The Strange Tale of Lord Uxbridge's Leg

Oct 13, 2022 0 comments

At the Battle of Waterloo, on 18 June 1815, Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, and later the 1st Marquess of Anglesey—a veteran of many military campaigns—was given the command of 13,000 Allied cavalry and 44 horse artillery batteries. At one point in the battle, Lord Uxbridge led a spectacular charge with 2,000 men of the British heavy cavalry against the French Corps columns of Comte d'Erlon, and succeeded in sweeping the French infantry away in disorder. However, Uxbridge was unable to rally his forces, who continued on in pursuit and were ambushed by the French cavalry's counterattack. Uxbridge spent the rest of the battle leading a series of charges against the French. He was reported to have lost eight or nine horses that were shot from under him.

The Duke of Wellington meets Lord Uxbridge after the amputation of his leg

The Duke of Wellington meets Lord Uxbridge after the amputation of his leg. This meeting reportedly never happened. Photo: National Trust Collection

Towards the closing moments of the battle, the French cannon had grown nearly quiet and firing had become only intermittent. Wellington took out his field telescope and was surveying the battlefield when one of the last of the French grapeshot flew past Wellington and smashed into Lord Uxbridge’s right knee. Turning to the Duke of Wellington, Uxbridge is supposed to have exclaimed, “By God, sir, I've lost my leg!”, to which the Duke replied, “By God, sir, so you have!”. Whether the exchange actually took place or not, it’s undoubtedly a great story and is often quoted to show the supposed eccentricity of the British people.

His knee shattered, Lord Uxbridge was carried off the battlefield and taken to his headquarters in the village of Waterloo, a house owned by Monsieur Hyacinthe Joseph Marie Paris. The doctor inspected his leg and found that the head of the tibia was fractured, the outer hamstring severed, and the capsular ligament was filled with fragments of bone and cartilage like gravel. The doctor informed Lord Uxbridge that his leg will have to be amputated.

Henry William Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge.

Henry William Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. Oil on canvas, by Peter Edward Stroehling, 1826.

Lord Uxbridge took the news with remarkable composure. The doctor noted that “his pulse was calm and regular as if he had just risen from his bed in the morning and he displayed no expression of uneasiness though his suffering must have been extreme.”

Uxbridge was seated in wooden chair for the operation, and though he was provided no anesthetics, he endured the amputation with barely a sound, except at one point when he remarked that the blade did not seem very sharp. Uxbridge was also recorded as having said, "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."

Later that evening, one of Uxbridge’s most trusted senior cavalry officers, Sir Hussey Vivian, came to the cottage to see how he was doing. Uxbridge asked him to take a look at the lost leg, saying that some of his friends were of the opinion that it need not have been removed. Uxbridge wanted an honest opinion from Vivian on whether or not he thought it might have been saved. According to Sir Hussey, “I went, accordingly, 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 … and told him he could set his mind quite at rest, as his leg, in my opinion, was better off than on.”

The saw used to amputate Uxbridge's leg.

The saw used to amputate Uxbridge's leg. Photo: National Army Museum

Monsieur Paris, the owner of the cottage where Uxbridge was resting, requested Uxbridge whether he could have the severed leg so that he could bury it in his garden. Upon receiving permission, Paris placed the leg in a small wooden coffin and buried it under a willow tree. A small tombstone was erected over it carrying an inscription which read:

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.

Lord Uxbridge's leg began to generate a surprising amount of interest, drawing visitors from the elite of European society, such as the King of Prussia and the Prince of Orange. Monsieur Paris, of course, loved the attention. He turned his cottage into a macabre tourist attraction, taking paying visitors to see the room where Uxbridge rested, as well as the bloody chair upon which Uxbridge had sat during the amputation, before escorting them into the garden to see the shrine.

Those who came to see were duly impressed. Prince Regent is said to have wept almost uncontrollably when he read the inscription on the small tombstone. But not everyone took the shrine seriously. Shortly after the prince’s visit, some vandal wrote a short verse on the tombstone:

Here lies the Marquis of Anglesey's limb;
The Devil will have the remainder of him.

Several long poems were also composed on the lost leg, the most well-known being the one written by the politician George Canning.

And here five little ones repose,
Twin-born with other five;
Unheeded by their brother toes,
Who now are all alive.

A leg and foot to speak more plain
Lie here, of one commanding;
Who, though his wits he might retain,
Lost half his understanding.

The loss of his leg neither incapacitated Lord Uxbridge nor impeded his career. He rose to become a field marshal and Knight of the Garter, twice serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and twice as Master-General of the Ordnance. Throughout his life, Uxbridge used an wooden artificial leg designed by James Potts of Chelsea, London’s premier artificial limb-maker who had many retired soldiers as customers. Uxbridge’s wooden leg was hollowed out to make it lighter. It also had articulated knee, ankle and toe joints which enabled the wearer to walk much more naturally than he would have been able to do with any prosthesis available at the time. The use of catgut tendons ensured smoother and nearly soundless flexion of the joints. The design was such an improvement over existing artificial legs that Potts applied for a patent on the design with the name “Anglesey leg,” after Uxbridge’s marquessate.

Lord Uxbridge’s wooden leg at Plas Newydd

Lord Uxbridge’s wooden leg at Plas Newydd. Photo: National Trust Images

Lord Uxbridge lived up to the age of 86, finally dying in 1854, thirty-nine years after his injury at Waterloo. One of the artificial legs worn by Uxbridge is now preserved at Uxbridge’s National Trust-owned family home Plas Newydd in Anglesey.

In 1878, Uxbridge's son visited the Paris cottage garden and discovered that the leg was no longer interred, but the bones on open display. On investigation by the Belgian ambassador in London, it was discovered that they had been exposed in a storm which uprooted the willow tree beside which they were buried. Out of respect for Uxbridge and his family, the ambassador demanded that the leg be returned to the family. But the Paris family refused, unwilling to forego the profits which came to them each year from the many visitors who came to view the blood-stained chair and the small tombstone which marked the leg’s last resting place. Rather, they offered to sell the leg back to the Uxbridge family, who were outraged at the proposal. At this point the Belgian Minister of Justice intervened, ordering the bones to be reburied. But instead of re-interring the leg, the bones were kept hidden. In 1934, after the last Monsieur Paris passed away, his widow found the bones in his study, and wishing to avoid another scandal, tossed them in the furnace of her central heating system.

Lord Uxbridge remains buried at the Lichfield Cathedral, where a monument was erected to his honor. There is another monument, a 27-meter-tall Doric column, called Anglesey Column, that was erected two years after the Battle of Waterloo to commemorate his valor in the Napoleonic Wars. It is located at Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (which is incidentally the longest place name in Europe), near the Menai Strait in Wales.

Marquess of Anglesey's Column in  Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.

Marquess of Anglesey's Column in  Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. Photo: Hefin Owen/Flickr

# Regency Bicentennial: An Arm & A Leg — Part Two, The Regency Redingote
# The Battle of Waterloo, The Telegraph
# Lord Uxbridge's leg, Wikipedia


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