Wellington’s famous horse was named after the Copenhagen campaign of 1807. Born in 1808, he was a chestnut stallion of 15 hands. He was sired by ‘Meteor’, who was second in the 1786 Derby.
A failed race horse, Copenhagen was shipped off to Spain during the Peninsular War and it was here that he was purchased by General Sir Arthur Wellesley in 1813. The chestnut stallion was bad-tempered and had an odd habit of eating his food lying down. But as Wellington wrote, “There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow.”
As Wellington’s sole mount, Copenhagen did strenuous work at the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. He acquired a fine reputation as the Great Duke’s charger and was remarkably calm under fire as well as being a great stayer. Wellington rode him during the Peninsular Campaign, particularly at Vitoria and in the Pyrenees but he had some fifteen other horses from which to choose. Waterloo actually made the horse’s reputation. Wellington rode him throughout the campaign and there were three particular incidents which could have changed history.
At Quatre Bras the Duke was observing the enemy from a forward position. Behind was a stiff fence and ditch lined by a battalion of 92nd Highlanders. Suddenly some French dragoons appeared and the Duke found himself on the wrong side of the fence. Shouting to the Highlanders to lie down he put Copenhagen to the fence in good hunting style and he cleared fence, ditch and highlanders.
Two days later at Waterloo, late in the afternoon, the case shot which took off Lord Uxbridge’s leg had passed over Copenhagen’s neck before doing its damage.
The third incident was at about 11pm outside the little inn in Waterloo village when the victor of the battle dismounted and gave Copenhagen an approving pat on his hind quarters whereupon the famous horse lashed out and nearly brought the day to a very different end. He was known to be “a bit free with his heals”.
In old age the famous horse was a family favourite and from time to time enjoyed his hunting as indeed his master did too. At one stage the Duke would allow Lady Shelley to ride him.
Having served his master at Waterloo in 1815, Copenhagen lived until 1835. He was buried with full military honours at Stratfield Saye, and The Times newspaper printed this Obituary:
DEATH OF FAMOUS WATERLOO HERO
On 12th February died at Stratfield Saye, of old age, Copenhagen the horse which carried the Duke of Wellington so nobly on the field of Waterloo…he lost an eye some years before his death, and has not been used by the noble owner for any purpose during the last ten years. By the orders of his Grace a salute was fired over his grave, and thus was buried as he had lived with full military honours. This horse has long been an attraction to strangers who were accustomed to feed him over the rails with bread, and the Duke himself preserved a special regard for him, which cannot be wondered at, upon considering that he bore him for 16 hours safe through the grandest battle that has occurred in the history of the world. The late amiable Duchess was likewise particularly attached to him, and wore a bracelet made from his hair.
Much later the Royal United Services Institute wanted to exhume Copenhagen’s bones so they could be displayed as Napoleon’s horse Marengo had been. The Great Duke was curt in his refusal. However allegedly when buried it was noted that a hoof was missing and it was not until the Great Duke died that a repentant servant confessed to the mild tempered 2nd Duke.
The second Duke placed a plaque beside the grave with the following inscription: “Here Lies COPENHAGEN, the charger ridden by The Duke of Wellington, the entire day at the Battle of Waterloo. Born 1808 died 1836. God’s humbler instrument, though meaner clay, should share the glory of that glorious day.”
Copenhagen’s relics were greatly prized by souvenir hunters. Many snippets of hair (with or without Wellington’s permission) were fashioned into bracelets. This Duke raised a headstone over the grave to honour the charger who had carried Wellington for the entire day at the Battle of Waterloo. This gold case (pictured below) contains a swatch of hair from Wellington’s famous warhorse. A hand-written note under the reverse crystal cover states that it was cut from Copenhagen on 13 March 1830 by Samuel Wise, an usher to the Duke of Wellington who passed it on to his daughter.
The fourth Duke planted an acorn beside the grave in 1914 as part of the campaign to save the battlefield of Waterloo from development and unscrupulous exploitation.