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Horatio Nelson

A naval officer tours HMS Victory, during the Trafalgar bicentenary celebrations October 2005.

In October 2005, on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, I visited HMS Victory at Portsmouth Dockyard. Making my way deep inside the ship I came to an area where the surgeon treated wounded men during battle. Here Nelson spent his last few hours after being shot on Victory's quarter deck. There was a kind of shrine at this spot, centred on a painting of Nelson's final moments. Tom Pocock in his biography of Nelson thinks that the continuing influence of Nelson's story in British history might have something to do with religious symbolism, the image of a saviour of his people sacrificing himself for their sake. (See Horatio Nelson by Tom Pocock.) Certainly the heroic image of Nelson continues to be influential today. There were notable celebrations on the Trafalgar bicentenary in 2005, and John Sugden's biography which came out that same year was generally speaking quite a positive portrait of the man. Nelson, however, is a controversial figure. Terry Coleman's book Nelson, The Man And The Legend from 2001 describes his subject as a ruthless operator, almost demented in his self obsession. Rather than a hero saving Britain, the man in Coleman's book could be better described as someone with immense self regard who bordered on the psychotic; he was self centred enough to believe that he as an individual could serve as a symbol for the hopes of an age. From this point of view Nelson was a hero only because he was deluded enough to play the role. The variety of viewpoints on Nelson can get confusing. I stood in front of the Nelson shrine in 2005 with a vague sort of acceptance of what he represented. But it is possible to tell a very different story...


Chatham Dockyard - HMS Victory was built here

Horatio Nelson was born on 29th September 1758, in Burnham Thorpe, three miles from the north coast of Norfolk. His father was a country clergyman, and his mother a baker's daughter. Very little is known of Nelson's childhood, beyond traditional anecdotes, such as the one about Nelson's abiding memory of his mother's hatred of the French. Young Horatio went to Royal Grammar School in Norwich, and to a number of other schools in Norfolk, before joining the Royal Navy aged thirteen. Nelson made much of his humble background, and of his "friendless merit". This was disingenuous, since his uncle, Maurice Suckling, held a senior position in naval administration, and helped get his young relative a place in a guard ship on the Medway. A few years later came Nelson's big break, when his uncle Maurice was promoted to comptroller of the Navy Board. This was one of the most powerful positions in naval administration. Happily for Nelson, one of the responsibilities of the Navy Board was organising examinations for aspiring lieutenants. In 1776 eighteen year old Horatio was interviewed by a panel of three men, one of whom was Maurice Suckling. Nelson duly passed the examination and was appointed lieutenant. Nelson became second lieutenant on HMS Lowestoft the following day, even though many men had to wait years for a ship in which to take up their new rank. Nelson's speedy appointment was almost certainly aided by his uncle, and by the fact that Britain had been at war with the American colonies since 1775. Nelson was sent to Jamaica where Rear-Admiral Sir Peter Parker took him into his flag ship HMS Bristol. Before Maurice Suckling died in September 1778 he asked Parker to continue bringing his nephew on. With this patronage Nelson became a full or "post" captain in June 1779. As a post captain a man would only have to stay alive to eventually become an admiral. Becoming a post captain was like being granted tenure at an American university. Nelson quickly got carried away with his new position. In 1780 he was given the job of escorting troop ships to the coast of Nicaragua to stage an invasion. Disobeying orders Nelson decided that he would lead an operation himself up the San Juan river against a Spanish fort. During this adventure tropical disease shattered Nelson's health, and he was sent home to recover.

