Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson: A rebel with a cause

British naval hero Horatio Nelson was a rebel, a lover and a leader, whose life was marked by victory at sea and scandal on shore. Julian Humphrys charts the course of his life

Portrait of English admiral Lord Horatio Nelson

Britain has had its fair share of heroes, but very few have commanded the same affection that Nelson did.

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“We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased. The great and gallant NELSON is no more.”

With these words, The Times summed up the mood of the nation, for the news of Nelson’s death at Trafalgar was met with an outpouring of public grief that wouldn’t be matched until the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, nearly 200 years later.

His loss was felt particularly keenly in the Navy. Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s normally reserved second-in-command, wept at the news, while a boatswain’s mate on board Victory cried so much that he was unable to pipe the men to quarters. When Nelson’s coffin was taken for burial in St Paul’s Cathedral a few weeks later, huge crowds of mourners showed up to line the streets.

Horatio Nelson was born seven weeks prematurely, on 29 September 1758 in the Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe, where his father was the parish priest.

Although he was hurriedly baptised because nobody expected him to live, Nelson survived, but in 1767, when he was just nine, his mother died. It was an event that would leave a permanent mark on his personality.

He developed into an engaging, impulsive boy with a strong religious faith who craved affection, attention and approval – characteristics that he would carry with him to his grave. In 1771, aged just 12, he joined the Royal Navy with the help of his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He spent most of his teenage years at sea, sailing thousands of miles from the Bay of Bengal to the Arctic, and surviving not only a severe bout of malaria but also, if the stories are to be believed, a brush with a polar bear.

Promoted to captain at the age of 20, Nelson spent eight years in command of a succession of frigates – fast, lightly armed warships that were the Navy’s eyes and ears. As they frequently operated independently, Nelson gained valuable experience in decision-making.

Not that those decisions were always right. When the American Revolution ended, he was given command of HMS Boreas and sent to the West Indies. He soon alienated the locals by over-zealously enforcing a trade embargo with the newly independent colonies, and annoyed his superiors by lecturing them on their duty.

General Shirley, the governor of Antigua, was unimpressed, replying “Old respectable officers of high rank, long service and of a certain life are very jealous of being dictated to in their duty by young Gentlemen whose service and experience do not entitle them to it.”

He also mishandled a delicate situation involving the commander of HMS Pegasus, Prince William Henry (later William IV), who was involved in a dispute with his first lieutenant. Unwilling to alienate a potentially powerful patron, Nelson allowed the young prince to flout naval rules.

This time it was the Admiralty who were unimpressed, and between 1788 and 1793, Nelson found himself lingering on half pay in England, and without any naval employment.

Repent and resent

While in the West Indies, Nelson had married Frances Nisbet, an attractive young widow he’d met on the island of Nevis. According to Prince William Henry, who gave the bride away, Nelson was “over head and ears in love”, but he privately doubted whether it would last, writing that he hoped Nelson “may not repent the step he has taken.”

The couple spent the next five years in England together, much of it at Burnham Thorpe. Frances, who had lived all her life in the West Indies, hated the bitter Norfolk winters, while Nelson became frustrated as the years passed without a ship to command. Moreover, although Frances already had a son by her first marriage, the couple were still childless.

Nelson’s years of inactivity ended in 1793 when war broke out with Revolutionary France. He was given command of a battleship, HMS Agamemnon, and sent to join the Mediterranean fleet under Lord Hood. It was Nelson’s big opportunity, and he was determined to seize it.

“If it is a sin to covet glory,” he wrote, “I am the most offending soul alive.” In 1794, Nelson took part in the capture of Corsica. While fighting on land at Calvi he lost almost all the sight in his right eye when he was hit in the face by gravel thrown up by a French cannonball.

It was the first of a number of serious wounds suffered by Nelson – proof that while his thirst for glory might expose the men under him to risks, they were risks that he himself was willing to take.

In March 1795, Nelson took part in his first fleet battle, off Genoa, and gave the much larger Ça Ira such a pounding that she was easy prey to the British on the following day. The British had the upper hand, but when Admiral Hotham broke off the action after only two ships had been captured, Nelson was frustrated and angry.

Nelson wasn’t interested in damaging the enemy; he wanted their complete annihilation and, as he would prove in the future, he was prepared to take risks to achieve it.

The following year saw Nelson given command of a small squadron of ships off the Italian coast. He blockaded French-held ports and captured the islands of Elba and Capraia. These exploits earned him the respect of men like Sir John Jervis, the new commander of the Mediterranean fleet, but Nelson believed that his achievements were being ignored back at home.

National hero

The year 1797 gave him the opportunity to secure the public recognition he craved. On 14 February, Jervis took on the Spanish at Cape St Vincent. Displaying the kind of urgency so lacking in Hotham, he ordered his ships to make straight for a gap in the Spanish line, splitting the enemy fleet in two.

Nelson played a leading role in the ensuing victory, taking his ship, the Captain, out of the line to thwart a dangerous Spanish manoeuvre. More was to come. When Nelson saw that two Spanish ships, the San Nicolás and the San Josef, had collided and become entangled, he brought the Captain alongside the San Nicolas and then led a boarding party to capture her before crossing her deck to seize the San Josef. It was a quite unprecedented feat.

Nelson was well aware that none of this would have been possible without the support of his captains, and was quick to thank them. But he was equally quick to ensure that this time his actions were not overlooked. He wrote his own, unofficial, account of the battle and sent it for publication back home. It instantly captured the public imagination and made him a national hero.

