Vice President – Orders & Medals Society of America
Member – Orders & Medals Research Society
The British Waterloo Medal, with its classic and appealing design, is a lasting medallic reminder of arguably the most famous battle in Western civilization. The issue of this medal to all those British officers and soldiers that served in the Waterloo campaign was a radical departure from the practice in England of only rewarding officers, and established a trend that continues to this day.
The Waterloo Medal, together with the Military General Service Medal and the Naval General Service Medal (both retrospectively issued in 1849) to commemorate the Napoleonic Wars, have long been considered the three “classics” by British medal collectors. In this short article, I will introduce the reader to the origins of the Waterloo Medal and some interesting aspects of this fascinating example of British medallic history.
Eleven days after the Duke of Wellington’s triumph at Waterloo, the British Parliament debated what steps should be taken to commemorate the victory. Parliament had previously been opposed to granting any award to the common soldier. In this case, national sentiment ran high and an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons voted that a medal should be struck for presentation to all of those who participated in the campaign.
The Duke of Wellington wrote a supportive letter dated June 28, 1815 to H.R.H., the Duke of York and stated:
I would likewise beg leave to suggest to your Royal Highness the expediency of giving to the noncommissioned officers and soldiers engaged in the battle of Waterloo a medal. I am convinced it would have the best effect in the army, and if the battle should settle our concerns, they will well deserve it.
In a further dispatch dated September 17, 1815 to Earl Bathhurst, Secretary of State for War, the Duke stated:
I have long intended to write you about the medal for Waterloo. I recommend that we should all have the same medal, hung to the same ribbon as that now used with the medals.
In the London Gazette dated April 23, 1816, the following official notification was published:
Horse Guards, March 10th, 1816
The Prince Regent has been graciously pleased, in the name and on behalf of His Majesty, to command, that in commemoration of the brilliant and decisive victory of Waterloo, a medal should be conferred on every officer, non-commissioned officer, and soldier of the British Army, present upon that memorable occasion.
His Royal Highness has further been pleased to command, that the ribbon issued with the medal, shall never be worn but with the medal suspended to it.
By command of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent;
H. Torrens, Major-General and Military Secretary
As a result, the Waterloo Medal was authorized by the British Government on April 23, 1816 to be given to all officers and men of the British Army (including the King’s German Legion) for participating in the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo from June 16 to June 18, 1815. Thus, the Waterloo Medal became the first award to be issued by the British Government to all ranks of soldiers present.
William Wellesley, the Master of the Mint, was commanded to manufacture a commemorative Waterloo Medal and planned to strike approximately 40,000 Waterloo Medals in bronze for all officers and men present. Work commenced almost immediately on rolling the copper, cutting the blanks and preparing the dies¹. The task of engraving the medal dies fell to Thomas Wyon, Jr., who had just been appointed Chief Engraver to the British Royal Mint in 1815 at the remarkable age of 23. Thomas Wyon, Jr. was from the famous Wyon family of engravers that so faithfully served the Mint and gave us such beautiful British medals throughout the 1800s.
The proposed design for the Waterloo Medal obverse was to feature the bust of the Prince Regent. Wyon chose the famous portrait of the Prince Regent painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence as a model for the obverse die. The Prince had been appointed Regent due to the mental illness of his father (King George III) and would later be crowned King George IV.
Wyon’s proposed design for the reverse of the Waterloo Medal was a beautiful winged figure of Victory seated on a pedestal, holding a palm in her right hand and an olive branch in her left hand. The word “Waterloo” is encapsulated below Victory and above Victory is the name of the commander, “Wellington.”
Wyon’s design was modelled on an ancient Greek coin of Elis, circa 450 BC, now in the collection of the British Museum.
An early rejected trial pattern of a bronze Waterloo Medal is shown in Figure 1. This particular trial pattern striking also features the name *John Martin 6th Inniskilling Drag.* impressed on the rim in the correct style. Noted medallic author George Tancred mentions another such trial striking named to “John Shaw, Mint”². Three other specimens are known to exist, two of which are in the British Museum.