While Nelson's disobedience in Nicaragua might be put down to youthful exuberance, the time of peace that followed really showed up Nelson's failings. Many years later Admiral John Jervis was to say of Nelson that "animal courage was the sole merit of Lord Nelson" (Letter to Dr Baird, fleet physician - quoted by Terry Coleman P343). Animal courage can be a liability in times of peace. In 1784 Nelson took command of the frigate HMS Boreas and was posted to Barbados. The war with America was over and most normal people were busy taking advantage of new opportunities to trade and make money. Someone like Nelson had no role to play in a peaceful, prosperous and happy society. He only had his animal courage, and he needed war. So a way was found to stir things up. Strictly speaking the Navigation Act forbade trade with American merchants, a silly out of date rule, of which no one took any notice. But Nelson created a lot of trouble by sticking to the letter of the law, intercepting American vessels, and waving the Navigation Act if anyone objected. He had a lawyer's facility in knowing the letter of the law and doing his "duty" by it. Then all it took were a few similarly narrow minded supporters back in the Admiralty for Nelson's outrageous behaviour to go unpunished. Knowing the power of patronage, this increasingly renegade captain cultivated a friendship with Prince William, a younger son of the king, George III. The prince had been sent off to serve in the navy, and being a prince he was given command of a ship, HMS Pegasus, running it in a manner which caused his superiors much concern. Admiral Hood's decision to send an experienced and competent lieutenant, named Schomberg, to help the prince, was taken as an insult. William responded by reprimanding Schomberg over a trumped up charge of sending a boat ashore without his express permission. Instead of helping Hood control the troublesome prince, Nelson stoked his highness's self regard, and arrested Schomberg. Thankfully Commodore Alan Gordon of Jamaica managed to get Schomberg out of trouble. Even though the patronage of a prince wasn't as useful as it first appeared, Nelson continued to act above himself, making promotions that weren't his to make, and dealing with his crew in the harshest of manners. In eighteen months, from April 1786, Nelson flogged sixty six of his one hundred and forty two crew. When Boreas returned to England in 1787 and was paid off, none of her crew would volunteer to serve in any ship that Nelson might command. There was really only one good thing that came out of this time, and that was the fact that Nelson found a wife. On 11th March 1878 he married Frances Woodward, widowed daughter of the lord chief justice of Nevis Island. Frances, usually known as Fanny, seems to have been a pleasant and decent woman, who Nelson's father, cared for by Fanny in his older years, came to love.

Five years of peace now followed, and of course there was nothing for Nelson to do. He had caused all kinds of offence, and had proved that he was unable to deal with the subtleties of peace time. As a result five years followed in which there was no command and no ship. Many applications were made, to naval authorities, the secretary of state for the colonies, and even to the prime minister William Pitt the Younger. All were refused. His only supporter at this time was Prince William, and nobody in the navy took any notice of the prince. The only thing that would help Nelson now was war, and sadly war was to return. By January 1793 war with revolutionary France was inevitable, and the Admiralty had to make do with men they wouldn't otherwise employ. Nelson was posted to the Mediterranean in HMS Agamemnon, a sixty four gun ship, the smallest ship of the line. As in the Caribbean, Nelson made an aggressive nuisance of himself. The army, under Sir John Moore, was blockading the towns of Bastia and Calvi, and was hopeful that this would soon lead to revolutionary forces in the towns surrendering. Nelson did not like this wait and see approach. Even though he was a sea captain and had no business interfering with operations on land, he made his sailors drag guns up hills under fire to set up bombardments. When Bastia and Calvi did surrender Sir John Moore made clear his feelings about absurd attacks which got men needlessly killed when a blockade would have achieved the same end at less cost. One who paid the price for these attacks was Nelson himself who received the first of his famous wounds during the attack on Calvi - a rock splinter from an explosion blinded him in the right eye. Perhaps the navy then thought it could keep Nelson out of trouble by sending him as a messenger to deliver some papers to the British minister at Genoa. But they did not give enough credit to Nelson's powers of self promotion. Reaching Genoa, the Agamemnon flew a Union Jack from its mast as a signal to the harbour pilot. The Genoans thought this flag was the pennant of a vice admiral and accidentally gave Agamemnon a fifteen gun salute. As the British minister happened to be absent, no one corrected this assumption. Nelson did nothing to clarify his real status as a mere captain, and in the absence of the minister he took it upon himself to negotiate with Genoa's ruler, guaranteeing to respect Genoa's neutrality, mainly it seems because he thought Genoa was a nice city.


The Destruction of L'Orient At The Battle Of The Nile by George Arnald - held at the National Maritime Museum. This image is copyright free

The first large naval battle of Nelson's career then took place off Genoa in March 1795. Nelson played up his part in it shamelessly. Because Nelson later became a hero his account of attacking a huge French ship virtually single handed became the accepted version. The official account by Vice Admiral William Hotham tells a different story, indicating that Nelson played a secondary role. In the event, no amount of creative use of the facts could save the British position in the Mediterranean, the fleet withdrawing through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic. Nelson was then part of Sir John Jervis's squadron when it met a Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent in south west Portugal on 14th February 1797. In the battle that followed Nelson disobeyed orders, breaking formation in the line of British ships and attacking three Spanish vessels head on. Admiral Byng had been shot for doing a similar thing in 1756, but Nelson was lucky and the battle was won. Once again Nelson inflated his own role. In Jervis's report many officers were mentioned, Troubridge who led the squadron, Captain Berry who led boarders onto two Spanish ships, followed by Nelson. In no sense was Nelson given personal credit for the victory. But Nelson sent his own account to Prince William, and further copies to Fanny and to other friends, with encouragement to forward them to newspapers. Nelson's story appeared in The Times and The Sun. Six days after the battle Nelson was made rear admiral. Sometimes this has been presented as a reward for his great service at St Vincent. But at this point the Admiralty didn't even know the battle had taken place. The promotion was simply a routine move up the ladder. Nine other captains were made rear admiral on the same day.


