Horatio Nelson: Britain’s Famous Admiral

Admiral Horatio Nelson was Britain’s greatest naval hero. This article will explore his victories, his celebrity, and his memory.

May 7, 2021By Ben Taylor, BA History, MA War & Strategy
horatio nelson admiral
Commodore Nelson boarding the San Joseph in the Battle of St Vincent, by George Jones, Via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich; with Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, Via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich


Horatio Nelson was once a household name, with adoring crowds turning out to catch a glimpse of him and the press feeding off both his successes and scandals. His triumphs were a source of national joy and his death plunged Britain into mourning. Today he remains a legendary figure in Britain, but his daring exploits are little-known elsewhere. This is the story of Admiral Nelson, the immortal admiral, a man who was both a national hero and a celebrity. 


Part I: Explaining The Idolization Of Horatio Nelson

Commodore Nelson boarding the San Joseph in the Battle of St Vincent, by George Jones, Via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich 


Born the son of a clergyman in the small Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe, Nelson joined the Royal Navy aged 12. He hungered for glory, rising rapidly through the ranks to become a captain by the age of 20. However, with Britain at peace after the American War of Independence ended, he was starved of opportunities to demonstrate his talents.


Horatio Nelson’s situation was swiftly transformed in 1793. The opening of the French Revolutionary Wars led to conflict on an unprecedented scale in Europe. In the years which followed, Nelson had several brushes with the enemy before establishing his reputation as a daring and courageous seaman at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, in 1797. 


Spotting an error in his commander’s maneuver, Nelson risked severe punishment as he broke formation and sailed hard for the enemy flagship. His initiative paid off. Later in the battle, Nelson showed his bravery and desire for glory by capturing two Spanish ships, entangled together. Sword in hand, he personally led a storming party onto each. 


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The British public was fast coming to know the name Horatio Nelson, but it was his next victory that would bring him true fame.


The Battle Of The Nile

The Destruction of L’Orient at the Battle of the Nile, George Arnald, 1825-1827, via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich 


The Battle of the Nile was fought in 1798. Nelson had anxiously chased Napoleon’s French fleet across the Mediterranean towards Egypt, only to overtake it unknowingly. 


He then left Egypt before the French arrived, believing he had missed them. However, this initially comical episode ended in Nelson returning to the mouth of the Nile and smashing the French fleet as it lay at anchor.


With only hours of daylight left, Admiral Nelson began the attack. Hundreds of canons thundered as his fleet pounded the enemy ships with broadside, after broadside. As evening descended the darkness was penetrated only by the flashes of the guns, the din pierced only by the shrieks of the wounded. Then, with the battle won, the French flagship L’Orient illuminated the night sky in an almighty explosion. 


Victory on the Nile hoisted Nelson’s reputation to new heights. His bold attack had lifted British morale and doomed Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition to failure. Yet Britain’s infatuation with its naval hero had only just begun. It grew further with every victory.


At the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, with the contest going well but still hanging in the balance, Nelson was signaled to withdraw. However, seeing victory there for the taking, he continued the action and joked: 


‘I have only one eye and it is directed on the enemy.’ 


The battle was won, Nelson’s instincts again proved reliable, and his wit only further endeared him to his sailors and the public. His greatest victory now awaited him.


Admiral Nelson At Trafalgar 

The Battle of Trafalgar, 12 October 1805, by J. M. W. Turner, 1822-1824, via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich 


The Battle of Trafalgar, beautifully depicted in Turner’s above painting, proved that Admiral Nelson was the greatest naval commander in British history. Fought on October 21st, 1805, it crowned his extraordinary career with the greatest naval victory the world had ever seen. Commanding 33 ships, Horatio Nelson trusted superior British gunnery and seamanship to overwhelm the 41 French and Spanish vessels facing him. To make these qualities count, he had to create a chaotic battle.


Nelson divided his fleet into two columns to punch through the enemy’s line of battle. As they sailed steadily closer, he flew the signal to his fleet: 


‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. 


Rapturous cheers burst from each ship in response.


As battle drew closer, Nelson’s subordinates pleaded in vain for him to leave his flagship, HMS Victory, which was leading a column. Knowing the talismanic value of his leadership, he refused and would not even remove his distinctive coat.  


As HMS Victory closed in on the opposing fleet, the enemy opened fire. For nearly half an hour the angle of the Victory’s approach prevented her returning it. Nelson coolly paced the deck as cannonballs and splinters flew around him. 50 of his crew fell before they were able to open fire. 


Finally, as the Victory pulled alongside the enemy’s flagship, a broadside was unleashed from half of the ship’s 104 canons. As each shot hammered simultaneously into the opposing vessel, 200 of its crew were killed or wounded. The carnage of battle was underway.


