Nelson: the unhappy admiral

Nelson wrote that he had "never known happiness beyond moments", but John Sugden challenges those who claim that he wanted to die at Trafalgar

Nelson mortally wounded at Trafalgar in 1805

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!”

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now