History explorer: the Napoleonic Wars

Huw Davies and Helen Carr visit Apsley House in central London, which has become a shrine to the Duke of Wellington's greatest triumphs...

View of the Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House, London. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Only feet away from the chaotic Hyde Park Corner underground station, Apsley House is a wonderfully preserved time capsule of British patriotism and martial endeavours. It is most commonly associated with that great military hero and victor of the battle of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.

Filled with his portraits, regalia and ostentatious displays of silver and furniture, Apsley could almost serve as a shrine to the Iron Duke. The house in its current state appears fit for service, out of place in the 21st century. There are portraits of commanders and heroes of the Napoleonic Wars dominating the walls, while the dinner service, soft furnishings and musical instruments look only momentarily untouched, unaffected by the two centuries that have passed. In the silence of the house, apart from the few creaking floorboards, you can imagine a bustle of uniformed captains and generals walking into the great dining room with talk of war and politics.

Only feet away from the chaotic Hyde Park Corner underground station, Apsley House is a wonderfully preserved time capsule of British patriotism and martial endeavours. It is most commonly associated with that great military hero and victor of the battle of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.

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Filled with his portraits, regalia and ostentatious displays of silver and furniture, Apsley could almost serve as a shrine to the Iron Duke. The house in its current state appears fit for service, out of place in the 21st century. There are portraits of commanders and heroes of the Napoleonic Wars dominating the walls, while the dinner service, soft furnishings and musical instruments look only momentarily untouched, unaffected by the two centuries that have passed. In the silence of the house, apart from the few creaking floorboards, you can imagine a bustle of uniformed captains and generals walking into the great dining room with talk of war and politics.

Apsley was the first house on the north side of Piccadilly, initiating its nickname ‘Number One, London’. The original house was designed and built between 1771 and 1778 for Lord Chancellor Henry, 1st Baron Apsley (later 2nd Earl Bathurst) by the fashionable architect Robert Adam. In 1807 the feckless and slightly roguish Richard, Marquess Wellesley, paid £16,000 to buy the lease from the 3rd Earl Bathurst.

By 1817, Richard Wellesley was almost bankrupt. His brother Arthur had been ennobled as the Duke of Wellington thanks to his military triumphs in the Napoleonic Wars and, in commemoration of his success at the battle of Waterloo, parliament gave him £700,000 to build ‘Waterloo Palace’. Instead of embarking on a new building project, the duke bought Apsley House from his brother, which he renovated in reflection of his new status. As Dr Huw Davies, senior lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London explains, the duke chose a London site because “it was where he had more influence”.

Greatest treasures

One of the duke’s key adaptations to the house was the construction of the Waterloo Gallery, used to house the annual commemorative Waterloo Banquet, which took place every year from 1820–52. One of Apsley’s greatest treasures is a painting, by William Salter, depicting the banquet (see page 82) with the Duke of Wellington as its central figure standing at a large dining table that is still in situ today.

Within the portrait is also a remarkable silver centrepiece that was given to the duke by the Portuguese government as a token of gratitude for his part in repelling the French invasion of Portugal (which resulted in the so-called Peninsular War). Today, it sits in exactly the same spot as it does in Salter’s painting.

As Huw explains, Salter’s masterpiece isn’t the only artwork to adorn Apsley House as a direct result of the Peninsular War. “In the fallout from their victory in the battle of Vitoria, the British force captured a French supply train containing a vast amount of art from the Spanish Royal Collection,” he says. “This too was gifted to the Duke of Wellington in recognition of his victory over the French.”

Britain’s glory

Wellington’s triumphs at Waterloo and in the Spanish peninsula are a constant theme in Apsley House. One of its quirkiest manifestations is a display containing the mane and shoe of Wellington’s beloved horse Copenhagen, which he rode at Waterloo.

But it is when you reach the Red Stripe Room outside the original dining room that the importance of the battle to Wellington’s life and legacy becomes most obvious. “The paintings here are trappings of the best of military history,” says Huw. “Their grandeur is designed to reflect Wellington’s glory and, by extension, Britain’s glory.”

Among the most striking is Sir William Allen’s Battle of Waterloo, a brilliant topographical interpretation of the clash in its final throes that so impressed Wellington that he bought it. (This makes it the only depiction of the battle that the duke actually paid for). Napoleon is there in the foreground, sending his Imperial Guard on its final attack, while the Duke of Wellington can be made out marshalling the allied troops – courtesy of his trademark hat, grey coat and large nose. “Thanks to the expanse of the battlefield, and the sheer number of individuals fighting on it, this an astonishing representation of Waterloo,” says Huw.

The only portrait in the Red Stripe Room that strays from the theme of war is of Pauline Borghese, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. Pauline is depicted as a risqué woman, notorious for her frequent liaisons with various men. The Duke of Wellington bought the portrait in Paris and hung it in its current location, possibly to mock Pauline. Equally, there are paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte hung within the extensive art collection in the house, possibly in jest, perhaps to serve as a haunting reminder of Bonaparte’s reign, but most likely in commemoration of all aspects of the battle of Waterloo – the friends and the foes.

Disastrous invasion

Fought on Sunday 18 June 1815 in present-day Belgium, Waterloo was the climactic battle of the Napoleonic Wars, a vicious 12-year conflict that pitted the forces of Napoleon’s France against a coalition of European powers. Thanks to Napoleon’s tactical brilliance, his armies dominated the early years of the war, conquering huge swathes of Europe. But then, following a disastrous French invasion of Russia, the might of the nations ranged against Napoleon began to bring their power to bear. By 1814, Portuguese, Spanish, Russians, Prussian and Austrian boots were on French soil, and the future was looking bleak for the French emperor. “Despite fighting a series of rearguard actions, Napoleon could not overcome the invasion and was forced to surrender,” says Huw. “He was then exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Italy.”

