It seems appropriate to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon by reminding ourselves of the important part played by Henry William Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge and subsequently 1st Marquess of Anglesey, who is commemorated in the names of Burton streets, schools and pubs.
His father, born Henry Bayly, succeeded as 10th Baron Paget on the death of his mother’s second cousin from whom he inherited considerable property in Staffordshire and elsewhere, and changed his name to Paget. As his eldest son, Henry William enjoyed this inheritance, which included Beaudesert on Cannock Chase and extensive lands in and around Burton-on-Trent, especially Sinai Park, Horninglow and Stretton. Much of the land was leased to breweries and farmers, and the freehold remained in the Paget family until the early 20th century.
Henry William Paget was a lifelong soldier who, in 1790 at the age of 22, raised a regiment of foot, the Staffordshire Volunteers, from his father’s tenantry. Five years later, when he was Lieutenant-Colonel of the 16th Light Dragoons, he married the daughter of the Earl of Jersey. He led Sir John Moore’s cavalry in the battle of Corunna in 1809, but fell into disfavour with Wellington when he seduced Lady Charlotte Wellesley, Wellington’s sister-in-law, the mother of four children (he already had eight of his own). This cost him £24,000 in reparation and a duel with her brother. Henry and Charlotte later married after both of them were divorced.
Wellington himself, who was hardly a model of marital fidelity, eventually accepted Paget as a cavalry commander to face the renewed threat from Napoleon in 1815. He was soon entrusted with the all the 13,000 Allied cavalry and horse artillery, and personally led the famous charge of the heavy cavalry of the Household Brigade and Union Brigade which routed d’Erlon’s French 1 Corps. During the rest of the fighting, he had eight or nine horses shot under him.
Almost at the end of the four days of fighting around Waterloo, a rusty round shot hit Paget’s right knee. Of the several versions of his brief exchange with Wellington, who was nearby, the most often quoted is:
Paget: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg”.
Wellington: “By God, sir, so you have”.
While having his badly smashed leg cut off, without anæsthetic of course, he remained grimly humorous, remarking “I’ve had a pretty long run. I’ve been a beau for forty-seven years and it would not be fair to cut the young men out any longer.”
The stump healed very slowly and painfully and when he at last came home to England he claimed to have, as he put it, “one foot in the grave”. A lady friend teased him about his not dancing any more, whereupon he promised her “Madam, I shall dance the polka with you within the year”: he did. A certain James Potts made for him the first completely articulated false leg out of wood, leather and springs, with lighter versions for riding and dancing.
After Waterloo, honours were showered upon him, including Knight of the Garter, as well as many foreign orders. A statue of him was erected on Anglesey on a 91 foot tall column between Llanfair P. G. and his main home at Plas Newydd, which now has a display including his artificial leg, his torn cavalry overall trousers and the sword he carried at Waterloo. The house, now owned by the National Trust, also contains much of the family furniture and paintings moved there from Beaudesert. The saw used to amputate his leg is in the National Army Museum.
As Marquess of Anglesey, he entered into a long and successful political military career, including the posts of Master-General of the Ordnance and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, but still courted notoriety. His support for rumours about the infidelity of Queen Caroline led to his being seized by a mob who made him shout “The Queen!” to which he added “and may all your wives be like her.” At the end of his life, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire.
The leg was amputated in Paget’s headquarters, a cottage owned by a Monsieur Paris who asked if he could bury in his garden. Paris made it into a tourist attraction whose visitors included the King of Prussia and the Prince of Orange. For a fee, they were shown the bloody chair where the leg was taken off, then the little grave with its own elaborately inscribed headstone. All went well until 1878 when Paget’s son found that the bones themselves were on display and the Paris family offered to sell them to him. The Belgian Government ordered them to be reinterred but they were hidden away and, after the last M. Paris died, his widow burned them in her central-heating boiler.
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Last updated: 17 May 2015