From Denmark to Belgium:  Copenhagen — Wellington’s Great Warhorse

And chick magnet!   Really!

After his military exploits became public, many ladies developed a great fondness for the Duke of Wellington’s favorite warhorse, Copenhagen. And the Duke, who much enjoyed the company of ladies, was perfectly happy to let the often cantankerous chestnut stallion attract them.

Copenhagen was a fully mature and battle-hardened warhorse by the time he achieved his great fame on the battlefield of Waterloo, though he had not been bred for that purpose. This week I shall tell the tale of his birth and his life up to the night of that famous ball given by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels, when Wellington learned that Napoleon was massing his Armée du Nord to the south.

In the spring of 1807, Sir Arthur Wellesley was Chief Secretary for Ireland when he learned of British plans for an expedition to Denmark. The intent was to seize the combined Danish and Norwegian fleets to keep them out of French hands. Sir Arthur stepped down from his post and exchanged his political appointments for an appointment as an infantry brigade commander at the second Battle of Copenhagen, which was fought in the late summer of 1807. The soldiers under his command captured 1,500 prisoners and prevented the relief of the city. He was also later present at the surrender of the city. By the end of September, he was back in England, where he was soon promoted to the rank of lieutenant general.

Copenhagen, Wellington’s future warhorse, was named for that same Battle of Copenhagen, because he was, in a sense, present in the early days of that siege. He was completely oblivious to the campaign, however, as he was in utero at the time. One of the other brigade commanders, Thomas Grosvenor, had taken his favorite mare, Lady Catherine, with him to the siege, unaware that she was with foal. Lady Catherine is believed to be the only half-bred mare ever entered into the General Stud Book of England. She was by the registered thoroughbred stallion, John Bull, who won the 1792 Epsom Derby, out of an unregistered mare by the Duke of Rutland’s Arabian. Copenhagen’s sire was the thoroughbred racehorse, Meteor, who had been bred by Lord Grosvenor and had won the Prince of Wale’s Stakes, the King’s Plate, the Jockey Club Plate, and the Oxford Gold Cup. Through his sire, Copenhagen was a grandson of the great racehorse Eclipse. Through both his sire and his dam lines he was descended from two of the thoroughbred foundation sires, both the Godolphin Arabian and the Darley Arabian.

Lady Catherine was sent home to England as soon as it was discovered she was in foal. In 1808, at Eaton, she gave birth to a strong, sturdy colt, which Lord Grosvenor named after the recent victorious battle in Denmark. With such distinguished ancestry, Copenhagen was, of course, registered in the General Stud Book, and his owner intended him for a career on the racecourse. In Copenhagen, Eclipse’s genes, at least where appearance and temperament were concerned, bred true. Copenhagen was a rich chestnut color, just like his grandsire, with the exception that Eclipse had had only one long white stocking on his right hind leg, while Copenhagen had short white socks on each hind leg. He also had a narrow white strip running down nearly the full length of his face, from between his ears to the top of his muzzle. The chestnut colt had also inherited quite a lot of Eclipse’s cantankerous nature, and was a handful from a young age. Copenhagen was nearly the same height as his grandfather, standing 15.1 hands, where Meteor had stood only about 14 hands. But unfortunately, the colt had neither his grandsire’s nor his sire’s speed, and his racing career was less than stellar.

Copenhagen began racing as a two-year old, and over the course of the next two years Lord Grosvenor entered him into at least ten racing events in which he carried his lordship’s colors. In 1811, he finally won two matches, a £50 match at the Newmarket Spring Meeting and a sweepstakes at Huntingdon in September of the same year. But overall, he lost more matches than he won, and after his last race, in May 1812, at the Chester Meeting, in which he did not place, Lord Grosvenor made the decision to end the colt’s racing career. Shortly thereafter, Copenhagen was sold to General Sir Charles Stewart, the adjutant-general of the army in the Peninsula, reportedly for the substantial sum of £300.

In 1813, General Stewart sent several horses to Lisbon, including the chestnut colt, whom he intended to add to his stable on the Peninsula. It is unlikely that Copenhagen enjoyed his journey to Portugal, as he would have traveled by ship, a voyage which could have taken as much as three weeks. Horses had to travel in the ship’s hold, away from the light and air. Sailors often had a few pigs or sheep on board their ships, which they kept in pens on the deck. But horses could not be kept on deck, since many had difficulty maintaining their footing while the ship was at sea and could easily be swept overboard. For that reason, most horses were placed in body slings below decks for the duration of the voyage. Kept on short rations and unable to move around naturally for such a long time, these horses were often somewhat weakened and had some difficulty walking steadily when they reached their destination. They had to be given time to recover and return to a normal diet before they could safely travel beyond the port where they were landed.

