Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a battle which changed the course of European history, deposed an emperor and established Britain as a major player in continental politics. It's also the beginning of a curious story of a leg, a story I came across while researching for my historical novel The Iron Masters.
Henry Paget Earl of Uxbridge was a soldier who enjoyed dancing and loved women, in particular Lady Charlotte, the wife of Henry Wellesley. The name Wellesley may be familiar to you. Henry Wellesley's brother was Arthur Wellesley Duke of Wellington. In 1809, Paget scandalously eloped with Lady Charlotte and her husband challenged Paget to a duel which took place on Wimbledon Common. Both men discharged their pistols but missed and honour was said to be satisfied. As a result Wellington disliked Henry Paget but the two men were thrown together during the Battle of Waterloo.
It was late in the day, Paget and Wellington were surveying the battlefield and the fighting was almost over when canister shot passed between them shattering Paget's leg.
"By God, sir, I've lost my leg!" exclaimed Paget to which Wellington reputedly replied, "By God, sir, so you have!"
Henry was carried to Maison Tremblant, a house owned by Monsieur Hyacinthe Joseph-Marie Paris where the leg was amputated. During the operation which was done without anaesthetic Paget complained that the knife seemed rather blunt. Just after the surgeon had taken off Henry Paget's leg, his friend Sir Hussey Vivian came into the house where the operation was performed. "Ah, Vivian!" said the wounded man, "I want you to do me a favour. Some of my friends here seem to think I might have kept that leg on. Just go and cast your eye upon it, and tell me what you think." "I went, accordingly", said Sir Hussey, "and, taking up the lacerated limb, carefully examined it, and so far as I could tell, it was completely spoiled for work. A rusty grape-shot had gone through and shattered the bones all to pieces. I therefore returned to the house and told Paget he could set his mind quite at rest, as his leg, in my opinion, was better off than on."
Monsieur Paris then suggested it would be best for the amputated leg to be buried and since it was no further use to Paget, he agreed. Paget returned to England a national hero and was created 1st Marquess of Anglesey on 4th July 1815. He married Lady Charlotte and they went on to produce ten children. As well as fathering Henry continued to dance into his eighties using an artificial leg that was hinged at the knee and ankle and had articulated toes which flexed as he moved operated by prepared kangaroo tendon. When asked, "How are you my Lord?" He would always smile and reply, "I feel like a man with one foot in the grave." Henry Paget died on the 29th April 1854 aged eighty five but that wasn't the end of the story.
Monsieur Paris had erected a tomb for the Marquess' lost limb bearing an inscription;
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.
Paget's fame had spread and the Frenchman was charging wealthy visitors to view the monument. In fact he was making a good living from his new attraction. In 1878 Paget's son visited the house where his father's leg had been amputated and was horrified to discover the bones were not buried but on open display for all to see. He demanded the return of his father's leg but M. Paris refused instead offering to sell the offending limb to the Paget family for a large sum of money. They refused to pay and a diplomatic incident followed, resolved when M. Paris was ordered to rebury the leg. However he didn't; instead he hid it.
In 1934, following the death of the last Monsieur Paris in Brussels, his widow discovered the leg in his study, together with documentation proving its provenance. Sickened by the idea of another scandal, she incinerated the remains in her central heating boiler thus ending the tale of Henry Paget's leg.