News, they say, travels fast. But not in the days before the instant communication we now take for granted it didn’t.
It made its way by horse and boat, which was the case when, on the night of the victory at Waterloo 200 years ago, the Duke of Wellington began to write his dispatch to the British Government outlining the battle and its outcome.
The man he chose to carry the dispatch to London with all speed was Major Henry Percy, great great great uncle of the present Duke of Northumberland.
On June 19, he set off from Brussels in a horse and carriage, from which protruded two captured French regimental eagle standards and flags, which Henry was ordered to present to the Prince Regent in London.
An exhibition on Henry’s exploits will open in the middle of this month at Alnwick Castle, where a spokesperson said: “It is not a well-known story, and yet it deserves to be, as it is a great tale involving intrigue, courage and physical determination.
“In this bicentenary year, we hope in the exhibition to tell the personal story, giving insight into Henry’s family, private life and his friendship with Wellington, as well as describing his epic journey back to England bearing the news of the great victory at Waterloo.”
And Waterloo 200, the official body supporting the commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo bicentenary, is to restage Henry’s dash to London as part of the 200th anniversary events.
It would have been some journey for Henry, given that he would have had very little sleep since attending the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels on June 16, which was interrupted by the news that Napoleon was on the march.
There was also the small matter of having been through the bloodbath of a battle as an aide-de-camp to Wellington.
Henry had been born in 1785, and his military career was dominated by the Napoleonic wars.
In 1804 he had served in Italy and Egypt and then in Spain and Portugal in the Peninsular Wars, in which he was aide-de-camp to Sir John Moore at Corunna.
Henry was captured by the French in 1810 and was held in France until peace returned.
But he was back with the 14th Light Dragoons, to face the French at Waterloo on June 18, 1815.
The next day he was on his way to England with Wellington’s dispatch, first calling at Ghent, to where King Louis XVIII had fled, to fill in the details of the battle for the French king.
The next stop was Bruges, but Henry’s progress was held up by demands for information at every stop, a shortage of horses and the roads having been churned up by the passing of the British army a few days previously.
An account of his arrival at Ostend reads: “ A loud hazza was heard at some distance...a cabriolet drove up, in which Major Percy was seated, displaying to the hundreds who had followed him the eagles of the 45th and 105th regiments, taken from the foe.”
Henry embarked on the 18-gun warship HMS Peruvian for England.
On June 21 the coast of England was sighted, but the ship was becalmed and its captain, James White, lowered its small boat.
He, Henry and another four men rowed the rest of the way and landed at Broadstairs in Kent, where they hired a carriage and four horses for the 75-mile drive to London.
They clattered over Westminster Bridge that night and made for Downing Street to deliver the dispatch to Secretary of State for War Earl Bathurst.
But they were told he and the cabinet were dining at Grosvenor Square, where Henry eventually handed the dispatch to the ministers.
Then he was off to find the Prince Regent, who was at Dorothy Boehm’s ball at St James’s Square.
An eye-witness account of his arrival says: “The first quadrille was in the act of forming when I saw every one without the slightest sense of decorum rushing to the windows.
“The music ceased and the dance was stopped, for one heard nothing but the vociferous shouts of an enormous mob who had just entered the square and were running by the side of a post chaise and four.
“The door of the carriage was flung open and without waiting for the steps to be let down, out sprang Henry Percy - such a dusty figure - with a flag in each hand, pushing aside everyone was happened to be in his way, darting upstairs into the ballroom, stepping up to the Prince Regent, dropping on one knee, laying the flags at his feet and pronouncing the words ‘Victory, Sir, Victory!’
“All the guests rushed away, anxious to find news of their loved ones. The band left and the ‘splendid supper’ remained untouched.
“Dorothy Boehm was left alone bewailing the ‘unseasonable news of the Waterloo victory’ which had ruined her ball.”
Henry Percy died 10 years later, at the age of 39.