In 18 hours of fury on 2 and 3 August 1798, a British fleet performed an almost unprecedented feat of arms in Aboukir Bay in Egypt. It virtually annihilated a major French fleet, destroying or capturing 11 of 13 warships of the line. In one sensational stroke, Britain established naval supremacy in the Mediterranean, sealed the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte’s expeditionary force to Egypt and heartened a Europe demoralised by the apparently unstoppable vigour of revolutionary France.


Within months of ‘the battle of the Nile’, Turkey, Russia and Austria had joined Britain in a new coalition against the French. The European world changed. Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had proved as relentless as a guided missile while hunting the French fleet to its death, was an international hero. As Lavinia Spencer, the wife of the first lord of the Admiralty, wrote him: “Joy, joy, joy to you, brave, gallant, immortalised Nelson!”

It was what the admiral had always wanted, superabundant patriotic military glory. Indeed, it was this constant hunger for exaltation that had given him the edge over other talented naval officers of the day, alerting him to every opportunity for distinction.

But, although his spectacular climb now accelerated, the victory in Aboukir Bay did not herald a period of contented fulfilment. Far from it, Nelson was soon plunged into a deep personal crisis that forced him to reappraise his goals and ultimate aspirations. He began “thinking and hoping for happiness”. In part it was the mid-life crisis of a man of indifferent health turning 40 and feeling his mortality, but it was also the product of a serious disenchantment with his lot, and a realisation that he had “never known happiness beyond moments”. Fame had not been enough.

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Some writers have asserted that this led the admiral to court his own death at Trafalgar. Closer study throws cold sea water on that suggestion.

Measure of success

Even before Jeremy Bentham popularised ‘happiness’ as a defining measure of success, Nelson held it to be the indispensable hallmark of good government and personal fulfilment. When a grateful Ferdinand IV of Naples awarded him the Duchy of Bronte in Sicily in1799, he was clear about his priorities. He said: “My object at Bronte is to make the people happy by not suffering them to be oppressed, [and] to enrich the country by the improvement in agriculture.” His people would be “the happiest in all His Sicilian Majesty’s dominions” and the Duchy “Bronte the Happy”. It was natural, therefore, that he sought for himself what he so readily conceded a necessity for others.

Nelson based himself in Naples and Sicily for the two years following the battle of the Nile, and fell passionately in love with Emma, the wife of Britain’s ageing minister at Naples, Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton accepted the ménage in which he frequently seemed to be the surplus partner, but Nelson’s disquiet was rooted in apprehensions about returning to his wife, Frances, in England, especially after Emma conceived his only child in 1800.

There were other aggravations, too. Always hyper-sensitive and hungry for reassurance and affection, Nelson reacted badly to criticism, especially suggestions that he was devoting too much attention to the twin kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, and idling in Palermo when he was needed elsewhere.

When the Admiralty appointed a rival, Admiral Lord Keith, to the vacant post of commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean in 1799, Nelson saw it as a direct reflection upon his professional conduct. He returned to England in 1800 nursing a miscellaneous collection of grievances, including what he considered to have been the shabby treatment of some of his officers and the Admiralty’s inability to find one of his brothers more gainful employment than clerking in the Navy Office.

He had also been disappointed at the government’s parsimonious reaction to his victory. A barony had placed him on the lowest rung of the peerage with an annual pension of £2,000. Although the East India Company had granted him £10,000, he had reason for complaint in view of the fact that Admirals Earl St Vincent and Viscount Duncan had received more handsome peerages for much lesser victories and half as much again in annuities. The hero returned to his native land feeling distinctly ill-used.

Things did not improve. In London Nelson separated from his wife, but was damaged by the public gossip, and furious that his mistress was shunned by the court. Money also became a serious problem. Respectable members of the ‘middling’ classes, with a few influential connections, the Nelsons were nevertheless relatively poor. In an age when property was almost indispensable to ‘gentility’, Nelson’s father, a Norfolk clergyman, was merely a life-tenant of the rectory at Burnham Thorpe, and had few bankable assets. Nelson’s naval successes earned a coat-of-arms and a peerage, but these merely elevated him into a social position he had no means of adequately supporting. “I am called upon, being thought very rich, for everything,” he said, “beyond any possibility of my keeping pace with my rank and station.”

After 1801 these perplexities increased, for he not only found himself being dunned by members of the Nelson tribe, but also had to provide for two homes, his estranged wife’s, and another he hoped to share with his mistress and child. Emma had no money of her own, and Sir William was busy selling his famous collection of antiques and art treasures to clear debts. Nelson was not by nature mercenary, but in these circumstances he was sensitive to anything that blighted his ability to turn his naval services to pecuniary account.

Sicily versus Merton

Unwilling to surrender the bliss he had found with Emma, but in need of money as well as further naval glory, Nelson was torn between home and duty. At home he clamoured to return to sea; at sea he canvassed for leave.

Two short campaigns in 1801 only increased Nelson’s dissatisfaction. He resented serving as second to Sir Hyde Parker in the Baltic, where Nelson masterminded a flawless campaign and won a hard battle at Copenhagen, while the other received the pay and emoluments of a commander-in-chief.

