The Iron Duke’s Visit to Combermere

The Battle of Waterloo was a hugely important event in European history. It brought to an end the European wars which had scarred the continent for a quarter of a century, it was followed by half a century of peace across Europe, and it allowed Britain  free-rein to fully exploit the potential for a truly world-wide empire. It also, of course, brought the military career of Napoleon Bonaparte to an end; the ruthless military adventurer who had ravaged huge areas of western Europe and north Africa and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands.

It was fought on Sunday June 18 1815 in what is now Belgium. Napoleon fielded an army estimated at 14,000 cavalry, 48,000 infantry, and 250 guns operated by 7,000 artillery men. Opposing them was a coalition army of 67,000 Britons and Irishmen under the command of Arthur Wellesley, plus 6,000 Germans, and maybe 36,000 men from Holland, Belgium, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau.

The British casualties totalled around 15,000, and the Prussians some 7,000. Somewhere in excess of 25,000 of Napoleon’s men were killed or wounded. It was, at Wellington readily admitted, “a damn close-run thing”. Be that as it may, it was a convincing victory for the allies, and when Wellington returned home he was hailed as one of Britain’s greatest military commanders and feted across the land. An invasion by Bonaparte had been a very definite threat, and the victory at Waterloo had obviated that danger, as surely as the Battle of Britain destroyed Hitler’s invasion plans in 1940.

RESTO Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington

He had been elevated to a dukedom as the first Duke of Wellington in 1814, and the title of Knight of the Grand Cross was added to his Knight of the Garter after the battle. Monuments were erected to him and his victory all over Britain, his portrait was very widely circulated, and it no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most famous men in the country – and indeed across Europe – until his death in 1852.

Stapleton Cotton, first Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore, was never as famous a military man as Wellington – no one was – but in terms of Britain’s military heroes of the Nineteenth century he was certainly in the premier league. Born on November 1 1773 he was three and a half years younger than Wellington, and they both rose from relative obscurity in far corners of Great Britain – Cotton on the Cheshire/Shropshire border, and Wellesley in eastern Ireland – to huge military acclaim in the service of their country. Neither had been heir to their father’s estate; Cotton was a second son and Wellesley a third. It was the acknowledged pattern in primogeniture that the eldest son inherited everything, and the other sons went into the church or the army. It was a template which saw many sons of the Cottons serving in the British army and navy.


The Cotton family’s larger house, Lleweny in Denbighshire, where Stapleton Cotton was born

While he was still in his twenties Cotton served as a cavalry officer in the Dragoons, firstly in a campaign in Flanders, and then in India, in the Anglo-Mysore war. By 1805 he was a Major-General, but the following year he stood for parliament and was elected for Newark, in Nottinghamshire. Four years later though he was commanding a cavalry regiment for Wellesley in the Peninsular War, which was fought by a coalition of British, Spanish and Portugal against Napoleon’s French army, to stop Bonaparte conquering and controlling the Iberian peninsular. Wellesley developed a great respect for Stapleton Cotton’s military abilities; he was recognised for his bravery, his talents as a strategist, and for the fact that he was always splendidly dressed – a military dandy, he was nicknamed Lion D’Or.

In 1809 his elder brother, Robert Salusbury Cotton (born 1768) died at the age of forty one, and his father – confusingly Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton (born 1739) died soon afterwards; certainly in the same year. This meant that Stapleton inherited the baronetcy, Combermere Abbey, and the larger estate of Llewenny in north Wales, where he had been born. He returned to his military duties in the Iberian peninsular in May of the following year, was promoted to Lieutenant General, and took overall control of the allied cavalry.

By 1815 he had fought with distinction and success in the battles of the Pyrenees, Orthez, and Toulose, and he was created Baron Combermere of the County Palatine of Chester. He had also been appointed Knight of the Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Cross of the Portuguese Military Order of the Tower and Sword, and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.


Ever the dandy; the young Stapleton Cotton (probably in his thirties; he could be accurately dated by a militaria expert by his honours)

To his fury and frustration he was not present at the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington had wanted him to command the cavalry, but the Prince Regent had over-ruled him and insisted that Lord Uxbridge be given the command – who, it must be said, served with great distinction, had a leg blown off, and was made first Marquess of Anglesey.

Two years after Waterloo Stapleton Cotton was sent to Barbados as Governor. In this post he proved to be very popular across all strata of Barbadian society, and, as moves for the abolition of slavery were getting under way in England, he enacted laws for the good treatment of slaves, at least. He undertook many public projects to improve facilities in the colony. Barbados had a ‘free school’ dating from 1695, but Stapleton Cotton decided to rejuvenate it. He raised the sum of £22, 630 to completely re-build it, and it was re-named The Boys’ Central School. Later in the century it was re-named Combermere School in his honour, and eventually it became co-educational. Nowadays it is recognised as one of the best schools in the Caribbean. Combermere School’s Boy Scout troop is the oldest in the archipelago, and its most famous ex-pupil is the singer Rhianna. For details of other places in the world bearing his name click here.

