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Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson

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Vice-Admiral The Viscount Nelson
Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Allegiance United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland
Service/branch Royal Navy
Years of service 1771–1805
Rank Vice Admiral
Battles/wars Battle of Cape St Vincent
Battle of the Nile
Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Battle of Copenhagen
Battle of Trafalgar
Awards Several (see below)

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, KB ( 29 September 1758 21 October 1805) was a British admiral famous for his participation in the Napoleonic Wars, most notably in the Battle of Trafalgar, a decisive British victory in the war, during which he lost his life. Nelson went against the conventional tactics of the time by cutting through the enemy's lines. Nelson was noted for his ability to inspire and bring out the best in his men, to the point that it gained a name: "The Nelson Touch". His actions during these wars and his heroic image as a one-armed, one-eyed patriot, ensured that before and after his death he was revered.

In 1798, even though he had been married since 1787, Nelson famously became embroiled in an affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, the wife of William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to Naples which lasted until his death. Emma became Nelson's mistress, returning to the United Kingdom to live openly with him, and eventually they had a daughter, Horatia. It was the public knowledge of this affair that induced the Royal Navy to send Nelson back out to sea after he had been recalled. By his death in 1805 Nelson had become a national hero, and he was given a State funeral. His memory lives on in numerous monuments, the most notable of which is London's Nelson's Column, which stands in the centre of Trafalgar Square.

Early life

Horatio Nelson was born on 29 September 1758 in a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England, the sixth of eleven children of the Reverend Edmund Nelson and Catherine Nelson. His mother, who died when he was nine, was a grandniece of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford, the de facto first prime minister of the British Parliament. She lived in the village of Barsham, Suffolk and married the Reverend Edmund Nelson at Beccles church, Suffolk in 1749.

Nelson was briefly educated at Paston Grammar School, North Walsham, where he made several lifelong friends, including Levett Hanson, who proved a lifelong correspondent. Nelson also attended Norwich School, and by the time he was twelve he had enrolled in the Royal Navy. His naval career began on 1 January 1771 when he reported to the third-rate Raisonnable as an Ordinary Seaman and coxswain. Nelson’s maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, commanded the vessel. Shortly after reporting aboard, Nelson was appointed a midshipman and began officer training. Nelson found that he suffered from seasickness, a chronic complaint that dogged him for the rest of his life.

Captain Horatio Nelson, painted by John Francis Rigaud in 1781, with Fort San Juan - the scene of his most notable achievement to date - in the background. The painting itself was begun prior to the battle when Nelson was a lieutenant and nearly finished; when Nelson returned, the artist added the new captain's gold-braided sleeves.

Suckling became Comptroller of the Navy in 1775 and used his position to help Nelson's rapid advance. By 1777 Nelson had risen to the rank of lieutenant and was assigned to the West Indies. During his service as lieutenant he saw action in the American War of Independence. He was made post-captain in June 1779, at the age of 20. His first command at this rank was the 28-gun frigate HMS Hinchinbroke, newly captured from the French.

In 1780 he was involved in an action against the Spanish fortress of San Juan in Nicaragua. Though the expedition was ultimately a major debacle, none of the blame was attributed to Nelson, who was praised for his efforts. He fell seriously ill, probably contracting malaria, and returned to Britain for more than a year to recover.


In 1783, Nelson led a 100-man force in a successful attempt to dislodge a French force from the Turks Islands. In 1784 he contemplated standing for Parliament at the General Election that year, but did not do so; he was instead given command of the frigate Boreas, and assigned to enforce the Navigation Act in the vicinity of Antigua. This was during the dénouement of the American War of Independence, and enforcement of the Act was problematic: Now-foreign American vessels were no longer allowed to trade with British colonies in the Caribbean Sea, an unpopular rule with both the colonies and the Americans. After seizing four American vessels off Nevis, Nelson was sued by the captains of the ships for illegal seizure. As the merchants of Nevis supported them, Nelson was in peril of imprisonment and had to remain sequestered on Boreas for eight months. It took that long for the courts to deny the captains their claims, but in the interim Nelson met Frances "Fanny" Nisbet, a widow native to Nevis. Nelson and Fanny were married on 11 March 1787 at the end of his tour of duty in the Caribbean.

Lady Nelson, Nelson's wife, who was formerly Frances "Fanny" Nisbet of the island of Nevis, West Indies.

Nelson lacked a command for a few years after 1789. He lived on half pay during this time (a reasonably common occurrence in the peacetime Royal Navy). Then, in 1793, as the French Revolutionary government annexed the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium), which were traditionally preserved as a buffer state, Britain went to war. Nelson was recalled to service and given command of the 64-gun Agamemnon in 1793.

He was first assigned to the Mediterranean, based out of the Kingdom of Naples. In 1794 he was wounded in the face by stones and debris thrown up by a close cannon shot during a joint operation at Calvi, Corsica. As a result, Nelson lost the sight in his right eye. Despite popular legend, there is no evidence that Nelson ever wore an eye patch, though he was known to wear an eyeshade to protect his remaining eye.

In 1796 the position of commander-in-chief of the fleet in the Mediterranean passed to Sir John Jervis, who appointed Nelson to be commodore and to exercise independent command over the ships blockading the French coast. Agamemnon, often described as Nelson's favourite ship, was by now worn out and was sent back to the UK for repairs. Nelson was appointed to the 74-gun HMS Captain. In December 1796, on leaving Elba for Gibraltar, Nelson transferred his flag to the frigate Minerve (of French construction, commanded by Captain Cockburn). A Spanish frigate, Santa Sabina, was captured during the passage and Lieutenant Hardy was put in charge of the captured vessel. The following morning, two Spanish ships of the line and one frigate appeared. Nelson at first had no choice but to fight. But Hardy, in order to save his commodore, sacrificed his own ship by drawing the Spanish fire, leaving Nelson free to flee. Santa Sabina was recovered by the Spanish and Hardy was captured. The Spanish captain who was on board Minerve was later exchanged for Hardy in Gibraltar. In 1797 Nelson and his wife moved to Ipswich, Suffolk.


Battle of Cape St Vincent

Nelson then took Captain and joined Sir John Jervis's fleet off Cape St Vincent, and reported the presence of a Spanish fleet that had sailed from Cartagena. Jervis prepared to give battle and the two fleets met on 14 February. Here Nelson found himself towards the rear of the British line, and realising that it would be a long time before he could get into action, he carried out his first famous act of disobeying orders. Instead of continuing to follow the line, he wore ship, breaking from the line and heading to engage the Spanish van, consisting of the 112-gun San Josef, the 80-gun San Nicolas and the 130-gun Santísima Trinidad. She engaged all three, assisted by HMS Culloden which had come to Nelson's aid. After an hour of exchanging broadsides had left both Captain and Culloden heavily damaged, Nelson found himself alongside the San Nicolas. He led a boarding party across, crying 'Westminster Abbey! or, glorious victory!' and forced her surrender. The San Josef attempted to come to the San Nicolas’s aid but became entangled with her. Nelson then took his party from the decks of the San Nicolas onto the San Josef and captured her as well. As night fell the Spanish broke off and sailed for Cadiz. Four ships had surrendered to the British, two of the them were Nelson's captures.

Nelson was victorious, but had disobeyed orders. Jervis liked Nelson and so did not officially reprimand him. However in his official report of the battle he did not mention Nelson. He did though write a private letter to George Spencer in which he said that Nelson 'contributed very much to the fortune of the day'. Nelson also wrote several letters about his victory, reporting that his action was being referred to amongst the fleet as 'Nelson's Patent Bridge for boarding first rates'. Nelson's account was later challenged by Rear-Admiral William Parker, who had been aboard HMS Prince George. He claimed that Nelson had been supported by several more ships than he had acknowledged in his attack on the Spanish van, and that by the time he had boarded the San Josef, she had already struck her colours. Nelson's account of his role prevailed however. The victory was well received in Britain, Jervis was made Earl St Vincent and Nelson was made a Knight of the Bath. On 20 April he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue. This was not a reward for his actions in the battle, but rather a standard promotion according to his seniority.

Action off Cadiz

Nelson was given command of HMS Theseus and on 27 May 1797 was ordered to lie off Cadiz, monitoring the Spanish fleet and awaiting the arrival of Spanish treasure ships from the American colonies. He soon pressed an attack on the city, carrying out a bombardment and an amphibious assault on 3 July. Personally leading the action, his barge collided with that of the Spanish commander, and a hand to hand struggle ensued between the two crews. Twice Nelson was nearly cut down, both times his life was saved by a seaman named John Sykes who took the blows and was badly wounded. The British then captured the Spanish boat and towed it back to the Theseus. During this period he prepared a scheme to capture Santa Cruz de Tenerife, aiming to secure a large amount of money from the treasure ship El Principe de Asturias that was reported to have recently arrived.

Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

The battle plan called for a combination of naval bombardments and an amphibious landing. The initial attempt was called off after adverse currents hampered the assault and the element of surprise was lost. Nelson immediately ordered another assault but this was beaten back. He prepared for another attempt though, to take place during the night. He himself would lead one of the battalions. The operation ended in failure. The Spanish were better prepared than had been expected and had secured strong defensive positions. Several of the boats failed to land in the correct places in the confusion whilst those that did were swept by gunfire and grapeshot. Nelson's boat reached its intended landing point but as he stepped ashore he was hit in the right arm by a musketball, fracturing his humerus bone in multiple places. He was rowed back to the Theseus to be attended to by the surgeon. On arriving on his ship he refused to be helped aboard, declaring 'Leave me alone! I have got my legs left and one arm.' He was taken to the surgeon, instructing him to prepare his instruments and 'the sooner it was off the better'. Most of the right arm was amputated and within half an hour he had returned to issuing orders to his captains.

Meanwhile a force under Sir Thomas Troubridge had fought their way to main square but could go no further. Unable to return to the fleet because their boats had been sunk, Troubridge had been forced to enter negotiations with the Spanish commander and the British were subsequently allowed to withdraw. The expedition had failed to achieve any of its objectives and had left a quarter of the landing force dead or wounded. The fleet remained off Tenerife for a further three days, Nelson fully aware of the extent of his failure and the adverse affect his amputed arm could have on his career. By 16 August his squadron had rejoined Jervis's fleet off Cadiz. Despondantly he wrote to Jervis 'A left-handed Admiral will never again be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve the state...' He returned to England aboard HMS Seahorse, arriving at Spithead on 1 September. He was met with a hero's welcome though, the British public had lionised Nelson after Cape St. Vincent and his wound earned him sympathy. They refused to attribute the defeat at Tenerife to him, preferring instead to blame poor planning on the part of St. Vincent, the Secretary at War or even William Pitt.

Return to England

Nelson returned to Bath with Fanny, before moving to London in October to seek medical expertise concerning his amputated arm. Whilst in London news reached him that Admiral Duncan had defeated the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown. Nelson exclaimed that he would have given his other arm to have been present. He spent the last months of 1797 recuperating in London, during which he was awarded the freedom of the city and an annual pension of £1,000 a year. He used the money to buy Round Wood Farm near Ipswich, and intended to retire there with Fanny.

Despite these plans, Nelson was never to live there. Surgeons had been unable to remove the central ligature in his amputated arm. The ligature had caused considerable inflammation and poisoning, but had come out of its own accord early in December. Nelson rapidly began to recover, and eager to return to sea, began agitating the Admiralty for a command. He was promised the 80-gun HMS Foudroyant but she was not yet ready for sea. He was instead appointed to the 74-gun HMS Vanguard, and Nelson appointed Edward Berry as his flag captain. French activities in the Mediterranean theatre were concerning the Admiralty. Napoleon was gathering forces for his invasion of Egypt, but his objectives were unknown to the Admiralty. Nelson and the Vanguard were to be dispatched to Cadiz to reinforce the fleet. Nelson hoisted his flag on 28 March 1798 and sailed to join the fleet assembled at Cadiz under Earl St. Vincent. St. Vincent sent him on to Gibraltar with a small force to reconnoitre French activities.

Hunting the French

Whilst Nelson was sailing to Gibraltar through a fierce storm, Napoleon had sailed with his invasion fleet, a force under the command of Vice-admiral François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers. When news of this reached St. Vincent, Nelson was reinforced with a number of 74s and ordered to intercept the French. Nelson immediately began searching the Italian coast for Napoleon's fleet, but was hampered by a lack of frigates. Napoleon had arrived at Malta and after a show of force, secured the island's surrender. Nelson made for Malta but had again missed the French, who had already left for Egypt. After a conference with his captains, he decided that Egypt was Napoleon's most likely destination and headed for Alexandria. On his arrival on 28 June though he found no sign of the French. Dismayed, he withdrew and began searching to the east of the port. Whilst he was absent, Napoleon's fleet arrived on 1 July and landed their forces unopposed.

Brueys then withdrew his fleet to Abu Qir Bay, ready to support Napoleon if required. Nelson had crossed the Mediterranean in a fruitless attempt to locate the French and had returned to Naples to re-provision. He sailed again, intending to search the seas off Cyprus, but decided to pass close to Alexandria again for a final check. In doing so his force captured a French merchant, which provided the first news of the French, that they had passed south-east of Crete a month before, heading to Alexandria. Nelson hurried to Alexandria, but again found it empty of the French. Searching along the coast, he finally discovered the French fleet in Abu Qir Bay on 1 August 1798.

The Battle of the Nile

Nelson immediately prepared for battle, repeating a sentiment he had earlier expressed at the battle of Cape St. Vincent, declaring that "Before this time tomorrow, I shall have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey." The French had anchored in a strong position, their combined fire power greater than Nelson's fleet. It was late by the time the British arrived and the French did not expect them to attack. Nelson instead ordered his ships into the attack. The French had anchored close to a line of shoals, believing that this would secure their port side from attack. Brueys had assumed the British would follow convention and attack the centre from the starboard side. Instead, Captain Thomas Foley aboard HMS Goliath discovered there was room between the shoals and the French ships for a British ship to pass, and took his ship down the gap. The unprepared French found themselves attacked on both sides, as the British fleet split, some following Foley, others passing down the starboard side.

The Battle of the Nile, painted by Thomas Luny.

The rest of the fleet were soon in action, passing down the line and engaging the French one by one. Nelson aboard the Vanguard engaged the Spartiate, coming under fire fromthe Aquilon as he did so. He was with Berry on the quarter-deck at about eight o'clock when he was struck on the forehead by a piece of French shot. He fell to the deck, a flap of skin covering his good eye. Blinded and half stunned, he felt sure he would die. He cried out "I am killed. Remember me to my wife." He was taken below to be seen by the surgeon. After an examination the wound was pronounced non-threatening and was temporarily patched up. Meanwhile the French van, pounded by British fire from both sides had begun to surrender. The British ships continued to move down the line, bringing Brueys's 118-gun flagship Orient under constant fire. The Orient caught fire and later exploded. The remaining French ships attempted to escape and the battle was won. Nelson, who had come up on deck to continue directing the battle and had witnessed the end of the Orient was taken below again.

The Battle of the Nile was a major blow to Napoleon's ambition's in the east. The fleet had been destroyed; Orient had been burnt, three 74s had been captured and burnt, four 74s and two 80s had been captured and only two ships of the line and two frigates had managed to escape. The forces Napoleon had brought to Egypt were stranded. Napoleon attempted to march north along the Mediterranean coast but his army was defeated at the Siege of Acre by Captain Sir Sidney Smith. Napoleon then left his army and sailed back to France, evading detection by British ships. Given its huge strategic importance, some historians regard Nelson's achievement at the Nile as the most significant of his career, Trafalgar notwithstanding.


Emma Hamilton, in a portrait by George Romney, at the height of her beauty in the 1780s

For the spectacular victory of the Nile, Nelson was granted the title of Baron Nelson of the Nile. (Nelson felt cheated that he was not awarded a more prestigious title; Sir John Jervis had been made Earl of St. Vincent for his part in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, but the British Government insisted that an officer who was not the commander-in-chief could not be raised to any peerage higher than a barony). Nelson felt throughout his life that his accomplishments were not fully rewarded by the British government, a fact he ascribed to his humble birth and lack of political connections as compared during his lifetime to the Earl of St Vincent or after his death to the Duke of Wellington. Not content to rest on his laurels, Nelson then rescued the Neapolitan royal family from a French invasion in December 1797. During his time in Naples he fell in love with Emma Hamilton, who became his mistress.

In 1799 Nelson was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Red, the seventh highest rank in the Royal Navy. He was then assigned to the new third-rate Foudroyant. In July he aided Admiral Ushakov with the reconquest of Naples after the Parthenopaean Republic, and was made Duke of Bronte by the Neapolitan king. Some have suggested that a head wound Nelson received at Aboukir Bay was partially responsible for his personal conduct and for the way he managed the Neapolitan campaign. He was accused of allowing the monarchists to kill prisoners contrary to the laws of war. Perhaps Nelson's zeal was due simultaneously to his English hatred of Jacobins and his status as a Neapolitan royalist (as the Duke of Bronte). The Neapolitan campaign is now considered something of a disgrace to his name.

Personal problems and some upper-level disappointment at his professional conduct caused him to be recalled to Britain. He, Emma and William meandered back to Britain via Central Europe (hearing the Missa in Angustiis by Haydn that now bears Nelson's name in Vienna in 1800), and eventually arrived in Britain later in 1800 to a hero's welcome. (Also in 1800 Lord Nelson was appointed High Steward of Ipswich, though he failed to become the town's MP.) The three then lived together openly, and Emma had Nelson's child, Horatia, in 1801. However, public knowledge of Nelson's affair with Lady Hamilton eventually induced the Admiralty to send him back to sea, if only to get him away from her.

On 1 January 1801 Nelson was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue (the sixth highest rank). Within a few months he took part in the Battle of Copenhagen ( 2 April 1801) which was fought in order to break up the armed neutrality of Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. During the action, his commander, Sir Hyde Parker, signalled to Nelson to break off the action. This was to allow Nelson to retreat if he needed to – he could not legally do so without Parker's command – whilst Parker knew that Nelson would disregard the signal if he could continue the battle. Nelson ordered that the signal be acknowledged, but not repeated. Legend has it that Nelson turned to his flag Captain, Sir Thomas Foley, and said "You know, Foley, I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes," and then holding his telescope to his blind eye, said "I really do not see the signal!". His action was approved in retrospect, following a successful outcome to the battle, and in May he became commander-in-chief in the Baltic Sea. As a reward, he was created Viscount Nelson, of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk, on 22 May 1801. In addition, on 18 August 1801, he was created Baron Nelson, of the Nile and of Hilborough in the County of Norfolk, this time with a special remainder to his father and sisters.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was massing forces to invade Great Britain. Nelson was placed in charge of defending the English Channel in order to thwart any such invasion. However, on 22 October 1801 an armistice was signed between the British and the French, and Nelson – in poor health again – retired to Britain where he stayed with his friends, Sir William and Lady Hamilton. The three embarked on a tour of England and Wales, culminating in a stay in Birmingham. They visited Matthew Boulton on his sick bed at Soho House and toured his Soho Manufactory. In 1802 Nelson bought Merton Place, a country estate in Merton, Surrey (now south-west London) where he lived briefly with Emma Hamilton.

During this period Nelson, who had never succeeded in his aspirations to enter the House of Commons, spoke in support of the Addington government in the House of Lords, although he never held government office. At that time it was not uncommon for military figures to be involved in politics and even hold office (e.g. Wellington, who was briefly Chief Secretary for Ireland).

The Battle of Trafalgar - death and burial

The Battle of Trafalgar, painted by Nicholas Pocock.
Nelson is shot on the quarterdeck, painted by Denis Dighton, c. 1825.
Nelson's famous signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty", flying from Victory on the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1822–1824) shows the last three letters of the famous signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" flying from Victory.
Nelson's pre-battle prayer, inscribed on oak timber from HMS Victory.

The Peace of Amiens was not to last long and Nelson soon returned to duty. He was appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean. Assigned to HMS Victory in May 1803, Nelson joined the blockade of Toulon, France. He would not set foot on dry land again for more than two years.

Nelson was promoted to Vice Admiral of the White (the fifth highest rank) while still at sea, on 23 April 1804. The French fleet slipped out of Toulon in early 1805 and headed for the West Indies. (See Battle of Cape Finisterre (1805) for a summary of this campaign.) A fierce chase failed to turn them up and Nelson's health forced him to retire to Merton in the UK. Within two months Nelson returned to sea. On 13 September 1805 he was called upon to oppose the French and Spanish fleets which had managed to join up and take refuge in the harbour of Cádiz, Spain.

On 21 October 1805 Nelson engaged in his final battle, the Battle of Trafalgar. Napoleon Bonaparte had been massing forces once again for an invasion of the British Isles, but he decided that his navy was not adequate to secure the Channel for the invasion barges. Thus, Napoleon had started moving his troops for a campaign elsewhere in Europe. On 19 October the French and Spanish fleet set sail from Cádiz, probably because Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, the French commander, had learned that he was to be replaced. Nelson, with twenty-seven ships, engaged the thirty-three opposing ships.

Nelson's last dispatch, written on the 21 October, read:

"At daylight saw the Enemy's Combined Fleet from East to E.S.E.; bore away; made the signal for Order of Sailing, and to Prepare for Battle; the Enemy with their heads to the Southward: at seven the Enemy wearing in succession. May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may his blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen."

As the two fleets moved towards engagement, Nelson ran up a thirty-one flag signal to the rest of the fleet, spelling out the famous phrase "England expects that every man will do his duty". The original signal that Nelson wished to make to the fleet was Nelson confides that every man will do his duty (meaning 'is confident that he will'). The signal officer asked Nelson if he could substitute the word 'expects' for 'confides' as 'expects' was included in the code devised by Sir Home Popham, whereas 'confides' would have to be spelled out letter by letter. Another officer suggested that "England" would be more powerful than "Nelson." Nelson agreed, and the signal was run up Victory's mizzenmast.

After crippling the French flagship Bucentaure, Victory moved on to the Redoutable. The two ships became entangled, at which point snipers in the fighting tops of Redoutable were able to pour fire down onto the deck of Victory. Nelson was hit from a range of about fifty feet: a bullet entered his left shoulder, pierced his lung, and came to rest at the base of his spine. Nelson retained consciousness for four hours, but died soon after the battle ended with a British victory. (See Last words.) The bullet that killed Nelson was removed from his body and is now on public display in Windsor Castle.

Victory was towed after the battle to Gibraltar, with Nelson's body preserved in a barrel of brandy. Legend has it that it was French brandy that had been captured during the battle. There was a rumour that on the voyage home to England, sailors drank the contents of the barrel, using tubes of macaroni as straws and then topped it up with wine, as they were toasting to their Admiral. This wasn't the case. The barrel was kept under armed guard and according to eyewitnesses, when it was opened in Portsmouth it seemed well topped up. However the legend was the origin of the Navy phrase "Tapping the Admiral" for the secret consumption of rum. Upon the arrival of his body in London, Nelson was given a state funeral (one of only eight non-royal Britons to receive the honour – others include the Duke of Wellington) and entombment in St. Paul's Cathedral. He was laid to rest in a wooden coffin made from the mast of L'Orient which had been salvaged after the Battle of the Nile, within a sarcophagus originally carved for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (when Wolsey fell from favour, it was confiscated by Henry VIII and was still in the royal collections in 1805).

Last words

Nelson's final words (as related by Victory's Surgeon William Beatty, based on the accounts of those who were with Nelson when he died) were "Thank God I have done my duty." According to Beatty, he repeated these words several times until he became unable to speak.

In his dying hours, Nelson was also attended by his chaplain, Alexander Scott; his steward, Chevalier; and the purser, Walter Burke. Their accounts have been available to Nelson's modern biographers. In those accounts, Nelson's last words were "Drink, drink. Fan, fan. Rub, rub." This was a request to alleviate his symptoms of thirst, heat, and the pains of his wounds. Nelson's steward stood by to fan him and feed him lemonade and watered wine, whilst Dr Scott massaged his chest to ease the pain.

It is a common misconception that Nelson's last words were, "Kiss me, Hardy", spoken to the captain of HMS Victory, Thomas Hardy. Nelson did, in fact, say these words to Hardy a short time before his death. Eyewitnesses testified that Hardy kissed the admiral twice: once on the cheek and once on the forehead, as Nelson struggled to remain conscious. Prior to this Nelson asked his flag-captain not to throw him overboard and to look after 'poor Lady Hamilton'. He then said "kiss me Hardy". After Hardy's first kiss Nelson said, "now I am satisfied". After the second, "who is that?". When he saw it was Hardy he said, "God bless you Hardy." However they were not his last words as Hardy was not present at his death, having been called back on deck. Some have speculated that Nelson actually said "Kismet, Hardy", but this is unlikely, since the word kismet did not enter the English language until much later, although he may have heard the word used by a Turk. In Nelson's time, the word "kiss" also meant "touch" in the sense of any physical contact, as when two ships come very lightly into contact and are said to kiss each other. Nelson may therefore simply have wanted Hardy to shake his hand or make some other physical gesture. Shortly after "God bless you Hardy", Nelson said, "Thank God I have done my duty", and then finally, "Drink, drink. Fan, fan. Rub, rub." He lost consciousness, the surgeon was called, and Nelson was declared dead at 16:30.


Detail from an 1805 poster commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson was noted for his considerable ability to inspire and bring out the best in his men, to the point that it gained a name: "The Nelson Touch". Famous even while alive, after his death he was lionised like almost no other military figure in British history (his only peers are the Duke of Marlborough and Nelson's contemporary, the Duke of Wellington). Most military historians believe Nelson's ability to inspire officers of the highest rank and seamen of the lowest was central to his many victories, as was his ability to both strategically plan his campaigns and tactically shift his forces in the midst of battle. Certainly, he ranks as one of the greatest naval commanders in military history. Many consider him to have been one of the greatest warriors of the seas.

It must also be said that his "Nelson touch" also worked with non-seamen; he was beloved in Britain by virtually everyone. (The only people not affected by him were those offended by his affair with Lady Hamilton.) Now as then, he is a popular hero, included in the top 10 of the 100 Greatest Britons poll sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public, and commemorated in the extensive Trafalgar 200 celebrations in 2005, including the International Fleet Review. Even today phrases such as "England expects" and "nelson" (meaning "111") remain closely associated with English sporting teams.

Monuments and memorials to Nelson

A number of monuments and memorials were constructed across the country to honour his memory and achievements. The period of British dominance of the seas that his victories were considered to have ushered in led to a continued drive to create monuments in his name across the British Empire. These have taken many forms, the most famous being Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

Nelson and the Royal Navy

The bullet that killed Nelson.

Nelson's memory lives on in the Royal Navy in many ways. The Royal Navy celebrates Nelson every 21 October by holding Trafalgar Day dinners and toasting "The Immortal Memory" of Nelson. His flagship Victory is still kept on active commission in honour of Nelson — it is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord, and is the oldest commissioned Naval ship in the world. She can be found in Number 2 Dry Dock of the Royal Naval Museum at the Portsmouth Naval Base, in Portsmouth, United Kingdom.

The bullet that killed Nelson is permanently on display in the Grand Vestibule of Windsor Castle. The uniform that he wore during the battle, with the fatal bullet hole still visible, can be seen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. A lock of Nelson's hair was given to the Imperial Japanese Navy from the Royal Navy after the Russo-Japanese War to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Tsushima. It is still on display at Kyouiku Sankoukan, a public museum maintained by the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

Nelson's descendants

Nelson had no legitimate children; his daughter, Horatia, by Lady Hamilton (who died in poverty when their daughter was 13), subsequently married the Rev. Philip Ward who became clergyman at St Mildred's Church, Tenterden, Kent, and died in 1881. She and Ward had ten children: Horatio Nelson (born 8 December 1822); Eleanor Philippa (born April 1824); Marmaduke Philip Smyth (born 27 May 1825); John James Stephen ( 13 February 1827–1829); Nelson (born 8 May 1828); William George (born 8 April 1830); Edmund ( 10 July, 1832); Horatio (born 24 November, 1833), Philip (born May 1834) and Caroline (born January 1836).