But that was not the last the world would hear from him. In early 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to Paris to depose Louis XVIII. He then proceeded to attack the Low Countries, which were held by a combination of the Duke of Wellington’s small British force and Dutch, Saxon and Prussian troops. His aim was to defeat the coalition and capture Brussels.

The speed of Napoleon’s march into Belgium shocked the Duke of Wellington, leading him to declare: “By God he’s humbugged me, he’s got 24 hours’ march on me!” However, the duke regained his composure in time to take up a defensive position on the small battlefield at Waterloo, inviting Napoleon to launch repeated attacks against him.

“The slaughter at Waterloo was appalling,” says Huw. “The Duke of Wellington himself only narrowly escaped death, and one of his most trusted generals, Thomas Picton, was killed on the battlefield while leading the infantry.”

The duke supposedly claimed that “Napoleon was worth 10,000 troops by himself”. But, by maintaining the defence throughout the day – despite nearly crumbling on several occasions under the weight of French attacks – the coalition forces prevailed. In doing so, they dealt Napoleon a decisive and irreversible blow and helped bring relative peace to a war-ravaged Europe for the next 50 years. As for the Duke of Wellington himself, he secured himself a spot in the pantheon of great British military figures.

“He is perhaps Britain’s greatest general,” says Huw. “And in the wake of Waterloo, he was a national hero.”

Bricks and bars

But could the great military leader become a great political leader? He certainly thought so and soon set about trying to prove it. In 1828, having become an increasingly popular and influential figure in the

Tory party, the duke resigned from the position of commander-in-chief and took up the post of British prime minister (choosing to remain at Apsley House because he found 10 Downing Street too small).

But he was unable to replicate his achievements on the battlefield in Britain’s corridors of power. “He was a reactionary politician,” says Huw. “He opposed any innovation within government and the army, and that proved to be his downfall.”

The duke’s arch-conservatism was even to have ramifications for Apsley House itself. When the duke opposed proposals to reform Britain’s electoral system in 1831, protestors attacked the house, “throwing several bricks through the windows, and damaging a number of paintings”. In response to the attack, the house’s implacable owner placed iron bars on all of the windows in Apsley House and, in doing so, gave birth to his popular nickname ‘the Iron Duke’.

Despite his unpopularity as a politician, the Duke of Wellington seems to have lost none of his bullishness, responding to a protest on 18 June – the anniversary of Waterloo – by doffing his cap and exclaiming: “A good day for it.”

By 1830, his government had fallen into decline, losing a vote of confidence. By 1842, his career had turned full circle and he was once again commander-in-chief of the British Army.

The duke would never replicate his earlier triumphs on the battlefield. But nor would he need to. His legacy as a great military leader was secure. “He has taken on an almost legendary status,” says Huw. “Two centuries after that famous victory at Waterloo, he is just as popular as he was at the start of the 19th century – you can see this just by reading the Sharpe novels.”

And you can see it by visiting Apsley House, which has become a focal point for the remembrance of a great military leader and his finest hour. “This building reflects the importance of Waterloo to the creation of the image of Britain as a world-leading military power,” says Huw. “It really illustrates how important Waterloo is to British history.”

Huw Davies is a senior lecturer in defence studies at King’s College London. His books include Wellington’s Wars: The Making of a Military Genius (Yale, 2012). Words: Helen Carr.

Napoleonic Wars: five more places to explore

1) Stratfield Saye House (Hampshire)

Where a funeral carriage resides

Stratfield Saye has been a home of the Dukes of Wellington since 1817. Within the stables is the Wellington Exhibition which includes a vast collection of military memorabilia from the 1st Duke’s career, including his cast bronze funeral carriage made from melted-down French cannons seized at the battle of Waterloo.

Visit www.wellingtonestates.co.uk

2) Walmer Castle (Kent)

Where the Duke of Wellington died

Walmer Castle was the official residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports, a post held by the Duke of Wellington when he was made Lord Warden in 1829. (He would die here in 1852.) The castle’s Wellington Museum includes a pair of the famous ‘Wellington’ boots.

Visit english-heritage.org.uk

3) Waterloo battlefield (south of Brussels, Belgium)

Where the duke won eternal glory

Arguably the most impressive feature at the site of Wellington’s greatest triumph is the Lion’s Mound monument, which offers a wonderful vista of the battlefield. A cluster of monuments at the nearby crossroads mark the graves of British, Dutch and Hanoverian troops.

Visit waterloo200.org

4) Salamanca battlefield (western Spain)

Where the French were bested

The battle of Salamanca saw Wellington surprise and overwhelm a French force around the hills of Arapiles in Spain in 1812. It is widely regarded as his tactical masterpiece, and you can view the scene of the action from the British memorial on the battlefield or visit the museum in the village of Arapiles.

Visit peninsularwar200.org

5) The Wellington Arch (London)

Where George IV hailed a hero

Also known as the Constitution Arch and the Green Park Arch, this triumphal monument in Hyde Park was commissioned by King George IV to commemorate Waterloo. It originally supported a statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback. In 1912 this was replaced with a sculpture of a horse-drawn chariot.

Visit english-heritage.org.uk

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This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine