Nelson: Biography

 Nelson: A brief biography

Nelson portrait
Nelson, wearing two of his three gold medals. (A third gold medal was awarded posthumously. Painting by John Hoppner.)

Born on 29 September 1758, to the Reverend Edmund and Catherine Nelson of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, Horatio Nelson rose from relative obscurity to become the nation’s outstanding naval officer and hero in a period of almost constant war with one nation or another. Under his leadership, British warships not only defeated numerically superior enemy vessels, but many of his victories also had profound strategic effects in the fiery European political cauldron.

He won these victories at minimal cost through superior seamanship and gunnery training together with an uncanny ability to devise and exploit novel tactical procedures. This talent became known as “the Nelson touch”.

HMS Raissonnable

His uncle, CAPT Maurice Suckling, in the 64-gun frigate, HMS Raisonnable, took him to sea for the first time, as a servant, in 1771. In 1773 he was Coxswain to CAPT Lutwidge in Carcass for a polar exploration voyage. He passed his commission examinations in 1777 and was appointed as Second Lieutenant in the 32-gun frigate Lowestoffe for duties in the West Indies. In one action, the ship captured an American privateer, but owing to heavy seas the First Lieutenant was unable to board her from a boat and he returned to the Lowestoffe. Nelson, displaying his trademark seamanship and courage, volunteered and was successful.

After charting all the passages between the Caribbean Islands in the schooner The Little Lucy, Nelson was given command of the brig Hinchinbrook on 11 June 1779, at age 20. From this ship he commanded the naval support for an assault on Fort San Juan, Nicaragua. Leaving his ship and carrying troops 100 miles up river in boats, he captured a strategic fortified island, ensuring the expedition’s limited success.

Setting the pattern

Setting a pattern that distinguished his career, he started sinking or capturing enemy ships in isolated actions at a remarkable rate. These ships frequently out-gunned or out-numbered his own force and often lay under the protection of supposedly impregnable shore batteries. While British losses under his command in terms of killed and wounded were comparatively slight, Nelson himself was frequently wounded in action. This cost him impaired vision in one eye, an arm and, at Trafalgar, his life.

Recalled to England in ill health, by 1781 he had recovered and was given command of the 6th Rate Albemarle, serving in the North Sea and in North American waters. The Boreas, another 6th Rate of 28 guns, followed in 1784 and Nelson found himself back in the West Indies. By 1786 he was in charge of that station and found time to marry Frances Nisbet, the widow of Dr Nisbet of the island of Nevis, in March 1787. Returning to England by November of that year, he paid off Boreas and was placed on half pay, facing virtual retirement before age 30.

AgamemnonLe Superbe
The fast frigate Agamemnon (left) was Nelson’s favourite ship. The adversary French frigate Le Superbe, 1784-1795, was designed by France’s premier marine architect, Jacques Noel Sane.

It was not until 30 January, 1793, that Nelson received his recall, this time to command the Agamemnon, a 3rd rate 64-gun frigate. She was the third of seven Ardent class frigates and became Nelson’s favourite ship. “Without exception one of the finest ships in the fleet, with the character of sailing remarkably well,” Nelson wrote to his wife after a 12-day Mediterranean storm. “Gales and lumping seas but in Agamemnon we mind them not; she is the finest ship I ever sailed in, and were she a 74, nothing should induce me to leave her while war lasts,” he said. French ADML Alemand said that Agamemnon was one of the fastest of all the Royal Navy ships. That attribute, together with Nelson’s abilities, made her a potent force indeed.

Calvi:loses partial sight in right eye

Instead of staying safely aboard, Nelson was ashore once more at the head of his sailors during the 51-day siege of Calvi, Corsica. An enemy shell hit nearby, throwing up stones and splinters on 10 July 1794, costing Nelson partial sight in his right eye. He remained in command of Agamemnon until 1796, when she sailed home for a badly needed refit. As she left, Nelson shifted his new Commodore’s pendant to Captain.

After a number of successful skirmishes, Nelson distinguished himself again under ADML John Jervis in the important Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797. Nelson’s initiative and skill led to the capture of two ships larger than his from a fleet of Spanish warships that outgunned and outnumbered the British 27:15.

For this action, Nelson was awarded Knight of the Bath and a gold medal. He also received a gold box from the City of London.

