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The Early Years | The Years of Fame and Glory
Nelson was not to be stopped by the mere loss of an eye and an arm, but soon applied for another ship to command. The 74-gun Vanguard sailed for Lisbon on 1 April, 1798, and joined the fleet off Cadiz still under the command of Admiral Lord St Vincent.
The French fleet was at sea. Nelson was given a squadron of an additional ten ships of the line and a large frigate, and he was charged with finding them. There were reports that they had been sighted off Sicily headed east. Nelson wished to resupply his squadron at Syracuse, Sicily, so he sent one of his ships to Naples to deliver a message to Sir William Hamilton requesting permission from the King of Naples. When the King refused, fearing reprisals from the French, Lady Emma Hamilton claims that she went to the queen to beg her to intervene on Nelson's behalf. Many contend that Nelson had the authority to demand the supplies himself. In any event the squadron was supplied and the search continued.
The Battle of the Nile
While Nelson's fleet was approaching Alexandria in Egypt, he sighted the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay at the mouth of the Nile River on 1 August, 1798. Napoleon had landed his troops and was engaged in a battle near the pyramids. The fleet was waiting for his return. One of the oldest rules of naval warfare was to never attack a fleet at anchor – without anyone needed to handle the sails, everyone defending is available to serve the guns. Nelson ordered his ships to sail in a line, turn and anchor between each pair of French ships, with vessels advancing to the next pair until each French ship had a British ship firing at her from both ends. The remaining French ships at the rear would be dealt with after the main battle.
One of the most impressive moments was the loss of the French flag ship L'Orient. At the conclusion of the battle two French ships of the line and two frigates had been destroyed, and nine ships were captured. The rest managed to escape from the rear of the French line. This has been argued by many to be the greatest naval victory of all time. Nelson himself had been wounded by a piece of shrapnel that laid open his forehead, a small flap of skin covered his good eye and he thought himself blind and dying. With his wound dressed Nelson ordered that a prayer of thanksgiving was to be held at 2:00pm on the Vanguard, and he urged the other ships to follow his example.
One of Nelson's captains recovered part of the mainmast of L'Orient and he ordered his carpenter to fashion a coffin made entirely of its materials. He presented the coffin to Nelson, who proudly displayed the gift, but there were still a few years left before he would require its services. On 6 October Nelson was awarded the title 'Baron of the Realm'.
As soon as the ships could put to sea they departed, with their prizes, for Naples. Nelson arrived in the Vanguard on 22 August and was visited by British Ambassador Sir William Hamilton and his wife Lady Emma, as well as the King of Naples. For the next year and a half Nelson continued his duties in the Mediterranean, aiding the king and the British Ambassador in Naples and the rest of the kingdom. Rumours circulated in England about Nelson's familiarity with the Ambassador, and even more so with his wife.
After the fall of Naples in 1799, due to both foreign invaders and a revolutionary group of the citizens, Nelson removed the royal party to Sicily. After a short exile, the city was retaken by Royalist forces and Nelson returned with the king and his party. Many of the revolutionaries were still staying in the surrounding castles, including Admiral Caracciolo of the Neapolitan Navy, who had joined the rebellion. He was condemned to death by the king, and Nelson approved the execution. The Admiral was hung from the yardarm of his own ship. It has been reported that King George III was not pleased with Nelson's involvement in this matter.
After briefly serving as Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, Nelson was replaced by Admiral Lord Keith. Transferring his command to the 80-gun Foduroyant1, he met with Admiral Keith at Leghorn Roads, and they sailed to Malta on 3 February, 1800.
Nelson was growing tired of his service and was feeling ill. He wrote to his superiors at the Admiralty, requesting permission to haul down his flag. On 25 April, 1800, Nelson was given permission to strike his flag and return to England. The method of travel was left to his own discretion whether by land or sea2. He hauled down his flag for the last time in this commission on 11 July. Nelson travelled overland, passing through Vienna. He was accompanied by the Hamiltons, who had been recalled from Naples. Lady Emma was already carrying Nelson's daughter in her womb. Horatia Nelson Thompson would be born on 29 January, 1801. The name 'Thompson' had been a code name used in correspondence between the two lovers in an attempt to conceal their affair.
