This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
9 April 1777: The ambitious teenager shows his potential
Passing the lieutenant’s examination was a hurdle that everyone with ambitions to become a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy had to clear. Nelson was 18 years old when he appeared before the panel to be tested on diverse aspects of his service knowledge. Meeting with success, he wrote to his brother soon afterwards with the news that he had been appointed lieutenant on a frigate, the Lowestoffe. “So I am now left in [the] world to shift for myself,” he continued, “which I hope I shall do, so as to bring Credit to myself and Friends.”
Perhaps chief among those friends was Nelson’s uncle, Maurice Suckling. A captain himself, and promoted to the important position of controller of the navy in 1775, Suckling had carefully guided Nelson’s youthful footsteps, finding commanding officers who would promote his advancement and broaden his operational experience. Indeed, the two ships in which Nelson began his naval service as a boy in 1771 – Raisonnable and Triumph – were both captained by Suckling.
Six years later, this key supporter also sat on the board that examined Nelson for his lieutenant’s commission. Patronage was, of course, part of the bedrock of 18th-century British society, and Nelson was typical of the wider officer corps in seeking to benefit from a powerful contact. However, influence was rarely the sole basis of naval success. It was professional knowledge that the examination was designed to probe, and the patron who backed a dunderhead jeopardised his own reputation in the short or long term.
11 March 1787: Nelson marries into wealth and respectability
The 10 years of peace that followed the American War of Independence put Nelson’s naval career on hold. In 1787 he married Frances ‘Fanny’ Nisbet, a young widow from a wealthy plantation family on Nevis (one of the Leeward Islands). Contemporaries described her as pretty and artistic, though intellectually unremarkable. Prince William Henry, the future William IV and a fellow naval officer, gave the bride away. Privately, the prince wrote more critically to Samuel Hood, saying “poor Nelson is over head and ears in love… I wish him well and happy, and that he may not repent the step he has taken”.
Contrary to much subsequent opinion, the marriage was for many years a happy one. With Nelson often away at sea for long periods, the couple corresponded frequently, their letters showing an affectionate, if formal, relationship. The marriage was a good match for Nelson. Still young, without prize money and relatively unknown, it brought him a degree of respectability. It also offered the prospect of substantial wealth, for Frances stood to inherit a significant estate from her uncle.
The newlywed couple spent the next five years in England, with Nelson periodically – and unsuccessfully – petitioning the Admiralty for a command. With the navy reduced to a minimum footing, there were too few active ships for even a promising naval officer. Residing over a hundred miles from London, in Norfolk, and seemingly forgotten by the naval establishment, he lived the life of a country gentleman, waiting for his opportunity.
1 February 1793: Nelson goes to war with the French
More than any other event, the outbreak of war between Britain and France changed Nelson’s life. His career was seemingly going nowhere – but then, all of a sudden, the deteriorating relationship between the two nations transformed his prospects.
Since the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Britain had watched nervously as the political regime grew more extreme, and revolutionary armies marched across Europe. The French invasion of the Low Countries in late 1792 and the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 heightened British fears. As the two nations edged closer to war, the British government began to mobilise its navy in preparation, and on 6 January 1793 Nelson was given command of the 64-gun ship Agamemnon.
On 1 February 1793, France declared war on Britain, a turn of events that would be the making of Horatio Nelson. He was immediately sent to the Mediterranean, where he learnt from one of the most able commanders in the fleet, Lord Hood. In the following years, he saw service across the Mediterranean, and won a reputation as a promising officer. He was given his first independent squadron command, blockading the French and Italian coast, and supporting the Austrian army.
Nelson also secured the attention of Admiral Sir John Jervis, the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet. Then, in April 1796, Jervis promoted him to the rank of commodore. In the following years, in the crucible of war, Nelson would go from being one of many hundreds of ambitious officers, to the nation’s greatest admiral.
14 February 1797: A high-risk manoeuvre pays spectacular dividends
Nelson’s actions at the battle of Cape St Vincent saw him catapulted onto the national stage for the first time. On 14 February 1797, Sir John Jervis intercepted a Spanish fleet off the coast of southern Portugal. Nelson recognised that Jervis’s expansive tactical manoeuvre could not be completed, and that the enemy fleet would soon escape. He took his ship, the Captain, out of the line of battle and attacked the leading Spanish ships, closely followed by Culloden, under the command of his friend and rival Thomas Troubridge. An intense fight ensued; amid the broadsides, Nelson’s ship came alongside the San Nicolas. Seizing the opportunity, Nelson launched a daring boarding attempt, which forced the ship’s surrender. He then executed a successful boarding of a second Spanish ship, the San Josef, which had also become entangled.
