As ITV’s Vanity Fair finally faces its Waterloo, we look at East Anglian links to the famous battle
PUBLISHED: 12:04 18 September 2018 | UPDATED: 13:09 18 September 2018
Vanity Fair is one of the greatest novels about Waterloo: and this week the ITV series reached 1815 and the battle where Napoleon met his final defeat. But how much do you know about East Anglia’s link to the day that decided Europe’s fate?
It was a face-off in a muddy field in Belgium between two men: Weillington and his British and Allied army and Napoleon with the French Imperial Guard.
Two military giants, by June 18 1815, both men boasted a string of victories - but only one could win and decide the fate of an entire continent...
William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was written after the Waterloo battle but is based during it, telling the story not only of those engaged in war, but also those who waited for them as they fought and whose lives had to go on regardless.
While many of the Waterloo wives stood on the sidelines praying, anti-heroine Becky Sharp set to selling her husband’s horses.
The novel first appeared in Punch magazine 32 years after the battle and in truth, very little of the actual battle is included in it, but Thackeray didn’t have the budget of Amazon and ITV.
Writer Gwyneth Hughes said: “When we first began with this we were just doing it for ITV, and there was a slightly worried conversation along the lines of, ‘Well what are we going to do about the Battle of Waterloo?’”
“Being in co-production with them [Amazon] meant that we could do more than we would ever have been able to do before, and one of the things we did was spend a week in a field outside Reading, re-staging the Battle of Waterloo. Which is completely mad.”
While we prepare to see far more of Waterloo than Thackeray offered us in his book, let’s take a look at some local links to the battle, from
East Anglian links to Waterloo
* Napoleon Bonaparte owned many horses during his meteoric career, but his favourite charger of all was the handsome light grey African Barb called Marengo. Considered to be “a faultless animal”, Marengo stood 14 hands and 1 inch in height and was obtained by Napoleon following the Battle of Aboukir in Egypt in 1799. Marengo was with his master at later battles at Austerlitz in 1805 , Jena in 1806 and during the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. In June 1815, when the Duke of Wellington finally defeated his French foe at Waterloo, Napoleon was riding Marengo. After the battle, Lord Petrie bought the horse and took him back to England where he was sold to Lieutenant-General John Julius Angerstein, a noted horse breeder, who put him to stud at New Barnes, near Ely. According to the Norfolk diary of the Rev Benjamin John Armstrong: “Marengo had been shown in London by some Barnum of those days and afterwards made a tour of the provinces and had, no doubt, realised vast sums for the proprietor.” In his old age, Marengo was cosseted and brought to the family home, Weeting Hall in Norfolk where he died in 1832. His skeleton was preserved at the Royal United Service Institution in Whitehall and later moved to the National Army Museum at Camberley in Surrey – one of his hooves was sent to The Brigade of Guards and another was kept at Weeting Hall, both had been made into snuff boxes. Marengo’s skin, put aside for a taxidermist to stuff, was lost.
• A medal from the Battle of Waterloo sold for three times its estimated at a Norfolk auction in 2013. A collector from north Suffolk was selling the medal which was awarded to Ensign Robert Martin, who took part in the 1815 battle and is listed in a Waterloo roll call of 1817 as having served under Captain Thomas Wilson’s company in the 28th Gloucestershire Regiment of Foot. James and Son auctioneers estimated the medal would reach £2,500 to £3,000 at its sale at Fakenham Racecourse, but an anonymous private collector from Lancashire won the medal with a bid of £7,500. Auctioneer David James said: “It was the first medal to be issued universally to any British troops who took part in a battle and there were probably about 8,000 minted. I don’t think anybody could tell you how many are left, but it’s rare for them to come on the market in this condition.” The medal appeared in auction showing rusting on its iron suspender, which led many soldiers to remove the medals from their jackets to prevent them being damaged.
• On June 23 1815, the Norfolk Annals notes: “News was received at Norwich of the Battle of Waterloo fought on June 18. Cannon were fired and bells rung in celebration of the victory. The rejoicings were renewed on the 27th when the expedition and other coaches brought intelligence of the second abdication of Bonaparte. The expedition coach, decorated with laurel and flags, was dragged through the streets to the singing of God Save the King and Rule Britannia and a bonfire, fed with the stalls from the fish market and with other stolen material, was lighted at night.”
• Celebrated diarist Parson Woodforde wrote about what was happening in his life as battle raged at Waterloo. The distant events seemed irrelevant to many back at home who had suffered a ruined harvest thanks to a summer drought and a New year which had begun with a frost so severe that Woodforde found the milk pans in his dairy at Weston Longville to be a solid mass of ice and noted that frost had “froze apples within doors, tho’ covered with a thick carpet. The cold today the severest I have ever felt”. By the end of February, black frost was still covering Norfolk. Woodforde treated his gout with red wine mixed with nutmeg and sugar and admitted it had stopped him going to church. “The weather still continuing so severe and much snow on the ground, I thought too dangerous for me to venture to go into a damp church and walking upon snow, having not left off my flannel-lined second Gouty Shoes, therefore sent word to my Parishioners that there would be no service.”
• On July 13 1815, two transports arrived from Ostend with 600 casualties from the Battle of Waterloo. The sick and wounded soldiers from the Duke of Wellington’s army were removed from the ships in smaller keels and taken to the Royal Naval Hospital on the Denes at Great Yarmouth. The hospital had been built under Admiralty orders to treat patients from the North Seat Fleet engaged in war with France and was originally designed to hold around 200 patients. Building started in 1809 with the laying of the foundation stone by Admiral Billy Douglas, the Port Admiral of Great Yarmouth, and was completed in 1811 at a cost of some £120,000. The hospital opened in 1811 but with the French Navy already largely defeated, only took in its first patients with the lodging of the Waterloo casualties. A commemorative board at the hospital marks the death of one sergeant from 55 Regiment, seven sailors, 17 Waterloo Soldiers “and several children” who were interred in the building’s burial ground during the years of 1815 and 1816.
• The Brandon flint-knapping industry developed during the 18th century after high-quality flint strata were found near the town which proved ideal for flintlock rifles. The Brandon and Santon Downham ‘floorstone flint’, which is also found at nearby Grimes Graves, could be knapped to produce long blades which in turn could be cut into four or five reversible gunflints. In the 1790s, local flint masters obtained contracts to supply the British Army and during the Napoleonic Wars there were 13 workshops with around 160 knappers producing up to 1,140,000 gunflints a month. Brandon black gunflints were highly-prized for their low rate of misfire.
• Bones (human and horse) from Waterloo are said to have been shipped to England, ground to add to fertiliser and then used on the fields of East Anglia. The funding father of the fertiliser industry, Justus von Leibig, said: “Great Britain deprives all countries of the conditions of their fertility. It ahs raked up the battlefields of Leipsic, Waterloo and the Crimea; it has consumed the bones of many generations accumulated in the catacombs the bones of many generations accumulated in the catacombs of Sicily; and now annually destroys the food for a future generation of three million and a half people. Like a vampire it hangs on the breast of Europe.”
* Vanity Fair, ITV, Sundays, 9pm