Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Was Wellington's Horse called Copenhagen?

I had heard of the Battle of Copenhagen, and knew it was a naval battle, but I had always assumed it had been against the French and had always wondered vaguely why Wellington called his horse Copenhagen when he hadn't fought at sea.

Then when I visited Copenhagen recently I climbed the 17th century Rundetarn (Round Tower) and discovered why. The Round Tower was the university’s observatory and has no steps until you get right to the top, just a beautiful circling brick slope. Close to the top is a chamber with exhibits and one of them, in a void under the floor, was a book from the university library with a large chunk ripped out of it and the shattered remains of a shell. The label explained that this was part of the dreadful damage done when the British bombarded the city in September 1807.

Wondering rather nervously why the Danes were so pleasant to the British if we had done that much damage – and confused about what had happened when I’d always assumed Denmark-Norway (as it was then) was neutral – I climbed to the very top of the tower and saw why it had been such an easy target. The views are fabulous (and for those who are fans of Scandinavian crime drama on TV, the bridge in the far background of the shot is "The Bridge").

When I visited the excellent Royal Danish Arsenal Museum I discovered what had happened.

Danish and Norwegian commercial shipping thrived during the French wars with Britain in the late 18th century – sailing under a neutral flag they did business with both sides. But by 1798 Britain had control of the world oceans and did not want to stand by while neutral countries traded with France and broke their blockades, so the British navy began to intercept cargoes destined for France.

Danish-Norwegian shipping began to sail in convoys with  naval escorts, leading to numerous armed skirmishes and in December 1800 Denmark-Norway joined a league of armed neutrality with Russia, Sweden and Prussia. Britain retaliated by sending a fleet under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with his second in command, Lord Nelson, into the Baltic. On April 2 1801 the British attacked ferociously with over 15,000 shots fired in four and a half hours. Many ships fled or were captured and Nelson came ashore and threatened to burn all captured ships, regardless of their crews. The government backed down, allowing Britain to take control of the Baltic and to cut off all cargoes that would benefit France.

The Danes now found themselves in an impossible position. The French marched into Zeeland and the British were in the Baltic – they were caught in the middle. The British government believed the French would invade and take over the sizeable Danish fleet and so asked them to hand over the ships. On the other hand the French were pressing them to allow their troops onto Danish soil. The Danes held out for neutrality but were so beleagured that in August 1807 they effectively declared war on Britain.

British troops under General Wellesley (later Wellington) fought the land battle of Koge, just south of Copenhagen and the city was encircled and bombarded by shells and Congreve rockets from land and sea between 5-7 September. There was vast devastation – almost 30% of the city was in ruins –  and the loss of over 2,000 civilian lives.

The Danes capitulated and the British took their naval stores and the entire fleet – including eighteen ships of the line and eleven frigates. It was not until 1814 that the Treaty of Kiel finally ended hostilities.

So now I know why Wellington called his horse Copenhagen – but I still don’t know why the Danes are so nice about it!

Louise Allen


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

The horse's name was one of those "useless facts" I learned from quizzes at school, but like you I didn't know why until recently, when I researched the Battles of Copenhagen for a recent book.

So glad the Danes didn't hold you personally responsible, Louise!ndsefes 4

Christina Courtenay said...

That is indeed a mystery, Louise! But the Danes are very laid-back people so I guess they just accepted the inevitable and moved on :-)

Great post!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What a fascinating post, Louise. I loved the photo of the winding passageway up the tower.

Wellington's horse Copenhagen was stuffed after his death and can now be seen in the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London.

Henriette said...

It's a very fascinating piece of history, and I have read several books (one a children's book) on the subject of the British shelling of Copenhagen, from a Danish perspective (in Danish). And you bombed us again in the 1940s!

Are we nice about it? You might think so, but we're just waiting for the right moment to get back at you... ;-)

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