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Friday, 10 March 2017

The life and career of Horatio Nelson

Admiral Lord Nelson after the painting by John Hoppner  in Miller's edition of Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1896)
Admiral Lord Nelson after the painting by John Hoppner
in Miller's edition of Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1896)
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Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) is probably the most well-known of all the heroes of late Georgian England. He can’t match Mr Darcy in popularity, but Nelson did have the benefit of being a real person!

Nelson’s early naval career 1771-1792

Born in 1758, the sixth of eleven children living in Norfolk, his father was a rector and his mother died when he was age nine. Three years later he decided to join the navy having read of his uncle taking command of a sixty-four gun warship.

He joined his uncle’s ship, the Raisonnable, at Chatham in 1771, as a midshipman. Keen to give the boy more experience, his uncle arranged for him to serve on other ships, taking him to North America and to India. In 1777 the 18-year-old Nelson applied for, and was given, promotion to Lieutenant.

For the next few years, Nelson spent much of his time in and around the Caribbean. Promoted again to Post-Captain, he was given his first command, HMS Badger, in late 1778. He took part in several military engagements, both at sea and on land. 

Nelson's marriage 1787
On 11 March 1787, on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he married 29-year-old Frances Nisbet, a widow with a young son. The bride was given away by Prince William (later William IV), at that time a junior officer in the navy and a friend of Nelson. 

Lady Nelson © National Maritime Museum
Lady Nelson © National Maritime Museum
In a letter to Captain William Locker dated 21 March 1787, 10 days after his marriage to Frances Nisbet, Nelson wrote:
I am married to an amiable woman, that far makes amends for everything: indeed till I married her I never knew happiness. And I am morally certain she will continue to make me a happy man for the rest of my days.1
Later that year the couple returned to England and as the nation was enjoying a period of peace, Nelson’s services were no longer required by the navy. He was put on half-pay and spent the next few years badgering to be given a new command.

Mediterranean service 1793-1797

Peace did not last long. Revolutionary France was threatening war and in January 1793 Nelson was given command of the sixty-four gun HMS Agamemnon. Within weeks, the French declared war and Nelson began a long period of service in the Mediterranean.

In late 1793 he arrived in Naples, where he met Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples. He also met Hamilton’s attractive young wife, Emma. 

Sir William Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and   the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Sir William Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and 
the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
He was soon engaged in military action against the French, including an assault on the island of Corsica. It was during this, in 1794, that his right eye was permanently damaged by flying debris.

In 1796 Nelson was promoted to Commodore, as he continued to conduct operations against the French and their allies. A year later he was made a Knight of the Bath for his contribution to the victory during the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797. This action won him recognition for his unorthodox tactics, and he became a hero in the eyes of the public. A week later he was promoted again, to Rear Admiral.

Colonel John Drinkwater Bethune was an eye witness at the battle of St Vincent and discussed it with Nelson afterwards. This is part of his published account of the action:
The Commodore’s [Nelson] impatience would not permit him to remain an inactive spectator of the event. He knew the attempt was hazardous; and his presence, he thought, might contribute to its success. He therefore accompanied the party in this attack, passing from the fore chains of his own ship into the enemy’s quarter gallery, and thence through the cabin to the quarter-deck, where he arrived in time to receive the sword of the dying commander, who was mortally wounded by the boarders … But this labor was no sooner achieved, than he found himself involved in another and more arduous one … the undaunted Commodore headed himself the assailants in this new attack, and success crowned the enterprise. Such, indeed, was the panic occasioned by his preceding conduct, that the British no sooner appeared on the quarter-deck of their new opponent, than the Commandant advanced, and asking for the British commanding officer, dropped on one knee, and presented to him his sword; making, at the same time, an excuse for the Spanish Admiral’s not appearing, as he was dangerously wounded.2
Later that year, on 22-25 July 1797, Nelson led a failed attempt to capture Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. During the attack his right arm was injured and subsequently amputated. He returned to England to recuperate.

Victory, fame and Emma Hamilton 1798-1799

Within a few months, Nelson’s reputation as a national hero was cemented by the dramatic defeat of the French at the Battle of the Nile, 1-3 August 1798. 

The French had just delivered Napoleon and his army to Egypt and they felt secure, having more guns than the British. Having spent months searching for the French, and despite discovering them late in the afternoon, Nelson ordered an immediate attack. The result was a naval battle at night, which included the spectacular explosion of the French flagship Orient. 

The Battle of the Nile from Horatio Nelson and   the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Battle of the Nile from Horatio Nelson and 
the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Nelson’s victory stranded Napoleon in Egypt and won him huge recognition in Britain, where the public celebrated enthusiastically once the news arrived. Nelson was made Baron Nelson of the Nile.
His victory was also celebrated in the Kingdom of Naples, where he received a particularly enthusiastic reception from Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador. Nelson and Emma became lovers.
Emma Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and   the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Emma Hamilton from Horatio Nelson and 
the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Kingdom of Naples declared war on France, and his army got as far as capturing Rome before being driven back. By late 1798 the French were threatening Naples itself, and Nelson oversaw the evacuation of the Neapolitan royal family, along with William and Emma Hamilton.

