Wellington at Waterloo, by Robert Alexander Hillingford.

18th June 2015

Copenhagen: from Newmarket to Waterloo

“There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow”  – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

Long before Retraining of Racehorses, one ex-racehorse with a second career played a crucial part in a deciding moment in European history.

Copenhagen, who carried the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, was one of the most celebrated horses of his time. In his youth, however, he was a familiar sight on Newmarket heath and the racecourses of England.

He was sired by Meteor, a son of the mighty Eclipse who had come second in the Derby. The Epsom was strong, as his dam-sire was the Derby-winner John Bull who also has Eclipse in his pedigree*.

His dam, Lady Catherine, was owned by Colonel the Earl Grosvenor and was his chosen mount on a military campaign in Denmark. On her arrival, however, she was discovered to be in foal and so returned to England, where the foal was named in honour of the Siege of Copenhagen.

Lady Catherine, whose dam-sire was the Rutland Arabian, is the only half-bred mare listed in the General Stud Book to mark her progeny’s service to the nation in the defeat of Napoleon.

Newmarket and beyond

Copenhagen’s race debut was as a three year old at the Craven Meeting, Newmarket in 1811. Sadly he was not to emulate his unbeaten ancestor, although he did win twice, at Newmarket and Huntingdon, and was placed in nine of his races over the two seasons he raced.

After retirement in May 1812 he was sold to Sir Charles Vane and accompanied his new owner on campaign in the Peninsular War against Napoleon. He was later sold on again and purchased with another horse on behalf of the Duke of Wellington. Wellington had a number of chargers, but none would serve him like Copenhagen.

Copenhagen may have only be 15 hands but he seems to have been made for the Duke. Much like his owner, he seemed to thrive on the chaos of battle, remaining calm and dependable but ready to deliver what was required of him.

Wellington would later fondly recall an incident at the Battle of Quatre-Bras when he had emerged from the British lines to better observe the enemy. A squadron of French dragoons suddenly appeared and charged at him. Wellington was stuck between them and a ditch, a fence and an entire battalion of Scottish soldiers. Commanding the soldiers to lie down and lie still, Wellington turned Copenhagen and galloped towards the obstacles and soldiers, clearing them all in one mighty leap.

This athleticism was one of Copenhagen’s great qualities. While it was usual to change horses numerous times during the course of a battle, during the Battle of Waterloo he carried Wellington for over 17 hours. Wellington thanked Copenhagen for his service by patting him on the rump after dismounting. The response was a full blown kick that the Duke only narrowly avoided. A dependable charger he might be, but Copenhagen was still a highly-strung thoroughbred at heart.

A second retirement

Copenhagen continued to be ridden by the Duke during the occupation of France, before being retired to Stratfield Saye, the country estate gifted to the Duke by a grateful nation.

He became a treasured pet although he was still ridden by the Duke for State occasions. He was famously ridden up to the door of 10 Downing Street by the Duke when he became Prime Minister in 1828.

His temperament seems to have gentled with age; the Duchess wrote “he trots after me eating bread out of my hand, and wagging his tail like a little dog”. All this feeding of treats led Copenhagen to expect titbits from all female visitors, kissing their hands and “eating apples with grace”.

He died 12 February 1836 at the age of 28 years and was buried with full military honours in the Ice House Paddock at Stratfield Saye. Not for him the indignity of having his skeleton displayed in a military museum like Napoleon’s charger, Marengo.

To the victor, the spoils.


*Copenhagen was inbred 2×4 to Eclipse, meaning that Eclipse was his grandsire and also appeared in the fourth generation of his pedigree.