The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805: End of the Action, Via Nicholas Pocock, 1808, via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich


Just a few hours later it was over. The enemy fleet was decimated while not a single British ship was lost, crushing France’s plans to invade Britain. The British public would be eternally grateful to their savior, Admiral Horatio Nelson. He lay dead below deck, having given his life in the hour of his finest victory. 


Nelson’s reputation was now elevated to God-like status. Yet while his string of spectacular victories had propelled him to this pedestal, Nelson’s sailors and the British public also fell in love with his human side.


Horatio Nelson The Man

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich


As the sun rose over the sea on the morning of Trafalgar, Nelson was in his cabin writing in his diary. Knowing that battle approached, he wrote:


 ‘May humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet’. 


He would have been proud to witness the kindness shown towards the defeated French and Spanish seamen in the battle’s aftermath. When victory was complete, attention immediately turned to saving lives on both sides. 


Nelson had conducted a similar effort after the Battle of the Nile, saving lives from around the exploded L’Orient. This humanity was a cherished feature of the admiral. His capacity for kindness was born out of his background as the son of a rector. Dedicated to God as well as his country, Admiral Nelson could preside over brutal passages of warfare while still maintaining his compassion. However, this compassion was not the only characteristic that drew attention to Nelson the man.


Emma Hart as Circe, by George Romney, 1782, via The Tate Gallery London


Horatio Nelson was no stranger to scandal. The most famous of these was his long-running affair with Lady Emma Hamilton. It was a strangely fascinating relationship. Much of it took place with the consenting knowledge of Lady Hamilton’s husband, Nelson’s friend, who appeared content with his two favorite people being happy and close by. Emma cared strongly for Nelson but became renowned for using men to advance her social station. 


Lady Hamilton’s behavior sparked jealousy in Nelson at times, but for most of their relationship, she was placed in the back of his mind, while he was focusing on his duties at sea. Nevertheless, it provoked a scandal in England. People gossiped and sneered, but Nelson’s reputation was never seriously tarnished. 


Perhaps it even gave him a touch of human frailty necessary to further fan the flames of his legend. Horatio Nelson was loved both as a hero and as a man. The adoration he received was summarized by a single line his friend wrote about being in public with him: 


‘It is really quite affecting to see the wonder and admiration and love and respect of the whole world.’ 


This love and obsession would long outlive him.


Part II: A Deathless Death 

The Death of Lord Nelson in the Cockpit of the Ship ‘Victory’, Benjamin West, 1808, via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich 


Dying at Trafalgar ensured that Nelson would live forever. Shot by a sniper from the rigging of a French ship, he was carried below deck where he later died. The imagination of the masses was captured by his glorious death. ‘Thank God I have done my duty’, were his last words, epitomizing the two central pillars of his life: devotion to God and commitment to his country. 


After his death, the legend of Horatio Nelson only grew. He was given a state funeral (incredibly rare for a non-royal).


So many flocked to attend that the front of the funeral procession had reached St Paul’s Cathedral before the back began to move. It was a grand event, harboring poignant moments such as the involvement of some of the crew of HMS Victory. Nelson’s nephew wrote of the occasion: ‘All the bands played. The colours were all carried by sailors.’  The outpouring of emotion would not end with Nelson’s burial.


The Legend And Legacy Of Horatio Nelson

Lord Nelson’s Funeral Procession by Water From Greenwich Hospital to White-Hall, January 8th 1806, by Charles Turner, Joseph Clark and Henri Merke, 1806, via The National Maritime Museum Greenwich 


Writers and artists scrambled to produce biographies and memorabilia, while the following years saw monuments erected across the country. One stands in Great Yarmouth, not far from Nelson’s Norfolk birthplace, while the most famous – Nelson’s Column – dominates Trafalgar Square in London. To this day Admiral Nelson, his captains, and his crew are remembered at Trafalgar Day on October 21st.


Nelson’s life and victories will forever be remembered. Yet he also left a lesser-known legacy; his daughter Horatia. Two days before perishing in battle, he wrote to his daughter for the last time. 


‘I rejoice to hear that you are so very good a girl, and love my dear Lady Hamilton, who most dearly loves you. Give her a kiss for me.’


The focused military mind of Admiral Nelson then followed up these touching words by describing the movements of the enemy fleet to the four-year-old child. 


Horatio Nelson was the original British hero and celebrity. His extraordinary career and his enthralling personal life combined to make this the case. A brave and talented commander, he also appeared to be a kind and charming man. His achievements and personal qualities worked in unison to ensure that he gained the love of the public, and of the sailors who followed him into battle. 


It is said that when the news of Nelson’s death spread through the fleet after the Battle of Trafalgar, battle-hardened sailors broke down and wept.

Author Image

By Ben TaylorBA History, MA War & StrategyBen is a contributing writer from Nottingham, Great Britain. Having had a lifelong passion for history, he first studied BA history at Nottingham Trent University and is now undertaking an MA in war and strategy at the University of Leeds. His central research interest is military history, particularly focusing on the Napoleonic Wars and the experiences of soldiers.