Figure 1– A rare early rejected trial pattern of the Waterloo Medal
Another early rejected larger size (41mm versus 36mm) Waterloo Medal struck in silver and intended to be given to British officers is shown in Figure 2. The obverse design differed in that it featured a draped bust of the Prince Regent. Tancred makes note of this particular prototype, saying it was rejected for being too large to wear². There is another identical specimen noted in the Ashmolean Museum and one in the Royal Collection².
Figure 2 – A rare early rejected Officer’s pattern of the Waterloo Medal
An unnamed bronze trial striking of Wyon’s final Waterloo Medal design is shown in Figure 3. This die configuration would be the finally accepted die configuration used for striking the required 40,000 medals.
Figure 3 – A bronze trial striking of the Waterloo Medal
At the eleventh hour, the Prince Regent signified his pleasure that the Waterloo Medal be struck from fine silver for distribution to all officers and men present. The weight of the medal was intended to be approximately one ounce with a value of about 6 shillings per medal¹.
An issued example of a final Waterloo Medal striking in fine silver is shown in Figure 4. The name of the engraver, “T. WYON: JUN” appears on the obverse in small letters underneath the Prince Regent’s bust. On the reverse, “T. WYON” also appears next to the battle date of June 18, 1815.
The as-issued Waterloo Medal ring suspension, also shown in Figure 4, was by means of a steel clip fastened to the rim of the medal. A large steel ring, approximately 1.1 inches in diameter, passed through a hole in the steel clip. While contemporary medals often had split ring suspensions, examples also exist with solid core rings. The ribbon was then threaded through the steel rings typically for wear through a uniform buttonhole.
Figure 4 – The final Waterloo Medal design in fine silver
In accordance with the Duke of Wellington’s desires, the Waterloo Medal was suspended on a crimson ribbon approximately 1.4-1.5 inches wide with dark blue edges very similar to that found on the Army Gold Medal. The Waterloo Ribbon would be a wider version of the ribbon for the Military General Service Medal issued to the British Army in 1849 shown on the left of the Waterloo Medal in Figure 5.
Since the steel clip had a tendency to rust, many veterans replaced the suspension with various ornate configurations using local jewellers, such as the example in Figure 5. Replacement of the original suspender does not have any substantial impact on the collectability of the Waterloo Medals in today’s market.
Figure 5 – Medals to Lieut. William Bell, R.H.A.
The Waterloo Medal was also the first medal to carry the rank, name and unit of the recipient, impressed in large Roman capitals around the perimeter of the rim. The machine for impressing the names was designed and fabricated by Thomas Jerome and Charles Harrison, two workmen at the Royal Mint. Any blank space on the rim of the medal was filled up by a series of star-shaped stamps on either side of the suspension clip.
Waterloo Miniature Medals
The origin of miniature Waterloo Medals and other types of miniature orders and medals worn by British military and naval personnel is not well recorded. Therefore, any speculation as to the history of the origins of miniatures within the British Empire is the result of piecing together bits and pieces that we do know about this fascinating aspect of Waterloo Medal numismatics.
Mark Cline, a friend and noted expert on British miniature orders, decorations and medals, has done extensive research to try and discover the origins of British miniatures. First and foremost, he has stated that “It has not, in the past or even today, been the policy of HM’s Government to give a recipient of an award or medal, civil or military, a miniature medal of that token of their Majesty’s thanks for a service rendered”.
Therefore, there are no known early official statutes or records that shed light on the origins of miniatures. He has further stated that a clue as to the origins of miniatures comes from the noted author J. M. Mayo in his publications entitled Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy published in 1897. In this publication, Mayo stated:
Miniature medals were not made until 1815, at the close of the Waterloo campaign. The earliest
known date from that period.
Mayo further gives as his reasoning:
Officers caused them to be made for their wives to wear, and their use was tacitly allowed.
Other notable authorities of the late 19th and early 20th century would also base their own assumptions on Mayo’s publicized statements. Having studied the provenance of early miniature order and medals that were obviously privately executed with great care and cost by jewellers for the recipients, it is this author’s opinion that there are merits in Mayo’s assumptions. Many of these miniatures must have been executed sometime between 1815 and 1850, since many of the recipients studied died between these dates. Being made by jewellers at the owners’ expense, these awards are unique and often quite spectacular.
