Today marks the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. Arguably the most renowned pitched battle in history, this bloody engagement took place on the outskirts of Brussels.
The French Wars were fought on and off since 1793, so when allied victory over Napoleon in 1815 brought peace to Europe, the Duke of Wellington became a national hero.
Waterloo’s influence can be found in our historic landscape today. The battle was fought in an age of grand commemoration, and there was a huge public and state desire to raise monuments to Britain’s triumph. Dotted across England, these sites are also important survivals of the Napoleonic Wars’ impact at home.
Remembering French Prisoners of War in Cambridgeshire
This listed memorial at Norman Cross in Yaxley commemorates the world’s first purpose-built prisoner of war camp. Built in 1797, it was constructed as a model ‘depot’ for the humane treatment of captured Frenchmen, many others of whom were kept on prison hulks in grim conditions. It was designed to resemble a contemporary artillery fort and held up to 8,000 men.
The camp itself was demolished but the site is now a scheduled monument. The memorial, topped with a bronze eagle, was erected in 1914 in memory of the 1,770 prisoners who died at the camp, whether ‘NATIVES OR ALLIES OF FRANCE’. What does survive is the Old Governor’s House, where the commandant lived.
Waterloo in London
In the early 19th century, London was expanding rapidly. Its central spaces were being planned anew by John Nash, who laid out Waterloo Place at the bottom of Regent Street. In 1831-34, a monumental column to the Duke of York (now Grade I) was added to commemorate his role as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the Napoleonic wars. John Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge, since replaced, was named after the battle on its opening in 1817.
In 1818, Parliament pledged a million pounds towards the building of new churches to serve London’s fast-growing suburbs. These were known as the Waterloo churches. The Church of St John, Waterloo is one of these: designed by Francis Bedford and built in 1823-24, it is listed at Grade II*.
One Man and his Horse
Inside the Grade I Church of St Luke’s in Gaddesby, Leicestershire is a poignant marble sculpture of Colonel Edward Cheney, who was wounded at Waterloo while serving in the Scots Greys. Beneath the almost life-sized figures of wounded horse and soldier, a carved relief shows Cheney leading the charge against French infantry.
Cheney survived Waterloo, but touchingly the monument’s inscription refers to the four horses who died under him, including ‘Tannar’, portrayed here so vividly. It was sculpted by Joseph Gott in 1848 to sit in Cheney’s home, Gaddesby Hall, and was moved to the church on rollers in 1917 when the house was sold.
Women Commemorating Wellington
Cast from melted-down captured French cannons, a colossal bronze statue of Achilles stands triumphantly in Hyde Park, near Wellington’s London home, Apsley House. Known as the Wellington Monument, this depiction of the Greek hero was erected in 1822 by sculptor Richard Westmacott to honour ‘ARTHUR DUKE OF WELLINGTON AND HIS BRAVE COMPANIONS IN ARMS’.
The £10,000 cost was met by donations from the ‘Ladies of England’, a group of aristocratic female benefactors. Its unveiling caused controversy as Achilles’ total nudity was not thought to be appropriate for a public statue: a small fig leaf was subsequently added.
There are many useful tools to explore Waterloo’s impact on England today:
- Leicestershire County Council’s War Memorials Project is a pioneering resource which details all of the county’s memorials, including the Cheney memorial at the Church of St Luke (also featured in our opening image of British Army soldiers at Waterloo).
- Our Commemorative Structures and Landscapes of Remembrance Selection Guides describe how and why memorials are protected.
- A Waterloo exhibition at Wellington Arch in Hyde Park, which runs until November 2015, narrates the story of the famous victory.
Historic England’s Designation team, in partnership with ‘Waterloo 200’ projects across the country, is investigating England’s Waterloo sites. Since 1815, many parks, bridges, lakes, squares and monuments were named after Wellington’s famous victory – let us know in the comment box below if there are any near you.
Curious about arts and crafts, mystified by medieval settlements or intrigued by industrial heritage? Our “Brief Introduction to” series is for those who want to find out more about the historic environment. From buildings and monuments to art and landscapes, we summarise our knowledge using examples from the National Heritage List for England.