Marengo’s skeleton is on display at the National Army Museum in London, adding to the ‘cult of Napoleon’ that was created after his defeat at Waterloo: people want to memorialise the great horse that carried one of the greatest military leaders through many of his campaigns.
Another piece of Marengo has also been venerated; one of his hooves became a snuff box, which is held at the Officer’s Mess at St James’ Palace, having been presented there on the 8th April 1840 by J. W. Angerstein, Captain of the Grenadier Guards.
Interestingly, Copenhagen, Wellington’s horse from the same time, and thus Marengo's 'rival', is also missing a hoof which became an ink well in Wellington’s Apsley House: not taken by Wellington himself, but by a butler who only revealed what he’d done after Wellington’s death.
Marengo was a fourteen hands and one inch light grey Barb, a breed of horse that was introduced by the Moors into Spain from Northern Africa, and that resembles the Arabians, known for their speed and endurance. He was taken by Napoleon after the Battle of Aboukir in Egypt in 1799. In the 100 Days, the first mention of him was at Le Caillou on 15 June in the stables of Napoleon’s headquarters on the Genappe road. At the Battle of Waterloo, despite claims that Marengo carried Napoleon throughout, the leader actually spent much of his time either in his carriage or commanding from a collapsible card table. However, Marengo was wounded in the hip during the battle, before being separated from his master. After this it is thought that Marengo, along with a horse named Jaffa, was put aboard a ship with the wounded horses of the Household Brigade cavalry and sent to England where he remained until his death in 1831.
This research was completed with funding from the University of Warwick Undergraduate Research Support Scheme.
The Marengo Mystery
Despite his status as Napoleon’s ‘favourite’ horse, there is actually very little documentary evidence of Marengo. Searching the registers gives no record of Marengo: in the ‘Registre de l’ équipage’ for ‘Les Cent-Jours’ (Ligny - Quatre-Bas – Waterloo), Marengo is not listed among the seventeen other horses. He was also not listed as a horse that was transferred to another ‘team’ after the defeat at Waterloo.
Research by Jill Hamilton concludes that there is no documentary evidence of a ‘Marengo’ in the primary sources in the archives of Paris. Furthermore, in Napoleon’s instructions about his belongings on Elba being brought back to him do not mention a ‘Marengo’: 'Recover from Elba any of my things that are worth sending. I am anxious to have my Corsican horse, if it is not ill, and can be sent back'.
The horse he requests here is a Corsican horse, rather than a ‘Barb’ or ‘Arab’, as Marengo is said to have been. This raises the question as to whether Marengo was on Elba with Napoleon in the first place, and if he wasn’t, where he was during Napoleon’s time in exile and until the 15 June 1815. Records show that no Marengo was in the stables on Elba, despite the fact Napoleon did have some personal horses and that there were 48 other carriage horses present. If he really was Napoleon’s ‘favourite horse’, why would he not have been on Elba with him or if he was, why would he not have been requested by Napoleon?
There can also be no certainty that the common account of ‘Marengo’ being rescued by Lord Petre is corect. No Lord Petre was listed as serving at Waterloo, on the guest list for the Richmond Ball on 15 June, or as being present as a civilian on the battlefield. If the identity of Marengo’s rescuer is incorrect, the horse’s identity may also be inaccurate. Similarly, it is recorded that the man who rescued Marengo recognised the bee motif on the harness and the imperial ‘N’ branded on his thigh. However, Napoleon’s senior officials would also have had bees on their horses harnesses and all horses of the imperial stables bore the imperial ‘N’ (this is shown clearly on the thigh of ‘Vizir’, another of Napoleon’s horses that has been stuffed and put on display at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris). This could mean therefore that the horse rescued was not actually Marengo: there would, however, have been strong incentives to claim that one was returning to England with Napoleon’s ‘favourite’ as a trophy of war. Moreover, the names of the horses under Napoleon changed: sometimes they had nicknames and sometimes they were named after old, favourite horses. Was Marengo a nickname for Aly or Desiré, the horses ridden at the Battle of Marengo? It is impressive that Marengo should have served Napoleon for 16 years in some of his greatest campaigns (for example he was supposedly ridden all the way to Russia and back in the European campaign, a great feat for one horse).
Was Marengo really was just one horse?
Outside Britain, Marengo is not the only horse deemed to have been Napoleon’s ‘favourite’. Vizir, a grey Arab starling, born in 1793 was described in a letter from D.W Clarke (Boulogne on Sea) and John Greaves (Staffordshire) in July 1839 as ‘the favourite horse of weapons of Napoleon’. The life span and records of Vizir are broadly the same as those of Marengo, and so cannot refer to a ‘favourite’ from a different period of Napoleon’s life. Vizir may be the French equivalent of Britain’s ‘Marengo’. The letter goes on to say that the French were very attached to Vizir as it was the Emperor’s horse. Nonetheless, the records show he had numerous personal horses.
Interestingly, Phillipe Osché points out that one cannot be sure if the stuffed horse at the Musée de l’Armée is even Vizir – it would seem that myth not only surrounds Marengo, but Napoleon’s other horses too. Certainly, Marengo does not have anything like the same prominence in France as he does in Britain.
Modern records also depict ‘Jaffa’, the other horse brought to England after the Battle of Waterloo, as Napoleon’s ‘favourite’. In an interesting twist, Jaffa remained relatively anonymous in England, and was apparently buried in the grounds of a small estate with a small trunk of coins. In 1965, the owner of the grounds dug up the grave, but no bones or coins were found, just two hooves. It has been hypothesised that the bones might earlier have found their way to London and might be the bones of ‘Marengo’ on display?
La Belle, Napoleon’s mount at the Battle of Marengo, is also said to have been his favourite for hunting and was the favourite horse of painters. Paintings may well be responsible for the widely held British perspective that Marengo was the favourite horse, for in most cases Napoleon is depicted astride a grey Arab, very much like the one brought back to London after the Battle of Waterloo, as in Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 painting ‘Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps’ and James Ward’s 1824 painting entitled ‘Marengo’. Artists who had never even seen Napoleon began to paint him alongside such a horse. Thus through art, Marengo became the symbol for all Napoleon’s horses, leading the British public to believe that he was Napoleon’s only horse. Indeed, it is possible that ‘Marengo’ was actually a British imposition - the name fixed to the horse given so much public attention.
Perhaps the prominence of Marengo stems from the awareness that Napoleon had great respect for his horse(s). He is recorded saying: ‘When I lost my way, I was accustomed to throw the reins on his neck, and he always discovered places where I, with all my observation and boasted superior knowledge, could not’. But if the ‘cult of Napoleon’ increased the romanticisation of his horse, the story of Marengo also added to the legend of Napoleon. It is a great story and some of it may be true – but truth is only an incidental component of most great stories!
Hamilton, Jill, Marengo: The Myth of Napoleon’s Horse, (London, 2000). See especially pages 6, 112-114, 124 and 126.
Osché, Philippe, Les 1500 chevaux de Napoléon (Bassin, 2003). See especially pages 53, 259, 261 and 268.