore his grave lies undisturbed, it seems to me his opposite number should be reviewed in his display case with respect and remembered in honour as a great equine hero.
|Marengo in retirement, James Ward|
All pictures courtesy Wikimedia Commons