What is Wellington Arch?
Wellington Arch (also known as Constitution Arch or Green Park Arch) is a 19th-century triumphal arch designed by Decimus Burton that commemorates Britain’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars.
Wellington Arch History
Since Roman times, triumphal arches have been built by emperors and empires to commemorate military successes and other exciting national events. This particular triumphal arch is much younger than its classical counterparts; it was constructed in the 1820s to celebrate Britain’s victory over France in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s named in honour of the 1st Duke of Wellington, the Anglo-Irish military commander who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
You may have already glanced across the road towards Hyde Park, and noticed the Palladian splendour of Apsley House, which was – and still is – the Duke of Wellington’s London residence. In 1817, Arthur Wellesley (Duke of Wellington since 1814) bought the house from his brother, Richard, in order to save him from bankruptcy. Richard had run into debt while carrying out extensive renovations to the house, and his younger brother was able to buy him out with the money he had earned from his Waterloo victory. As a young man, Arthur was a compulsive gambler who had racked up considerable debts himself; perhaps he was moved to help his brother by the painful memory of his own money troubles.
30 years after his command of the victory at Waterloo, a bronze sculpture of Wellington riding his war horse, Copenhagen, was placed on top of the arch. A national celebrity in his own right, Copenhagen had unfortunately died by the time his statue was commissioned. Many of his admirers apparently took offence at the statue’s dubious likeness of the horse.
But it wasn’t just Copenhagen’s fans who disapproved of the statue, which was widely deemed a monstrosity. At eight and a half metres tall, it was disproportionately large, and its monumental aesthetic was completely at odds with the arch’s decorous, classical design. Queen Victoria didn’t like it either, and the architect for the main arch, Decimus Burton, even left money in his will for the statue’s removal. Even though his statue had become an object of ridicule, Wellington himself appealed for its preservation. For fear of humiliating the elderly Duke, who by that time had also served as Prime Minister, Queen Victoria didn’t have the statue removed until after his death.
Almost a century had passed since the Battle of Waterloo when, in 1912, a stylistically appropriate statue was fashioned to replace the sculpture on top of the arch. The bronze statue there today depicts a Roman four-horse chariot, otherwise known as a quadriga, which represents victory. The female figure is a personification of Peace, descending on the chariot to signify the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
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