By the time Copenhagen arrived in Lisbon, he was nearly a pattern-card of the quintessential light cavalry horse. He was "rising five," that is, he was close to five years old, the preferred age for an "entry-level" cavalry horse at that time. He was just a little over fifteen hands in height, the preferred height for cavalry horses. He was a strong, sturdy horse, but even more in his favor, he had a Thoroughbred pedigree. Experienced cavalrymen knew that Arabian blood gave a horse exceptional stamina and endurance. Though he had not been a regular winner on the race courses of England, his exposure to crowds and noise as a colt had done much to prepare him to remain calm amidst the sound and fury of a battlefield, an essential skill for a warhorse. Copenhagen quickly proved himself a superior battle mount.

Copenhagen did manage to avoid the fate of most stallions who went into military service. He was not gelded. Armies primarily used mares and geldings since stallions who were not exceptionally well trained became difficult to manage around mares who were in season. Stallions were also more vocal, announcing their presence to any potential rival stallions or mares in the area, regardless of any maneuvers which might be in progress. This loud, unwanted noise could be extremely inconvenient, if not downright dangerous, during a military action, particularly one which required stealth. However, many generals and most cavalry officers did often ride stallions, appreciating their strength, stamina and in some cases, even their heightened aggression. If a stallion was treated well, and properly and sympathetically trained, they were remarkably loyal and obedient, and that aggression could be put to good use by a horseman who was in complete control of his mount.

Though he was the half-brother of Wellington’s great friend and staunch supporter, Lord Castlereagh, Sir Charles Stewart, Copenhagen’s new owner, was often at loggerheads with his commander, General Wellington. Sir Charles was in no way a stickler for detail, while Wellington was the epitome of a micro-manager and was fully in control of everything to do with his forces, which he also expected from his most senior administrator. Stewart had also made the mistake of "croaking," that is, complaining about the conditions and the progress of the campaign, in public, one too many times, something the General would not tolerate. It was reported that during one dressing-down, Wellington actually made Sir Charles cry. By the end of 1813, Sir Charles, perhaps with the assistance of his half-brother, who was by then Foreign Secretary, had wangled the position of Minister to Prussia. As usual, "Charlie" was short of funds. Since he would have no need of a string of cavalry mounts at the Prussian court, his stable was to be sold. Did Lord Wellington have his eye on Copenhagen, did he wish to speed the departure of his erstwhile adjutant-general or simply provide some financial assistance to his friend’s half-brother? What we do know is that at the behest of the Marquess of Wellington, Colonel Charles Wood purchased two horses from the departing Sir Charles Stewart. One of them was Copenhagen, for which he paid the princely sum of £400, providing Sir Charles with a cool profit of £100 on the sale of the chestnut stallion.

Copenhagen caused a great deal of consternation when he first took up his new residence in Wellington’s stables. He was tetchy and difficult, often kicking out at those who came too close, giving the stable hands a healthy respect for his rear hooves. Even more concerning, though he liked to eat, at some point in his life he had decided he preferred to eat lying down. Most horses eat standing up, and any horseman will tell you that a horse down is often a sign of serious illness or injury. As you might imagine, Wellington’s grooms and stable hands were initially quite concerned about their new charge, particularly considering the high price the Marquess had paid for him. After thoroughly examining him, it was clear he was perfectly sound and healthy. Within a few days they realized that eating while lying down was just a behavioral idiosyncrasy and not a symptom of any illness or injury. Horses do sleep lying down, but few horses will lie down unless they feel very secure about the area where they intend to sleep. The fact that Copenhagen felt comfortable lying down so often when he dined is an indication that he was by nature a very confident horse. A trait he would need in large measure in the years ahead.

An intact stallion, Copenhagen was a rambunctious handful for his handlers, with the exception of Wellington himself. An expert horseman, the Marquess was well able to handle his new mount. He knew Copenhagen needed regular vigorous exercise to keep him physically fit and mentally challenged. The Marquess saw that he got it. Wellington kept a pack of hounds in the Peninsula and he hunted whenever he had the opportunity, both for the sport and the exercise. He also kept a couple of hunters for the purpose, as the other seven war horses in his string were not appropriate for hunting. However, Copenhagen was an exception and Wellington often rode to hounds on the chestnut stallion. Those long days in the hunting field strengthened and toughened the chestnut horse, who was now in his prime, as well as demonstrating his exceptional stamina. These days together also solidified the trust and loyalty which grew steadily between man and mount.