Nelson's subsequent career as a rear admiral followed a pattern that had now become familiar. There was the blockade of Cadiz in 1797, where Nelson, impatient as usual with a blockade, took great pleasure in lobbing shells into the city. Then there was a reckless attack at Santa Cruz, where Nelson once again interfered with operations on land, leading an almost suicidal commando operation. As soon as Nelson ran ashore at Santa Cruz he was hit in the right arm, and had to be carried back to his ship where a surgeon carried out an amputation. All this may have been militarily useless, but it went down well at home. Then, after recovering from the loss of his arm, came another big set piece battle, the Battle of the Nile, another battle which Nelson appropriated for himself. He had been given command of a squadron in the Mediterranean chasing Napoleon's fleet. On 1st August 1798 the British caught the French fleet anchored off Aboukir in Egypt, at the mouth of the Nile. Towards evening an attack began, British ships getting between the anchored French ships and the shore, bombarding them from both sides. This tactic seems to have been a last minute improvisation by Captain Foley, and proved very effective. In the dark, smoky, terrifying choas that followed no one account agrees with another. All that is clear is that the French fleet was annihilated, L'Orient famously exploding with massive force. Nelson spent most of the battle below decks with a wound to his hand. After the battle, however, he wrote to Admiral Howe that victory would have been even more complete if he as squadron commander had not been wounded. Victory and defeat, it seems, revolved around only one man. Then, following the Battle of the Nile, came one of the most controversial episodes of Nelson's career. This one mimicked the fiasco in the Caribbean when Nelson had sided with incompetent Prince William rather than the naval authorities trying to control him. Sailing to Naples he spent the next two years closely involved with the Naples royal family, taking on their struggle against republican rebels. Nelson, an aggressive royalist who believed in the divine right of kings, intervened in a stand off between Naples' royal forces and republicans barricaded into Novo and Nuovo castles. It appears that rebel leaders, thinking that the British would act as fair mediators, accepted a peace plan brokered by Nelson. Emerging from their strongholds, seemingly protected by treaty, the unfortunate rebels were rounded up and confined to terrible prison ships, or executed. In 1800, prominent opposition politician Charles Fox gave a speech in Parliament warning of British involvement in atrocities in Naples. He called for an investigation, but did not get one. Nelson, whose animal courage was still deemed useful in war time, managed to get away with it. But Italian critics have been less forgiving. Professor Antonia Gangani on BBC Radio in 1999, called Nelson a "war criminal" (see Coleman P215). Adding to the murky complexity of these times, Nelson had now embarked on an affair with Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador in Naples.


Melford Hall, home of Admiral Hyde Parker

Returning to England with Emma, Fanny was unceremoniously dumped, dropped by all except Nelson's father, who wrote disapproving letters to his son. Nelson meanwhile was sent to the Baltic, to oppose a new alliance between Russia and Denmark. On 2nd April 1801 a squadron led by Admiral Hyde Parker attacked anchored ships and shore batteries at the Danish port of Copenhagen. Nelson led a line of ships into the channel off Copenhagen, and by 1pm they were taking a terrible beating. Three miles away Hyde Parker gave the signal to withdraw, which Nelson on board HMS Elephant ignored. Instead he continued firing for a while, and then in a ruse of breath taking audacity, a letter was sent to the Danes offering them a truce. It was actually the British who were being battered to pieces, but Nelson in his magisterial way offered the Danes a chance to surrender. They accepted. On 3rd April Nelson went ashore to meet the Crown Prince of Denmark. One account talks of a strong guard needed to keep back furious Danes. (See The Dispatches and Letters Of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson ed Nicholas Harris Nicholas Vol IV P326.) Amazingly Nelson persuaded himself that the crowds of people baying for his blood were actually welcoming him as a conquering hero: "The crowd was, as is usual, with me. No wonder I am spoilt. All my astonishment is that my head is not turned." (Letter to Alexander Davison - quoted Coleman P255.) An armistice was signed on 1st April, the Danes having to balance Russian reprisals for breaking a treaty, against bombardment by the Royal Navy. It was actually an armistice that was only to last for fourteen weeks. Denmark soon deemed Russia as more threatening, renewing its treaty with them. The Battle of Copenhagen achieved little militarily.