In both campaigns he feuded with the ‘set of beasts’ at the Admiralty, and complained that deserved rewards were withheld from his men, and that he was unreasonably kept in service when he needed to go home. In that year and the next he also tried to pull political strings to get positions for members of his family, but his slavish support for Henry Addington’s weak administration in the House of Lords was largely futile and only enhanced his scepticism.

Nelson felt betrayed, powerless to raise the standing of his family and protect his friends and followers, many of whom had risked their lives in the state’s service. He believed that he was being used by an establishment that resented his success, and allowed him as meagre a return as possible.

All of this contrasted with the two years he had spent in Italy. There, a more permissive society had seen nothing untoward about the ménage. Nelson had been extravagantly feted by their Sicilian Majesties, and his influence had been such that he amusingly referred to himself as a ‘secretary of state’. The dukedom, among other gifts that Ferdinand had bestowed, outshone the cautious decorations of the British. “Those were happy times,” Nelson wrote to Emma. “Would to God we were at this moment in the Bay of Naples.”

In 1801 Nelson made a bold decision. As a general peace looked imminent, he would quit his native land and retire to Bronte, where he felt valued at his true worth, and could live with his mistress and daughter without shame or ridicule. “I am fixed as to the plan of life I mean to pursue,” he told Emma. “It is to take a small neat house, six to 10 miles from London, and there to remain till I can fix for ever or get to Bronte. I have never known happiness beyond moments, and I am fixed as Fate to try if I cannot obtain it after so many years of labour and anxiety.” He was sure that Italy was “the only country” in which he could be “completely happy”.

The dream of Bronte sustained Nelson for almost three years. “Under the shade of a chestnut tree at Bronte, where the din of war will not reach my ears, do I hope to solace myself, make my people happy and prosperous, and, by giving advice… enable His Sicilian Majesty, my benefactor, to be more than ever respected in the Mediterranean.”

While enjoying the reputation of a benevolent landlord, he could also make himself useful by using his name to assist his adopted land, for example by brokering peace between Naples and the Barbary States.

What, then, deflected Nelson from this course, and reconciled him to a life in England? One reason was Merton Place. While his managers in Sicily wrestled with the task of preparing Bronte for permanent occupation, Nelson purchased a dilapidated estate in Merton, Surrey. The transformation of this house, where Nelson lived as and with whom he pleased during the Peace of Amiens (a hiatus in the war with France, from 1802–03), changed his life.

In four years its extent was tripled to 166 acres. The house was enlarged and improved, and the grounds beautified, with a new lodge and driveway, a kitchen garden and working farm, and spacious pleasure grounds. “The alterations and improvements are far beyond anything I could have supposed,” testified one visitor. “When finished it will be a delightful spot.” Nelson, lionised by the locals, felt himself emerging from darkness into a ‘paradise’. According to Emma, they were “as happy as kings, and much more so.”

When Nelson returned to sea at the outbreak of a new war in 1803, he was a calmer man, secure in the well-being of his domestic life, and able to fully concentrate on his task as commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean.

For a while Merton and Bronte competed as possible retreats, but whereas Merton’s attractions multiplied, clouds gathered over Bronte. Returning to his old station, Nelson found Italy changed. “Nobody cares for us there,” he lamented. Furthermore, Bronte was struggling to clear its debts, and the political outlook for Naples and Sicily looked bleak, with Napoleon poised to reduce them to subservience. By summer 1805, Nelson was sure that Merton, not Bronte, was where his pilgrimage would end.

Family man

The idea that Nelson went to Trafalgar ready to die shows little insight into his situation during his final few years. In fact, his affairs had seldom looked brighter. Merton was blooming, and the admiral had brought both Emma and his daughter, Horatia, under its roof. Nelson’s professional standing was also at its height, and new government ministers were routinely conferring with him about the safety of the realm, much as their Sicilian Majesties had once done.

Even the admiral’s finances looked happier. A long-running lawsuit against Earl St Vincent for a share of prize money taken in 1799 had yielded several thousand pounds, and by the end of 1804 Bronte had begun at last to produce an annuity of £2,800. What’s more, a national effort had equipped Nelson with a force sufficient to engage the combined Franco-Spanish fleet when it left Cadiz, creating the opportunity for him to write a glorious finale to his career and win enough prize money to secure his future.

Nelson left England in September 1805 with a clear plan. “I hope very soon to finish with the French fleet and return to England and dear Merton, which I think the prettiest place in the world,” he said.

Only one more battle seemed to stand between Nelson and that golden future of his dreams. “Friday night,” he famously wrote the day he left home for the last time, “at half past 10 drove from dear, dear Merton, where I left all which I hold dear in this world to go to serve my king and country. May the great God whom I adore enable me to fill the expectations of my country, and if it is His good pleasure that I should return, my thanks will never cease being offered up to the throne of his mercy.”

But, of course, Nelson did not survive Trafalgar, and that future was poignantly snatched away by a sniper’s bullet fired from the mizzen top of the French Redoutable. In a final conflict, Horatio Nelson fulfilled his professional ambition to achieve the ultimate victory, but tragically lost his personal goal. “Poor man,” said a midshipman who knew him. “How he wished so much to see England again.”

Dr John Sugden’s books include Nelson: A Dream of Glory, which was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The concluding volume, Nelson: The Sword of Albion, is published by Bodley Head.


This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine