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Regency Superhero: Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758–1805, by Lemuel Francis Abbott., dated 1800. Note the empty sleeve pinned to his chest. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

You may not think that a one-armed, one-eyed man born the son of a poor country parson could be a hero, but to the English populace in 1805 Admiral Lord Nelson was nothing less than a superhero.

From the last years of the 18th century well into the 19th, England was locked in a titanic struggle with Napoleon. During these war years, especially 1803 to 1805, the French Emperor planned to invade England. All of Britain was on high alert, especially those who lived in the coastal areas.  

Cartoon satirizing Napoleon's plans to invade Britain, from the early 19th century. Originally scanned from Vaisseau de Ligne, Time Life, 1979. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) 

In the autumn of 1805 Napoleon teamed his French Navy with the Spanish Navy, with the goal of clearing the English Channel of any Royal Navy ships so an invasion could take place. In what came to be known as the Battle of Trafalgar, a Franco-Spanish flotilla of 33 ships sailed north around Cape Trafalgar, at the southwest tip of Spain, on October 21. They were met and soundly defeated by 27 British vessels under Nelson's command. While 23 ships in the French and Spanish fleets were lost in the battle, not a single British ship was sunk. It was a decisive victory, establishing Great Britain's mastery of the seas around its islands and extinguishing any threat of a French invasion.

However, there was a heart-breaking loss for the British forces that day – a French sniper mortally wounded Nelson, who was standing on-board the H.M.S. Victory in full regalia. Legend has it that the French sniper was able to spot his target because of the medals on Nelson’s chest.

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory, by J.M.W. Turner, c. 1806, Tate Britain (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

It took weeks for news of the victory and Nelson’s death to reach England. His grieving crew returned Nelson’s body (preserved in a brandy-filled cask tied to the mainmast of the Victory) to England in November, and in January of 1806 a massive state funeral was held for the fallen hero. His funeral was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rites included his coffin being transported in a barge on the River Thames and a huge procession through London, with 32 admirals, over a hundred captains and 10,000 soldiers among the participants.

6 Fun Facts about Nelson

  1. He suffered from seasickness all his life.
  2. Nelson was tough, part 1: In May 1794 in Corsica he was hit in the face with rocks and other debris caused by a shell exploding near him. It almost killed him, and in fact he was blinded in his right eye. His journal entry for the day was “I got a little hurt this morning.”
  3. Nelson was tough, part 2: His right arm was hit by a musket ball while coming ashore on the Spanish island of Tenerife in July 1797. Doctors had to amputate his arm, but according to contemporary accounts in naval journals he was giving orders again only 30 minutes after the surgery.
  4. Although was married, he had a widely-known adulterous affair with Lady Hamilton, the wife of the British envoy to the King and Queen of Naples. Among Nelson’s last words, which he uttered upon realizing he’d been mortally wounded during the Battle of Trafalgar, were “Take care of poor Lady Hamilton.” 
    "Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a Straw Hat," by George Romney, painted 1782-84. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
  5. His defeat of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in August of 1798 inspired a craze for ancient Egyptian decorations in England. This fad peaked in 1810. Furnishings that typified the style included tables that were supported by sphinxes and sarcophagus-shaped cellarets (a cabinet used to cool wine bottles). Motifs featuring crocodiles, lions, sphinx heads and serpents were used liberally as well.  
  6. Famous phrase attributed to Nelson (it was actually transmitted to the fleet by signal flags from the deck of the H.M.S. Victory prior to Battle of Trafalgar): “England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty.”

Monument to Nelson in London's Trafalgar Square, completed in 1843. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

  • The Regency Companion, by Sharon Laudermilk and Teresa Hamlin, Garland Publishing Inc. , New York & London, 1989
  • “Lord Nelson returned to work half an hour after losing arm“,  by Alastair Jamieson, The TelegraphOctober 28, 2009
  • The Wars of Napoleon, West Point Military History Series, written by Albert Sidney Britt II, series edited by Thomas E. Griess, Avery Publishing Group Inc., Wayne New Jersey, 1985
  • “Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson”, Wikipedia


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