June 26th, 2005
LORD NELSON info
This weekend sees the start of a raft of events culminating in the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. At the centre is one of Britain's greatest heroes, Lord Horatio Nelson. |
Nelson's state funeral in 1805 was the largest ever. The procession behind his coffin, as it travelled from the Admiralty to St Paul's Cathedral, stretched a mile-and-a-half in near silence but for the doffing of caps.
Nations need heroes, and Nelson, a passionate man in love and war, was the stuff of them.
Yet he was very much the people's hero, for, at the height of his fame, he was shunned by the Establishment.
His achievement was, through a series of stunning naval successes against France and Spain that culminated in Trafalgar, to ensure that Britannia ruled the waves for more than a hundred years.
The victory arguably scotched all hopes of an invasion of Britain by Napoleon Bonaparte enabling the British Empire to grow safely.
The intuitive brilliance of Nelson was developed from an early age. He was born in the Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe in 1758, the son of a parson.
His mother, who had a distant connection with aristocracy, died when he was nine, an event, he said, which haunted him for the rest of his life.
It was an uncle on his mother's side who got him into the Royal Navy at the tender age of 12.
The Nelson Touch
By the time he was 16, he had travelled the world and learned all the basics of seamanship; by 21, he was a captain, one of the youngest in the navy.
His man-management and leadership skills are legendary. He was able to quell a mutiny by sheer force of character alone. He established a blend of discipline and a sympathetic approach to his men that was based on mutual trust.
It became known as the Nelson Touch. He knew all his crew by name and each was aware precisely of what was expected of them. This, in turn, inspired great loyalty.
He referred to his fellow officers as his "band of brothers". When he died at Trafalgar, many a hardened sailor broke down and wept.
In the course of wars with the French, he fought in more than 120 engagements, losing both an arm and an eye, and suffering all manner of injuries thanks to his daredevil nature.
Although Trafalgar was his greatest victory, others demonstrated even better his tactical awareness and daring.
At the Battle of the Nile in 1798, he risked manoeuvring his fleet between a line of French ships anchored in Aboukir Bay, and, after fierce fighting, destroyed 12 of them with no loss to his own fleet.
A year earlier, in the Battle of Cape St Vincent, he had laid his ship alongside the Spanish vessel St Nicolas, and led a boarding party to capture both it and the larger San Joseph.
It was at this time that he first gained hero status at home, enhanced when he lost his arm leading a landing party trying to take the island of Tenerife.
It was at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 that he famously disobeyed orders by putting the telescope to the eye that had been blinded some years before at the battle of Calvi in Corsica. This was so as not to see the signal to withdraw. He went on to rout the Danes.
Lord Nelson not only possessed a broad streak of ruthlessness, he was a renowned self-publicist who ensured that every detail of his conquests was relayed back home.
Certain other conquests did not meet with the same approval by English society. Nelson had married Fanny Nisbet, a widow who he'd met on the West Indian island of Nevis.
But after the Battle of the Nile, while in Naples recovering from a head injury, he fell in love with the beautiful wife of the Ambassador there, Lady Hamilton.
Emma Hamilton had been a former prostitute, but had risen up the social ladder, to become a sophisticated, charismatic figure.
Despite her fluency in French and Neopolitan Italian, English society ridiculed her Cheshire accent.
That same society was scandalised by the fact that Nelson took her as his mistress and was, for a time, enjoying a ménage a trois with her and her elderly husband. The scandal deepened when Lady Hamilton bore Nelson's child, Horatia.
Hypocrisy abounded. Having a mistress was almost de rigeur among the aristocracy. Nelson's sin was his complete lack of discretion. On one famous occasion, he was publicly snubbed by King George III.
After his death, Emma was imprisoned for debt. She died a pauper. Letters Nelson had written to his daughter were deliberately withheld by a close friend.
Yet neither Lord Nelson's infidelity nor his huge vanity affected his iconic status with the public. He once said that "a glorious death is to be envied". Horatio Nelson fulfilled his wish.