Lord Nelson

Lord Nelson (Horatio, Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe) 1758-1805: English Admiral who defeated the navies of France and its allies (notably Spain) during the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War. He was a slender, compact, wiry man of middle height: John Hoppner’s portrait (above) in the Royal Maritime Museum is one of several that suggests a quiet but assured glamour, undimmed by the loss in action of an eye in Corsica and arm at Tenerife. A midshipman at the age of twelve, he rose steadily through the ranks until, in the late 1790s, he began to make his reputation as a bold, charismatic and thoroughly unconventional commander. At Cape St Vincent in 1797 – crying “Westminster Abbey or Glorious Victory!” – he disobeyed standing orders, breaking away from the line to launch a fierce engagement that secured the Spanish surrender: for this he won the Order of the Bath. At Cadiz – “I wish to make it a warm night at Cadiz!” – he and a handful of men killed eighteen Spaniards, fighting hand to hand with swords, pistols and cutlasses. At Tenerife he failed to capture the garrison at Santa Cruz but dealt well with Don Antonio Guttierez, the Commandant. The Spaniards invited British officers to dine; Nelson presented Guttierez with a barrel of English ale and a cheese. Back in form at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, he captured, blew up or sunk most of the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, freeing the Ottoman Empire from French domination and wrecking Napoleon’s plan to use Egypt as a gateway to British interests in the East. He was rewarded with a peerage; the grateful Sultan of Turkey invested him with the Turkish Order of the Crescent along with a spray of thirteen diamonds representing the defeated ships of the line; the King of Naples made him Knight of the Order of St Ferdinand and Merit; more obscurely, Count Ferdinand Karl III of Leiningen, who regarded Napoleon as a personal enemy, appointed Nelson to the Order of St Joachim. He took pride in wearing all of these decorations, often on a daily basis, to considerable theatrical effect, as can be seen in the portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott. At Copenhagen in 1801 he ignored Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s signal urging caution, claiming not to have seen it, famously raising a telescope to his blind eye. In the action that followed he defeated the Danish fleet, preventing the formation of a dangerous alliance between Russia, the Baltic states and France. Finally, he defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805 where he died, shot by a sniper whilst coolly pacing his quarterdeck in the heat of battle, his uniform conspicuously and characteristically ablaze with his four orders of chivalry. Trafalgar was of comparatively small tactical importance but of huge and long-lasting significance in establishing the pre-eminence of the Royal Navy and giving Britain a badly-needed national hero. He is famous too for his affair with Emma, a blacksmith’s daughter from the Wirrall who married the elderly diplomat Sir William Hamilton after colourful episodes as an artist’s model, society beauty and roving mistress. Most of the many portraits of her are, for today’s taste, so theatrical as rather to cloud her sultry charm; but a study of her as ‘Circe’ by George Romney (below) confirms her beauty. Nelson, Emma and Sir William formed an understanding sophisticated by any standards: the genial diplomat was perfectly aware of the affair but turned a blind eye, forming a warm lifelong friendship with Nelson: “my dearest friend … the most virtuous, loyal and truly brave character I have ever met … God bless him and shame fall on those who do not say amen”.

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