My history hero: Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)

Chosen by broadcaster and presenter Johnny Vaughan

Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). I think it's safe to say that not everyone in the establishment was devastated by his death at Trafalgar, says Johnny Vaughan. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Horatio Nelson is arguably the most celebrated naval commander in British history. He masterminded a series of stunning victories over the French and Spanish – among them the battles of Cape St Vincent (1797) and the Nile (1798) – where his gung-ho tactics and proclivity for ignoring orders earned him the love of the nation and the suspicion of his superiors. A high-profile affair with Emma Hamilton only increased his celebrity. Nelson died aboard HMS Victory at the climax of his greatest victory – at Trafalgar – in 1805.

When did you first become interested in Nelson’s exploits?

It was when I started sailing as a boy. My dad and granddad both sailed for a hobby, so it was kind of inevitable that I would as well. It always fascinated me that this genius – this man who engineered a brilliant against-the-odds victory at Trafalgar – honed his skills as a youngster in the seas off Norfolk, which is somewhere that I’ve also sailed.

What made Nelson a hero?

He’s Britain’s greatest ever military tactician – and he shaped the history of this country like no other military leader. If any one man was responsible for Britannia ruling the waves, it’s him.
And his was an extraordinary story. You’ve got this wildly popular British hero who dies in his moment of triumph. You’ll never find, in fiction or reality, a finale like that – and, if you did, it would sound contrived.

What was his finest hour?

It has to be Trafalgar. His brilliance at thinking on his feet, planning his next move, overcoming the wind, tides and currents… these were the factors that secured victory. His boats were like chess pieces and Trafalgar was a great moving chessboard with a massive fan blowing by the side. Luckily, Nelson was master of the game.

What sort of person was Nelson?

He was a maverick. In fact, to the government, he was a dangerous figure. You’ve got to remember that this wasn’t long after the French Revolution – at a time when the British monarchy wasn’t exactly flavour of the month – and here you’ve got this outsider stealing the public’s heart. And, worse still, he’s walking around openly having an affair with Emma Hamilton.
I think it’s safe to say that not everyone in the establishment was devastated by Nelson’s death at Trafalgar. In fact, the conspiracy theorist inside me says they had him bumped off. Let’s face it, the French sniper was firing a rifle, hardly known for its accuracy, at a single man from 50 feet up in rigging on huge, swelling seas. And why have we never learned this sniper’s name? I’m not sure that he ever existed.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

None whatsoever. And that’s what makes him so interesting – no one else could have been Nelson. He was unique, and I think this helps explain why he is so popular a figure across the world. You’ve only got to go to the Lord Nelson Inn in Simon’s Town, South Africa, or Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua – or consider how, during his lifetime, he was awarded a duchy in Sicily – to appreciate his global impact.

If you could meet Nelson, what would you say to him?

I’d ask him if he was deliberately walking around his flagship, the Victory, trying to get killed at the height of the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson would have made one hell of a target, standing on deck dressed in his full admiral’s regalia. The Victory’s captain, Thomas Hardy, asked Nelson if he wanted to go to another ship for that very reason – but he was having none of it.
He was hugely patriotic, and saw his duty as to do and die. In fact, at the very end he said: “Thank god I have done my duty.” Maybe he thought he had nothing else to achieve and so deliberately put himself in danger.
Johnny Vaughan was talking to Spencer Mizen