Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Story of Marengo—Napoléon’s Horse

Zoë Sharp

Recently on the news there have been a lot of pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, mounted on an eye-catching white horse, riding through snow up the sacred Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country.

Kim Jung-un and grey horse on sacred mountain
It struck me when I saw those pictures that there was something vaguely familiar about them. It didn’t take long to recall why. Back when I was a horse-mad small child (and indeed, a horse mad NOT-so-small child) I had a wonderful book about famous horses through history. One of them was a small grey Arabian stallion, Marengo, who belonged to the Emperor Napoléon I of France.

Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard pass in the Alps,
painted by Jacques-Louis David
Napoléon apparently once told an artist who inquired how he’d like to be portrayed, “Paint me calm, on a spirited horse.”

It is said that the Emperor owned 130-150 horses during his career, but the most famous of these is probably Marengo.

Napoléon Bonaparte was noted for liking small, agile horses although it is said that he was not a particularly skilled horseman. He was raised modestly on the island of Corsica, and did not learn to ride until beginning his military career. He had joined the artillery and was serving as an officer when Revolution broke out in France in 1789. Capitalising on the opportunities provided by the Revolution, he climbed the ranks very rapidly—he was a general by the time he was twenty-four.

Marengo was small for a war horse—only 14.1 h.h. (1.45m). He was apparently bred at the El Naseri stud and was imported into France from Co Cork in Ireland before being acquired by Bonaparte as a six-year-old in 1799.

Arab horses are noted for their stamina, speed and courageous nature. Marengo was no exception. He carried Bonaparte safely through numerous battles, including Marengo in Italy in 1800—Bonaparte named the horse after his victory here.

Some reports claim the pair would go on through Austerlitz in Moravia, Jena-Auerstedt in Prussia, Wagram in Austria and finally to Waterloo, although whether Bonaparte rode the same horse throughout this time, or a series of horses, is unclear. After all, by the time of Waterloo in 1815, the original Marengo would have been twenty-two—a good age for a horse in a far more sedentary occupation.

By this time, though, the sight of a spirited grey Arab horse, ridden by the figure in the bicorn hat and plain grey overcoat, had become part of Bonaparte’s legend. Although the village of Spinetta Marengo in northern Italy was already well-known for producing cloth in a dark brown colour with white speckles, after the battle it became synonymous with a grey or black fabric shot through with white or pale grey thread, as popularised by Bonaparte.

After his defeat at Waterloo, Bonaparte was forced to leave the wounded Marengo behind and escape by carriage. It was reported that the horse was found by Lt Henry Petre, 11th Baron Petre, who recognised the emperor’s saddlery and the imperial brand on the horse’s flank of an N topped by a crown.

Petre nursed the horse back to health and shipped him to London. When his career as a spoil of war was over, Petre sold the stallion to William Angerstein, a wealthy Grenadier Guards officer.

Angerstein put the horse unsuccessfully to stud, then retired him. Marengo finally died in 1832, when the original horse would have been thirty-eight. Angerstein then had his skeleton reconstructed by surgeons and it is now on display at the National Army Museum. The horse’s two front hooves were retained, however, and turned into ornamental snuff boxes. Another was used as an inkwell. His skin was put aside to be stuffed but was apparently lost.

This week’s Word of the Week is donnybrook, which comes from the annual Fair held in Donnybrook, which was then a suburb of Dublin. The Fair was noted for the consumption of alcohol and the number of both fights and hasty marriages that took place during it. In the end, the Donnybrook Fair was abolished in 1855. The name for a general ruckus remains.

Upcoming Events
Not long until Furness LitFest next month. (Wow, is Christmas creeping up on us, or what?) Helen Phifer and I will be taking part in Thriller Writers Talk With Margaret Martindale, starting 9:30 am on Sat, Nov 02 at the Dalton Community Centre on Nelson Street in Dalton-in-Furness. Tickets available from the website.


  1. That's you, Zoë, always with timely details that amaze, attract, and explain, I sure wish I could join you in the Furness, but alas I'll be off to another sort of donnybrook ... the one that kicks off with a capital D.

    1. And I'll miss you, Jeff. Give my love to your delightful Other Half and all my MiE blog-fellows in the Lone Star State.

  2. I thought I knew all about marengo...small courageous feisty....and always thought he was an Arab mare ! I should have looked closer....

  3. Z, My second novel—Invisible Country—takes place in Paraguay in 1868, against the background of a devastating war. One of the evil doers is a Commandante who throws his weight around. To add to his exaggerated sense of importantance, i named his horse Marengo. I often wondered if anyone got the reference. Now I know a whole lot more about the noble beast of my evidently obscure reference. Fascinating how he was memorialized.

  4. The life story of this great man is very ambiguous, get service but the fact that many people know it cannot evoke the concept of what happened many centuries ago.

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