Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805)

Horatio Nelson ImageVice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was a British naval officer most famous for his participation and leadership in the Napoleonic Wars. Having worked his way up the ranks, in life Nelson was a national hero, as famous for his adulterous affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, as he was for his victories on the sea – most notably the Battle of the Nile; in death Nelson became a god of the British Empire, embodying, courage, duty and honour.

Horatio Nelson was born in 1758, to middle class parentage. After he finished his schooling, Nelson joined the British Navy as a midshipman when he was just 15-years-old. With a keen, young mind, a head for figures, and a flair for seamanship (although a sufferer from seasickness throughout his life) Nelson rose quickly through the ranks, serving under some of the more notable naval commanders of the time. After a brief period of unemployment – common for naval officers during the period – the Napoleonic Wars gave Nelson the chance to get back into service and carve out his legend.

In 1797, Horatio Nelson, now a flag officer, led a British naval force into what was to become the disastrous Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where he lost his right arm and received other injuries. Nelson had to return to England to recuperate from what he later described as the worst ‘hell’ he had ever had to experience. In 1798 he broke the back of the French navy, and scuppered the ‘civilising’ hopes of a French military and cultural expedition in the Levant in what was arguably his greatest moment at the Battle of the Nile. It was during this time that Nelson started up an enduring affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, whilst he was on political and diplomatic duties in the Mediterranean. The affair captured the imagination of the chattering classes in the UK, in what was probably one of the first cases of celebrity gossip.

In 1801 Nelson was in charge of the Baltic Fleet when they vanquished the Danish at the Battle of Copenhagen. After this he took on blockading duties around the French and Spanish coasts, including a lengthy, and fruitless sojourn to the West Indies and back in an attempt to bring there seaborne fleets into battle. However, he would eventually meet them on the high seas again, on 21st October 1805, in the Bay of Trafalgar, off the Spanish coast.

In what was to be the decisive sea battle of the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Nelson flew in the face of traditional, tactical naval thinking and sailed his fleet perpendicular into the line of the French and Spanish fleets. Outnumbered, but with better trained and disciplined men the British overpowered the French and Spanish in a brutal action that left thousands dead on both sides. Nelson was shot in the shoulder by a sharpshooter nesting high up in the rigging of the French ship Redoubtable. The musket ball ricocheted around Nelson’s body before snapping his spine. Below the decks of his ship HMS Victory, as word reached the dying Nelson that the enemies had capitulated, his last words were:

“Thank God I did my duty”

Nelson’s body was placed inside a barrel of rum in order to preserve it, and shipped back to England where he was accorded a state funeral, transporting his body on a funeral flotilla up the Thames from Greenwich to St Paul’s Cathedral, where his body, and the barrel, still are to this day.

Nelson’s status as a national hero is still very much in evidence today: Trafalgar Square in London’s West End is home to Nelson’s column, where a statue of the great man stand’s guards 150 feet above London. The British Maritime Museum in Greenwich has a vast display of Nelson memorabilia, including the uniform coat Nelson was wearing when he was shot at Trafalgar – complete with bullet hole. At the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth Nelson’s ship – HMS Victory – is still a commissioned ship of the line, and can be visited around the year.

Great Britons / Horatio Nelson