One of the most important battles in European history, which decided the future of Europe, was fought in a place to the south of Brussels. It is a name every European knows: Waterloo. The Battle of Waterloo has occupied a special place in the British psyche ever since. The British were fascinated by it, and the commander of their forces, the Duke of Wellington, was hailed as the conquering hero. This great victory was so important that 18th June was celebrated as ‘Waterloo Day’ throughout the United Kingdom.
The Battle of Waterloo saw the end of decades of warfare and unrest in continental Europe, beginning with the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 and continuing with the Napoleonic Wars from 1803. There was a respite of almost a year when Napoleon was forced to abdicate and exiled to the island of Elba in 1814. But he escaped, returned to Paris in March 1815 and took power once more. A renewed Alliance soon declared war on him again. Wellington, who had by now fought in several battles against the French, took command of the Anglo-Dutch army. Together with Field-Marshal Blücher, who led the Prussian army, he came face to face with the army led by Napoleon.
The battle lasted the whole of 18th June 1815 in the countryside in the districts of Braine l’Alleud and Waterloo, south of Brussels, ending in a triumphant defeat of the French army, when Napoleon was outmanoeuvred by an unexpected attack by Blücher’s Prussian army.
There were close to 50,000 dead and wounded; the worst massacre in military history up to then. The victory dispatch, written by Wellington, was sent from Waterloo, thus giving the battle its name. On 22 nd June, the French Emperor abdicated once again, and was transported by the British to distant St. Helena.
The Battle of Waterloo was soon canonized as one of the “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World”.
This event echoed loudly throughout the world. Waterloo became a memorial site to which veterans of the battle soon started going on pilgrimages. A wave of war tourists flooded the small hamlet, which before the battle was a sleepy farmers’ village, and the area became known as ‘England abroad’. They came to the best hotels, travelled to Waterloo by ‘diligence’, and were guided around the battlefield by the local farmers. Many eminent Britons came over to do research for books, articles and war reports.
The Brontës did not escape the powerful attraction of this important piece of history. In their small Yorkshire village they would of course have heard all about it through newspapers. One of Patrick’s first church services in Thornton was dedicated to the victory at Waterloo.
Wellington was to remain an important figure in the Brontë household. A steady flow of newspapers, reviews, books and magazines would provide all the material that was to feed the Brontës’ hero-worship of the Duke of Wellington, later called the ‘Iron Duke’ when he became Prime Minister. The children inherited their father’s thirst for politics and military leaders; Wellington and Napoleon both appear in various guises in their juvenilia. We all know the story of the box of soldiers their father gave Branwell, from which the children would create an entire fictional world, based on military heroes and actions.
Charlotte in particular was obsessive in her adoration of Wellington, which emerges time and again. Her fictional characters Charles and Arthur Wellesley feature prominently in her early Angrian writings. In Brussels she wrote an essay on ‘The Death of Napoleon’, in which she praises Wellington, making his genius superior to Napoleon’s. Throughout her life she would follow her hero’s progress, finally seeing him in the flesh when she visited London in 1850.
Although the main reason for Charlotte and Emily’s stay in Brussels in 1842 was educational, there can be little doubt that Waterloo, where their hero Wellington had defeated Napoleon, would be in their minds when they crossed the channel to Belgium. We know that Patrick Brontë visited the site. After leaving his daughters at the Pensionnat Heger, he remained in Brussels for about a week longer, seeing the sights of the city, and availed himself of the opportunity of seeing the historic battlefield for himself. He mentioned it in his first sermon after his return to Haworth. A member of the congregation, Benjamin Binns, writing in the Bradford Observer in 1894, recollected Patrick describing in vivid and vigorous language the field of Waterloo which he had visited from Brussels.
It is more difficult to claim that Charlotte or Emily went to Waterloo. There is no evidence – no letter or other document recording such a trip. In view of Charlotte’s worship of Wellington it would seem surprising that she did not take such an opportunity. But if she did go to see the battlefield it is hardly likely she would have kept the experience to herself. Of course there may have been documents referring to it which are now lost. If she did go, it is most probable she went with Emily in 1842. They might have walked there on a fine Sunday or other holiday. We know that the Brontë sisters were never put off by a long walk, and Waterloo was certainly within walking distance.
Another possibility is that they took a coach; near the Rue d’Isabelle was a small coach company that organised trips there. They might have been accompanied by one of their English acquaintances, who often invited the sisters for social occasions.
Waterloo also has another link with the Brontës. During and after the battle there was an influx of British nationals who crossed the channel to stay with their wounded husbands, brothers and lovers. Many of them became part of a new and thriving British colony in the city. And these people needed an English chaplain. The first one was chaplain to the Duke of Kent (Prince Edward, fourth son of King George III), then resident in Brussels. The Protestant community worshipped in the Chapelle Royale on the Place de Musée. An Anglican service was held there each Sunday morning and afternoon.
It was here that Charlotte and Emily went on most Sundays to worship. The chaplain in 1842 was the Revd. Jenkins, an acquaintance of Patrick Brontë