Nelson’s decision to take his ship out of the line was a risky endeavour. Had the action failed he could have faced a court-martial for disobeying orders. No one though, not least Jervis, could deny that he had played an important role in winning the battle: of the four ships captured, two had been taken by Nelson.
Nelson took steps to ensure that his deeds would be read about across Britain. In a canny public relations exercise, he sent home his own account of the battle, which gave a dramatic description of his actions. As a result, his successes were widely reported in the press and, in recognition of his chivalry, he was made a knight of the Bath.
25 July 1797: A Spanish musket ball creates a one-armed icon
A pinned and empty sleeve is as indicative of Nelson as a hand thrust into a waistcoat is of Napoleon. However, the events that led to this instantly recognisable injury are rather less familiar. Fresh from his dazzling exploits at the battle of Cape St Vincent, Nelson was given command of a squadron and ordered to capture Spanish merchant vessels, and their cargoes of bullion, at Santa Cruz on Tenerife.
The first assault was directed at the forts to the east of the town and was a total failure. The second, led by Nelson himself, was a landing force of sailors and marines aimed at the town. It fared even worse, and the severe cost in casualties included the admiral. Nelson’s right arm was shattered by a musket ball, and his life may have been saved by the actions of his stepson, Josiah Nisbet, who staunched the bleeding with neckerchiefs used as tourniquets.
Back on board his flagship, Theseus, Nelson’s arm was immediately amputated by the surgeon Thomas Eshelby on 25 July. His return to active command of the squadron was remarkably rapid, but a letter in the collections of the National Maritime Museum (pictured below) – the first he wrote with his left hand – reveals the despair and self-doubt that the injury provoked in him. Addressed to his superior, Admiral Jervis, it reads: “I am become a burthen to my friends and useless to my Country,” and continues: “I become dead to the World I go hence and am no more seen.”
21 May 1798: Disaster at sea provides a salutary lesson
Nelson’s successes as a naval officer owed much to the professionalism of the institution in which he served, and his own concerted efforts to hone his knowledge and expertise. The latter involved plenty of mistakes but, crucially, he strove to learn from them. One of the most significant was an incident in 1798, when Nelson’s flagship, the Vanguard, was dismasted in a storm while serving in the Mediterranean. While the blame lay as much on his flag captain, Edward Berry, the incident served to highlight the questionable seamanship of both officers. Vanguard was towed to safety by the Alexander, whose captain, Alexander Ball, had reduced his sails during the storm, and so preserved his rigging.
Coming only a year after his glorious actions at Cape St Vincent, and at a time when he had recently been promoted to rear-admiral, the incident threatened to severely blot Nelson’s professional reputation. He wrote a long, self-critical letter to his commanding officer, Lord St Vincent (formerly Sir John Jervis), taking full responsibility for the incident, and blaming it on his “consummate vanity”. He had learned an important lesson: while higher rank provided opportunities for fame and glory, an officer neglected his duties as a seaman at his peril. “I hope,” wrote Nelson, “it has made me a better officer as I believe it has made me a better man.” Just over two months later, Nelson would demonstrate this in the most dramatic manner possible.
1 August 1798: The Nile turns a British hero into a global superstar
If the battle of Cape St Vincent had made Nelson famous, then his success at the battle of the Nile turned him into an international celebrity. After a long and frustrating search, Nelson finally tracked down a French fleet that had escaped from Toulon to Aboukir Bay in Egypt. The 13 French ships of the line that had escorted Napoleon’s army to Egypt lay anchored in what they believed was a strong position across the bay.
Taking a calculated risk, Nelson ordered an attack. As the British ships approached, Captain Thomas Foley of the Goliath noticed that there was room on the landward side of the French line, and was followed by the next four ships. The remainder of the fleet attacked the French from the seaward side, doubling the attack on the enemy’s ships by assailing them from both directions. The battle raged into the night; French ships surrendered in turn, and by the following morning 11 had capitulated or been destroyed. Only two ships of the line had managed to escape.