The following year saw the French driven from Naples, which Nelson had blockaded. He then oversaw the imprisonment and execution of many supporters of the French. For his support of the Neapolitan monarchy, Nelson was given the Dukedom of Bronte.

Return to England and another victory 1800-1801

Lord Nelson KB after a painting by AW Devis  from Horatio Nelson and the Naval   Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Lord Nelson KB after a painting by AW Devis from Horatio 
Nelson and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
With both Nelson and Sir William Hamilton being recalled to England, they chose to travel home together, along with Emma, now pregnant by Nelson. The four-month journey was overland, via Florence, Prague and Hamburg. They arrived in Great Yarmouth on 6 November 1800.

Nelson received a hero’s welcome, but there was more than a whiff of scandal around his relationship with Lady Hamilton. Meetings with his wife, Frances, were frosty and soon Nelson made it clear his commitment was to his lover.

Nelson wrote to Emma:
You need not fear all the women in this world; for all others, except yourself, are pests to me. I know but one; for, who can be like my Emma? I am confident, you will do nothing which can hurt my feelings; and I will die by torture, sooner than do any thing which could offend you.3
On 29 January 1801, Emma gave birth to Horatia, Nelson’s daughter. In the same month, he was promoted to Vice Admiral, and went on to lead an attack on Denmark. Victory at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801 saw him made Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic fleet.

In October 1801 Nelson and the Hamiltons toured central England and parts of Wales, where they were met by enthusiastic crowds and numerous accolades.

Nelson’s final years and the Battle of Trafalgar 1802-1805

  Merton Place in Surrey  in The Seats of the Nobility and Gentry by W Angus (c1801)
Merton Place in Surrey
in The Seats of the Nobility and Gentry by W Angus (c1801)
Anxious to settle down with Emma, effectively as a married couple, Nelson bought Merton Place in 1802. But as war was again brewing, he was soon called to serve with the fleet. For much of 1803 and 1804 he took part in the naval blockade of Toulon.
Never was any commander more beloved. He governed men by their reason and their affections; they knew that he was incapable of caprice or tyranny and they obeyed him with alacrity and joy, because he possessed their confidence as well as their love. “Our Nel,” they used to say, “is as brave as a lion and as gentle as a lamb. Severe discipline he detested, though he had been bred in a severe school. He never inflicted corporal punishment if it were possible to avoid it; and when compelled to enforce it, he, who was familiar with wounds and death, suffered like a woman. In his whole life, Nelson was never known to act unkindly towards an officer. If he was asked to prosecute one for ill behaviour, he used to answer, “That there was no occasion for him to ruin a poor devil who was sufficiently his own enemy to ruin himself.”4
Early 1805 brought the news of a major French fleet setting sail into the Atlantic. Nelson was anxious to engage them in a major battle and spent months searching for them. He returned to London in the summer, frustrated at not discovering them, but in September, news arrived of the French and Spanish fleets having combined, and being anchored at Cadiz.

On 14 September 1805 Nelson left Portsmouth for the last time, aboard his flagship, HMS Victory. On 21 October Nelson raised his famous signal “England expects that every man will his duty” and engaged the enemy fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, using novel tactics he had devised.

Nelson's signal at Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson   and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Nelson's signal at Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson
 and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
In the early afternoon, as he stood on the deck of the Victory, Nelson was struck by a musket ball. He was taken below deck and remained conscious for some time, giving instructions for the fleet and asking for his possessions to be given to Lady Hamilton. He died around three hours after being hit.

Death of Nelson from the painting by Ernest Slingeneyer from Horatio   Nelson  and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Death of Nelson from the painting by Ernest Slingeneyer from Horatio 
Nelson  and the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The British fleet won a decisive victory at Trafalgar. 

The Battle of Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson and the   Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Battle of Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson and the 
Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was given a hero’s funeral and lies entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. A number of monuments were erected to remember him, including the landmark Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London.

Monument erected in St Paul's Cathedral to   the memory of Nelson from the European   Magazine and London Review (1818)
Monument erected in St Paul's Cathedral to
the memory of Nelson from the European
 Magazine and London Review (1818)
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Detail from frieze on Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Detail from frieze on Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London
Notes

(1) From Nelson, Horatio, Dispatches and letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson vol 1, 1777-1794 (1814, London)
(2) From Bethune, Colonel Drinkwater, A narrative of the battle of St Vincent with anecdotes of Nelson (1840, London)
(3) In a letter to Emma Hamilton from Nelson, July 1 1801, in Nelson, Horatio, The Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton vol 1 (1814)
(4) From Southey, Robert, The life of Horatio Lord Nelson vol 2 (1814)

Sources used include:
Bethune, Colonel Drinkwater, A narrative of the battle of St Vincent with anecdotes of Nelson (1840, London)
Hibbert, Christopher, Nelson, A Personal History (1994)
Miller, Edwin L, Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896)
Nelson, Horatio, Dispatches and letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson vol 1, 1777-1794 (1814, London)
Nelson, Horatio, The Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton vol 1 (1814)
Southey, Robert, The life of Horatio Lord Nelson vol 1 (1813) vol 2 (1814)

All photographs © RegencyHistory.net

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