by Christopher Joll
formerly The Life Guards
In its long history, the Horse Guards building has been the venue for many historical events including, most recently, one on the afternoon of Saturday 24th September 2016.
The backstory of this latest event starts on the night of 24th August, 1799, in Alexandria, Egypt, where General Napoleon Bonaparte was about to board the French frigate, Muiron, and leave forever the country that he had seized from the Ottoman Empire the previous year. On board with him were a small group of trusted lieutenants - and a small, pale grey, six-year-old Arab stallion which Napoleon had acquired from the El Naseri Stud.
After successfully evading a British naval blockade, the party eventually reached Fréjus on the south coast of France on 8th October. By early November 1799, Napoleon was First Consul and the de facto dictator of France and in 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French.
Meanwhile, in the fifteen years that followed his flight from Egypt, Napoleon allegedly rode his Arab stallion at most of the battles which established the French Empire. First at Marengo in Italy, in 1800, after which he gave the horse the name of that battle; then at Austerlitz in Moravia in 1805; at Jena in Prussia in 1806; during the invasion of Spain in 1808; at the battle of Wagram in Austria in 1809; and throughout the invasion of Russia in 1812. During these campaigns, Marengo, who was only 14.1 hands high, was wounded seven times and was depicted in many iconic paintings of the Emperor.
On 11th April 1814, in the wake of the disastrous Retreat from Moscow, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. He didn’t remain there for long and, by 18th June 1815, he was back in Marengo’s saddle and on the road to Brussels. He was stopped by the Duke of Wellington at the hamlet of Waterloo.
This was Napoleon’s final battle and biggest defeat. As dusk fell, the Emperor fled the battlefield in a carriage leaving Marengo wounded and lying in a sunken road near the French command post at La Belle Alliance. That should have been the end of Marengo, who would almost certainly have been killed by battlefield scavengers and butchered for his meat had it not been for the intervention of Lieutenant Petre of the 5th Dragoon Guards, who recognised the Imperial brand mark on the horse’s flank and saved Marengo from becoming the main ingredient of a steak frites dinner.
Instead of this fate, Petre nursed Marengo back to health, shipped him to England and put him on display at the Waterloo Rooms, 94 Pall Mall, London, where admission to see and pet the horse, who was reported by the media to be very docile and unlikely to scare even ‘ladies of a nervous disposition’, was one shilling for adults and sixpence for children and servants (2016: £10 and £5).
Eventually, the interest in Marengo as a public attraction died down and Lieutenant Petre sold him to an enormously rich officer in the Grenadier Guards called Captain William Angerstein, who was the grandson of the founder of Lloyds of London. Angerstein thought that Marengo should be capable of breeding bold-hearted flat racehorses and sent him to his New Barnes Stud near Ely in Suffolk, where the horse commanded a stud fee of twenty-five guineas (2016: £5,000).
Unfortunately, brave hearted and sturdy though he was, Napoleon’s favourite charger was a bit of a flop at breeding and neither of the foals that he sired were any good on the racecourse. As at Waterloo, this might have been the end of Marengo with Angerstein sending him to the knackers’ yard. That, however, was not to be his fate and, instead, he was put out to grass at Captain Angerstein’s country estate at Weeting Park, where he grazed the sweet grass of East Anglia until 1831 when he died at the great age - for a horse - of thirty-eight.
Under normal circumstances, Marengo’s corpse should then have been sent as meat to the local foxhounds’ kennels. But, once again, fate - in the shape of the newly promoted Colonel Angerstein - intervened and instead Marengo’s body was sent to the London Hospital where surgeons removed his skin, flesh and innards and then articulated his skeleton, which the Colonel presented to the museum of the Royal United Services Institution. There it remained until 1947 when it was transferred to the newly established National Army Museum, where it can be seen to the present day. However, keen-eyed visitors to the museum will note that Marengo’s skeleton is missing its two front hooves.
Marengo’s hooves. Left: in the Queen’s Guard Officers’ Mess at St James’s Palace. Right: in the Household Cavalry Museum at Horse Guards (on loan from a descendant of Colonel William Angerstein)
In the years following Marengo’s death, the lack of his two front trotters allowed many regiments to claim that they had one of them - usually on the basis that the unit had fought at Waterloo - and it was only recently that Marengo’s actual front hooves emerged once again into the limelight. So what had happened to them in the meantime?
It is now known that they were retained by Colonel Angerstein who, some ten years after Marengo’s death, had them shod in silver and converted into silver- and gold-mounted snuff boxes. One he presented to the Officers of the Brigade of Guards, who placed it in the Officers Mess of the Queen’s Guard at St James’s Palace, where it is still positioned every day at lunch in front of the Captain of The Queen’s Guard. The other hoof Colonel Angerstein kept for his own personal use.
By the end of the 19th century the Angersteins’ fortunes were in steep decline, the estates and houses were sold, their contents auctioned and the hoof disappeared from view. Until, that is, a couple of years ago, when one of the Colonel’s direct descendants discovered it in a plastic bag in a kitchen drawer of her Somerset farmhouse. Since that time this second hoof has been on display in the Household Cavalry Museum.
Which brings the story to 24th September 2016 when, for the first time in 175 years, the two hooves were temporarily reunited in The Household Cavalry Museum as the centre piece of a BBC TV pilot programme show reel based on The Spoils of War, the latest book by the author of this article.
Editor’s Note. The National Army Museum reopens on 20th May 2017. Marengo’s skeleton has been restored and conserved at the Natural History Museum and will again be on display when the National Army Museum reopens.