Though Copenhagen is oftentimes referred to as a "charger," neither Wellington, nor any field general, had need of a charger. Cavalry officers routinely charged about on the battlefield on their prized chargers. A general, however, particularly if he were commanding the action, had need of a courageous, calm and steady mount from whose back he could survey and direct the progress of the battle. Copenhagen was such a mount. He was unfailingly brave and showed great fortitude, unflinching despite the noise, smoke and fury swirling about him. In addition, at fifteen hands, he was tall enough to give his rider a good view of the battlefield, but not so tall that he exposed him unnecessarily to enemy fire. His thoroughbred blood and his days on the hunting field with Wellington had honed his strength and endurance so that he was well able to carry his master regardless of how long the battle raged on. Wellington rode Copenhagen at the important battle of Vitoria, where the French were routed. Copenhagen was again the general’s mount for the fierce and gruelling Battle of Sorauren, when the Allied army finally pushed the French troops out of Spain and back into France. Copenhagen also carried Wellington at what many thought was the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars, in April, at Toulouse, in France. Perhaps Copenhagen possessed some special charm, for in every battle in which he carried Wellington, the Allies won the day.

Both Wellington and his favorite war horse, Copenhagen, got a long and welcome rest after the battle of Toulouse, remaining in the city for a couple of weeks after the battle. The war was over, and it was there that Wellington learned that Napoleon had abdicated and would be exiled to the small island of Elba. With no further battles to fight, the Marquess began to think of his future. He had had a career in politics before taking command of the army in the Peninsula. But since both his brothers, Richard and William, had recently fallen out with the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, there was little chance of a Government post for him in England. Fortunately, his friend, Lord Castlereagh, was still Foreign Secretary and soon found a post he believed his friend would enjoy. On 21 April 1814, there arrived in Toulouse a most curious sight, a man wearing mud-spattered overalls, but sporting a plethora of stars and crosses on his chest. He was soon recognized as Wellington’s former adjutant-general, and Copenhagen’s former owner, Sir Charles Stewart. Emissary from his half-brother, Castlereagh, Sir Charles bore an offer to Lord Wellington to become the British ambassador in Paris. Stewart also shared the as yet secret news that Wellington would soon be made a Duke. History does not tell us if Sir Charles paid a visit to the stables to see his erstwhile cavalry mount, Copenhagen.

Fortunately for Copenhagen, his master accepted the position in Paris. It is reported that the new Duke remarked to a friend that since he could not serve in England, but must have employment somewhere, it had better be Paris. The good news for Copenhagen, though he did not know it, was that he would not be subjected to yet another "cruise" aboard a transport ship, since he would be remaining on the Continent. He would travel by land to Paris with Wellington’s entourage. The Duke of Wellington made his entrance into Paris on 4 May 1814, but not astride the chestnut stallion. Instead, he rode a white horse, and entered the city with Lord Castlereagh on one side and General Sir Charles Stewart on the other. Wellington was very busy for the next few weeks, dealing with political problems in Spain and then managing the return of the British troops to England. It was not until 23 June 1814 that he finally arrived in England himself, though Copenhagen remained in Paris. The Duke remained in England for most of that summer, attending many of the Peace Celebrations.

His Grace, the Duke of Wellington, British Ambassador to the Court of the Tuileries, returned to Paris on 22 August 1814. He very shortly purchased the Hôtel de Charost in the rue du Faubourg St Honoré from Napoleon’s sister, the Princess Pauline Borghese. He moved in within the week, and that building remains the British Embassy in Paris to this day. Once again, history is silent on the stables at the Duke’s new residence, but we can assume that Copenhagen would have had a comfortable stall and plenty of corn, his favorite, as well as hay and oats. One of the new ambassador’s obligations was to hunt with the royal family, while trying to persuade them to abolish the slave-trade in the French colonies. More than likely he rode Copenhagen on many of these occasions, though he also often rode his favorite hunter, Elmore, as well. One day, when the royal hunting party was to do some sightseeing at Napoleon’s former retreat at Rambouillet, Wellington, as a special gesture to his hosts, donned the traditional flamboyant and lavish French hunting garb, complete with gold lace and long jackboots. He also carried the expected elaborately ornamented hunting knife. However, he drew the line at subjecting his horse to what he privately considered the indignity of the equally ornate traditional equine trappings. Therefore, His Grace planted his over-dressed bottom in a plain English saddle. Unfortunately, we do not know if he chose to ride Elmore or Copenhagen that memorable day. I suspect he may have chosen Elmore, who had rather better manners in public than did Copenhagen.

And yet, it was Copenhagen’s bad manners which was the big attraction for the ladies. Most of the women of Paris had declared themselves enamored of the great Monsieur Villianton, as they typically called Wellington. Many requested a ride on the horse he had ridden to victory at Toulouse, well-knowing the stallion was cantankerous and ill-tempered. They also knew that Villianton would not deny them, but neither would he allow them aboard the "dangerous" beast unless he, himself, was present. Requests from ladies to ride Copenhagen continued throughout Wellington’s tenure in Paris, even after the Duchess arrived in October of that year. Wellington remained in Paris, pursuing his ambassadorial responsibilities and enjoying the company of a bevy of lovely ladies, many of whom enjoyed a ride on Copenhagen, supervised by Monsieur Villianton, until 15 January 1815. On that day, he received a letter ordering him to depart for Austria. Once there, he was to take over negotiations at the Congress of Vienna for Lord Castlereagh, who had to return to England in February. Though there is no official documentary evidence, it seems likely that Copenhagen was part of the Duke’s entourage when he traveled to Austria.

On 7 March 1815, the news reached Vienna. Bonaparte had landed in Italy and was marching north! The news was first reported to the Duke of Wellington, as he was waiting for his horse to be brought around for a hunt in the park at the Shönbrunn Palace. He sent the horse, perhaps Copenhagen, back to the stable and went to inform the other delegates to the Congress. They all burst out laughing, thinking the Duke was having them on. It was not until Tallyrand was able to corroborate the Duke’s announcement that the other delegates accepted the report as fact. Tsar Alexander I of Russia laid his hand on Wellington’s shoulder and said softly, "It is for you to save the world, again."

Within the month, Wellington had concluded his diplomatic business in Vienna and was on his way north to Belgium. Again, though the Duke traveled by carriage, it is fairly certain that Copenhagen was in his entourage. He arrived in Brussels on 4 April 1815. There, as Commander-in-Chief of the various Allied armies, he began the difficult task of molding a cohesive force which could successfully oppose the French army under Bonaparte, a general he had yet to face in the field. While still in the Peninsula, Wellington had once said he would prefer the French be reinforced with 40,000 fresh troops than have Bonaparte take personal command of the army. He was well aware of the extreme fervor and determination which Napoleon was able to inspire in his troops.

However, one of Wellington’s biggest problems in Brussels was lack of intelligence about the movement of Bonaparte’s army. Finally, on the evening of 15 June 1815, while he was dressing for the ball to be held that night by the Duchess of Richmond, Wellington received the first of a series of fairly reliable dispatches informing him of Bonaparte’s most recent troop movements. Wellington attended the ball, to maintain the impression in Brussels that all was well, though he used the cover of the ball to give marching orders to many of his officers who were in attendance. He returned to his hotel at about 3:00am and was able to catch a couple of hours sleep, before he was up again at 5:30am, giving more orders. By 8:00am on the morning of 16 June, Wellington was mounted on Copenhagen, riding south along a road that would ultimately take them to a small village called Waterloo.

Next week, Copenhagen’s service in the Waterloo campaign.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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17 Responses to From Denmark to Belgium:  Copenhagen — Wellington’s Great Warhorse

  1. Kathryn,
    As always, you post the most fascinating articles on the Regency Romance era of history.
    You blog is a marvelous resource for both research and entertainment.
    Thanks for sharing,

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! I am glad you enjoyed the post.

      There were so many interesting things which happened during the Regency, and so many interesting characters abroad in that world, that I want to share what I know with others who are also fascinated by that time.



      PS – If you think this week’s installment of Copenhagen’s adventures was interesting, be sure to stop back for the other installments on the story of his life, which I will be posting here over the next two weeks.

  2. Pingback: The Horse that Won the Battle of Waterloo…(OK – he had a little help!) « Cavalrytales Blog

  3. Edward Davidson says:

    Fantastic job. I found you by accident and have read your first two articles (in reverse). I’ll be digging for more soon as I can. Stumbled in here because I am an engrossed (amateur) student of Waterloo. Fascinating, and well done!!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the posts, but I hope you will not be too disappointed to know that I do not focus on military history here. I love horses, and everything I have read about Copenhagen showed him to be quite remarkable. Therefore, I thought he deserved to have his story told.

      Fortunately, if you are interested in the Waterloo campaign, you will not lack for sources. Not only are there dozens of books written on the battle, and Wellington and Napoleon, but there are very good biographies of many of the officers who were present on all sides.

      To get you started, I would recommend Mark Adkin’s The Waterloo Companion: The Complete Guide to History’s Most Famous Land Battle, if you have not yet had a chance to read it. He covers many aspects of the battle and provides a substantial bibliography which will help you follow up on those things which most interest you.

