Today Château d’Hougoumont sits amid sleepy farmland south of Brussels and within earshot of the hum from a nearby motorway, with little sign that this basic Belgium farmhouse was the scene of one of the most important battles in British and European history.
Sitting as the anchor of the British line, the walled farmhouse was the central point of the Battle of Waterloo; on 18 June 1815 several hundred men from the Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards and Grenadier Guards battled to hold it against repeated waves of attacks by Napoleon’s infantry.
The battle was fierce; the French at one point breached the gates, only to be repulsed by the Coldstream Guards. When the French finally yielded the battlefield, leaving thousands dead, the Duke of Wellington said it was the farmyard’s stout walls and fierce defenders that had “turned the outcome” of the battle.
10 historic moments to mark in 2015
10 historic moments to mark in 2015
1/10 Death of Sir Winston Churchill, 24 January 1965
This January will be 50 years since the death of Britain’s wartime prime minister, and one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. Alongside defeating the Nazis, Churchill also enjoyed bricklaying, painting and Islamic culture. His death was followed by a state funeral, and thousands of people paying their respects along the route of the cortege to his burial site at Woodstock, Oxfordshire. You can visit the Cabinet War Rooms (020 7416 5000), London, and Churchill’s home, Chartwell (07132 868381), Kent, year-round.
2/10 Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815
No one can claim that nothing important happens in Belgium – this was the site of one of the most famous showdowns in European history. On one side were the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, self-declared Emperor of France, and on the other the coalition of nations led by the Duke of Wellington. The battle was decisive in curbing the territorial ambitions of the Napoleonic regime. Wellington Arch (020 7930 2726), London, will host an exhibition about the battle. Walmer Castle (01304 364288), Kent, will re-produce the rooms where Wellington spent his final days.
3/10 Signing of the Magna Carta, 15 June 1215
The signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runneymede, Surrey, may not be quite the defining event in the history of English liberty as it is sometimes presented. After all, John went on to ignore all of its demands. But the idea that it represented – the principle that kings, as well as subjects, are accountable to the law – is a cornerstone of our constitution. Take part in Magna Carta Trails at Dover Castle and Pevensey Castle. Copies of the document itself can be found at Salisbury Cathedral (01722 555120), Lincoln Castle (01522 782040 – closed until 1 April 2015), and the British Library (01937 546060)
4/10 Viking invasion of England by Cnut, 1015
“They miserably ravaged and pillaged everything; they trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church.” So Symeon, a monk from Durham, described a Viking raid on Lindisfarne. King Cnut was no doubt equally terrifying when he arrived in Wessex in 1015, but after pillaging he chose to settle. He brought an age of prosperity after a period of warfare between Vikings and Saxons, and established an empire that stretched from England to Scandinavia. Lindisfarne Priory (01289 330733), Northumberland, will host a ‘Vikings in Lindisfarne’ even on 18/19 July.
5/10 First English parliament, 20 January 1265
The story of England’s first parliament, much like today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, is one of squabbles, upheaval and violence. 750 years ago, Simon de Montford, in the midst of civil war against King Henry III, called together an elected body of representatives from across the country in what is thought to be the first meeting of ‘the commons’. You can visit Kenilworth Castle (0870 333 1181), Warwickshire, where the forces of Simon de Montford besieged the royalist garrison.
6/10 Siege of Carlisle, 1315
700 years ago, the northern edge of England was in constant terror of invasion from the Scots, who regularly came south under the command of fierce warlords. None were more feared than Robert the Bruce, who invaded England after his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn. Having marched into Cumbria, his forces laid siege to Carlisle Castle, in a brutal fight that saw ladders and siege towers used in a futile attempt to capture the fort. Carlisle Castle (01228598596) will host a siege re-enactment on 6/7 July.
7/10 Evacuation of Dunkirk, 27 May to 4 June 1940
It is the triumph that emerged out of disaster – the removal of Allied troops from the beaches of northern France spared thousands of lives and allowed Hitler’s enemies to keep on fighting. The evacuation, which took place 75 years ago, has entered folklore on account of the actions of the ‘little ships’, which rescued soldiers and helped prevent a catastrophic defeat. The Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle, from which the evacuation was coordinated, can be visited all year round. Dover Castle’s (01304 211067) “WWII Weekend” will take place over the late May Bank Holiday (24 May).
8/10 Agincourt, 15 October 1415
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”. Henry V’s speech in 1415, admittedly invented by Shakespeare, embodies the myth of Agincourt. The small number of English and Welsh archers, standing up against the masses of French knights. Despite being ripped off by generations of football managers hoping for an inspirational team talk, it still holds its power. Porchester Castle (023 92378291), Hampshire, will be holding an event to celebrate the anniversary of the battle in October. More details released at a later date.
9/10 First World War, 1915
The optimism of 1914 was tempered by the horrors of the following year, when troops settled in for a long slog of trench warfare along the Western Front. Key events which took place 100 years ago this year include the first recorded use of chlorine gas and the start of Zeppelin attacks on England. Meanwhile, Winston’s Churchill’s failed Gallipoli invasion forced him to depart from the Admiralty. Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, will host a “Wrest at War” weekend. Details released at a later date.
10/10 VE Day, 8 May 1945
Victory in Europe Day – a public holiday to mark the Allies’ formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender – witnessed an outbreak of street parties across Britain. Huge crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear Churchill’s speech broadcast over a tannoy, with one eye-witness noting an “extraordinary hush over the assembled multitude”. Audley End (01799522842) will host a WWII weekend event over the August Bank Holiday. Details released at a later date.
Now though, 200 years after the battle, the sturdy gates of Château d’Hougoumont are set to be thrown open after a £3.5m restoration project. And to coincide with the bicentenary of the allied victory at Waterloo a British charity, the Landmark Trust, which rescues buildings of historic or architectural importance, is offering holidaymakers the chance stay in the property.
“It is only very rarely that the Landmark Trust takes on a building outside the United Kingdom,” said Anna Keay, the charity’s director. But, she said, staff agreed it would be “unthinkable” not to help with the restoration of Château d’Hougoumont.
Following the pivotal battle, Château d’Hougoumont remained a working farm for nearly 200 years until 2003, when the last tenant retired, after which it fell into an advanced state of dilapidation. Restoration work began in October 2013 under the management of the Intercommunale de Bataille de Waterloo 1815, a consortium of local authorities, in consultation with the Landmark Trust and with £1m donated by the British Government.
The Landmark Trust is also working closely with Project Hougoumont, a charity dedicated to returning the farmstead to its appearance after the battle, without replacing any of the buildings that were destroyed or damaged and later demolished.
From July, guests will be able to book a break in the farm, which has been restored using three sepia-wash drawings completed just after the battle by the military painter Captain Denis Dighton. These have been crucial in ensuring the restoration is accurate.
Guests will stay in a building that was once the gardener’s house but is now a two-bedroom apartment, furnished to evoke the Napoleonic era, according to the trust.
“There can be few buildings in Europe on which the continent’s history turned more definitely than Hougoumont in Waterloo,” Dr Keay said. “We are thrilled to be able to play a part in its restoration and to make it possible for people to stay in this fabled place.”
Bookings open from 12 April at landmarktrust.org.ukReuse content