Friday, 27 May 2011

A Favourite Historical Anecdote - Lord Uxbridge and His Lost Leg

All historians have their favourite trivial anecdotes. Little snippets and snapshots of the past which - though often perhaps apocryphal or at least unconnected to the large sweeps of history - usually provide a delightful and colourful touch of the everyday to larger and weightier narratives.

The story of "Lord Uxbridge's Leg" is one of the Idle Historian's favourite anecdotes, and is a footnote to one of the most famous battles in British history. The following alleged exchange occurred with the Duke of Wellington towards the end of the Battle of Waterloo, when Uxbridge (who was commanding a contingent of cavalry and artillery) was hit by cannon fire:

Lord Uxbridge: "By God, sir, I've lost my leg!"
The Duke of Wellington: "By God, sir, so you have!"

Lord Uxbridge, as the original caption has it, "with both legs"

The unfortunate Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge (within days of the battle to be bestowed with a new title, the Marquess of Anglesey, along with the honour of being made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath) was then rushed to British headquarters for the brutal amputation of his leg, long before the days of surgical anesthetic (or hygienic surgery for that matter).

His stoicism and composure, evident from the tenor of the exchange with the Duke of Wellington, were in full evidence - one of the factors that, no doubt, contributed to his legend. The story is one of the British "stiff upper lip" personified. One story has him commenting wryly: "I have had a pretty long run. I have been a beau these forty-seven years, and it would not be fair to cut the young men out any longer." Yet another account has him commenting that the knives used for the procedure appeared to be somewhat on the dull side. (Although, as was done, a saw was used, and the item is in the possession of the National Army Museum in Chelsea).

As a rather curious, and perhaps also macabre note, the amputated leg was buried in Waterloo, and its "tomb" became a rather offbeat tourist attraction for the many who learned of Uxbridge's military exploits and brave fatalism. The inscription on the "tombstone" was as follows:
Here lies the Leg of the illustrious and valiant Earl Uxbridge, Lieutenant-General of His Britannic Majesty, Commander in Chief of the English, Belgian and Dutch cavalry, wounded on the 18 June 1815 at the memorable battle of Waterloo, who, by his heroism, assisted in the triumph of the cause of mankind, gloriously decided by the resounding victory of the said day.

The story appeals to the Idle Historian for the same reasons as it did to those who have visited the "tomb" and recounted the battlefield anecdote in the almost 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo. We admire those who take it all in stride even when things go badly, who can laugh off their misfortune and continue quite merrily along as did the indefatigable Uxbridge. The loss of his leg did nothing to harm his ambition or his fortunes. He later became both a Field Marshal and Knight of the Garter and held many important positions before his death in 1854, almost 40 years after the battle that made him legendary.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Friday, 13 May 2011

About the "English Hymn": Jerusalem

"Jerusalem" was sung at the Royal Wedding some two weeks ago today, a piece of English nationalism and nostalgia which was welcomed by many. The Idle Historian was live-tweeting the wedding, and noticed two comments on twitter (alas, sadly, lost, so I am unable to give just credit where it is due). One user wondered why they were singing a hymn, about which the obvious answers to the four opening questions (about the myth of Jesus having traveled to England) were: no, no, no, and um, no. Another user commented on the fact that so many of the powerful and influential were singing Jerusalem (actually quite a "radical," or even revolutionary, piece) with apparently so little understanding of the words they were singing.

Jerusalem is based on a poem by William Blake (one of the Romantic poets). He combined the myth of a young Jesus having traveled to England with an expression of reformist zeal to ameliorate the conditions caused by the Industrial Revolution (the "dark Satanic mills") and overturn the values of a society crassly based on commerce and materialism. The music was composed by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916, and the hymn gained popularity throughout the twentieth century. It is now the virtually uncontested "anthem of England," sung at sporting events, important gatherings, and each year at the famous Last Night of the Proms. It is nostalgia and patriotism personified, and few English people can feel wholly unmoved at hearing it.


And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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