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Admiral Lord Nelson

Horatio Nelson was born on 29 September 1758 at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk. He was the sixth of eleven children born to the Rev. Edmund Nelson and his wife, Catherine. The Nelsons were distant relatives of Lord Walpole: Horatio, 2nd Lord Walpole of Wolterton (Horatio Nelson's godfather) was Sir Robert's Walpole's nephew and Sir Robert's sister Mary was grandmother of Catherine, Nelson's mother.[1]  Nelson's uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling was to become comptroller of the British Navy and agreed to take Horatio Nelson to sea. Nelson joined the navy in 1770. His first years in the navy were marked by experience gained in the Thames, on a voyage to the West Indies and an expedition to the Arctic in 1773. He also served in the East Indies; his first naval action was in the Indian Ocean. Soon after he contracted malaria and was invalided home. In 1777 Nelson was made a lieutenant and sailed for Jamaica on the Lowestoft. The West Indies was the most active theatre in the war against the American colonies. In 1779 Nelson was promoted to captain, at the age of 20. He was given command of a frigate, the Hinchingbrook, and took part in operations against Spanish settlements in Nicaragua, which became targets once Spain joined France in alliance with the American Revolutionaries. The attack on San Juan was militarily successful but ultimately disastrous when the British force was almost wiped out by yellow fever. In 1781 Nelson commissioned the Albemarle and joined Hood's squadron in America; in 1783, after the end of the American War of Independence, Nelson returned to England by way of France.

On his return to London in 1784 he was appointed to command a frigate, the Boreas, bound for the West Indies to enforce the Navigation Act. Nelson implemented the law against American ships and made enemies not only among merchants and ship owners but also among the resident British authorities who had failed to enforce the law. Nelson found command both difficult and lonely. He visited Nevis in March 1785 and met Frances Nisbet, a widow, and her five year old son, Josiah. In March 1787 the couple were married at Nevis. When he returned England, Nelson found himself on half pay and remained unemployed for five years. He knew that the Admiralty was prejudiced against him, probably for his strict enforcement of the Navigation Acts. However, with the outbreak of the French Wars, he was given command of the 64-gun Agamemnon. Nelson was sent to defend Toulon against the French and went to Naples to collect reinforcements. It was here that Nelson first met Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador. When Toulon fell Lord Hood moved his base to Corsica, where Nelson and his ship's company went ashore to assist in the capture of Bastia and Calvi. A French shot threw debris into Nelson's face, resulting in him losing his right eye.

At the end of 1794, Hood was replaced by Admiral William Hotham who subsequently was replaced by Sir John Jervis, a very experienced seaman. Jervis' arrival coincided with French land successes so that the British were forced to abandon their Mediterranean bases. Nelson found himself sailing through a Spanish fleet of 27 ships while making for a rendezvous with Jervis off Cape St. Vincent. The Battle of Cape St. Vincent won an earldom for Jervis, who became Lord St. Vincent and Nelson was knighted. He was also promoted by seniority to Rear Admiral. His first action in command of a major independent force was an assault on Tenerife where he lost his right arm. In the spring of 1798 Nelson was fit enough to rejoin Lord St. Vincent, who assigned him to watch a French fleet waiting to embark an expeditionary force. The result was the Battle of the Nile.

Following the battle, Nelson put in for repairs at Naples where he was given a hero's welcome by Lady Hamilton who became his mistress. Nelson was elevated to the peerage as Baron Nelson of the Nile and was awarded a pension of £10,000 a year. The King of Naples gave Nelson the title of Duke of Bronte (in Sicily). Nelson resigned his command and returned to England in 1800 with the Hamiltons. Emma was pregnant by Nelson when he was appointed second in command to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, who was to command an expedition to the Baltic. Shortly before sailing, Nelson heard that Emma had given birth to a daughter, Horatia. Nelson separated from his wife.

Parker's fleet sailed for Copenhagen early in 1801. Nelson led his squadron into action on 2 April. The Danes resisted and Parker, fearing that Nelson was suffering unacceptable losses, hoisted the signal to disengage. Nelson disregarded it. An hour later, the Danish ships were destroyed, their losses amounting to 6,000 dead and wounded, six times heavier than those of the British. It was at the Battle of Copenhagen that Nelson held his telescope to his blind eye, saying, "I see no ships" before he disobeyed order.

Parker was succeeded by Nelson as commander in chief. The Admiralty made maximum use of Nelson's popularity by giving him a home command. At once he planned an ambitious attack on the naval base of Boulogne in order to prevent a possible French invasion. He did not take part and the operation was a failure. A second attempt was abandoned because of peace negotiations with France, and in March 1802 the Peace of Amiens was signed.

Emma Hamilton had bought Merton Place, an country house near London. Her husband appeared reconciled to his lot but died in 1803 with his wife and her lover at his side.

In May 1803 Nelson was given command in the Mediterranean. His flagship was the Victory. Once again he blockaded Toulon with the aim of preventing a rendezvous between the French and Spanish ships. A combined force could enable Bonaparte to invade England. In early 1805, Napoleon ordered the fleets to converge for this purpose. The result was the Battle of Trafalgar.

As the opposing fleets closed, Nelson made his signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty." The Battle of Trafalgar raged around the Victory, and a French sniper shot Nelson through the shoulder and chest. It was soon clear that he was dying. When told that 15 enemy ships had been taken, he replied, "That is well, but I had bargained for 20." Thomas Hardy, his flag captain, kissed his forehead in farewell and Nelson spoke his last words, "Now I am satisfied. Thank God, I have done my duty."

Nelson was given a state funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral. Emma Hamilton and his daughter were ignored. Emma died in Calais nine years later, almost destitute.

[1] I am indebted to Martin Stiles for this information. (back)

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