Emperor Napoleon I of France, passing through Tuscany on his journey to the Russian front, was shown a single massive block of marble; he asked for it to be preserved. It is thought that Napoleon may have ordered it to be roughly hewn into the present urn shape, leaving the panels undecorated in readiness to commemorate his expected victories.
Following the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, the vase was presented unfinished to the Prince Regent in 1815 by Ferdinand, Grand Duke of Tuscany, via the British ambassador, Lord Burghersh. The Prince Regent, soon to become George IV, had the vase completed by the sculptor Richard Westmacott with the intention that it be the focal point of the new Waterloo chamber at Windsor Castle, commemorating the Battle of Waterloo, one of numerous triumphal commissions for Westmacott after Waterloo.
Inspired by Ancient Roman models, such as the Borghese Vase and the Medici Vase, the Waterloo Vase was carved with bas-reliefs of George III (long removed from public view) on his throne, Napoleon unhorsed, and various allegorical figures. Two winged busts of angels leap incongruously from the sides of the vase, resembling more the figureheads of an ancient ship than the handles of an elegant marble vase.
Various sources give differing descriptions of the vase's weight, with the 1968 book Buckingham Palace and its treasures stating a weight of twenty tons. No floor could bear the weight of the vase, so it was presented to the National Gallery in 1836. The Gallery finally returned the white elephant to the sovereign in 1906, and Edward VII had the vase placed outside in the garden at Buckingham Palace where it now remains standing some distance from the palace in a wooded area to the northwest of the main building, on an austere brick paved plinth, the marble showing signs of severe erosion from atmospheric pollution.