In deep water

Five months later, Nelson suffered his worst ever defeat when he led a naval force in a disastrous land assault on Santa Cruz de Tenerife. A quarter of his men became casualties, and Nelson himself had his right arm amputated after it was shattered by a musket ball.

Racked by guilt at the losses he’d incurred and in great pain from his wound, Nelson sank into a deep depression. His mood wasn’t helped by his belief that “a left-handed admiral will never be considered useful”. But Jervis stood by him, the wound eventually healed and, helped by the popular adulation he was now receiving,

Nelson’s flagging spirits revived. The following April, he was sent to the Mediterranean with 13 battleships to hunt down the French. On 1 August 1798, he found their fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay and immediately prepared to attack.

The battle that followed was Nelson’s most decisive victory. Whereas most admirals at the time looked to keep a tight control on their fleets, Nelson was the opposite. He trusted his captains implicitly and, after making sure they understood his plans, he allowed them the flexibility to decide how best to carry them out.

It was a philosophy that paid dividends. When Captain Thomas Foley of the Goliath realised that the water between the French and the shore was deep enough to sail in, he led his ship down the landward side of the French fleet. Three other ships followed him while Nelson led a second attack down the seaward side.

One by one, the French vessels were overwhelmed by superior numbers and gunnery and, with the wind against them, the ships at the other end of their line could do nothing but wait for their inevitable destruction.

In the end, 11 out of the 13 French battleships were destroyed or captured. The victory secured British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and left Bonaparte’s army stranded in Egypt. The nation went wild with delight. It seemed that the ‘Hero of the Nile’, as Nelson was now dubbed, could do no wrong.

Nelson had been wounded in the head during the battle, and he sailed to Naples to recuperate. Greeted as a hero and feted by the Neapolitan court, he stayed with the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, and Emma, his beautiful wife.

What was initially intended to be a short visit lasted nearly two years, and cast a cloud over both Nelson’s personal life and his professional career. Neglecting his wider military responsibilities, he became increasingly embroiled in the murky world of Neapolitan politics. In doing so he found himself drawn into a vicious civil war, and his involvement in the execution of Francesco Carriacolo, a prominent republican leader, further tarnished his reputation.

Eventually, Nelson was summoned home, having been pointedly told by Earl Spencer: “You will be more likely to recover your health and strength in England than in… a foreign court, however pleasing the respect and gratitude shown to you for your services.”

The other woman

And then there was Emma Hamilton. She nursed him back to health, they shared dangers together, and eventually became lovers.

The desire for an unblemished hero led later generations to blame Emma for the affair, but the reality was more complicated. Nelson was certainly not innocent, and had already had at least one lover since his marriage to Frances. In any event, the attraction was more than sexual.

Emma doted on Nelson, mothering him and encouraging him. They also seem to have shared a sense of humour. When Nelson was rewarded for his victory at the Nile with a barony rather than the viscountcy he thought he deserved, Emma wrote to him, “If I was King of England, I would make you the most noble, puissant Duke Nelson, Marquis Nile, Earl Alexandria, Viscount Pyramid, Baron Crocodile and Prince Victory.”

The pair did little to hide their relationship, and soon it was the talk of a scandalised London. When Nelson returned to England with both the Hamiltons in tow, Frances demanded that Nelson choose between her and his lover. Nelson chose Emma, who by now was carrying his child.

After arranging a generous financial settlement for her, he cut his heartbroken wife out of his life and refused to see her or even write to her again.

A nation in mourning

The Naples affair had done Nelson’s reputation no good whatsoever. Many considered his infatuation with Emma undignified and ridiculous, while the Admiralty saw him as a loose cannon, not to be trusted. As a result, when a fleet was sent to Copenhagen in 1801 to break up an ‘armed neutrality’ among the Baltic States, the cautious Admiral Parker was given overall command with Nelson as his deputy.

When negotiations with the Danes failed and the British resorted to force, it was Nelson who led the attack. It was a tricky battle. The Danes fought stubbornly, and some of Nelson’s ships ran into difficulties in the shallow waters.

Parker hoisted a signal ordering a withdrawal. Nelson ignored it and continued the action, gaining the upper hand over the Danes and then securing a favourable truce. He returned home with his professional reputation restored, and for the next 18 months he spent much of his time with Emma, Sir William and his daughter, Horatia, in the house Emma had found for him in Merton.

When in May 1803 a brief peace with France came to an end, the stage was set for Nelson’s last campaign. For 18 months, Nelson, now commander of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, blockaded the French fleet under Admiral Villeneuve in Toulon, but in February 1804 the French slipped away.

Their plan was to create a diversion by threatening Britain’s Caribbean possessions before heading back to unite with other French and Spanish ships and sailing up the Channel to support an invasion. Nelson chased them to the West Indies, causing them to sail back to European waters where, blocked by Admiral Calder, they took refuge in Cádiz harbour.

The invasion was cancelled, but the French and Spanish ships in Cádiz remained a threat, and Nelson was given the job of destroying them. After spending a breathless 25 days on shore with Emma, Nelson rejoined his fleet and on 21 October 1805, at Trafalgar, he won his last and most famous victory. HMS Victory lost 57 men that day. One of them was Nelson.

The nation mourned a hero; those who knew him mourned a man. Contemporaries might smile at his vanity, frown at his love life, and worry about his impulsiveness, but it was impossible not to be inspired by this brave, earnest, passionate little man.

Nelson was a true leader, warm and friendly to his brother officers and approachable to his men. Captain Duff of HMS Mars summed up the views of many people when he wrote: “He is so good and pleasant a man, that we all wish to do what he likes, without any kind of orders.”

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This content first appeared in the January 2017 issue of History Revealed