They arrived at Yarmouth on 6 November, 1800, by this time Lady Emma's condition was quite obvious. The trio arrived in London on 7 November where they were joined by Fanny. They all dined with Sir William's father. The fact that Fanny waited to join her husband until his arrival in London is a clue to the rumours she had heard, and her distrust of Lady Hamilton. Nelson and his wife shared lodgings in London for a short time before Fanny gave him an ultimatum to choose either her, or Lady Emma. The two met for the last time on 13 January, 1801, when Nelson departed to join the Channel fleet. Fanny returned alone to Round-Wood, the scandal would seem quite public, however it would not be acknowledged for several years. Nelson would continue to support his wife financially, but he no longer desired to spend another minute in her company.
Denmark had joined a coalition of nations which included Russia, Prussia, Norway and Sweden who insisted they had a right to free trade with France. Several British merchant ships were seized in harbour, and their crews imprisoned. A small fleet under the overall command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker in the 98-gun London and Admiral Lord Nelson as second-in-command aboard the 98-gun St George with some 17 sail of the line and numerous support vessels was formed to extend British control to the Baltic. On 29 March Nelson transferred his flag to the much smaller 74-gun Elephant as he thought the shallower draft and greater manoeuvrability would be an advantage in the upcoming battle.
The only entry into the Baltic Sea is the Kattegat ('cat's throat' in English), a narrow passage between Denmark and Sweden. Admiral Parker sent an enquiry ashore asking if his ships would be fired upon if they entered the straight. The Danes replied that they would fire on the ships. With a favourable wind the fleet proceeded past the Danish batteries. Nelson commanded the van, Admiral Parker the centre and Admiral Graves the rear. The Danes did fire at the passing fleet, but it was totally ineffective – not a single hit was recorded.
The Battle of Copenhagen
The fleet found the defences at Copenhagen well prepared. Between the batteries on the islands were a line of battle ships3, both those ready for sea and hulks with but a single pole mast, but all well armed. The Danes had moved their navigational buoys to obscure the channels leading into port, but Nelson himself led a team to restore them soon after the British had arrived off the port. When Admiral Parker gathered his commanders to form a plan for battle, Nelson requested permission to lead the attack under his own terms, with ten line of battle ships, and most of the smaller craft. Admiral Parker granted his wish.
Nelson spent the daylight hours bringing his divisions (the van and the rear, along with the support vessels) through the treacherous channel, anchoring for the night only two miles from the enemy line. Admiral Parker waited off-shore with the larger vessels, watching Nelson's actions. Nelson spent most of the night preparing his instructions for each vessel, often while resting on his cot.
At about 9:00am on the morning of 2 April, 1801, Nelson ordered his vessels to weigh their anchors and close with the enemy. The two leading vessels ran aground while still approaching their assigned positions. Nelson realised the problem and altered course to lead the rest through deeper water. When the water again began to shoal, the pilot demanded the Elephant to anchor. The enemy was still about a cable's length away4. The other British ships still manoeuvred to face the enemy, who were returning the fire vigorously.
Shortly after noon, Admiral Parker ordered a signal hoisted to recall Nelson from the fierce action that he could only observe from his position of safety, protected by his distance from the battle. Nelson had just commented to one of his officers how intense the action was, but as an experienced naval commander he could see that the situation was by no means hopeless. When the signal officer told him about Admiral Parker's signal, he asked Nelson what he should do. Nelson considered, he asked if the signal to engage the enemy was still flying and he was assured it was. He then instructed the signal lieutenant to acknowledge Parker's signal, but not to interfere with his own signal to engage the enemy. Nelson then very prominently raised his telescope to his right eye, pointed it toward Parker's flagship and loudly stated: 'I see no signal of recall'. Quietly he told his supporters that 'I have only one eye, I have a right to be blind sometimes.' This has often been viewed as one of Nelson's most definitive moments.
Shortly after 2:00pm the Danish fire slackened. The abandoned Danish ships were reinforced by volunteers who did not understand the customs of war and insisted on renewing their fire from the ships that had surrendered, continuing the conflict until Nelson sent a properly sealed letter ashore demanding the surrender of the Danes from the Crown Prince. At last the total victory of the battle was achieved.