Like the Duke of Wellington, Stapleton Cotton was a Freemason. In 1830 he became Provincial Grand Master in Cheshire, and in 1852, when the Provincial Grand Lodge met in Macclesfield, the route to the venue was garlanded with banners and flowers in his honour, and he entered the town through a triumphal arch. The honour was repeated in Congleton three years late, and he was toasted as ‘The Cheshire Hero’. He was a very religious man throughout his life, and was patron of The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, which had been founded at the end of the Seventeenth century.

He returned to England in 1820 – with a newly-born son – and for the next five years occupied himself with his duties, at various times, as Governor of Sheerness, Commander-in-Chief, and Privy Councillor. In 1825 he was sent for to undertake a military expedition, on Wellington’s express recommendation – to take the fortress of Bhurtpore, the capital of the Jat kingdom in India. The fort was mounted on a huge escarpment, with almost vertical sides. He took an army of 27,000 men, and crucially a large number of up-to-date artillery pieces. Cotton and his men arrived on December 10, and began their assault on Christmas Eve (when every man received double rations). After a ferocious seventeen-day artillery bombardment, mines dug into the hillside were detonated and the north-east section of the walls collapsed. Within an hour the British soldiers poured into the “impregnable” citadel, and by 4pm of that day it was secured.

Cotton returned to his own hero’s welcome, and he was elevated to the title of Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore. Following a number of knights and baronets, he was the first aristocrat at Combermere Abbey. He retired from military service at the age of fifty seven. In 1852 he followed Wellington in the prestigious post of Constable of the Tower of London. In 1855 he was created Field-Marshal (in retirement, curiously) and in 1861 received the Knight of the Order of the Star of India. Thus he was one of Britain’s most highly decorated military men, in an age when military men were very numerous – and very active all over the world.

Cotton married three times; firstly, in 1801 at the age of twenty eight, to Lady Anna Marie Pelham-Clinton, daughter of the third Duke of Newcastle. It was a good marriage for a second son from a family of fairly obscure gentry. They had three children together; Robert Henry Stapleton Cotton, and two other sons who died young. Anna herself died in 1807, and Robert was to die in 1821 at the age of nineteen, following the extraction of a tooth.

In the summer of 1814 he married for a second time; Caroline Greville, daughter of Captain William Fulke Greville of Wilbury House, in Newton Toney in Wiltshire. They also had three children; one son – Wellington Henry Stapleton Cotton (who became Cotton’s heir after Robert’s death), Lady Caroline – who married the forth Marquess of Downshire, and Lady Meliora – who married John Charles Frederick Hunter of Straidarran in County Londonderry.

It seems that this marriage became an unhappy one, and from 1830 until her death seven years later Cotton and his wife lived apart. A year after her death he married for a third time – to Mary Woolley Gibbings, who came from a relatively modest background at Kilbolane in County Cork in that she was the daughter of a doctor, who retired to the English south coast. She was a lively and well-educated lady, and doubtless good companion for the ageing war hero. She wrote anthologies of nonsense verse, essays, one novel – ‘Shattered Idols’ – and ‘Memoirs and Correspondence of Field-Marshal Viscount Combermere’ after her husband’s death. Mary survived her husband by four years. To see the full Cotton family tree click here.

Cotton returned from his time in Barbados in June 1820, with his wife, Caroline and their baby son. He returned with a piece of silver, presented to him at the end of his governorship, worth £1,000 in 1820 values. Also, before he had left for the Caribbean Cotton had seen work get underway for the transformation of the Abbey.

The house had been much altered since the days of Elizabeth I, when the principal rooms of the old monastic building were used as the core of a completely new, half-timbered house. By the beginning of the Nineteenth century it was considered very old fashioned, inside and out. One option was to demolish it and build a new and up-to-date house on the site, but Cotton decided to transform the existing house by adding new facades on all sides. It helped that the house was, broadly speaking, symmetrical externally, but the interior layout was far from it, and it could never be anything like a convincingly classical building.


A recent, computer-generated visualisation of the Tudor house at Combermere Abbey. This is the central block of the Abbey as it would have appeared before the re-modelling.

That aside, he decided on a fashionable neo-gothick make-over, and this was undertaken, mostly, while he was away. The exterior finish looked like stone but in fact was a thin coat of ashlar over thin wooden studding, set out from the Tudor timber frame, which was then incised to give the impression of stone blocks. Gothick window frames were installed, along with fake battlements, and other appropriate details – inspired, as all English gothick houses were, by Horace Walpole’s rather more delicate and delightful Strawberry Hill to the west of London.