Because Lord Nelson died without legitimate issue, his viscountcy and his barony created in 1798, both "of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk", became extinct upon his death. However, the barony created in 1801, "of the Nile and of Hilborough in the County of Norfolk", passed by a special remainder (which included Lord Nelson's father and sisters and their male issue) to Lord Nelson's brother, The Reverend William Nelson. William Nelson was also created Earl Nelson and Viscount Merton of Trafalgar and Merton in the County of Surrey in recognition of his brother's services, which title is still extant. William Nelson also inherited the Dukedom of Bronté.


Nelson's titles, as inscribed on his coffin, were The Most Noble Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount and Baron Nelson, of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk, Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Hillborough in the said County, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Vice Admiral of the White Squadron of the Fleet, Commander in Chief of his Majesty's Ships and Vessels in the Mediterranean, Duke of Bronte in Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Knight Grand Cross of the Sicilian Order of St Ferdinand and of Merit, Member of the Ottoman Order of the Crescent, Knight Grand Commander of the Order of St. Joachim.

He was a Colonel of the Royal Marines. He was voted a Freeman of Bath, Salisbury, Exeter, Plymouth, Monmouth, Sandwich, Oxford, Hereford, and Worcester.

The University of Oxford, in full Congregation, bestowed the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law upon Nelson in 1802.

Nelson was created Duke of Bronte by the King of Naples in July 1799, and after briefly experimenting with the signature "Bronte Nelson of the Nile" signed himself "Nelson & Bronte" for the rest of his life.

Armorial bearings

Arms were originally granted and confirmed on 20 October 1797. The original Nelson family arms were adapted by him to accommodate his naval victories. After the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 Nelson was crowned a Knight of the Bath and granted supporters of a sailor and lion with a rolled up union flag and red ensign in his mouthness.

Later modifications have, in the top of the shield, a palm tree in the centre separating a disabled ship on the left and a ruined fort on the right, indicating the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

Nelson’s motto, Palmam qui meruit ferat, (‘let he who has earned it bear the palm’) is inscribed in a scroll along the bottom.

Nelson in fiction

Nelson appears, unnamed but recognisable, in Susan Sontag's novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance, which centres on Lady Hamilton's affair with him. Nelson himself appears as a ghost in Amber Benson's and Christopher Golden's Ghosts of Albion. He appears several times in Dudley Pope's Ramage series, sending the young Ramage on a secret mission into France. Pope describes Nelson's voice as high pitched and nasally. He plays a supporting role in Sharpe's Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell and is the object of the ardent admiration of Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series (brought to the screen in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. In the classic literary work Ulysses by James Joyce, he is referred to by the character Stephen Dedalus as the 'one-handled adulterer', when speaking of his namesake monument, Nelson's Pillar. In James A Michener's tome Caribbean, Nelson is the central character of the chapter entitled "A Wedding on Nevis". Barry Unsworth's novel Losing Nelson depicts an obsessive man in the present day who reveres Nelson as an angel-like figure. In Naomi Novik's alternate history/fantasy Temeraire series, Nelson survives the Battle of Trafalgar, though burned by fire, is created a Duke, and serves in the Admiralty.

Nelson was portrayed on film by Laurence Olivier in That Hamilton Woman (1941), about Nelson's affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, played by Olivier's then-wife Vivien Leigh - reputedly Winston Churchill's favourite film - and also in the film The Young Mr. Pitt. Peter Finch portrayed him, with Glenda Jackson playing Emma Hamilton, in a 1973 film adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1970 stage play A Bequest to the Nation. Nelson also appears as a minor character in Abel Gance's Austerlitz (1960). In the 1961 television series, Triton, Nelson was played by Robert James, and in a 1968 version of the same series, he was played by Terry Scully.

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