This is a remarkable and charming little book which I was thoroughly delighted to find on the shelves of one of my favorite local used book stores. My discovery was completely serendipitous, since I had previously been quite unaware of it. Even more so, since my discovery mirrored that of the manuscript on which this book is based. Those who are interested in the Regency, the Peninsular Wars, the Battle of Waterloo or the Duke of Wellington may well want to read it, if not acquire their own copy. The fact that the manuscript on which this book is based survived into the twentieth century is just as remarkable as the story it tells.
Why Your Most Obedient Servant is so special . . .
The full title of this book is Your Most Obedient Servant: James Thornton, Cook to the Duke of Wellington. However, despite the fact that Thornton was cook to the Duke of Wellington from 1811 to 1820, do not expect to find much detail on Regency foods or meal service. This book is not one of the usual memoirs written by those who held positions close to celebrities, hoping to capitalize on their situations. In fact, it appears that Mr. Thornton never intended to tell his tale, but a later employer captured a little of his story for posterity, and perhaps for the honor of English cookery. The Introduction to the book was written by Elizabeth Longford, who wrote one of the most detailed biographies of the Duke of Wellington.
James Thornton was born in London in 1787, and worked as a professional cook for most of his life. He left the service of the Duke and Duchess of Wellington at the end of 1820. His later employers are not all known, but by 1845, he was working for Lord Frederick FitzClarence, the Lieutenant-Governor of Portsmouth and the General Officer in command of the South-West District of Britain. Lord Frederick was the third illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV, and the actress, Dorothea Jordan. FitzClarence was an experienced military man, having acquired his commission in the British Army in 1814, when he was only fifteen years old. He continued in the military service of his country for the rest of his life.
In the winter of 1851, Lord Frederick asked his cook, James Thornton, to complete what amounts to a questionnaire. This was a series of questions which Lord Frederick had written out regarding Thornton’s time with the Duke of Wellington. FitzClarence believed that military men, if not the majority of people at that time, would be interested in the personal details which James Thornton would be able to provide about the great man and his time in Wellington’s service. Though the Duke of Wellington was still alive, he was in his eighties and his health was not good. It seems to have been particularly important to Lord Frederick to refute rumors which still persisted that the Duke’s meal after the Battle of Waterloo was not prepared by French chefs, but by his own English cook, James Thornton.
Though, in 1851, it was more than thirty-five years since the Battle of Waterloo, Thornton’s responses to his employer’s questions are strikingly clear and detailed. As Elizabeth Longford pointed out in the Introduction, the Duke of Wellington was still alive in 1851, and was acquainted with Lord Frederick FitzClarence. Therefore, Lord Frederick would have been easily able to check the veracity of the responses to his questions with the victor of Waterloo himself. It is not clear what FitzClarence intended to do with this completed questionnaire. The year following its completion, he was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army. Sadly, he died in office two years later, at the age of fifty-four. Presumably, the manuscript of the questionnaire was still among his effects at his death, either left behind in England, or sent back from India. As he had no wife or children, his belongings seem to have been scattered after his passing. Nothing more is known of this singular questionnaire manuscript until it was found on the shelf of a used book shop in the early 1980s.
After close examination, the document was verified as being authentic. It was published in book form in 1985, as noted above, with an Introduction by Elizabeth Longford, a long-time Wellington scholar. Even better, it has been richly illustrated with a number of portraits, photos of personal objects used by those mentioned, and a host of contemporary prints. Though these illustrations are all in black and white, they are crisp and clear and are a rich visual supplement to Thornton’s experiences during his service as cook to the Duke of Wellington. The questions ranged over the entire period in which Thornton worked for Wellington, from 1811 to 1820. However, there were some gaps during his service. James Thornton worked elsewhere while Wellington served as the British Ambassador to France, and while the Duke was stationed in France after the final victory at Waterloo.
Unlike the famous French chef, Antonin Carême, James Thornton was more workman than artist. He seems to have been focused on providing plain, filling food in large quantities for those who dined with Wellington while on campaign. That may be the reason why there is actually not much mention of food in this book. Perhaps that was because his food was not remarkable and therefore required little comment. Those who are seeking detailed descriptions of the meals served to General Wellington and his men will not find them in this book. However, this book is filled with a myriad of detail about the logistics of providing meal service for the British army as it moved across the Iberian Peninsula, as well as events in Brussels before the Battle of Waterloo. There are also Thornton’s personal accounts of his experiences during some of the most important battles on the Peninsula, as well as at Waterloo. In addition, Thornton shares personal tidbits about the Duke of Wellington. Information that was usually overlooked by the great man’s biographers, who were focused on the grand events of Wellington’s life. One such bit of information which caught my attention was that Wellington always preferred to sleep in any house, even the most ramshackle one, than to have to sleep in a tent or other improvised shelter.
Anyone who is seeking details of the daily life of Wellington and his officers during the Peninsular campaign will find this book of interest. Though there is little with regard to military action, this book is filled with Thornton’s observations from his perspective as the General’s cook. These are the kinds of details which can help a Regency author add accurate historical color to any scenes they set in the British camp within that period in Portugal and Spain. Thornton also shares his observations about his time in Brussels in the weeks before the Waterloo campaign, which includes information about some of the Duke’s social activities during that time. This is the kind of every-day detail which seldom makes it into the history books. But it is the kind of information which enables an author to embellish a story set in that period with ample details of daily life accurate to the time. The many illustrations in this book may also prove useful to those trying to visualize the environment James Thornton knew while he worked for the Duke of Wellington.
That this special little book even exists for us to appreciate in the twenty-first century is little short of a miracle. The handwritten manuscript of Lord Frederick’s questions and James Thornton’s answers to them survived unknown, without damage or destruction, for nearly a century and a half. It was only then that some observant and knowledgeable person found it and recognized it for what it was. This amazing feat of survival gives hope to all historians that other such enlightening documents may yet be found intact in some obscure and unexpected place. Documents which will shed light on other little-known aspects of our history.
Dear Regency Authors, though this wonderful little book is no longer in print, it can still be found. There are a number of copies available from online used book-sellers, as well as copies in any number of bricks-and-mortar used book shops. It can also be found in the collections of many libraries, or requested through Inter-Library Loan. I think you will find it is well worth seeking out.