As a child I was obsessed by the Battle of Waterloo. Not for me the dreams of space or flight or fast cars that populated the consciousnesses of my schoolfellows; I spent my playtimes reimagining D’Erlon’s assault or the defence of Hougoumont. Eventually my parents bowed to the inevitable and took me to the battle site. It was an oddly disappointing experience. You might think that unsurprising – after all it is just a Belgian field – but even the memorials and the visitor centre seemed to fall short of the drama I had created in my head. The battle felt, if anything, more distant and unknowable there than it had been on the playground.
Perhaps it was simply a case of being too late. For many years the primary attraction near the battlefield was a piece of history from that day quite unlike any other. Towards the end of the battle the Duke of Wellington’s second in command, the Earl of Uxbridge, was in the saddle next to the Iron Duke when he was struck by a stray cannon shot to the leg. Having looked down at the mangled mess still fixed into his stirrup the Earl is supposed to have said to his superior ‘By God sir, I’ve lost my leg’. ‘By God, sir’ came the reply, ‘so you have.’ Uxbridge was taken to a nearby cottage for surgery to remove what was left of the leg. There are conflicting reports as to how he took the news of the amputation – one source states that he made a joke of his reputation as a ladies’ man and remarked that he would take the loss in good spirits as ‘it wasn’t fair to cut the younger men out any longer.’ Another states that he laconically observed that the knives used in the procedure looked ‘somewhat blunt.’
Either way, the leg came off, although in return Uxbridge received a hero’s welcome in Britain, a pension of £1,200 a year, and the marquessate of Anglesey. He later observed that losing the leg had been worth such a victory. The man whose house had been used for the operation asked Uxbridge for a very different type of reward – the amputated leg itself. Uxbridge consented and the leg’s ‘tomb’ became a must-visit destination for tourists from across the continent. Indeed, by the 1870s, it was no longer buried but on open display. Uxbridge’s family found out and demanded the leg be repatriated for a more dignified burial, a demand to which the owners agreed but only in exchange for a sizeable financial sum – the leg was big business after all. A diplomatic spat threatened to erupt, only for the leg to quietly go missing after the Belgian minister for the interior demanded it be reburied. When the last of the family died in the 1920s, his widow discovered the leg stashed away in a cupboard and, fearing further rows, threw the hero of Waterloo’s famed appendage into her central heating furnace, ending its strange career forever.
Of course, Uxbridge’s leg wasn’t the only body part in history to acquire a life, and a financial status, of its own. Lloyds of London list any number of body parts that have become so well known as to justify their owners taking out insurance policies to protect them. Keith Richards’ hands are insured for $1.8 million, Bette Davis took out a policy on her waist for $28,000, it is rumoured that the insurance on Dolly Parton’s breasts is something in the region of $3 million. The desire to define a human life by physical particulars (and, in turn, to monetarise them) is one with a long history – even if the Earl of Uxbridge’s leg seems a long way from Bette Davis’s waist.
Another thing they have in common, I suppose, is their composition: as the burial service has it, earth, dust and ash. In that sense perhaps the furnace wasn’t such an ignominious end for Uxbridge’s leg after all. It’s salutary to be reminded of the frailty of even celebrated bodies. This week Christians across the world will mark Good Friday; many will spend hours of devotion gazing upon perhaps the most famous body of them all, dwelling upon what it means for God to become that same frail being of earth, dust and ash. When it comes to Easter Sunday and the celebration of the resurrection, that body will be gazed upon again, not in some perfected form but still bearing those Good Friday scars. Surely signs of an insurance policy voided, you might think, but no; tangible marks instead of a greater promise made to creatures of earth, dust, and ash – that they, we, might be, indeed are, much more than the sum of our parts.