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Biography of Viscount Horatio Nelson

Portrait of Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson was a famous naval commander known for his forthright style who died at the moment of victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

When and Where was he Born?

29th September 1758. Burnham-Thorpe, Norfolk, England.

Family Background:

Horatio Nelson was the sixth of eleven children of the village Rector, Edmund and his wife Catherine. She was descended from Sir Robert Walpole who had been Prime Minister earlier in the century. When she died her brother Captain Maurice Suckling agreed to take him to sea. Suckling later rose to Comptroller of the Royal Navy.

Nelson Signpost
Nelson’s Birthplace in Burnham Thorpe was demolished in 1803 
before the Battle of Trafalgar but the village still proudly records 
the birth of its most famous son (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Education:

The Paston School, North Walsham, Norfolk. The Royal Navy. (Passed the examination to become Lieutenant in 1777).

Timeline of Lord Nelson:

1773: Nelson joins a scientific expedition to the Arctic Ocean. He also sails on active service to the West Indies and becomes involved in the American Wars of Independence.

1779: He is promoted to the rank of Captain, aged 20, and given the command of a Frigate and takes part in the struggle against Spanish settlements in Nicaragua, Central America. The British force at this time is almost wiped out by Yellow Fever.

1783: He returns to England at the end of the American Revolution.

1784: Nelson commands a frigate to the West Indies to help enforce the Navigation Act against American Ships who are still trading using British privileges. In so doing he makes enemies with local merchants and the British authorities.

Dry Dock, Chatham
Dry Dock at Chatham Historic Docks where H.M.S Victory was built
 in the middle of the 18th Century. 
Now home to H.M.S Cavalier, a World War Two Frigate (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1785: Nelson visits the Island of Nevis in the West Indies during March and meets and proposes to Frances Nisbet, the widow of a local doctor.

1787: He marries Frances and returns with his new bride to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk. As he was not in command of a ship at this point he is reduced to half pay.

1793: In January within a few days of the execution of King Louis 16th of France he is given command of the 64 Gun ship Agamemnon. He sets sail for the Mediterranean. He is assigned to the defence of the port of Toulon against the revolutionaries which includes Napoleon Bonaparte. Early efforts fail and he is dispatched to Naples to collect re-enforcements. The success in this is owed to the efforts of Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma who was in the Queen of Naples’s confidence. After the fall of Toulon the British commander Lord Hood moves his base to Corsica. Nelson is sent ashore to assist in the capture of Bastia and Calvi and is blinded in the right eye from splinters from some French shot.

1794: Hood is replaced as commander by Admiral William Hotham and then Sir John Jervis who was an attacking commander more to Nelson’s liking. Nelson quickly gains the confidence of Jervis. The British are forced to retreat to Gibraltar and the Tagus. At the Battle of Cape St. Vincent Nelson holds the two Spanish squadrons apart and boards two Men O’ War. This action earns him a Knighthood. He is promoted to Rear Admiral by seniority. His first action in command of a major independent force is however disastrous. During his assault on Tenerife a grape shot from a cannon shatters his right elbow and his arm has to be amputated back on board his flagship.

1798: In the Spring Nelson is fit enough again to rejoin Jervis (who had now become the Earl of St. Vincent) sailing in HMS Vanguard. He pursues the French fleet towards Egypt. He catches up with it in the harbour at Alexandria near the mouth of the river Nile on 1st August. The Battle of the Nile rages all night and he all but annihilates the French squadron. He is awarded a Baronetcy for this action. He then makes his way back to Naples for repairs where he was given a heroes welcome. Emma Hamilton stage-manages a huge 40th Birthday party for him with 1,800 guests. He encourages King Ferdinand of Naples to ally with Great Britain, Austria and Russia against the French and to try and recapture Rome. After early successes the French counter-attack drives Ferdinand back to Naples, which then falls. Nelson helps evacuate the royal family to Sicily and at Palermo it became obvious that his infatuation with Emma Hamilton is undeniable.

1799: Nelson supports King Ferdinand’s successful re-capture of Naples. Lord Keith who had replaced St. Vincent as commander of the British orders him to Minorca but he refuses arguing that the threat from the French was towards Naples. The Admiralty orders him back to Britain annoyed both with his disobedience and his acceptance of the Dukedom of Bronte (in Sicily) from the King of Naples.

1800: Nelson returns slowly overland to London with the Hamiltons where he received a hero’s welcome. He has a bleak reunion with his wife for one month until he goes back to the Hamiltons. Because of his affair he has become a figure of fun in society and is snubbed by the King of England, George the Third. He is appointed second in command to the elderly Admiral Sir Hyde Parker who is to command an expedition to the Baltic. Shortly before sailing Emma gives birth to a girl (Horatia) and Nelson makes arrangements for concealing its parentage.

