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Horatio Nelson


Nelson was a British naval commander who rose to become a national hero thanks to both patronage and a string of victories against France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. His legend was confirmed when he died at the scene of his greatest victory.

Early Life and Career

Horatio Nelson was born in Norfolk 1758 to a village rector called Edmund and his wife Catherine. The family had limited means, and when Catherine died her brother, a naval Captain called Maurice Suckling, began Nelson’s naval career by ‘taking him to sea’ (getting him a job on a vessel) after the young boy requested he go. In these early years Nelson worked in the Thames, giving him inshore experience which would prove vital later on; on a journey to the West Indies with a merchant vessel; an expedition to the Artic which failed dismally, but where he might have fought a polar bear. All this was aided by Suckling guiding Nelson to the right appointments. His first taste of naval fire occurred in the Indian Ocean, but shortly after he was forced home with malaria. Here Nelson suffered what is believed to have been depression, and he recovered with a driving ambition.

In 1777 Nelson became a lieutenant even though he was technically too young, aided again by his uncle, and served in the West Indies in the American War of Independence. He became a captain two years later, aged twenty, and commanded a frigate in the war against Spain, who had recently joined the side of the Colonies and France. During this his uncle died, and Nelson contracted a severe illness that forced him to recuperate in England for several months. Another uncle helped Nelson get a new ship, and Nelson became impressed with the glory earned by a naval commander called Hood; he also made many useful contacts.

When the war ended in 1783 with defeat for Britain, Nelson briefly went to France to study, had a failed love affair, and was in charge of a frigate enforcing the Navigation Act. Nelson found the period difficult, pushing against local British commanders who’d ignored the laws for their own benefit and arguing with superiors and reporting them to London; he was wishing for opportunities to make his name, and learnt a lesson in making your own through publishing. However in 1785, when he stopped at Nevis Island, he met a widower called Francis Nisbet, who he married. When Nelson returned to England he discovered a groundswell of opinion against him, partly caused by his Navigation Act enemies, partly caused by backing Prince William in an argument with superiors which lost Nelson some of his key patrons, and he spent the next five years with no ship and on half pay, although this wasn’t unusual for a young captain in peace time.

The French Revolutionary Wars

In 1793, with war against Revolutionary France, Nelson was given a sixty four gun ship to command and orders to support Hood in the Mediterranean. Nelson called on many of his old crews, who were keen to work under him; Nelson now wanted to finally prove himself. After aiding the siege and handover of Toulon (where Nelson noticed that Hood used his initiative to gain a result rather than rely on orders from London) he was sent to Naples, where he secured troops to aid in defending Toulon. Nelson and Hood were back on good terms and Nelson now worked in the Mediterranean, being absent when Toulon fell.

Nelson found himself – along with the English force – moving to Corsica, where Britain wanted a naval base and where he led his crew ashore to assist in the capture of bases, taking Bastia, and where he was almost entirely blinded in his right eye by debris from French shot at Calvi. Nelson now increasingly relied on the eyes, and depth perception of his men. Corsica was taken, and Nelson returned to England to refit, having proven he could run an independent command. As the commanders above Nelson changed, and as Nelson chaffed against what he considered the weak command of his new superior (Hotham), Nelson’s mood suffered. He had swings, and wished Hood would return. Then Sir John Jervis took over, and he recognised something great in Nelson and involved him heavily. Jarvis was a reformer and a disciplinarian, and he saw in Nelson the creative spark he lacked. Jarvis worked to soothe Nelson and keep his spirits up. As Napoleon marched through Italy in 1796, Nelson was closely involved in supporting Italian states, and blockading France, but Bonaparte’s effect on land could not yet be halted at sea. Nelson proved as adept at dealing with local politics as ships. When the British decided to withdraw, Nelson oversaw an excellent evacuation.

In February 1797 Jervis and Commodore Nelson were leading their ships when they encountered a Spanish fleet. As battle was joined it became apparent that the initial British plan was flawed, and that the Spanish might be able to act decisively. Nelson used his initiative to order his own ship to move and disrupt the Spanish, at one point fighting several enemy ships and managing to capture two, allowing the British to win. As a reward for his role in this, the Battle of Cape Vincent, Nelson was knighted and made Rear Admiral; he became very famous in Britain. His first command under his new rank – the capture of Tenerife - went desperately wrong, for as Nelson personally commanded the land attacks a musket ball destroyed much of his right arm, which had to be amputated. The attack failed. He returned home to recover, and was greeted by cheering crowds. He was able to speak eloquently and accurately about war, trade, empire and was in demand as a guest of society and politicians alike.

