I just finished a biography about a real life Regency hero, Henry Paget, the first Marquess of Anglesey (1768-1854). While I love delving into the history of this era, I don’t often find nonfiction that’s as well-written and as engaging as this book.
The Waterloo Marquess
The book is One Leg, and the author is another Henry Paget–the late seventh Marquess of Anglesey. If you’re a regular reader of my posts, you’ll know that the first Marquess lost a leg at the Battle of Waterloo. Thus, according to the seventh Marquess, he’s known to his descendents as “One Leg”, or “The Waterloo Marquess”.
With the advantage of access to family records and letters and legends, the seventh Marquess weaves excerpts of letters through this story of One Leg’s eighty-five years of life. And, as an expert in the history of the British cavalry, he writes with great clarity about the complexities of the first Marquess’ cavalry exploits on the Peninsula and at Waterloo.
I can’t help thinking also that, as a peer of the realm, the seventh Marquess had extra insight into the challenges and thinking of his powerful ancestor as he navigated political intrigues to advise a prince, lead men into battle, and see to the needs of the family he headed. He brings to life this amazing man, Henry William Paget, First Marquess of Anglesey in all his strengths and flaws.
1. In acquiring the title, luck fell his way
He was born a simple Master Henry Bayly, and his father inherited the Barony because an ancestor, William Paget, first Baron Paget de Beaudesert, “had the forethought to insure the title could pass through the female line.” The Uxbridge earldom had died out with the male line, but was revived in a “second creation” for One Leg’s father.
2. On the Peninsula
He was a highly skilled cavalry officer and an aggressive leader, not a man who “led from behind”. Serving in the Peninsular War with him, his brother, Edward Paget, wrote to their father about his brother, (known by his baronial title as “Paget”):
The cavalry have been performing really prodigies of valour, and Paget always at the head, and in the thick of everything that has been going on. He is, in this respect, quite a boy, and a cornet instead of a lieut.-general of cavalry, but in every other he is the right hand of the army.
This was in 1808, when One Leg was forty years old.
3. As a Politician
In both military and civilian roles, he understood relationships and roles. He had a true sense of nobility, and was able to step back to let a man with greater skills and less social standing, Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, advance:
I only think as indeed most do, that Ministers were unwise in not giving Wellesley openly the chief command at once, without sending out to be mere spectators a parcel of older officers…
As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, he had great compassion for the plight of the Irish people.
I want reform, temperate, but deep and general…We must contrive to get a government that shall rule by public opinion and the confidence of the people, and that shall at once, and manfully, cease to carry on their measures by the power of patronage, influence, and intrigue.
The chapters on Ireland are fascinating.
As the Battle of Waterloo was nearing its end, he was speaking to Wellington when his right knee was shattered by grape shot. His reaction to his injury at Waterloo is legendary:
“By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” he said.
“By God, sir, so you have!” replied Wellington.
When the surgeon called for removing the leg, he said, “Well, gentlemen, I thought so myself. I have put myself in your hands and if it is to be taken off, the sooner it is done the better.” Afterward, he was quoted as saying “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.”
5. Divorce and Remarriage
I first heard the story of his infamous divorce and remarriage a few years ago, and in fact, the story plays into the plot of one of my books, The Bastard’s Iberian Bride.
In early 1808, One Leg fell in love with Lady Charlotte Wellesley, the wife of Arthur Wellesley’s brother Henry. The story is a long one, but in short, her husband divorced her, and One Leg and his wife, Lady Caroline obtained a divorce in Scotland, which so scandalized the Scottish government that they acted to change their laws. Lady Caroline went on to marry a Duke.
The divorces and legal actions cost One Leg a substantial amount of money:
My Lady and I have just calculated that she has cost me 20,000 pounds for the 1st divorce, 10,000 pounds for the 2nd, and 1000 pounds a year for Her Grace [Lady Caroline]–and I must admit I find her [Lady Charlotte] a good and cheap bargain notwithstanding.
One interesting note: I’ve heard and read that this scandal created a longstanding feud between Anglesey and Wellington. The author attributes this notion to Mrs. Arbuthnot, “a highly prejudiced lady” and a friend of Wellington’s who was, as we would call her in fiction, an “unreliable narrator”. The author refutes this notion with anecdotes about the two men’s long friendship well into old age.
6. Illness and Physical Challenges
Losing a leg did not curtail One Leg’s activities. He had a “walking leg” and a “riding leg”, and continued to be an active, dedicated horseman.
Anglesey suffered terribly from recurring, debilitating bouts of a condition called tic doloureux.
As a young man making his grand tour, he discovered after his arrival on the Continent that he had acquired syphilis from a London prostitute he visited before his departure. The tutor accompanying him wrote to One Leg’s father from Strasbourg:
Lord Paget was so unfortunate, before leaving London, as to visit some female who had been recommended to him as a safe person…This town contains a large garrison, and venereal disease is therefore common enough. I came then to the conclusion that there must be doctors there to whom it was well known.
The tutor secured a doctor and treatment for him and concludes: “One is never really made wise but by one’s own experience.” One Leg was apparently cured through a course of treatment with mercury.
7. Family Life
Anglesey was one of twelve children. He fathered eighteen children by his two wives between 1796 and 1825. As the Earl of Uxbridge and later Marquess of Anglesey, he became the head of this prolific family. If you’ve followed the PBS series Victoria, you might notice his son, Lord Arthur Paget, is a character serving as equerry to Queen Victoria. Lord Arthur is depicted as the gay lover of the prime minister’s secretary, Mr. Drummond, a made-up, salaciously trendy subplot. In fact, the gossip of the time was that Victoria was in love with Lord Arthur. At least twelve members of his family held positions in the Queen’s court before One Leg’s death.
8. Long Service
Anglesey worked in government positions into his eighties, and he was no placeholder. He quit office just before his eighty-fourth birthday, only because of a change in the Government.
9. Other Tidbits
- He struggled with an incorrigible adult son’s shameful debts and gambling.
- “The new fashion of afternoon tea, introduced in the ‘forties by the Duchess of Bedford, did not meet with his approval, and he forbade his womenfolk to indulge the habit…they merely hid the tray under the sofa when the patriarchal footsteps were heard in the passage.”
- In the country, he went out hunting three or four times a week: “after completely finishing my dispatches, which I never fail to do, I take my gun and (wonderful to say) generally bring home 6 or 8 or so brace of Black Game…”
- Those who wished to dine at Uxbridge House in London “inscribed their names upon a slate kept for the purpose in the hall, under the watchful eye of the porter.”
I’ve gone on long enough! Do you have a favorite biography or history from this era to recommend? I’d love to hear about it!
Images: Book cover, Amazon; all others, Wikimedia Commons