A truce was declared allowing the British to remove or destroy their prize ships as they saw fit. Nelson reported to Admiral Parker aboard the London prepared for censure, at least, for his disobedience of the recall order. Parker was wise enough, having won the battle, to pass his order off as only a suggestion, saying the final decision was always intended to be at Nelson's discretion.
Peace negotiations with the Danes lasted from 4-9 April. The British wanted the Danes to agree to a truce while they attended to the Russian fleet. The Danes were reluctant, fearing retribution from the Russians if they complied with the request. Although tensions remained high there was no further action while Nelson remained in the Baltic.
Nelson was elevated to the rank of Viscount for his actions at Copenhagen. In mid June he was recalled to England. After arriving in London he once more took up residence with the Hamiltons.
War, Peace and Back to War
In July 1801 the French forces were massing along the coast, threatening to cross the Channel and invade England. Nelson was appointed commander-in-chief of a squadron and assigned the duty of protecting the Medway and Thames rivers from attack. He made a few raids against the gathering French forces by crossing the Channel. Rather than the glorious fleet battles of the Nile and Copenhagen, he was faced with a motley collection of small ships, barges and gunboats. Nevertheless Nelson engaged them, and the threat was somewhat reduced. When peace was declared in October, he was allowed to return to England. Although he did not officially haul down his flag until 10 April, 1802, Nelson began settling into Merton Place, a home he had purchased. He was joined there by the Hamiltons and they invited his father to live there also, but the old Reverend passed away before he could join them. During this time even their most intimate friends seemed to be either ignorant of the affair Nelson was conducting with Lady Emma, or refusing to admit that it existed for social convenience. On 6 April, 1803, Sir William Hamilton passed away after six days confinement in his sick bed.
When Dr (later Viscount) Addington became Prime Minster in early 1801, the government had began a series of negotiations with Napoleon to achieve peace. By early October both sides agreed to cease hostilities and Britain dropped her blockade. The negotiations continued and in December they were moved to the city of Amiens. The official peace treaty was signed there on 27 March, 1802.
While the ceasefire continued, and into the peace, many high-ranking Admirals who had been granted peerage claimed their seats in Parliament's House of Lords, Nelson also claimed his seat. The sailor's opinion about several outposts and colonies certainly added to the legislature's agenda.
On 16 May, 1803, Britain again declared war against France and Napoleon. Many of those in power in Britain saw the peaceful period in France as merely an opportunity to rebuild her military, and gain political advantage over the other European governments.
On 20 May Nelson was again at sea, this time aboard the 104-gun Victory, headed again for the Mediterranean as commander-in-chief. After stopping at Naples to pay his respects to the King, he joined his fleet off Toulon where they were conducting the blockade. Nelson assigned frigate Captain Thomas M Hardy as his second captain aboard Victory; Captain George Murray was his first.
The tedious business of blockade was only punctuated by bad weather and the poor condition of the ships that required refitting. On the morning of 13 June the French formed a sortie against the smaller frigates that were patrolling near shore. The frigates properly retreated to the line and Nelson moved his battleships in to engage. The French quickly scurried back into their safe harbour, but the French Admiral bragged to the government that he had forced Nelson's ships to retreat.
In the autumn of 1804 Nelson wrote to the Admiralty requesting leave, his health was once more failing him and he thought the sight of his remaining left eye was beginning to fail. He wished a few weeks at home before his last great clash with the French, but leave was not forthcoming.
In October 1804 Britain widened the conflict, once again adding Spain to the list of her enemies. Admiral Cornwallis had learned of the approach of a small treasure fleet of four vessels. He sent a small squadron to intercept them before they could reach Cadiz. The Spaniards were attacked at sea. After one vessel was destroyed by a well-placed shot, the others surrendered and produced about one million pounds in prize money. The men of the squadron and their Admiral, Cornwallis, earned a handsome reward of prize money. Nelson had been left to his blockade in the Mediterranean. He felt that the opportunity to capture the treasure ships should have been given to him, as it was properly in his jurisdiction.