Combermere Abbey from the west after Viscount Combermere’s re-modelling

The theme was carried on inside the house, with a few more shortcuts; much mass-produced plaster mouldings was used. All in all, it wasn’t well done, either aesthetically or in terms of the standard of workmanship, and whether the work would have been executed to a higher standard if Cotton had been in England to over-see it is worthy of debate.

Soon after their return the family were delighted to learn that the nation’s most famous man – on a par with King William IV (who had come to throne in his own right the previous January after periods as Regent) – had accepted an invitation to stay. Wellington himself was to grace Combermere Abbey with a visit. Cotton was now firmly ensconced in the aristocracy, and the public patronage of The Iron Duke was a further, huge mark of honour and distinction.

Wellington was to stay over Christmas 1820, and better still, had agreed to stand as godfather to the new-born son (along with the child’s maternal grandfather, the Duke of Newcastle) on Christmas Day itself. The Viscount decided that his re-modelled home was neither large enough not grand enough for his guest, and he commissioned the building of a new wing to the north east. On the ground floor this would accommodate a much larger dining room, which would also be used a ballroom. The entire wing was built in about six weeks, and unsurprisingly was poorly constructed. By the middle of the Twentieth century it was in a perilous state, it was abandoned just after World War Two, and it had to be demolished in the mid-Seventies.

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A late-Nineteenth century photograph postcard of of Combermere Abbey taken from the north-west. The Wellington wing is the three bays on the extreme left
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The north wing of the Abbey from the same spot today. A huge programme of restoration has been underway for more than a year, at a cost of several million pounds. The work will be complete by 2016. The Wellington wing is not being re-built.
These three arches, originally windows, are all that remain of the wing built especially for the Duke of Wellington’s visit.

Wellington also planted a commemorative oak tree in the Abbey’s park, which not only survives to this day, but for the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo all of two hundred saplings have been grown from its acorns. The estate lodge nearest to Whitchurch was re-named Wellington Lodge, but that was hit by a stray bomb during World War Two – probably jettisoned by a German bomber heading for Salford or Manchester, and wanting to gain height and speed when intercepted by RAF fighters. It was completely destroyed.

Wellington Oak

The oak tree planted by the Duke of Wellington at Combermere in full leaf, as it is today, which is to say, in very good heart.

Wellington Henry was christened by William Cotton, the Viscount’s younger brother and vicar of Audlem, in the modest church at Wrenbury, just north of the Abbey. The Duke was a guest at a party at Audlem vicarage on Christmas Eve, to the huge delight of the vicar and his wife. The couple had a stone fireplace carved to commemorate the visit.

People turned out in their thousands, trying to catch a glimpse of Wellington, whenever he ventured out from the Abbey. On December 27 the City of Chester hosted a very grand dinner party for Wellington and Combermere at the Albion Hotel. The Duke travelled to Chester via Nantwich, where the townsfolk turned out as one, and watched the party ride under a huge triumphal arch made especially for the occasion. It is said that the Duke was to have been given the Freedom of the City of Chester, but this was vetoed by the hugely wealthy Grosvenors of nearby Eaton Hall on the basis that they were Whigs while Wellington was a hated Tory. A few days later a party of the leading burghers of Manchester even made their way to Combermere to pay their respects.

By the time of his visit to Combermere Abbey Wellington had entered politics, and was Master-General of the Ordnance in the Tory government of Lord Liverpool. He held several front bench posts and was twice Prime Minster (not always happily; he found that he could not run the government as he could an army). His extra-parliamentary honours included Governor of Plymouth, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and Constable of the Tower of London.

In November 1827, by license from the King, Viscount Combermere added another Stapleton and a hyphen to his name, becoming Stapleton Stapleton-Cotton.

Wellington died on September 14 1852 at the age of eighty three, following a number of strokes. He was given an heraldic state funeral in Saint Paul’s Cathedral on November 18, which was attended by huge numbers of people. Tennyson wrote an ode upon the death, and The Iron Duke was interred beneath a sarcophagus made of luxulyanite – a rare sparkling granite.


The Duke of Wellington’s tomb in Saint Paul’s Cathedral

Combermere survived his commander, friend and hero by more than twelve years, dying at the age of ninety two in Clifton in Bristol, on February 21 1865. He was buried much more modestly, at his own request, at Wrenbury Church, just north of Combermere Abbey. Wellington Henry Stapleton-Cotton, by then aged forty six, inherited and became the second Viscount Combermere of Bhurtpore.

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Viscount Combermere tomb in Wrenbury church
The memorial to the first Viscount Combermere on the Abbey estate, to the west of the house.