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Horatio Nelson
1758 - 1805

The English admiral and naval hero Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson, was noted for his bravery and for his victories, including the decisive Battle of Trafalgar. He ranks as the last great naval hero of a proud seafaring nation.


Horatio Nelson was born at Burnham Thorpe on Sept. 29, 1758. He entered the Royal Navy at the age of 12, and by 20 he had risen from midshipman to commander. In 1780 Nelson took a convoy to America and the West Indies, but the Admiralty placed him on half pay the next year after the American Revolution ended. Nelson then went to France to learn the language.

In 1784 Nelson was given command of the Boreas and sent again to the West Indies. There he gained considerable ill will by seizing five American merchantmen who were violating the Navigation Acts through irregular trading. He also met a young widow, Mrs. Frances Nisbet, whom he married in 1787. Nelson was then ordered home. For nearly 6 years, somewhat in disfavour at the Admiralty, he was unemployed. But when England entered the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793, Nelson was given command of the Agamemnon and sent to the Mediterranean Sea. In August he arrived at Naples, where he met Sir William Hamilton, the English ambassador, and his charming young wife, Emma. Nelson's romantic and naval careers both began to blossom.

Rising Hero

In 1794 Lord (Samuel) Hood sent Nelson, in command of seamen and marines, to build and arm batteries about Basti during the English attack on Corsica. He was successful in this assignment and also at Calvi, where he lost the sight of his right eye as the result of a stone-splinter wound during a cannonade against one of his batteries. Nelson's eye patch soon became a symbol. In 1796 Nelson was made commodore and sent to harass the French coastal trade. Then, as commander of the Captain, he joined Sir John Jervis's fleet.

On Feb. 13, 1797, while on a southerly course off Portugal, the British sighted the Spanish fleet in loose formation heading north. Jervis steered between the two halves of the enemy, but he misjudged his course reversal. Nelson perceived the problem, boldly broke away from the line, and headed for the Spaniards. Jervis, seeing Nelson's intention, ordered Cuthbert Collingwood to aid him. The result was that Nelson and Collingwood hit the Spanish fleet and threw it into confusion, enabling the rest of Jervis's ships to come up and to achieve a victory. Fortunately for Nelson, Jervis was not a stickler about rules. Nelson was praised for his action rather than court-martialed as he feared. As a result of the victory off Cape Saint Vincent, Nelson received promotion to rear admiral.

Victorious Admiral

Returning once again to the inshore squadron off France, Nelson lost his right arm in an attempt to cut out a treasure ship at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. In April 1798 he rejoined the fleet and was sent to watch the French fleet at Toulon. Eventually, the French evaded Nelson. He pursued them to Alexandria, Egypt, and found the French fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay. Now Nelson's careful training of his captains paid dividends when he discovered that the French were prepared only for attack from the sea. As dusk fell, his ships approached the French line from the west, splitting as they reached the anchored vessels so that they doubled up, one on each side of the enemy. The result was the complete annihilation of all the French ships except two frigates that escaped. Napoleon I and the entire French army were left stranded in Egypt. As soon as the news reached Britain, Nelson was created Baron Nelson of the Nile. His name became known throughout Europe.

Nelson then returned to Naples, which, having declared war on Napoleon, had been overcome by French troops and fifth columnists while Nelson was at Leghorn. Hastily recalled, Nelson insisted on the annulment of the capitulation agreed to by the Neapolitan general Fabrifio Ruffo and on the absolute surrender of the Neapolitan Jacobins. He court-martialed and hanged the Neapolitan commodore Francesco Caracciolo, who had deserted, and he restored civil power. For these acts the grateful king of the Two Sicilies made him Duke of Bronte.

During this period Nelson became infatuated with Emma, Lady Hamilton. While living with her, he conducted the blockades of Egypt and Malta. In 1800 he was permitted to return home because of ill health, and he travelled across Europe with the Hamiltons. In London he met his wife and separated amicably from her. That same year, 1801, Lady Hamilton bore Nelson a daughter, Horatia.

In 1801 Nelson was promoted to vice-admiral and sent as second-in-command to Sir Hyde Parker on an expedition to break up the armed Northern Neutrality League. His first act upon joining was characteristically direct and insubordinate - he wrote to the Admiralty that Sir Hyde stayed abed late with his young wife. The expedition sailed shortly. The Danes refused the British ultimatum, and Nelson was given the job of attacking the anchored Danish fleet and hulks in Copenhagen harbour. He skillfully moved his fleet through shoals after rebuoying the channel, and then on the morning of April 2, 1801, he fought a bitter 4-hour action that resulted in eventual victory. The battle was ended by an armistice called for by Nelson in order to save the lives of Danish sailors. Though his ships were badly battered and he had ignored an optional recall signal flown by Sir Hyde Parker, Nelson achieved a diplomatic success and was created a viscount.

Nelson returned to England, where in order to impress the French he was put in command off Dover. This command was not a great success, and Nelson's expedition against Boulogne became an expensive failure because the French were prepared. As soon as the armistice that led to the Peace of Amiens in 1801 was signed, Nelson came ashore and settled with the Hamiltons on his new estate at Merton, Surrey, about an hour's drive from the Admiralty. Sir William Hamilton died in April 1803, and thereafter Nelson and Lady Hamilton were together exclusively.

Battle of Trafalgar

Upon the outbreak of war again in 1803, Nelson was dispatched to command the fleet in the Mediterranean. There he watched the French under adverse circumstances, blockading the French fleet at Toulon for 22 months. In January 1805 Napoleon decided that the way to conquer the whole of Europe was to combine the French and Spanish fleets in the West Indies, lure the English away from the Channel, and seize the British Isles. With this in mind, the French commander, Pierre de Villeneuve, gave Nelson the slip and headed west while Nelson chased east to Egypt in vain. Dogged by poor intelligence reports and foul winds, Nelson pursued the French to Martinique and back to Europe but could not overtake them. Meanwhile, the returning French fleet had been met off Cape Finisterre by Sir Robert Calder.

On Oct. 9, 1805, Nelson arrived once more off the European coast. He resumed command off Cadiz and issued his famous order for the fleet to attack in two columns. On October 21 Nelson came upon the combined French and Spanish fleets, under Villeneuve, sailing north in a long crescent column off Cape Trafalgar, Spain. Hoisting a signal that became immortal, "England expects every man to do his duty," Nelson led the northern column to cut off and hold the Allied van while Collingwood annihilated the centre and rear. Nelson, in spite of advice, insisted upon wearing his full uniform into battle, and at the height of the encounter he was badly wounded by a musket shot from the fighting top of the French ship Redoubtable, which his flagship Victory had fouled. He died 3 hours later as the victory, one of the most significant in history, was completed. Twenty enemy ships were captured, and one was blown up. The English lost no ships. This decisive English victory ended Napoleon's power on the sea.

Nelson's body was placed in a cask of brandy and carried home for burial in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. The celebrated Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square, London, commemorates Nelson's victory.

Nelson the Man

No one, perhaps, better symbolized the British hero than Nelson - dashing naval commander, viscount, and lover. More than this, Nelson ranks high as a leader of men not only for the bravery and dash he displayed at Cape Saint Vincent, but also for his coolness under fire, his joy in battle, and the humanity he displayed at Copenhagen. Nelson was a beloved leader because he knew his officers and men. His captains knew what he wanted to do and how he thought it should be done. The whole combination was called the Nelson touch.


Nelson was born at the Rectory of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, East England, UK, the son of the village rector Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine. He attended schools at Norwich and North Walsham before entering the Royal Navy at Chatham in 1770. Under the patronage of an uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, his naval experience widened rapidly; first by his attachment to a Caribbean-bound merchant ship, and in 1773 by an arduous expedition to the Arctic. A voyage to India followed, but he had to be invalided home after a near fatal malarial fever which left him with recurrent partial paralysis for the rest of his life, in addition to his incurable sea-sickness.