Shortly after the death of the French Admiral, Admiral Villeneuve took command of the ships in Toulon, on 6 November, 1804. As the year 1805 arrived the French fleet was counted as 11 ships of the line and eight frigates. Nelson was once again in Sardinia resupplying his ships, leaving a pair of frigates to continue the observation of the port. Soon after noon Nelson sighted the frigates and they signalled that the French fleet had put to sea two days earlier. He signalled his fleet to make sail, once again he would sail the sea in search of an elusive enemy. He was convinced the enemy had once more sailed for the Nile, but he could not follow. The weather became a series of squalls that made progress almost impossible. The French fleet fared no better. While Nelson returned to Sardinia for supplies, the French resupplied at Toulon. With the blockading ships absent the French quickly returned to sea.
While the ships were resupplying their stores, Nelson became convinced the French were bound for the West Indies. As soon as he thought his ships sufficiently supplied, he ordered the fleet to cross the Atlantic and sail for Barbados. As he arrived at the island he was assured by General Brereton, the commander at St Lucia, that the French had passed and were bound for Trinidad – Tobago. It was also reported that the French had been joined by a large Spanish fleet that had also slipped past the blockade of their country. Nelson took on board several companies of troops and proceeded with the chase. When he arrived at Tobago he found no sign of the French fleet. Furious at the lost time he returned to Barbados. By early June Admiral Villeneuve, who was gathering land troops in Martinique and Guadaloupe, learned of Nelson's presence and immediately got under way. He recrossed the Atlantic with the embarked troops of the combined fleets. They hoped to, at last, invade England.
Word of Villeneuve's departure soon reached Nelson, who once more put to sea in pursuit of the French. On 18 June he spoke with an American ship that reported seeing a large fleet headed east a couple days earlier. The American skipper had thought them to be the French fleet. The wind became calm as Nelson received this information that the enemy ships were so close. He chaffed at the slow movement of his ships, his only hope was that the French were close enough to be suffering from the same light winds. On 9 July the French arrived off Cape Finisterre, Nelson did not reach Gibraltar until the 19th.
Nelson proceeded to England, either to report in person on the French movements, or just to grant himself his long-delayed leave is a matter of conjecture. As he passed by Ushant he stopped long enough to visit with Lord Cornwallis, who was conducting the blockade of Breast. He anchored at Spithead on 18 August and arrived at his home in Merton on the 20th. He, Lady Hamilton and young Horatia were reunited, but little has been recorded of the weeks they spent together. Nelson spent an afternoon visiting with Lord Sidmouth, (Dr Henry Addington, the former Prime Minister). Lord Sidmouth often repeated the story that Nelson had described how he intended to attack the joint fleet, if given the opportunity. He would form his fleet in two columns and split the enemy into the three squadrons normally formed, the van, centre and rear. He would then turn and fight the two squadrons in the most advantageous positions, it did not matter if it should be the van or the rear, with the centre. This would be the plan used at the battle of Trafalgar. Before he left London, it is reported that he also visited an upholsterer, who had been charged with the care of the coffin made from the mast of the L'Orient. With an air of humour he requested that its identity be engraved on the lid. As Nelson left, he remarked that the next time he returned to England he might want it.
While Nelson was returning home, a British fleet under Admiral Calder had engaged the joint fleet near Cape Finisterre, on 22 July off the north-west coast of Spain. While Calder made a respectable account of the battle, capturing two Spanish ships and inflicting many casualties in the enemy fleet, his victory was far below the standard that Nelson had achieved at the Nile and Copenhagen. Villeneuve retreated, first to Finisterre and then to Cadiz, to re-organise his fleet. Calder was held in contempt by British public for not having done more. No one seemed to realise that he had once more foiled the invasion attempt.
