The story of Strafield Saye is dominated by one person - - Arthur Welsley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, military genius and twice prime minister of Great Britain. It was the Great Duke's country home from 1817 until his death in 1852.
Arthur Welsley was the second son of the Earl of Mornington. While this placed him squarely in the upper strata of the aristocracy, a second son inherited no titles and had to make his own way in the world. After briefly experimenting with music, Welsley burnt his violin committed himself to soldiering as a profession. He first made his mark in India winning battles against various princes who had aligned themselves with France.
Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte was conquering Europe. He seemed unstoppable. Nonetheless, Welsley landed with a small British force in Portugal and over the course of a few years won a series of battles that drove the French out of the Iberian peninsula and into southern France. With Russian, Prussian, Austrian and British armies closing in, Napoleon abdicated and went into exile of the island of Elba in 1814.
Welsley's victories brought him international fame and titles. Now the Duke of Wellington, he was a major figure at the peace conference in Vienna when news arrived that Napoleon had escaped Elba and was once again on the throne of France.
The allies looked to Wellington to lead the hastily assembled army that would meet Napoleon. However, up to this point, Wellington had never faced Napoleon himself in battle, only Napoleon's marshals. Nonetheless, on a June day in 1815, Wellington defeated Napoleon. “It was the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” Wellington commented.
His victory made Wellington an even bigger hero than he had been before. Recalling how the Duke of Marlborough had been rewarded by the gift of Blenheim Palace after defeating Louis XIV (see our article on Blenheim Palace), Britain pledged to make the victor of the Battle of Waterloo a similar gift.
A careful man, Wellington visited several estates and stately homes to find a suitable site for the future Waterloo Palace. He finally decided on Stratfield Saye in Hampshire. The house had been built in first half of the 17th century by Sir William Pitt. It was not a grand house but then it was only going to be a temporary dwelling while the planned majestic palace was being built.
As time went on enthusiasm for building Waterloo Palace waned. Times were changing and the notion of someone - - even a national hero - - living in such a grand palace seemed somewhat tasteless.. No doubt mindful that the Duke of Marlborough had ended up paying for much of Blenheim Palace himself, Wellington decided that the Waterloo Palace project would cost too much money and contented himself with Stratfield Saye and his London home Apsley House. (See our article on Apsley House).
Over time, the Duke became fond of Stratfield Saye. Originally red brick, the house had been stuccoed over to produce an appealing apricot color facade. The interior also had been redone and reflected Georgian tastes rather than its original Jacobean design. Although many of the Duke's friends thought it was too modest for such an important figure, the house had charm and character.
The Duke's presence can still be felt in the public areas of the house. He selected the French furniture. The paintings are also his and include some of the paintings given to him by the King of Spain following his victory at the Battle of Vittoria although most of those are at Apsley House. In addition, there are momentos of his career including French battle flags, books from Napoloen's library, weapons and pictures of various battles.
Outside on the grounds is the burial site of Wellignton's charger Copenhagen, who he rode all day through the carnage at Waterloo. (The horse tried to kick him when he dismounted at the end of the day). In the stables is an exhibition that includes the Great Duke's funeral carriage made from cannons captured at Waterloo.
For more information on visiting, see the Stratfield Saye website.
Cruise destination - England - Hampshire - Stratfield Saye