In April 1797, as RADM of the Blue, Nelson shifted his flag from Captain to Theseus, and contributed to the blockade of Cadiz. On 4 July, off Cadiz, his 13-man barge was boarded by a superior 30-man Spanish vessel. Undaunted, the British killed 18 and captured the Spanish commander in hand-to-hand combat for the loss of one British seaman.

Tenerife: loses right arm

Eleven days later he sailed for Tenerife, where a Spanish musket ball or shrapnel shattered his right elbow during an unsuccessful attempt to take Santa Cruz. This wound led to the amputation of his arm and his return to England.

Shaking off the surgeons’ attentions, on 19 December he hoisted his flag in Vanguard, and sailed 1 April 1798 for Cadiz and the Mediterranean. He learned of French plans to invade Egypt with a huge army that would place France in a strategic position to interdict rich British interests in India. Nelson sailed with 14 ships, three days behind a French fleet of nearly 400 vessels, including 30 French warships, with Napoleon Bonaparte himself embarked. He out-sailed the French convoy and, seeing Alexandria empty on 28th June, fruitlessly searched north to Palestine, then back-tracked to Sicily, only to sail once more for Egypt on 25 July.

At Calvi (left) Nelson lost partial sight in his right eye. At Aboukir, he destroyed the French fleet in an action that had major strategic ramifications.

On 1 August he finally located the pride of the French Mediterranean fleet, 17 warships anchored in Aboukir Bay, 37 kilometres northeast of Alexandria, in what the French thought was an impregnable formation in an impregnable anchorage. Nelson considered otherwise.

First, he chose a night action, something naval commanders traditionally avoided in those days. Secondly, sending some ships down a very narrow passage between the French ships and a shoal, he surprised the enemy who had even removed some guns from the shore side of their ships to bolster their seawards firepower. Then, employing the unexpected technique of anchoring by the stern with a spring on the anchor cable to control broadside fire into the bows or stern of the stationary French ships, his smaller fleet routed the French. The enemy ships included the massive French flagship l’Orient, a 120-gun vessel of 2,000 tonnes, one of the largest warships afloat. Under heavy bombardment, l’Orient caught fire and exploded with a roar heard 32 kilometres away. Not one British ship was lost, but 14 of the 17 French warships were destroyed or captured in this Battle of the Nile.

This success at once emasculated the 30,000-strong French Army ashore in Egypt. Instead of seriously threatening Britain’s contact with India and other Eastern outposts, its foray became meaningless because, without supplies, the French soldiers were doomed. Napoleon’s dreams of an Eastern Empire died with his fleet. For his signal performance, Nelson was created Baron of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe and was awarded a pension of £2000 a year. The Irish Parliament gave him £1000 a year, the East India Company granted him £10,000 and the City of London presented him with a sword valued at 200 guineas. His ship captains and many other officers were also richly rewarded.

Duke of Bronte

Nelson returned to Naples where he was feted because his victory had reduced the threat of French incursions in Italy. The King of Naples conferred upon him the title Duke of Bronte in Sicily with an income of £3000 a year. His affair with Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador to Italy, Sir William Hamilton, flourished about this time and Nelson became embroiled in local issues, including land actions that restored territory to the Sicilian King.

In May 1799 Nelson was promoted to RADM of the Red and shifted his flag from Vanguard to Foudroyant. In 1800 he returned to England with the Hamiltons and was promoted again to VADM of the Blue in 1801.

Commanding another decisive action, Nelson personally reconnoitred the dangerously shallow Copenhagen Harbour before entering it in force and destroying the Danish fleet on 2 April 1801. It was just before this action that Nelson, with his telescope to his blind eye, is reported to have said that he failed to see a recall signal from his superior, ADML Sir Hyde Parker. This was not the first time Nelson had disobeyed orders. He had broken formation to cut off an enemy escape attempt when serving under the stern disciplinarian Jervis. He was elevated to the rank of Viscount on 6 May, following Copenhagen, but Nelson made his disappointment known when his captains and crews failed to receive their customary rewards.

English Channel

In ill health once more, he returned to England in June to recuperate, but by 27 July he was again at sea in command of a squadron in the English Channel at a time when an invasion of Britain was expected from a huge French army deployed along the French coast. An amphibious attack by the British on Boulogne failed, this time with heavy loss, on 15 August 1801, but after a truce between the English and the French on 22 October, he was delighted to retire to his house in Merton Surrey, a home he shared with the Hamiltons and his new daughter, Horatia, by Emma Hamilton.