On the morning of 14 September, 1805, Nelson arrived at Portsmouth. After having his breakfast at an inn he proceeded to the Victory. The shore was crowded with his admirers wishing him a fine voyage and successful battle. Nelson returned to the Victory and had been assigned to continue the blockade of Cadiz. Captain George Murray had been detained in England by personal affairs, so Captain Hardy assumed command of Victory. As Nelson joined the fleet off Cadiz, commanded by Admiral Collingwood, he ordered that no signals or salutes were to be exchanged, lest the reinforcement of the fleet be transmitted to the enemy. Nelson ordered all the larger ships well off-shore, leaving only a pair of frigates to watch the harbour, with the hope it would lure the enemy to sail. As they waited, Nelson spoke with Captain Hardy about what funeral arrangements he wished if he was to be killed in the upcoming battle.
The combined fleet, with Admiral Villeneuve commanding 18 French ships of the line and Admiral Gravina in command of 16 Spanish ships of the line, began to leave the harbour on the morning of Saturday, 19 October, 1805, but the wind was light and only a few managed to get clear of the land. Several letters to home were written that night in expectation of the battle that would soon be fought. Nelson wrote one to Lady Hamilton, and another to young Horatia. By Sunday morning the enemy ships were at sea.
Nelson's greatest fear was that he would strike too soon and allow the enemy to escape back into the safety of Cadiz. He relied on his frigates to keep the combined fleet under observation until he was ready to strike. On Monday morning the combined fleet was sighted on the starboard tack heading to the southward in a line of battle. The battle flags were flying from all, and crosses on the Spanish ships showed they were ready for battle.
On the morning of 21 October, 1805, Nelson ordered his fleet to form in two lines. For those interested in a detailed account of the battle please read this fine Entry. Here we will only cover the details that concern the Admiral. Nelson appeared on deck in his undress coat. Although less elaborate than full dress, it was still decorated with the four orders of knighthood he had won embroidered over the left breast: the star of the Order of the Bath, the Order of the Crescent (awarded by the Sultan of Turkey), the Order of St Ferdinand and of Merit (awarded by the King of Naples) and the German Order of St Joachim (awarded after the Battle of the Nile). Nelson was quite pleased that the action should take place on 21 October as his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, had won a great victory on the same date.
The battle proceeded much as Nelson had proposed it to Lord Sidmouth. The two lines sailed boldly toward the enemy's line with an objective to split it into thirds. Nelson led one column while Collingwood led the second. As they approached their foes the British were subjected to raking fire, the enemies' shot could pass down the length of their decks and few guns were able to reply, but this was the fastest way to close with them. As the action began Nelson asked his signal lieutenant to hoist the message 'England confides that each man will do his duty' to show his confidence in his crew's loyalty. The lieutenant asked if he could change the message to 'England expects that every man will do his duty' as this was a much easier signal to send and receive due to the peculiarities of the signal books. This was the message sent; some believe the rewording was a sign of contempt for the crew's loyalty. Collingwood aboard Royal Sovereign was the first ship to engage the enemy. Victory headed to pass just astern of the Santissima Trinidad, which Nelson had first met off St Vincent. As she approached, several ships of the combined fleet opened fire on her. Nelson's secretary was smashed to pulp by a ball; to this day his blood can be seen on Nelson's coat.
The ships were soon in close combat, and Victory's Mizzen topmast and wheel were shot away. Steering from the relief cables far below her deck, she manoeuvred against the French ships. About two hours into the fighting, or about 1:30pm, Nelson was pacing his quarterdeck with Captain Hardy. The two men turned at the forward end of their walk when Hardy saw Nelson crumble and fall to the deck. He had been hit by a shot fired from one of the French ship's masts. As Hardy rushed to the Admiral's side Nelson is reported to have said: 'They have done for me at last Hardy, my backbone is shot through'. As they carried him far below to the cockpit where the surgeon worked, Nelson had his face and orders covered so the men would not see that it was he who had been wounded. While the battle continued to rage above, Nelson lay below clutching to life. His coat was removed and rolled up to form a pillow for another wounded officer. By the end of the day it was found that his hair and congealed blood had been entangled with the strands of one of the epaulettes. The strands were cut off and became an heirloom of the officer's family.