In 1779 at the age of 20, he became captain of a frigate ship in the West Indies, and during the American War served under Admiral Robert Digby and later Lord Samuel Hood. In 1784 he returned to the West Indies to enforce the Navigation Acts prohibiting direct trade between the new American States and the remaining British colonies. His rigid and direct enforcement of the law soon brought him into conflict with the traders, his commander-in-chief, and the Governor of the Leeward Is. However, their attempts to have Nelson removed or court-martialled rebounded on them following his successful petitions to the Admiralty and King George III.

While on the island of Nevis, Nelson met and, in 1787, married Frances (Fanny) Nisbet (1761-1831), a widow with a son, Josiah. Returning to England, he found himself out of favour both with the Admiralty, which was embarrassed by his zealous execution of duty in the West Indies, and with George III for associating with his disreputable son, Prince William Henry. He was refused another ship, but five years later was recalled at the outbreak of the Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) with France. In 1794 he was given the task of securing Corsica as a Mediterranean base for the Royal Navy. While in Naples gathering recruits, he met William Harrison who, in his capacity as British minister, helped Nelson. The campaign was a major success but, during the attack on Calvi, he was blinded in the right eye by stone splinters from a parapet struck by an enemy shell. Despite his injury, he returned to duty the following day.

On leaving the Mediterranean, the British fleet encountered a Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent, and inflicted a decisive defeat (1797). Much of the credit for the success of the heavily outgunned British fleet was due to Nelson's bold and unorthodox tactics, for which he received a knighthood. Later promoted to rear-admiral, he held the blockade of Cadiz before being detached to Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands. His ill-founded mission to capture rumoured Spanish treasure ships failed when all element of surprise was lost. His right arm was shattered by grapeshot, and had to be amputated.

In 1798 he was sent on a reconnaissance mission to locate the French fleet. It was eventually found in Abu Qir (Aboukir) Bay near Alexandria, where he executed a daring attack as night fell. The British fleet inflicted a massive defeat (the Battle of the Nile), leaving Napoleon's army stranded in Egypt. Nelson, who had again been wounded, returned to Naples, there to be nursed by Emma, the wife of Sir William Hamilton. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Nelson of the Nile, and appointed principal military adviser to the Court of Ferdinand IV, King of the Two Sicilies. This period was marked by controversy. His advice to send an army to recapture Rome from the French resulted in a humiliating defeat, while his public affair with Lady Hamilton exposed him to criticism. In 1800 he relinquished his command because of ill health, and escorted the Hamiltons overland to England.

Following his return, estrangement from his wife soon resulted in separation. With Emma pregnant with their daughter Horatia, and faced with difficult financial circumstances, he applied for active service. In 1801 he was promoted to vice-admiral and appointed second-in-command to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker in an expedition to break the 'armed neutrality' of the Baltic States. The fleet sailed for Denmark and, despite the irresolute Parker, engaged the Danish fleet at anchor off Copenhagen. During the course of battle, which inflicted heavy losses on both sides, Nelson ignored Parker's signal to disengage from the fighting by putting his telescope up to his blind eye and claiming that he had seen no such signal. An hour later the battle was won. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the fleet following Parker's recall, and elevated to viscount.

Renewed hostilities with France saw his return to active service as commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet on board the flagship HMS Victory. In this capacity, his questionable tactics in enforcing a loose blockade of the French-held ports, encouraging the enemy to leave the port and fight, allowed a French fleet under Admiral Villeneuve to escape from Toulon (Jan 1805). A futile chase ensued across the Atlantic to the West Indies and back. This was part of Napoleon's plan to decoy the Royal Navy from the Channel in order to allow him to invade England unmolested. However, Napoleon's combined Spanish and French fleet sweeping through the channel to cover for the invasion was devastated by Nelson's eventual engagement of Villeneuve's fleet off Cape Trafalgar (21 Oct 1805). At the height of the battle, and with victory in sight, Nelson was mortally wounded as he paced the quarter-deck with Captain Hardy; he died some three hours later as the battle ended, and his body was brought back to England.He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, and a column erected to his memory in Trafalgar Square. Despite the adulation he received after his death, Emma was ignored, and died in abject poverty in Calais nine years later. Horatia, however, returned to Norfolk, and married a clergyman.











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008