This idyll was not to last. England declared war on France once more and Nelson became C-in-C Mediterranean, hoisting his flag in Victory on 18 May 1803. He stayed aboard Victory for nearly two years, chiefly blockading Toulon, without setting foot ashore.


HMS Victory at Trafalgar.

On 8 April the French fleet escaped from Toulon and headed for the West Indies. Nelson gave chase, but missed them. Returning to Portsmouth on 8 August, he once again hauled down his flag and retired to Merton Surrey to recover his failing health. Recalled once more, he sailed on Friday 13 September 1805 to command a special force to blockade the combined fleets of France and Spain in Cadiz.

Following Napoleon’s direct prodding, a total of of 33 sail of the line, four frigates and two brigs sailed from Cadiz under VADM Villeneuve on 20 October, aiming to enter the Mediterranean and link up with other warships blockaded at Cartagena. However, Villeneuve’s crews were poorly trained and his ships poorly maintained, which contributed to his decision to reverse his course and retreat to Cadiz once he found Nelson blocking his route to the Mediterranean.

The Battle of Trafalgar

This led directly to Nelson’s greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar, on 21 October 1805. This decisive battle determined the political shape of Europe for decades. Instead of engaging the combined French and Spanish fleet by following standard procedures, such as sailing parallel to the enemy’s line of battle and becoming involved in a ship-to-ship shoot out, Nelson, with only 27 sail of the line and four frigates, elected to drive straight for the enemy line at virtual right angles, in two columns, break through the enemy’s line of battle and defeat the resulting small formations in detail.

An integral part of the “Nelson touch” was that his captains knew exactly what Nelson intended to do. His pre-action orders were concise and clear, with all possibilities of wind and enemy counterattacks covered. Importantly, as he stated in his written orders, amid the certain confusion of battle, “No captain can do wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”

Villeneuve, on the other hand, failed to brief his captains on defensive tactics. Furthermore, after they reversed course, Nelson found elements of the enemy fleet well scattered or well astern of station.

After trailing the combined fleet most of the previous day, Nelson’s somewhat scattered ships sighted the enemy near daybreak on 21 October. At 0615 he ordered his ships into two columns and at 0630 his flagship Victory turned to intercept. Nelson later signalled his intention to get between the enemy fleet and Cadiz and at about 1140 (the exact time is in dispute), Victory made the famous signal, “England expects every man will do his duty.” At about 1130 HMS Royal Sovereign, leading the second column, came under fire.

At about 1330, with Victory alongside the crippled French Redoutable, Nelson, in conspicuous full dress uniform, received a fatal wound from a musket shot fired from the mizzen top of the French ship, at about 15 metres range. He died about 1635, with the British fleet in clear ascendency. Of the enemy’s 33 ships, he destroyed or captured 19, severely damaged 10 and only four escaped relatively unscathed.

The enemy lost 4408 killed, 2545 wounded and the British took about 20,000 prisoners at a cost of 449 British killed and 1241 wounded. Once again, Nelson lost no ship, but many were damaged. By this single action Britain established an overwhelming maritime supremacy that lasted a century or more.

Nelson’s body was returned to the Nore on 11 December. After lying in state for three days, it was interred in St Pauls Cathedral on 9 January 1806. Nearly 10,000 troops lined the streets for his funeral procession.

Nelson’s brother, the Reverend William Nelson, inherited the title Baron Nelson of the Nile and other honours, together with a pension of £5000 a year. Nelson left nothing to his wife, Frances, but she was granted £2000 a year by the nation.

Emma Hamilton

Emma Hamilton
The vivacious Lady Emma Hamilton. (Painted by Johan Schmidt about 1800.)

Despite a codicil to Nelson’s will written just before Trafalgar asking the nation to take care of her, Emma Hamilton was granted nothing. She had expensive tastes and soon was forced to sell the Merton Surrey house and even spent time in a debtor’s prison. She left England for France in 1814 and died in Calais on 15 January 1815, attended only by their daughter, Horatia. At 21, Horatia married the curate Phillip Ward, and had ten children. They called their eldest son Horatio Nelson. Even so, she denied until her death in 1881 that she was the daughter of Emma Hamilton.

Today, Nelson is remembered in many ways. Around 21 October every year, British Commonwealth wardrooms around the world hold an annual commemoration dinner. In 2005, there was a special commemorative dinner for the 200th anniversary of the action.