      Good Luck with your research.



  4. Edward Davidson says:

    No, not disappointed at all. I am an animal lover and it was my interest in Copenhagen that twigged me to hunt for some information. I just punched in “Wellington+Copenhagen” and found your site. I am impressed with the homework you have done and the wealth of information you supplied.
    I have quite a few books on the scrap itself, including a copy of Siborne’s “Waterloo Campaign 1815”, one of my most valued possessions, but I will take a look for your recommendation as well.
    It was enlightening reading your well-composed work about Wellington’s horse. My compliments again.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed Copenhagen’s story. When I get the chance, I am going to write about Marengo, Napoleon’s horse at Waterloo.

      If you like horses, you might also enjoy some of the posts at Cavalry Tales, a blog dedicated to the British cavalry in the nineteenth century. (You can also find the link in my blogroll.) The author is a rider as well as a scholar, so he can write from experience as well as research.

      How cool to have a copy of Siborne’s book on Waterloo! I had to content myself with the online copy at Google books. So much better to have the real thing. No wonder you treasure it!



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  6. David J Kenney says:

    Enjoyable, but some questions remain. C was a very small half bred horse with a very light rear end — if the art work is real. I have a hard time believing that the Duke rode only Copenhagen for the entire battle. That much time under one saddle with a good sized man aboard could ruin C’s back forever. Was he shod? If so what kind of shoes, Plates, bars or what? PS Giving a horse corn espy in a temperate climate is like a sugar injection to a seven year old.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      According to documents of the time, Copenhagen stood over fifteen hands, which is about average for both a racehorse and a cavalry horse. He was taller than his sire, Meteor, but shorter than his famous ancestor, Eclipse. Take any paintings you might see from those days with a grain or two of salt. There was a fashion for sporting images which often resulted in a rather stylized appearance for horses, since the artist was hoping to flatter the horse’s owner to be sure they got their fee. Horses with long, lean bodies and not much in the hindquarters were the fashion. I have seen a painting of Eclipse which shows him with a similar body and a very elegant head. Yet all contemporary descriptions of him say he had a large, ugly head and very large hindquarters. But artists knew that owners would not pay to see a painting of their horse as it really looked. They wanted the horse to look fashionable in the painting or they would have considered it a failure and the artist would never have been paid. It was all about image, not reality.

      Copenhagen was not half-bred at all, both his sire and his dam were Thoroughbreds and he was listed in the General Stud Book. It just turned out that he was not fast enough to win races, so he was sold.

      Though Wellington was a tallish man for the time, about 5′ 8″ from most reports, he was very lean as he exercised regularly, and he knew how to ride. He would not have been an unbearable burden for Copenhagen, even after a full day in the saddle. Copenhagen was widely acknowledged to be a horse of tremendous stamina, more than likely a gift from his Arab ancestors. Also, Wellington would not have been on his back every minute of the day. He would have dismounted from time to time to consult maps and/or talk with other officers, or just to answer the call of nature.

      In terms of shoes, I have no idea what Copenhagen wore. I know he was shod, but there was nothing precise in the records that I saw to be more exact.

      When it comes to the term “corn” in England at this time, that word did not mean maize, the grain which came from America. It was used then in its original sense, as “grain.” It was the Americans who chose to use a word which originally meant any grain or seed to apply only to the grains or seeds of the maize plant. From the resources which I have read, my take is that Copenhagen preferred grain, which was also sometimes called “beans” to hay or grass. He may have occasionally been given maize as a treat, but I doubt he had a regular diet of it. More likely, the “corn” he got was oats or bran.

      I hope that helps to clarify.



  7. David Shaw says:

    Refer to Times cryptic crossword 9387, clue 4 down. “Having declined to accept a rematch on vacation in Copenhagen?” Answer: war-horse This led me to read your excellent piece!

  8. Regan Walker says:

    I love that you are so knowledgeable, Kat, and that you freely share your knowledge and research with the rest of us. Thanks so much for this post on Copenhagen. I shared it on FB!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are quite welcome! I find the Regency period endlessly fascinating and I enjoy sharing the information I find during the course of my research.



  9. Pingback: Copenhagen: The Horse who Won at Waterloo | Horse Riding Holidays and Safaris

  10. J Williams says:

    Enjoyed the read but would be very interested in your sources

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      For just this part of the article, or for all three of them?

      I spent quite a long time researching this series of articles, and have many sources. I put everything into a text file, which runs to several pages, but it is not divided by which article in the series to which it pertains, it is just thrown together hodge podge. If you want a copy of that text file, I can send it to you via email. Shall I send it to the email address which you included in this comment?



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