1801: Parker’s fleet sails for Copenhagen. Nelson bypasses the shore batteries by taking low draught ships along a shallow channel. He ignores Parker’s signal to disengage after heavy loses by announcing to his Flag Captain Thomas Foley that as he only has one eye he has a right to be blind sometimes. Nelson carries on and finally becomes victorious. Parker is succeeded in command by Nelson himself as Parker had become a Commander-in-Chief and given a Home Command. Nelson planned a failed attack on Boulogne and his second attempt was cancelled due to the signing of the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802.

1802: Nelson returns to Merton Place near London, which Emma had bought, on his instructions for them both to live in. Sir William Hamilton was not happy with the situation but was powerless to do anything about it.

Nelson Statue, Birmingham
The first statue in Great Britain commemorating Nelson after the Battle of Trafalgar 
was erected in Birmingham. 
This was paid for by public subscription to a design 
by the sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1803: Hamilton dies on the 6th April with his wife and her lover at his side. In May Nelson is given a command in the Mediterranean Sea with HMS Victory as his flagship. Although technically at peace it was known that Napoleon was threatening further war. Nelson blockades Toulon to prevent the French ships both at Brest and in the Atlantic from joining forces. Spain declares war and Nelson keeps an eye on the Spanish ships based at Cadiz and Cartagena.

Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square
Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. 
Erected between 1840 and 1843
 (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1805: In March the French commander Villeneuve’s ships break out of Toulon under cover of bad weather. The British give chase and inflict some damage on the French fleet, however failing to win complete control of the English Channel and fearing an invasion of Britain by Napoleon, Nelson takes his ships south to Cadiz where Villeneuve’s fleet have taken sanctuary. He then goes to Gibraltar to make dispositions for the blockade of Cadiz and then returns to England to plan his campaign. On October 20th Villeneuve sails out of Cadiz harbour at dawn. On the next day Nelson forms two divisions, one led by himself and the other led by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. The British sail straight at the combined French and Spanish fleets effectively cutting them in two. It is a risky strategy as the full weight of the French and Spanish guns are aimed at the British Fleet before they can return fire. However after the breakthrough the British ships can fire booth broadsides at the enemy and victory is thus assured at the Battle of Trafalgar. During the height of battle Nelson is shot by a French sniper from the rigging of the French ship Redoubtable and hit in the shoulder and chest. Some have claimed that having all his insignia embroidered on his coat made him an easy target to recognise. Nelson is taken below decks but he later dies of his wounds. Due to the high regard of him by his sailors he is not buried at sea which is the normal practice but they forgo some of their spirt rations and his body is put into a barrel to preserve it for the long journey home to England. There he receives a hero’s welcome and later a triumphal funeral procession from Greenwich to burial at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Nelson's Coffin Marker
Plaque at the spot where Horatio Lord Nelson’s body lay in state in the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich (copyright Anthony Blagg)

(1815): Emma Hamilton dies in poverty in Calais on 15th January.

(1831): His estranged wife Frances dies in London.

When and Where did he Die?

21st October 1805. Shot by a French sniper at sea off Cape Trafalgar, Spain during the famous battle.

Age at Death:

47.

Marriage:

March 1787 to Frances Nisbet a widow with a five year old son Josiah on the Isle of Nevis.

Site of Grave:

St. Paul’s Cathedral crypt beneath the Dome, London, England.

Horatio Nelson's Grave
Nelson’s Grave Monument, 
St Paul’s Cathedral, London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

AVON:

Lodged for a year at No 2 Pierrepont Street, Bath.

LONDON:

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. (Uniform worn at Trafalgar complete with bullet hole and blood on display).

The Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich has a plaque commemorating Nelson’s lying in state there and there is a small museum next to it which has the original table which carried the coffin.

HAMPSHIRE:

H.M.S. Victory, Royal Naval Dockyard, Portsmouth. (Nelson’s Flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar).
Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth Dockyards.

KENT:

Historic Dockyards, Chatham where H.M.S Victory was built.

NORFOLK:

Burnham Thorpe, the place of Nelson’s birth, is still an isolated village. The actual building was demolished in 1803 before his victory at Trafalgar.

Maritime Museum, Great Yarmouth.

TEESSIDE:

Hartlepool Historic Dock, part of Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience has the preserved ship H.M.S Trincomalee floating in it’s harbour. Although built after Trafalgar it was constructed to the same design as all of Nelson’s frigates and visitors can experience the cramped conditions below decks.

HMS Trincomalee
H.M.S Trincomalee at Hartlepool Historic Dockyard. A restored example of a Nelsonic type Frigate. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

SCOTLAND:

Royal Yacht Britannia has a button off Nelson’s coat in the Wardroom and a portrait of him outside the Queen’s bedroom. There is also a bust in the Chief Petty Officer’s Mess.

WALES:

Nelson Collection at the Monmouth Museum, Monmouth.

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