The skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon’s famous mount at the Battle of Waterloo, is now back on display at the National Army Museum in London, after a painstaking restoration and remounting process. But visitors who look closely at the popular exhibit will notice that the horse’s skeleton is missing its two front hooves. Retained by the horse’s last owner after Marengo’s death in 1831, these two front hooves were recently reunited at another London museum, thanks to the efforts of military historian Christopher Joll.
According to Joll, a former officer in the Life Guards who has written a collection of essays about Britain’s most famous spoils of war, Marengo played a key role in creating Napoleon’s iconic persona. “What is the image that we have of Napoleon? It’s wearing a bicorne hat, a grey overcoat and riding a white charger,” Joll tells HISTORY. “He was instantly recognizable [on the battlefield]. Amongst all the gaudy marshals of France and generals in their spectacular uniforms, there was a very plainly dressed man, but very very visible on a white horse.”
Marengo’s legend began almost as soon as Napoleon acquired the pale grey, six-year-old progeny of the celebrated El Naseri stud in Egypt in 1799. After riding the horse into battle at Marengo, Italy, the following year, Napoleon named him after his victory there. From then on, the small-statured steed (standing only 14.1 hands tall) was said to have carried Napoleon through a number of his military campaigns, including battles at Austerlitz (Moravia) in 1805, Jena (Prussia) in 1806, Wagram (Austria) in 1809 and even the ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812.
Then came Napoleon’s exile on Elba and his famous defeat by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in 1815. According to Joll, the French general fled in a carriage near dusk, leaving the wounded Marengo lying in a sunken road near the French command post, La Belle Alliance.
Lieutenant Henry Petre of the 5th Dragoon Guards found the horse—which he recognized from the imperial brand on the flank—nursed him back to health and shipped him to England, where he would later go on display as a spoil of war at the Waterloo Rooms in Pall Mall, London. When public interest in the battle began to wane, Petre sold Marengo to Captain William Angerstein, an officer in Grenadier Guards and the fabulously wealthy grandson of the founder of Lloyds of London.
Angerstein charged a hefty stud fee for Marengo, but the foals he produced proved “no good” at racing, Joll said. Napoleon’s former mount spent the rest of his life grazing the grass on Angerstein’s large country estate in Norfolk. When Marengo died in 1831, at the considerably advanced age of 38, Angerstein had his skeleton articulated by surgeons at London Hospital and presented it to the Royal United Services Institution (which later became the National Army Museum). But he kept the two front hooves, which he later had shod in silver and converted into two silver- and gold-mounted snuffboxes.
Angerstein gave one of the hooves to the Officers of the Brigade of Guards, which placed it in the officers’ mess at St. James’ Palace, where it stayed. The other one, which Angerstein kept for his personal use, had disappeared until recently, when one of his descendants found it in her late mother’s farmhouse in Somerset.
“This silver-mounted hoof was found wrapped in newspaper, inside a plastic bag, at the back of a kitchen drawer,” Joll tells HISTORY. “It simply has the word “Marengo” inscribed on the lid of the snuff box. So I think she probably Googled it…and she took it to the Household Cavalry Museum and said ‘Is this of any interest?”” The answer was decidedly yes, and she put it on permanent loan at the museum.
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When Joll encountered the once-missing hoof at the Household Cavalry Museum, he knew he wanted to reunite it with its missing silver-mounted mate from St. James’ Palace. With connections at both the Guards and the Cavalry Museum, Joll was able to bring the two hooves together for the first time since they were taken off poor dead Marengo back in 1831.
On Joll’s initiative, the two hooves were photographed together at the Household Cavalry Museum last fall. “I’ve been around horses all my life, and when you bring the two hooves together, they’re very much the same size, they’re very much the same color,” Joll says. “I would stake my reputation on saying they’re from the same horse.”
While Joll is certain the two recently reunited hooves belong to Napoleon’s horse at Waterloo—when Petre found the animal, he was wearing the emperor’s saddle cloths, and had the imperial mark on his flank—he doesn’t make the claim that the horse captured after the battle was THE Marengo that Napoleon purchased in Egypt in 1799. In fact, several villages in Ireland have disputed that fact, claiming that the horse brought back to England after Waterloo actually came from a local horse fair on the Emerald Isle.
Beyond doing a DNA test (which Joll has been told is impossible given so much time has passed), there doesn’t appear to be any way to solve the mystery of where exactly Napoleon’s Waterloo mount was born. But one thing seems pretty clear—Napoleon’s famous white stallion might well have been a series of white or pale grey horses, over a number of years.
“We know that in the imperial stables there were up to 50 Arab ponies that were white or pale grey. All of which would have borne…the imperial brand mark,” Joll says. “I’ve been a military cavalry unit, and the idea that the same horse would be ridden across a period of, what, 15-20 years, is pretty far-fetched. Horses get sick, they go lame. My guess is that Napoleon rode a white horse because that was part of his iconography. But whether or not it was the same white horse I think is extremely doubtful.”