After about 70 minutes Hardy came below to visit with him. Nelson asked about the battle and Hardy replied that they had already secured between 12 and 14 of the enemy's ships. Nelson seemed pleased, but he asked that all he had should be given to Lady Hamilton and that she should be given all his honour and legacy. Hardy was compelled to return to his duties, but a little less than an hour later he returned to Nelson's bedside. Nelson now gave his final order: 'Anchor Hardy Anchor'. Hardy questioned if Collingwood was not now in command? 'Not while I yet live', Nelson replied, 'anchor'. He then begged Hardy that should he die, he not be thrown overboard, but returned to England. Hardy replied that he knew what he must do. Nelson once again requested that Lady Hamilton be taken care of, and then he gave his famous last request, 'kiss me Hardy'5, Hardy kissed him on the cheek, and later the forehead. The last words of Nelson were: 'Thank God I have done my duty'. He passed away in the dingy cockpit before the day had ended and almost at the same time as the last guns were being fired.
As the battle ended, Cape Trafalgar was sighted from the Royal Sovereign bearing south-east by east some eight miles distant, giving its name to one of the most decisive naval battles of all time. The wind began to rise into a gale. Many of the stricken ships could not be saved, and several of them foundered with many of the wounded and dying still aboard. Even among the victorious British there was hardly a ship that did not require extensive repair before being seaworthy again. Nelson's final order to anchor had been correct.
Return to England
To honour Nelson's request that he not be buried at sea, preparations had to be made to preserve the body. One of the common methods of the time was to construct a lead coffin, but there was not enough lead available for such a project. Ultimately it was determined that his body should be placed in a large cask, called a 'leaguer', which would then be filled with brandy. Bung holes and plugs were arranged so the spirits could be removed and replaced as needed. On 28 October the Victory was towed into Gibraltar by the Neptune. She was ready to proceed to England under her own power by 2 November. On 12 December the Victory anchored in Dover roads. By the 17th she had made it as far as the Downs of Kent, where the body was transferred to a lead coffin and then enclosed in a temporary wooden one. While the body was transferred from cask to coffin an investigation of his wound was conducted. It was confirmed that the musket ball had indeed severed Nelson's spine and was lodged deep in the tissue of his back.
On 22 December the coffin constructed from L'Orient was brought on board. As the body was transferred from the lead coffin to its final resting place, Hardy and many others who had served closely with Nelson remarked at how well preserved his remains were so long after his death. The coffin was then sealed inside a lead box, and surrounded by another wooden coffin. The whole was lowered into the yacht Chatham III, which belonged to Sir George Grey, the Commissioner of the Sheerness Shipyard. As the coffin was lowered into the yacht Nelson's flag was lowered for the last time from Victory's foremast, another was raised on the yacht, and then lowered to half-mast.
The yacht made its way up the Thames to Greenwich. All along the shore troops stood with reversed arms, guns were fired in salute and the nation welcomed home their fallen hero. The joy of the tremendous victory at Trafalgar, coupled with the death of Nelson, had stunned the nation. The body would lie in state in the painted hall at Greenwich6. The state funeral lasted between 5-9 January, 1806. His final resting place is a magnificent black marble tomb at the very centre of the crossing of the four wings of the crypt at St Paul's Cathedral. This tomb had originally been designated for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor. When Wolsey fell from the King's graces the tomb remained empty until a suitable occupant could be found. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was that man.
The honours conferred upon Nelson's family were enormous. His brother the Reverend William Nelson was created an Earl and given a sum of money to purchase an estate. His sisters were also to share in this reward. The officers and crew were to share prize money for the captured ships which were lost in the storm that followed the battle.
Despite Nelson's dying pleas, Lady Hamilton and Horatia were ignored after his death. Emma was left to survive on the funds that had been given to her by Sir William and Nelson himself, totalling about £1,500 per year. She also held the estate at Merton. Emma and her daughter would spend ten months in debtors prison due to her extravagant lifestyle. Lady Emma Hamilton passed away in January 1815, at the age of 51, in Calais, France.
The fate of Horatia is interesting. As the child of one of the most famous couples of the times7, she spent her life as the wife of a country minister. Reverend Philip Ward and Horatia would raise ten children in Norfolk, living in relative obscurity.
HMS Victory is still available for tours in Portsmouth Naval Yard, England. Although in permanent drydock she has been preserved and is the official flagship of the First Sea Lord. Her guns are still fired on special occasions8.