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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet

Admiral Horatio Nelson

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Portrait of Horatio Nelson, naval captain
Captain Nelson, aged just 23

Who would have thought that the sixth child of eleven, born in 1758 in a small Norfolk village close to the North Sea, would go on to become one of the most celebrated naval heroes of all time? 

Horatio Nelson left his home in Burnham Thorpe to join the navy as midshipman at age 12, where as a young gentleman he would train to become a commissioned officer. Clearly His father’s status as rector of All Saints Church, as well as the fact that his uncle commanded HMS Raisonable, gave the bright lad a head start and once aboard, he would have been educated in navigation, astronomy and trigonometry by the ship’s schoolmaster, as well as being expected to undertake watches on deck where even the average 74 gun third ship-of-the-line housed some 650 men.

After seven years at sea which included three years on the East Indies station and with the rank of lieutenant, in 1777 Nelson joined HMS Lowestoft. After active service in the North American War of Independence, at age 20 he was given command of the brig HMS Badger. Several promotions and ships later at age 26, he embarked on his only peacetime commission, serving in the West Indies where he met and married his wife, returning to Norfolk with her and his step-son — and to the frustration of five years without a command, on half pay due to reductions in the Navy.

At the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars in 1793, Nelson was given command of HMS Agamemnon and his years of distinguished naval actions as well as personal injuries began to mount up. He lost the sight of his right eye in the siege of Calvi in the Mediterranean, and his right arm to amputation (without anaesthetic) aboard his flag ship HMS Theseus after being hit with a musket-ball in 1797 at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. After recuperating at home for several months, he re-joined the fray.

Already Rear Admiral of the Blue, he was made Knight Commander of the Bath for his courage and skill in battle as well as given the honorary rank of Colonel of Marines. In August 1798, Nelson destroyed Napoleon's fleet at Aboukir Bay at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt, scuppering the French bid for a direct trade route to India and for which a grateful King George III made him Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe.

An exhausted Nelson had sailed for repairs and recuperation to Naples, where, whilst staying in the home of the British Ambassador Sir William Hamilton, he fell in love with Emma, Lady Hamilton, with whom he had a daughter, Horatia, in 1801. He returned to his home port of Great Yarmouth in November 1800 but his scandalous behaviour saw him quickly despatched off to sea as second-in-command to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and the Battle of Copenhagen. It was aboard his ship HMS Elephant he famously ignored Parker’s flagged orders to cease action by putting his telescope to his blind eye saying, ‘I really do not see the Signal.’ Nelson subsequently and successfully led a squadron to attack the Danish fleet and following Parker’s recall, took over as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet with HMS Victory as his flagship.

Prior to commencement of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Nelson sent out his famous signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty,’ and though he won a decisive victory over the combined French and Spanish fleet, as he walked the deck accompanied by Captain Thomas Hardy, he was struck down by a French musket-ball that punctured his lung and shattered his spine. During his last three hours he directed the famous words kiss me (possibly 'kismet' - destiny/fate) Hardy to his friend, with his very last utterance being, 'thank God I have done my duty.' He was only 47 years old.

Nelson's signal, relayed using Popham's "Telegraphic Signals of Marine Vocabulary", courtesy Ipankonin, CCBYSA3.0
Nelson's signal, relayed using Popham's "Telegraphic Signals of Marine Vocabulary", courtesy Ipankonin, CCBYSA3.0

Preserved in brandy, Horatio Nelson's body was transported back to England in December. The nation mourned its hero with 15,000 people attending his laying-in-state with many more turned away before his state funeral and burial at St. Paul's Cathedral in January, 1806. As requested before his death, he was incarcerated in a coffin made from the mast of the French ship L'Orient destroyed at the Battle of the Nile.

It is only when closely studying Nelson's eventful, battle-riddled life that the magnitude of his achievements really becomes clear. At only 5' 4" he was a man small of stature but giant of heart and courage. Thousands of sea-miles took him in across the globe to conflicts and climes far away from the pastoral calm of Norfolk, though a very tangible connection with his last battle remains in his birthplace of Burnham Thorpe: inside All Saints church where his parents lie entombed in the chancel, timbers from HMS Victory have been made into lectern, altar and rood screen. There is also a bust of Horatio, as well as flags flown by HMS Indomitable (Battle of Jutland), and by HMS Nelson hanging in the nave. It is not for nothing that Norfolk proudly describes itself as 'Nelson's County'.



> Horatio and his wife Francis remained married though they had rarely seen each other over several years. He settled half his salary on her when they separated and before he left for the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, he and Emma took Holy Communion together and exchanged rings. In a codicil to his will, Nelson requested the government to look after Mrs. Hamilton after his death but this they failed to do. Feted whilst Nelson was alive, she was shunned after his death leaving her to run up debts so vast she served time in a debtors prison before fleeing to Paris with her daughter where she died a broken woman in 1815, just before her 50th birthday.

Nelson's coccaded hat with details of its special jewel
Image courtesy Alexander Robertson

> The unusual decoration on Nelson’s hat captured in several portraits, started a fashion craze. An Ottoman military decoration called a chelengk, it was given to him by Selim III of Turkey after the defeat of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Thirteen diamond-encrusted rays represented the French ships captured or destroyed. Its central diamond sat in a clockwork mount that rotated when worn. Sadly, one of Britain’s most iconic jewels was stolen in a daring raid on the National Maritime Museum by a cat-burglar in 1951 and lost forever.

> Nelson's Titles as read out at his funeral service: The Most Noble Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount and Baron Nelson, of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk, Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Hilborough in the said County, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Vice Admiral of the White Squadron of the Fleet, Commander in Chief of his Majesty's Ships and Vessels in the Mediterranean, Duke of Bronté in the Kingdom of Sicily, Knight Grand Cross of the Sicilian Order of St Ferdinand and of Merit, Member of the Ottoman Order of the Crescent, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of St Joachim.

He received large Naval Gold Medals for the battles of St. Vincent, the Nile and, posthumously, Trafalgar, the only recipient of three such medals.

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