Lord Horatio Nelson is one of Britain's most celebrated heroes. His courage and audacity in battle earned him many honours, not least the respect and love of the men who served under him. A massive monument stands in Trafalgar Square, London, named after the famous sea battle which cost him his life.
On a granite column towering 185 feet above Trafalgar Square in the centre of London, stands a statue of Lord Nelson, one of England’s greatest heroes. The decoration of Acanthus leaves at the top of the column were cast from British cannons. His four most notable victories depicted on panels at the base, were cast from captured French armaments. Four massive lions surround the monument. It is an outstanding tribute to a war hero and one who fell in battle.
Horatio Nelson’s life ended in glory but it began insignifanctly. His father, Reverend Edmund Nelson, was the Rector of the church at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk. It was an adequate but sparse living. Horatio, born on 29th September 1758, was the sixth child and described as ‘a sickly baby’. His mother, Catherine bore eleven children altogether, three of whom died. When Horatio was nine years old she also died, leaving Edmund to care for the family. Horatio’s childhood was spent in Burnham Thorpe which was a village half an hour’s walk to the sea. It was his wish that he should be buried in Burnham Thorpe alongside his father.
By the time he was twelve Horatio knew exactly what he wanted to do and prevailed upon his father to write to his Uncle Maurice, who was a Captain in the Royal Navy. It was a rough life in the Royal Navy and his Uncle seemed less than enthusiastic about encouraging the idea but nevertheless in March 1971 Nelson arrived in Chatham and reported for duty.
Horatio proved to be a bad sailor who was constantly sea-sick and who disliked the discipline of naval life. His uncle suggested that he took a year out to join a Merchant vessel bound for the West Indies. After a year Nelson described himself as a ‘practical seaman’ although he did not relish the the prospect of rejoining the Royal Navy. However he did so and once again embraced the disciplines of service life spending time on an Arctic Expedition, and three years in the East Indies.
Nelson contracted a seriously high fever in 1777 and had to return to England. He experienced a period of depression during which he recounted seeing a ‘shining orb’ encouraging him to overcome and which gave him ‘a sudden glow of patriotism’ inspiring him to the extent that he exclaimed ‘Well then, I will be a hero and, confiding in Providence, I will brave any danger.’
In 1777 Nelson took the Royal Naval examination and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1777, sailing in a frigate to the West Indies. A further promotion to Captain came in 1779 with command of his own frigate. It was in the West Indies that Nelson met Francis Nisbet a widow with a five year old son. Nelson recognised in her a woman who would make him happy and married her in March 1787.
The family returned to England, living in the Vicarage where he had grown up. Fanny, as his wife was known, found life very quiet in the village, and the weather in winter too cold. She suffered with rheumatism and colds which drove her to bed for days at a time. Nelson was on half pay and endured 5 years of boredom until January 1793 when the Admiralty commissioned him to the command of a 64 gun fighting ship HMS Agamemnon.
Active service on a fighting ship was a hazardous one, it was no accident that the decks were painted red to camouflage the blood that would flow as men and ships collided in close, often hand to hand, fighting.
In spite of his lack of stature,(he stood 5’4’’ tall) Nelson was a leader who led from the front. He sustained many injuries but gained the love and respect of the men who served under him. He lost the sight of his right eye in 1794 during the Siege of Calvi, and his right arm was amputated after being hit by musket shot during an abortive attempt to capture a Spanish treasure ship at Santa Cruz, Tenerife. The operation was carried out by the ship’s surgeon without the benefit of an anaesthetic.
During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 Nelson was signalled to withdraw by his commanding officer Sir Admiral Hyde Parker. Nelson famously put his telescope to his right eye and announced ‘I really do not see the signal’ and ignored it. The Royal Navy made him a Vice Admiral, his country made him a Viscount with a seat in the House of Lords.
Nelson’s lack of orthodoxy brought him fame, victory and adoration. He was the super star of his time. His lack of orthodoxy was heightened when he fell in love with Emma, the beautiful wife of Sir William Hamilton. Emma herself also had a very unorthodox history and was a celebrity, having achieved notoriety as mistress to Hon. Charles Greville, a nephew of Sir William. Emma was thirty five years younger than her husband and it seems to have been a marriage of convenience for her after Charles formed a relationship with a wealthy heiress and asked his 62 year old uncle to ‘take care’ of Emma.’ Sir William was said to be smitten by her and married her in 1791.
Emma Hamilton had met Nelson previously in 1793 but the relationship blossomed in Naples in 1797. Nelson, William and Emma formed an unconventional threesome that was a scandal to society. It seemed not to bother them and no secret was made of it. When Emma gave birth to a daughter in 1801 she named the child Horatia,an unusual name for a girl which left no-one in doubt who had fathered her. Sir William died in 1803.
In 1803 Nelson took command of the Mediterranean Fleet. His flagship was HMS Victory. Napoleon, with the intent of invading England, needed the English Channel to be safely in his hands. He assembled a Franco-Spanish fleet at Cadiz for this purpose in 1805. The battle lines were drawn and Nelson sailed in HMS Victory with the English fleet to prepare for the battle of Trafalgar
Battle was enjoined on 21 October with a Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty three ships outnumbering Nelson’s twenty seven. Nelson began the morning with the following prayer:
'May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory: and may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it: and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet.
For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully.
To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.'
Nelson sent his famous last message to the fleet under his command ‘England expects every man will do his duty.’ After which he did his, taking his place in the forefront of the battle, making no effort to disguise himself. In the early afternoon Nelson was hit by a musket ball fired by an unknown French sniper. It hit his left shoulder, went through his lung and lodged in his spine. He died in the sick bay of HMS Victory three hours later, his last request being for a kiss from Flag Captain Thomas Hardy, his fighting companion and loyal friend who had been by his side on the deck when the fatal shot was fired. His last words were ‘Thank God I have done my duty.’ Nelson was forty seven years old when he died.
Nelson lay in State in Greenwich Hospital for three days, and it was estimated that 30,000 people came to pay their last respects. He was buried in St.Paul’s Cathedral after an elaborate state funeral. His coffin was lowered into a sarcophagus presented by George III which had originally been made for Cardinal Wolsey. His desire, expressed in his Will, to be buried next to his father in Burnham Thorpe was overturned by a later Codicil which added ’unless the king decrees otherwise.’
The Battle of Trafalgar decimated Napoleon's fleet and his chances of supremacy on the sea. The Royal Navy assumed that psition and the fear of invasion was removed.