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Horatio NelsonLondon
1758 – 1805

 

 

Nelson is Britain’s most famous naval commander and is considered as being responsible for turning the British Navy into the best navy in the world. He was seen as a national hero who, after winning the Battle of Trafalgar, had saved Britain form invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Early Life
Horatio Nelson came from humble beginnings with a distant naval connection through his mother’s uncle. He was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, where his father was rector. He was a small, slightly built child but his apparent frailty hid a steely but compassionate personality.
 
Aged 12 he was enrolled in the Royal Navy and started officer training on board ship. Although he suffered all his life from seasickness he loved the life at sea.
 
Early Career
By the time he was 19 he was a lieutenant and assigned to the West Indies where he saw action in the American Revolutionary War. At age 20 he was a post-captain of a 28-gun frigate, recently captured from the French. He fought against the Spanish in Nicaragua and was praised for his efforts.
 
Unfortunately he got malaria and became very sick. He had to return to England for over a year to recover. When he was fit for duty he returned to the Caribbean, enforcing British trade policy.
 
Marriage
During an enforced stay in Nevis (1787) he met and married his wife, Frances Nisbet. His duty in the Caribbean had ended and they returned to England to live in Norfolk.
 
Appointed Captain of the Agamemnon 1793
When there were no wars to fight, Royal Navy officers were put on half-pay until they were called up again. It wasn’t until 1793 that he got his next commission as captain of the 64-gun Agamemnon.
 
The Revolutionary French government was making aggressive moves on Britain’s trade-routes; in particular they were threatening the routes to the Indian Empire. Nelson was based in the Mediterranean, his home port being Naples where he first met Lady Emma Hamilton.
 
In 1794 he was wounded in the face and lost his right eyebrow and the sight in his right eye. He never wore a patch over the right eye but he was known to wear an eye shade to protect his left eye.
 
Appointed Commodore of the Mediterranean Fleet 1796
In 1796 Nelson was made Commodore of the Mediterranean Fleet in charge of blockading the French coast. Nelson’s methods of fighting the enemy involved bold, dramatic, unconventional moves. He appeared fearless and made a point of making himself conspicuous on the decks of his ships during an action.
 
Knighthood & Promotion to Rear-Admiral
Following victory in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 Nelson was knighted as a member of the Order of the Bath, and promoted to ‘Rear Admiral of the Blue’.
 
Loss of Right Arm
Later in the year during an unsuccessful attack on Teneriffe, Nelson was shot in the right arm with a musket-ball. The bone in his upper arm was fractured in several places and complete amputation was the medical treatment of the day. There was no anaesthetic and this tough little man commented afterwards to the surgeon that ‘a heated knife would have been more bearable than the cold one!’
 
Battle of the Nile 1798
By mid-December he was back at work again and in 1798 defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in the great Battle of the Nile. This victory put an end to Napoleon’s ambitions to bring the war to the British in India.
 
For this spectacular victory Nelson was granted the title Baron Nelson of the Nile. A nice title but it didn’t raise him to the peerage which would have been a higher honour. Nelson resented this and believed it was due to his humble beginnings and lack of political connections.
 
Affair with Lady Emma Hamilton
In 1799 Nelson was promoted to 'Rear-Admiral of the Red', the 7th highest rank in the Royal Navy. Around this time Nelson began his infamous association with Lady Emma Hamilton. She was the young wife of the elderly British Ambassador to Naples. Nelson was a frequent visitor to the Embassy and fell in love with Emma, making her his mistress.
 
The elderly Ambassador was fully aware of the situation and when Nelson was recalled to England because of his unprofessional conduct, they all returned to England to live together in a ménage à trois. Public knowledge of the affair and the scandal forced the Admiralty to send Nelson back to sea.
 
Battle of Copenhagen 1801
In 1801, Nelson had been promoted to 'Vice Admiral of the Blue', the 6th highest rank. Against all odds Nelson brought off a superb British victory at the Battle of Copenhagen. It was in this battle that he reputedly disobeyed orders by putting his telescope to his blind eye. In actual fact, his Battle Commander had offered him the chance to withdraw without being accused of cowardice, but he chose not to withdraw and went on to win the day.
 
More Honours & Promotions
Recognition came with more honours – he was made Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic Sea, was created Viscount Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk.
 
Also in 1801 real trouble was brewing for England. Napoleon was massing troops and ships to invade England so Nelson was put in charge of defending the English Channel. In October Britain signed an armistice with the French and Nelson was stood down. He took up living with the Hamiltons again and they travelled around England together.
 
The armistice didn’t last long and Nelson was soon called back to duty. In 1803 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean and assigned to HMS Victory. While at sea he was promoted to 'Vice-Admiral of the White' (the 5th highest rank) but in 1805 bad health forced him back on land and he retired to his country estate ‘Merton Place’ in Surrey.
 
Within two months Nelson was ordered back to sea and told to confront the combined French and Spanish fleets who were sheltering in the Spanish port of Cadiz. On 21 October 1805 Nelson fought his last battle.
 
Nelson’s Last Battle - Battle of Trafalgar 1805
The Battle of Trafalgar pitted 27 British ships under Nelson’s command against 33 enemy ships. Before battle commenced Nelson sent the famous signal to his ships England expects every man to do his duty”.
 
The first ships exchanged fire around midday and Nelson’s ship Victory closed with the French ship Redoutable. Nelson’s habit of standing on deck in full dress uniform during the heat of an engagement was well known to the enemy.
 
French snipers in the rigging picked him out and shot him through the shoulder, the bullet passing through his lungs and lodging against the spine. Nelson was fatally wounded at 13:15 hours and Captain Hardy organised for him to be taken below decks. Nelson remained conscious until 16:30 hours when Hardy reported to him that the battle had been won. Nelson murmured Thank God I have done my duty, and died.
 
Funeral Arrangements
Nelson’s body was placed in a large wooden barrel and preserved in French brandy and camphor, for the long trip back to England. Nelson had known that his chosen profession was not likely to lead to a peaceful death in old age. He had prepared his own coffin from the salvaged mast of a French ship sunk at the Battle of the Nile. He had expressed a desire to be buried in his father’s church at Burnham Thorpe but this did not happen.
 
At Portsmouth, Nelson’s body was wrapped in bandages and taken to Chatham to be put in his own wooden coffin. His simple coffin was finally placed in an ornate mahogany casket finished in black velvet and gilt suitable for a State Funeral and burial in St Paul's Cathedral.
 
It was a fitting tribute to a great naval commander.