Regency History

A First of Its Kind: the Waterloo Medal

Most people have heard of the Battle of Waterloo. It was the culminating battle of an eleven-year conflict with France which, under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, was attempting the subjugation of all Europe, and even the world. The series of wars were split into several periods, including the Wars of (various) Coalitions, and—those that happened during the reign of the Prince Regent, and that most historical romance fans are familiar with—the Peninsular War (which took place in Spain, France, and Portugal during 1809-1814), and The Hundred Days (which took place after the (supposed) defeat of Napoleon and his subsequent escape from exile and recommencement of hostilities in France and Belgium, and was ended by the sister battles of Quatre Bras, Ligny, and Waterloo in June 1815).

The eleven year-long struggle to free Europe of Napoleon’s rule had been so overwhelming that his final defeat at Waterloo—many believed—marked one of the greatest victories of all time. England had played a decisive role in all the battles, but it was General Arthur Wellesley, who was made Duke of Wellington for his contributions during the Peninsular War, who is associated with ending the war, as he led British, Irish, German, and Dutch troops at the Battle of Waterloo. Between this Anglo-Allied army, the Prussians, and the Austrians, Napoleon was defeated once and for all, and died six years after re-entering exile, this time on the distant island of Saint Helena.

Up to this point, England had issued medals for incidents of extreme bravery or excellence in battle, but had not considered a mass award for specific engagements, as other countries had done. The prevailing belief was that men who fought in the Army did so out of honor, and thus had only done their duty, which had its own reward. Because this battle was so hard-won and the victory so long awaited, however, Parliament felt the need to celebrate it and to give a more tangible thanks to those who had participated. The Duke of Wellington agreed, and added his voice to those urging the Prince Regent to mark such a historic victory in a historic way. Prinny, needing little encouragement to put his stamp on history, decreed that all those who had fought at Waterloo and the surrounding battles were to receive a reward in the form of a medal (boasting his own profile) and a monetary prize equal to 2 years’ military pay according to rank.

Waterloo Meda

This recognition was gladly received, but not everyone thought it was appropriate. For one, it effectively dismissed the contributions of all those who had fought in the ten years leading up to Waterloo, but who had retired or were not able to fight in the Battle of Waterloo. This neglect by the government increased the strife and irritation already prevailing among the lower classes in England because of the high costs—emotional and financial—of the war. The Corn Laws, ongoing enclosure of common farmland, coin shortages, and the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution all took their toll on an already stressed economy, and Britain, though set to enjoy fifty years of peace from the outside world, would see little peace within its borders.

Those who received the Waterloo Medal, however, were glad for it, as they were for the extra pay, though the grades varied hugely (see below table). The Duke of Wellington, whose name was inscribed on one side of the medal, enjoyed a most “flaming character,” as Jane Austen would say, and was almost deified by all walks of social life. The Prince Regent, however, though his profile and name graced the opposite side of the medal, would continue to earn such sobriquets as “Fat Prinny,” “Fum the Fourth,” “the Prince of Pleasure,” and “the Prince of Whales,” no matter how many medals he inaugurated.

Reward pay grades for recipients of the Waterloo Medal, Goff 72


Historical Records of the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders: Now the 1st Battalion Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Containing an Account of the Formation of the Regiment in 1794, and of Its Subsequent Services to 1881, Gerald Lionel Joseph Goff · 1891