One example of well executed early miniatures is the group to Lieut. Col. Sir William Maynard Gomm, KCB, shown in Figure 6. It is the author’s opinion that the Gomm miniature group was executed between 1815 and 1850. The absence from the group of Gomm’s Military General Service Medal, which was issued to him in 1849, supports this assumption. This suggests that the jeweller who was commissioned to make this gold bar of orders and medals did so before 1849.
Figure 6 – Lt. Col. Gomm’s Waterloo Miniature (right hand side)
Another fine example of miniatures is the medal group to Lt. Col. Edward Lygon of the 2nd Life Guards in Figure 7. The fascinating workmanship is evident in that all ribbons are actually enamelled over gold, thus illustrating what prices higher ranking officers would pay jewellers to have this work privately done.
Figure 7 – Lt. Col. Edward Lygon’s Waterloo Miniature (2nd from left)
Midway through the 1800s, as the early full-size Victorian campaign medals were being officially issued to the recipients, the commercial potential of miniature campaign medals started to appeal to many manufacturers. One example of commercialization was an advertisement by the famous jewellers, Hunt & Roskell, for miniatures of the newly issued Military and Naval General Service Medals officially approved for issue in 1849. It is most likely this pair of miniatures with glass lunettes in Figure 8 was made by Hunt & Roskell for an elderly veteran around the mid-1800s.
Figure 8 – A pair of miniatures with fancy glass lunettes.
With the issue of more campaign medals after 1850 to recognize more and more cases of service by Her Majesty’s forces, the appearance of miniatures became more the norm and official regulations slowly turned a blind eye to their use. The author has seen at least fifteen different varieties of commercially made Waterloo Medal miniatures from different manufacturers, with the example shown in Figure 9 being the smallest example at 8.5mm in diameter.
Figure 9 – A Waterloo Medal miniature example at 8.5mm in diameter
Collecting the Waterloo Medal
The desirability and thus the market value of a Waterloo Medal will always be a subjective exercise and is mainly determined by the three factors listed below. The median range or level of a fair market value for Waterloo Medals is established each year by averaging auction results and exchanges between private parties and dealers/clients.
Numismatic Condition – Most Waterloo Medals were worn with pride for many years on the veterans’ uniforms, being issued approximately one year after the battle. As a result, most are found well worn in fine to very fine condition. Compounding the numismatic condition is the modification of many of the suspenders as discussed previously. For those who want a representative numismatic example in their collection, a medal in extremely fine condition with the original suspender might be more attractive; thus a small premium may be attached. Condition and/or type of suspender can lose much of its significance if the unit, rank or name of the individual is significant and motivates the buyer.
Unit – Collectability is heavily influenced by the Waterloo Medal’s regiment or unit since so many collectors specialize in specific units. This passion can be driven by the overall history and prestige of the regiment or unit and specifically by the role it played and how it distinguished itself in the Waterloo campaign.
One measure of unit desirability is the overall casualty rate the unit had in killed/wounded in the three days from Quatre Bras to Waterloo. Waterloo Medals were given to General Colville’s reserve division (2/35, 1/54, 2/59, 1/91) on the far right flank are not highly prized as they did not actively take part in the fighting.
Rank and Name – As with other campaign medals, senior NCOs and officers carry a premium over other ranks in the same unit. The appeal is the perception or fact that in some way the individual contributed to the command structure and success of the unit. Literature documenting the individual’s contribution such as regimental histories, letters, and biographies, both at Waterloo and in other campaigns, only adds to the collectability of the medal. The highest collectability factor goes to those officers whose distinguished command and/or actions were made legendary in the barrage of publicity and adornment in the years following the battle.
I hope you have enjoyed this quick introduction to the Waterloo Medal. This subject, as well as the British Officers who received the Waterloo Medal, has been a passion of mine for many years, I would be most grateful to hear from anyone who could share any unusual information that could further my research.
You can contact me at email@example.com
1. Hayward, John B., ‘The Waterloo Medal: Nearly a Bronze Award’, OMRS Journal, 2005
2. Tancred, George, Historical Record of Medals and Honorary Distinctions, Spink & Son, 1891
3. Brown, Laurence, A Catalogue of British Historical Medals 1760-1960, Seaby
4. Carter, Thomas, Medals of the British Army and How They Were Won, Groombridge & Sons, London, 1861
5. Sly, John, ‘The Waterloo Medal’, Medal News, April 2001