The curious tale of Wellington, monkey hangers and a rather fetching porcelain castor rest

It’s not often or as a general rule that I am prepared to concede that something which is normally thought to be attributable to a noble Scot should be more properly recognised as being the work of a Sassenach. I am, however, prepared to rein in prejudice and temper my bigotry when the person in question of sufficiently grand status, and is essentially Irish anyway.

But more of that anon – first, to Hartlepool and other points of a more northerly latitude. It is the early years of the 1800’s and Europe is riven by conflict as Napoleon and his imperialistic ideals set him at odds with, well, pretty much everyone to be fair. Britain, as ever, is at the van of those who stand against the evil empire, braced for potential invasion as it had been almost constantly for 400 years. All around the coast there were home guard units or militia, charged with if not actually fighting would be assailants then certainly with keeping watch and alerting the authorities of any threat. One such group would have taken great delight one midwinter’s day in watching as a ship of French provenance foundered in the waters of Hartlepool Bay. The name of the vessel is not recorded with any degree of certainty - it’s often cited as being the Chasse Marée, but that is a type of ship – a merchantman invariably carrying fish – rather than an actual given name. What is known is that there was a single, bedraggled survivor from the wreck who was washed ashore and picked up by the local vigilantes.

Now – legend would have us believe that is was the ship’s monkey which made terra firma, dressed in a miniature French army uniform, and this is what has given the story such longevity and precipitated its place in folklore, but – to be honest – I have my doubts. The story would have us believe that the “monkey” was interrogated and, being entirely unable to answer with any coherence, was summarily executed as a French spy by being hanged from the mast of a ship in Hartlepool harbour; to this day folk from the town, and their football team in particular, are known as Monkey Hangers as a somewhat derogatory sobriquet, commemorating their simian solecism.

Personally, I am somewhat less prone to perpetuate the mythical and abject stupidity of Hartlepudlians, and would point out as a matter of fact that small boys in the employ of the great navies of the world were known at the time as powder monkeys. This was due to their intended purpose which was to run gunpowder charges to the cannons during the maelstrom of battle, their size and agility being ideal to navigate the cramped spaces below decks as all hell broke loose around them. Given the size and attire of the victim, I would be more prone to believe that it was the ship’s cabin boy who was strung up – unable to speak a word of English, and therefore being equally as inarticulate as any perceived monkey spy !

However, the story took on growing currency with the general public and it was soon de rigeur to refer to the French disparagingly in whatever context was deemed (in)appropriate as monkeys. Many cartoons were published depicting them in such a manner, with either the French nobility, their generals and admirals or the population at large being lampooned. This seems to have persisted until the early 1970’s – I can see no other reason why my French textbook at school should have included the story of Alain, Chantal, Mimi and Zazou and “le singe qui est dans l’arbre” other than the fact that it was not all that distantly related to the tediously bourgeois Gallic famille !

I should quickly point out that there is another version of the monkey hanging story which predates the Hartlepool version, and involves a broadly similar tale from the 1760’s with the good folk of Boddam near Peterhead in Aberdeenshire being the dim-witted protagonists. However, as I simply cannot countenance such stupidity from my kinfolk, we’ll leave it as the English who are unequivocally the culpable parties – let the pointing and laughing commence…

So having firmly established the provenance of the French nation being derided as monkeys as an integral part of the not particularly cordial entente of the Regency era, let us consider one of the true giants of the age and long-time friend of any Scottish Antiques columnist in search of a few column inches, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington.

Wellington, of course, was the scourge of the French. From the first time he encountered them at Boxtel in 1794, by way of victory after victory throughout the Peninsular War and ultimately – of course – the climactic last one one hundred days of the War of the Seventh Coalition which ended so decisively at Waterloo – he had their measure, and when opposing him they would almost always come up woefully short of the mark.
When discussing his vanquished foe one evening after the events of June 1815, over a dish of the celebrated orange fool at Boodle’s – his London club in Pall Mall – Wellington is purported to have offered this summation of their leadership:

“Gentlemen, you must excuse the importunity and any perceived arrogance of my response to your question being based solely on my own opinion and experiences, but it is one at which I have arrived after much asperity of thought. The French soldier in the field was badly regarded by his generals, and was betrayed by the failings of their supposed superiors on many occasions. I consider these gentlemen – if I am suffered to consider them thusly - to have two primary interests, the first being to take fine wine in injudicious volume whilst consuming an illimitable amount of cheese, and the second being a predilection to surrender their eagles to my armies at the first available opportunity”.

The eagles were the regimental insignia of the constituent parts Grand Armee, mounted on blue flagpoles which bore the tricolour, and which were carried by each unit as it marched in to battle. The Scots’ Greys, who captured the eagle of the 45eme Regiment de Ligne, referred to their booty as “the cuckoo on a stick”.

And so, weaving all the parts of this interminable tale together – notably the common regard for the French as monkeys and the pertinent points of Wellington’s tacit dismissal of the capabilities of their generals, I am left to conclude that it may have been none other than the Iron Duke himself who was first to conflate the constituent parts of the expression “cheese eating surrender monkeys” when referring to his palpably inferior foe, and not – as is commonly assumed to be the case – Groundskeeper Willie at Springfield Elementary in The Simpsons, fine figure of Scottish manhood though he may be.

Wellington’s biographers have attributed other quotes to him with similar somewhat sketchy etymology, with Montalambert reporting in 1855 that the Duke had made his now famous assertion that “it is here where the Battle of Waterloo was won” – referring to the playing fields of Eton school which the young Wellesley had attended. Other distinguished writers reinforced the questionable legitimacy of this “quote” – Sir Edward Creasey, Sir William Fraser and eventually even George Orwell, writing in “The Lion And The Unicorn” in 1941.

So Wellington’s legacy transcends the ages on yet another level – and it is no small wonder that he was a favourite source of inspiration for artists from early on in his career - click the link below to view a magnificent decorative furniture adornment bearing the Duke’s likeness, and the other items available which have relevance to the noble Duke...

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