Copenhagen might not have had long lasting military results, but in a mythic sense its influence is still with us. The Battle of Copenhagen is well known for the myth that following Hyde Parker's signal to withdraw, Nelson put a telescope to his blind eye and claimed "I have the right to be blind sometimes". Colonel William Stewart, on Elephant's quarter deck with Nelson, gave a long account of the battle which did not mention any telescope or references to being blind. The blind eye first appeared in a biography by James Harrison, using the ship's surgeon as his source. Surgeons did not spend battles on quarter decks. They were down inside the ship treating wounded men. Harrison, however, did not mention any telescope being placed to the blind eye. That came along with Clarke and M'Arthur's biography in 1809, giving their source as "an officer who was with Lord Nelson". Then Southey's biography of 1813 brought together the blind eye, the telescope, and Nelson's phrase about having the right to be blind sometimes. In this way a myth was created, and is still widely accepted today. I was told the story of Nelson and his telescope by a guide at Melford Hall, home of Admiral Hyde Parker, when I visited in 2008.

"England expects that every man will do his duty" flag message on Victory's rigging in 2005

Returning to England Nelson was given a seat in the House of Lords, and spent some time at his home in Merton with Emma Hamilton. According to Lord Minto the walls of Merton House were covered in pictures of Nelson and Emma. In Minto's opinion, the house of a man which is "a mere looking glass to view himself all day is bad taste" (quoted Coleman P289). Nelson fell out with his father who continued to object to the treatment of Fanny. There was also a falling out with friend Thomas Troubridge who had the temerity to advise Nelson not to be seen out gambling late at night with Emma. Troubridge was also critical of the Queen of Naples' brutality against republicans. While arguing with his father and his friends, Nelson was also involved in an on-going row with the new prime minister Henry Addington over the amount of money that was appropriate for a national hero. As usual Nelson spent a time of peace in a kind of coiled misery. But by the spring of 1803 there was another war to look forward to. The Peace of Amiens had broken down, and Britain was at war with Napoleonic France once again. In May 1803 Nelson sailed out of Portsmouth on HMS Victory, and then spent two years looking for the French in the Mediterranean and the West Indies. He wrote obsessive letters about money and his position in life. Money was short, as he was having to pay Fanny and Emma, and he was still only seventy fourth on the admiral's list.

Finally in October 1805 news came through that the combined Spanish and French fleets were at Cadiz in Spain. Nelson, who had been taking a short break in England, rejoined HMS Victory at Portsmouth and sailed for Cadiz. On 20th October the British fleet met the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar in Spain. At 11.15am a famous message was run up on the rigging of Victory: "England expects that every man will do his duty." Then as the two fleets slowly converged, Victory moved behind Admiral Villeneuve's flagship, Bucentaure, and fired all her port side guns into the stern windows of the Spanish ship. Within minutes Bucentaure was a wreck. A chaotic massacre followed, with the British able to fire faster and manoeuvre better than their enemy. Meanwhile Nelson stood on Victory's quarter deck covered in his ribbons and medals, an easy target for snipers. Nelson was shot at about 1.15pm. He was carried below and died four hours later, in the spot where I stood on Victory two hundred years later. The bullet that killed him is kept at Windsor Castle. Nelson was buried in a state funeral at St Paul's Cathedral on 9th January 1806.

How could the image celebrated in the shrine on HMS Victory and the story told by a biographer like Terry Coleman be so different? Perhaps it's partly about the time in which people live. In time of war characters like Nelson would be more likely to be revered. Winston Churchill, for example drew on the Nelson myth during World War Two. He, like Nelson, was at his best in times of war. Churchill wrote to his wife as World War One approached: "Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be made like this?" (See Churchill, An Unruly Life by Norman Rose.) Nelson was also made like this, and just as he found his place in war, so he is more likely to be celebrated in difficult times. Times of peace have different requirements, and aggressive warriors can be viewed with disapproval. When Terry Coleman published his book in 2001 things were looking quite good. The Cold War was over, the Berlin wall had come down, and nobody knew about the war on terror. Things changed in September 2001, with terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in America. By 2005, with the bicentenary of Trafalgar and the publication of John Sugden's more positive book, international tensions were much higher. July 2005 saw terrorist attacks on London's public transport system, which killed fifty two people, and injured about seven hundred. Perhaps it was time for Nelson to make a comeback, setting sail once again just as he did in 1793 with the beginning of the war against France.