Battle of the Nile

In 1798 Nelson was back in command, asked to monitor a fleet of French ships preparing to sail across the Mediterranean. When a storm let them get away Nelson managed to work out where they were going and followed, and he soon found himself poised off the mouth of the Nile, where the French expeditionary force was anchored. Nelson had been full of nervous energy, fearing he had missed his chance, but the French had erred in their positioning and Nelson attacked immediately, through the evening and morning, winning a decisive victory at the Battle of the Nile and cutting Napoleon’s force off from France. Nelson wasn’t afraid of publicity, and was made a Baron. As Lord Nelson returned, he stopped at Naples, where he again met Emma Hamilton and they began an affair; her husband knew about this, and remained great friends with Nelson. However Nelson had a setback: he encouraged King Ferdinand of Naples to resist France, but when Austria dropped out of the arrangement and Ferdinand moved on Rome he was beaten and had to be rescued by Nelson.

Naples and Copenhagen

An arrogant British Consul, feeling offended by Nelson, set out to blacken the Baron’s name with a series of lies about Nelson’s time in Naples, which linger in some quarters to this day. The ‘Black Legend’ is born of a misunderstanding of events. In 1799 Nelson assisted Ferdinand in regaining Naples – vital for British interests - but Nelson’s bosses were growing concerned about his affair and sent a man to assume command: Nelson was basically demoted. Ill, worn down and upset by slander, Nelson was recalled home to rest. Nelson was welcomed back by the public as a hero, and a promotion to Vice Admiral followed. His marriage was over, although his wife didn’t accept this, and Nelson was now one of the best known people in Britain. Nelson’s intent / obsession was victory, and possibly a desire to achieve immortality through death in battle.

As Emma Hamilton bore a daughter called Horatia, Nelson was sent to Copenhagen, attacked and once more he disobeyed orders (this time to withdraw), and the result was a naval victory, destroying the fleet and forced the Dutch to agree neutrality. Shortly after Nelson became a commander in chief of a fleet, and he was also made a viscount. Nelson was now put in charge of defending England from a feared foreign invasion – although fears of a French invasion were overblown - and used this to plan an attack on Boulogne; when he was unable to command it the attack failed. A peace treaty was signed with France shortly after. Nelson spent a lot of the peace pushing for benefits for his crews. The Prime Minister was listening to Nelson.


With war once more looming in 1803, Nelson was given the Mediterranean command, and he sailed in a ship called Victory. Distant from London, Nelson was acting heavily on his own initiative and judgement, and he showed a great understanding of his enemy’s strategy, of interpreting intelligence, and exemplary organisation skills by keeping the fleet ready for years. Napoleon wanted to bring together the French fleets with those of Spain, creating a force large enough to dominate the English Channel and allow an invasion of Britain. After some skirmishes Napoleon ditched the invasion plan (which may just have been a large diversion for land attacks), but Britain was still afraid and all eyes were on Nelson to stop the combined enemy fleet. On October 21st 1805, the two fleets came together at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson broke fully with the previous orthodoxy of naval tactics and implemented a new system, carried out by a set of crews who hero worshipped him thanks to the way he treated them. The famous line of encouragement sent out, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, originally said Nelson instead of England.

As the Battle of Trafalgar was fought, a French sniper on the Redoubtable shot Nelson. He was carried below decks, and he died, but not before knowing that Trafalgar had been a major victory, one which destroyed Napoleon’s hope of naval success. Nelson’s body was put in a cask of brandy, returned to Britain, and buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral after a state funeral. He was given a sarcophagus made for Cardinal Wolsey centuries earlier but never used.


Emma found herself without support, and died nine years later almost bankrupt in Calais, while Horatia followed her grandmother, settling down in a church family. Nelson himself was, and still is, regarded as a national hero, and for a time a national God. He changed the way officers considered naval combat, he thwarted Napoleon’s plans in Egypt and the legacy was British domination of the seas for decades. Nelson played a key role in the development of a new British national consciousness - a blend of duty to country, naval dominance and the idea of freedom - which lasted for a century. Nelson’s style was to use his charisma to improve relations among his men, not ruling based on the threat of physical violence, and it worked, but the man himself was struck by frequent mood swings with great highs and lows.
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