On Friday I returned to Tredegar House to meet up with the Crew from the Welsh language TV programme Heno. I was being interviewed about Godfrey Morgan, second Lord Tredegar, his importance to Newport and, in particular, his role in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Of course, Godfrey’s famous warhorse, Sir Briggs, featured prominently too.
A few months before, on the twenty-fifth of October, staff and volunteers from Tredegar House met up at the Tredegar Arms in Bassaleg. For many years this had been one of the venues for Lord Tredegar’s Balaclava dinner. Godfrey Morgan, first Viscount Tredegar, had survived the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava on this date in 1854, and it was marked by this annual dinner. There have been previous attempts to revive this tradition, but nothing for some years.
To be honest, it wasn’t a dinner this time. This was more of a Balaclava bar meal and couple of pints. There were two talks (by myself and my colleague Paul Busby) and it was suggested that we end with a toast. It was decided that the toast should be to the horse that got the future Viscount out of the Valley of Death in one piece – Sir Briggs. Sir Briggs is Wales’ most famous warhorse and stories of him still survive in the Newport area. Some of them are true, but some are not.
The film Warhorse has sparked a renewed interest in Sir Briggs, and he features in The National Army Museum’s exhibition “War Horse: Fact and Fiction”. The Museum’s website gallery features a very fine painting of Sir Briggs by Alfred de Prades. However, it always seemed a bit odd to the Tredegar House guides and facilitators that the Museum claims that “… little is known about ‘Sir Briggs’ beyond the evidence of this painting … “. We actually now know quite a bit about him, even if fact and fiction does get a little confused at times. Last month an article in the Wales on Sunday newspaper had tried to put things straight, but became slightly confusing itself in the end. One of the myths that has been repeated concerns how Sir Briggs got his name.
Sir Briggs was bought by Charles Morgan Robinson Morgan in 1851(soon to become the first Lord Tredegar). Sir Briggs was a good investment and had already proved his worth at the Cowbridge Steeplechases. In 1853 he was one of the entrants in the Tredegar Park Races, which were part of the Christmas tradition at the Estate. The owner is given as being C. R. Morgan, and may refer to Charles Morgan Robinson Morgan, or just as easily his eldest son and heir, Charles Rodney Morgan. The other thing that this cutting from the Nottinghamshire Guardian 0f 13th January 1853 demonstrates, of course, is that Sir Briggs was so named at least twenty one months before The Charge of the Light Brigade. There is another story that Godfrey ‘knighted’ his horse on the battlefield for his bravery. Yet another says that it was a Russian sabre cut on the shoulder that gave Briggs the title of ‘Sir’. The wound was inflicted above the horse’s eye. The horse was not dubbed for his part in the Battle of Balaclava.
Godfrey wrote to his father a couple of days after the Charge.
“My Dear Father,
…… I am at present commanding officer of the 17th Lancers, which gallant little regiment now consists of 50 men and horses fit for duty and 3 officers.
I fear that before you receive this letter you will have heard some bad news of the Cavalry Light Brigade. However, not to keep you in suspense, I will begin by saying that I am safe and well in my own person, having come out of that gallant, brilliant (but as all add, useless) charge under a tremendous fire of all arms from front and flanks, and a perfect forest of swords and lances, untouched, with only a sabre cut on poor old Sir Briggs’ head just over the right eye…”
The story that Sir Briggs was named after a Tredegar House servant is equally unfounded. Bridger Champion was a groom at Ruperra Castle who was said to have been with Godfrey at Aldershot and was perhaps his groom or even batman. Was he with Godfrey during the Crimean campaign? Again, there is nothing in the archives to substantiate this story. The servant, John Stokes,who went out with Godfrey had to return due to ill health and many of his duties were taken on by Trooper Dobson.
Over the years at Tredegar House we had heard many stories about Sir Briggs and Godfrey. Some claimed that the horse had been stuffed and buried standing up in a deep grave in the Cedar Garden, others say that he is not actually buried at Tredegar House beneath the obelisk in the garden, but is actually interred on top of Twmbarlwm mountain overlooking the Morgan lands.
I have also recently heard that Godfrey took his pet dog down into the Valley of Death with him. This is all very entertaining, but sometimes these stories make us doubt the very truth about this remarkable horse. Sir Briggs was a remarkable horse. Having survived the sea journey to the Crimea (unlike Godfrey’s other horses), taken part in several actions including Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman, and lived through a winter that saw many horses and men perish, Sir Briggs was left in the Crimea with Godfrey’s brother, Frederick Morgan, who had became a staff officer at Sebastopol. When Godfrey finally left the Crimea after illness Frederick asked for Sir Briggs to be left with him. There was no rest for this horse. This warhorse, having lived through the battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman was entered in the Sebastopol Military Steeplechase and won.
Finally, in 1855 Sir Briggs returned to Tredegar Park where he lived in retirement for twenty years. He died in 1874 and was buried in the Cedar Garden with a magnificent memorial erected above his grave. A fine tribute to this equine hero. It reads:
In Memory of
Favourite charger. He carried his master the Hon. Godfrey Morgan, Captain 17th Lancers boldly and well at the Battle of Alma, in the first line of the Light Cavalry Charge of Balaclava and the Battle of Inkerman, 1854. He died at Tredegar Park February 6th 1874. Age 28 years.
The Heno programme is due to be broadcast on Wednesday (16th January) evening on S4C and after that via their website on the Clic player with English subtitles available.