The battle of the Nile was Nelson’s most decisive victory. French naval power had been virtually removed from the Mediterranean, while Napoleon’s army was left stranded in Egypt. News of the battle crossed Europe: Haydn wrote the Nelson Mass, while the victory encouraged the formation of a second European coalition against France. The triumph was celebrated across Britain, where a vast array of commemorative material ranging from ribbons and pipes to domestic furnishings hailed Nelson’s achievements.
22 September 1798: Nelson embarks on his great love affair
Nelson had encountered Lady Hamilton once before. Ordered to Naples in the summer of 1793, the then little-known captain of the Agamemnon was entertained at the residence of the British minister, William Hamilton, and his glamorous wife. By then, Emma Hamilton already enjoyed European fame as an artist’s model, a singer, and also for her ‘attitudes’: neoclassical tableaux vivants that she performed to immense acclaim.
The 35-year-old officer was doubtless flattered by her company. A great deal had changed in the interval before their second encounter in 1798. As victor of the Nile, Nelson was now at the centre of the national and international stage himself. Emma realised that, following the crushing defeat of the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, his arrival in Naples was an unprecedented opportunity to enhance her own celebrity by association. She wrote him a letter of gushing adulation: “My dress from head to foot is alla Nelson… Even my shawl is in blue with gold anchors all over. My earrings are Nelson’s anchors; in short, we are be-Nelsoned all over.”
When Nelson’s flagship, Vanguard, dropped anchor on 22 September, Emma made a dramatic appearance on deck where, in Nelson’s words, she “fell into my arms more dead than alive”. The love affair that followed was the defining relationship of his later years and – as Nelson grew ever more cold and distant to his estranged wife, Fanny – a goldmine for caricaturists. However, for Victorian commentators determined to find only a desire for duty and service burning in their warrior exemplars, it posed something of a challenge.
21 October 1805: Tragedy and triumph at Trafalgar
The day that cost Nelson his life was the culmination of his professional career. On 19 October, word arrived that the combined French and Spanish fleets sheltering in Cadiz harbour were putting to sea. Shortly after daybreak on the 21st, Nelson saw the enemy masts crowding the horizon. The ensuing encounter at Trafalgar was one that Nelson had been determined to engineer, and which he exploited as fully as possible.
Nelson perfectly understood the altered realities of war in the Napoleonic era: in his words, it was “annihilation that the Country wants, and not merely a splendid victory”. His tactics – in part novel, in part adapted from precedent – were rigorously directed to that end, and had been communicated to his captains in the weeks before the battle. Nelson ordered his fleet to form two divisions. Sailing straight at the enemy line, these would smash through their formation, precipitating a close-range, pell-mell, and above all decisive engagement.
However, approaching at barely walking pace it took hours of nerve-shredding anticipation before the two forces met. Nelson spent some of that time composing a prayer in his private journal and adding a codicil to his will petitioning the nation to provide for Emma.
When battle came, it unfolded much as he predicted. Nelson was struck by a musket ball at 1.15pm. The manner of his death later that afternoon – with triumph by then assured – might almost have been scripted by him too. The undress uniform coat he wore that day is, and will remain, a treasure of the National Maritime Museum’s collections.
9 January 1806: A nation venerates its fallen hero
This was a day that cemented Nelson’s status as a national icon. News of Trafalgar had reached Britain in early November 1805, and jubilation at the victory was mixed with mourning for Nelson’s loss. The king approved a state funeral and, on 5 January 1806, the Painted Hall at the Royal Hospital in Greenwich was thrown open for the public to view Nelson’s coffin.
On 8 January, a grand funeral procession began. Nelson’s body was carried upriver in a state barge to Whitehall Stairs. Surrounded by ceremonial craft, and with thousands thronging the banks of the Thames, it was a spectacle matched only by the events of the following day.
Early that morning the coffin commenced its final journey – this time through the streets of London – mounted on a funeral carriage designed to resemble a warship. Its destination was St Paul’s Cathedral, and a service crowded with politicians and dignitaries. At its climax the coffin descended into the crypt, and a party of Victory’s seamen, tasked with placing one of the ship’s flags with Nelson, chose instead to tear off pieces as mementos.
With war still raging against Napoleon, it is certain that the funeral’s ceremonial magnificence was stage-managed to stiffen national resolve. Nonetheless, it also revealed the wide and unforced social resonance of Nelson’s life and achievements. As Lady Bessborough recalled: “The moment the Car appear’d which bore the body, you might have heard a pin fall, and without any order to do so, they all took off their hats.”
Dr Quintin Colville and Dr James Davey are curators of naval history at the National Maritime Museum