Horatio Nelson, first Viscount Nelson (1758-1805)

Possibly Britain’s greatest admiral, and certainly the most intriguing. Entered the navy aged 12 in1770, and rose quickly, becoming a Captain in 1779, aged only 20. After a period of service in the Caribbean, he spend the years between the end of the American War of Independence and the outbreak of the Revolutionary war in 1793 ‘on the Beach’, waiting for a ship.

One was found for him in 1793. He was sent to the Mediterranean, where he began to gain a reputation for boldness and determination (no doubt aided by the loss of the sight in his right eye during a campaign on Corsica). In 1797 he was present at the battle of Cape St. Vincent, where he made a bold move to cut off the Spanish fleet when it looked like it might escape. Had this move failed, Nelson’s career might well have been over, as it had been carried out without orders. Its success helped propel him to his first independent command, sent back to the Mediterranean to track down Napoleon’s fleet headed towards Egypt.

Although Nelson missed Napoleon’s fleet on the way out, he found it in Aboukir Bay. The battle of the Nile (1-2 August 1798) was one of the most complete naval victories. The French fleet was virtually annihilated, trapping Napoleon and denying him reinforcement. Nelson was now a European celebrity, but fame brought new dangers. At Naples, Nelson became enamoured with both the Royal court and more famously with Lady Emma Hamilton, the young wife of the British ambassador.

This affair had a very negative impact on Nelson’s reputation in some circles in Britain, partly deserved. He eventually returned to England by land across Europe, visiting a series of courts where he was welcomed as a hero. His reception in official circles in Britain was cooler, but his skills as an Admiral were still needed.

Appointed second in command of a fleet being sent to the Baltic, Nelson was in effective command of the fighting at the battle of Copenhagen (1801), where he gained another dramatic victory, this time fighting against a fleet moored within its own defences.

After a brief pause, the war was renewed in 1803. Nelson was given command of the Mediterranean fleet, with orders to stop the Toulon fleet from escaping. In March 1805, they did just that, but with Nelson in close pursuit. A six month long chase to the Caribbean and back followed. The French fleet then met up with the Spanish in Cadiz. Nelson was placed in command of the blockading fleet. The combined French and Spanish fleet sailed in October 1805, and on 21 October 1805 Nelson finally had his battle at Trafalgar. The result was one of the greatest naval victories (again!). The allies lost 18 ships, while the British lost none. However, they did loose Nelson, shot by a sharp shooter early in the battle, although he survived long enough to know that he had won.

Nelson received a hero’s burial in St Paul’s Cathedral, something he had often joked about before going into combat. He left a legacy of Naval dominance that was to last for another century, as well as finally ending any danger of French invasion.

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Full Biography: Part 1: Early life to battle of Cape St. Vincent
Nelson's Navy, Brian Lavery. A fascinating book that covers every aspect of life at sea in Nelson's navy, from ship building to the daily life of the sailors. If you have any interest in naval warfare, or in life at sea, then this book is essential for you.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 November 2005) Nelson, Horatio, first Viscount Nelson (1758-1805), articles/people_nelson.html

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