Nelson, Horatio, Admiral (1759-1805): 1798-1803

Revolutionary War – Mediterranean and the Nile
Napoleonic Wars – Naples and Emma
Napoleonic Wars – Denmark
Napoleonic Wars – Home Defence and Peace

Revolutionary Wars – Mediterranean and the Nile

Nelson’s return to sea was to see his fame spread across Europe. It came as the Navy was preparing to return to the Mediterranean, to deal with an unknown French threat. A major fleet was being assembled at Toulon, with transports for a large army. Their destination was unknown, and remained so for many months to come.

Nelson was sent out to join St. Vincent in the Vanguard, a 74 gun ship of the line. He left England on 11 April 1798, reached Lisbon on 23 April and joined the fleet off Cadiz at the end of the month. For once, his arrival was not universally popular, as it soon became clear that St. Vincent intended to put Nelson in command of the fleet that was going to re-enter the Mediterranean. St. Vincent had made this decision before received a similar suggestion from the First Sea Lord. It was a remarkable vote of confidence in an admiral whose only previous significant independent command had been the disaster at Tenerife.

The expedition he was setting out to defeat was Napoleon’s attack on Egypt. The French were hoping that the capture of Egypt would give them access to the Indian Ocean, allowing them to threaten Britain’s position in India.

Napoleon’s hopes for his expedition were probably unrealistic – as well as India, he appears to have seen himself conquering Turkey, liberating Greece and conquering Europe from the east. The French expedition certainly intended to turn Egypt into a colony, taking along a sizable party of academics to study their new possession.

The French plan assumed that the Royal Navy would be absent from the Mediterranean. If Nelson had managed to intercept the French fleet at sea, the troop ships would have been incredibly vulnerable.

The French fleet succeeded in reaching Egypt in part due to a misfortune that befell Nelson. On 19 May, before the bulk of his eventual fleet reached him, his flagship, the Vanguard, was nearly wrecked in a storm off Toulon. Nelson was forced to take refuge in southern Sardinia, while his frigates, essential if he was to find the French fleet at sea, returned to Gibraltar expecting to find him there making repairs.

That was not Nelson’s way, and the Vanguard was soon repaired. However, the French had taken advantage of the storm. Napoleon’s fleet sailed on 20 May, and had reach Sicily before Nelson was back outside Toulon. The French fleet was massive. It consisted of 13 ships of the line, 7 frigates and 300 transports, carrying 30,000 infantry, 2,800 cavalry, 100 guns and 31 generals! Despite its head start, the French fleet was thus much slower moving than their British opponents.

This was fortunate, as Nelson was further delayed as he waited for reinforcement. On 7 June, twelve ships of the line joined his original three, giving him a fleet superior to the French. Confident of his ability to deal with anything he would find, Nelson set off in pursuit.

As Nelson was leaving Toulon, Napoleon was approaching Malta. The Knights of St. John, a last remnant of the crusades, still held the island, but it was a shadow of its former self. Their resolve was weakened by French knights, who refused to fight fellow Frenchmen, and it was ended by a revolt amongst the Maltese.

Napoleon now reorganised the island, abolishing the Knights, and plundered their fortress. After a week of intense activity, he sailed on towards Alexandria. Nelson was also heading in the same direction, having heard news of the fall of Malta when he reached Naples.

On the night of 22-23 June, the two fleets actually passed in the dark. Lacking frigates, the British were unaware of how close the massive French fleet was, while officers on the French fleet claimed to have heard British signal guns.

The result of this was that Nelson reached Egypt first, arriving at Alexandria on 29 June to find no sign of the French. Assuming that he was still behind the French fleet, Nelson left Alexandria to search the rest of the eastern Mediterranean, eventually returning to Sicily by the end of July, still without any idea of where the French had gone.

Remarkably, the French fleet arrived at Alexandria on 1 July, only one day after Nelson. Here Napoleon received news of the British fleet, but he was far less concerned about the Royal Navy than his own sailors, having only encountered them in the siege of Toulon. Nevertheless, the proximity of a British fleet may have played a part in his decision to land a small force of 5,000 men to secure Alexandria. This attack succeeded, and the French were able to disembark safely in Egypt.

The land campaign in Egypt started well. Alexandria was lightly defended. The French were able to start their march to Cairo almost unopposed. Egypt was ruled by the Mamelukes, another throwback to an earlier period, who were nominally subjects of the Sultan of Turkey, although they paid little attention to this. Indeed, the French had hoped to maintain friendly relationships with the Turks while technically invading their territory!

The first period of the land campaign came to an end on 29 July at the battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon inflicted a heavy defeat on the Mameluke army, leaving him free to occupy Cairo. His attention now moved to the pacification of the country, and the exploration of its mysteries.

Meanwhile, Nelson finally had the trail again. On 28 July, approaching Greece, he learnt that the French had been sighted south-east of Crete, sailing towards Egypt. Nelson had been right all along. Now he had his chance to catch them and make up for the frustrations of the chase.

Nelson had a very different style of command to that of just about every other admiral of the period. During the long search for the French, he had repeated invited his captains on board the flagship, where they discussed how they would act when they finally discovered the French. Every likely alternative was discussed, and plans prepared. When the battle was joined, every captain knew what was expected of them, and that they were expected to seize any opportunity that presented itself.

The French fleet had had a month to prepare for battle. They had chosen to anchor in Aboukir Bay, fifteen miles east of Alexandria, but had failed to fortify their position properly. They were also anchored rather too far apart, with the result that there was a sizable gap between the French fleet and the coast.

Nelson reached Alexandria early on 1 August. There he found the French transports, and news of the location of the ships of the line. He ordered his fleet to head east as quickly as possible, to allow the fastest ships in the fleet to arrive first. The key to Nelson’s orders here was that he trusted his captains to do the right thing when they encountered the enemy. Nelson called his captains his ‘band of brothers’. They had served together for years, and had had months in the Mediterranean to get to know Nelson’s expectations.

He was not to be disappointed. The two fleets came into sight of each other at two in the afternoon on 1 August. While the French appear to have assumed that this was too late for a battle, Nelson’s captains immediately saw the weakness of the French position, and made every effort to get into battle as quickly as possible.

It is always important to remember the slower pace of warfare at sea in the age of sail. From the moment the French came into sight to the moment that Captain Foley in the Goliath fired the first shots of the battle of the Nile four hours past. Foley had spotted the gap between the French fleet and the coast, and had aimed to sail around the head of the French fleet to attack from the landward side.

This plan had several great advantages. The first is that the French had expected to be attacked at the other end of their fleet, and so had placed their strongest ships at the rear of the fleet. Second, many of the guns on the landward side of the French ships had not been prepared for battle, giving the British a chance to fire almost unopposed while the enemy guns were being prepared. Thirdly, this gave the British the chance to ‘double the line’, or attack from both sides at once. Several of the ships in the French van (front) were exposed to this double attack, while the ships of the French rear were unable to play any significant part in the battle.

The battle raged long into the night. The sun set at seven, only an hour after the fighting had begun. By eight, a British victory was already looking likely, but at that point three British stragglers finally joined in, and the battle quickly turned into a rout. The key moment came at close to ten. The French flagship, the massive L’Orient, had been on fire for some time. It had become clear that the fire was out of control, and many of the crew had attempted to escape. When the fire finally reached the powder magazines, L’Orient exploded with a noise that could be heard in Alexandria. The explosion was followed by ten minutes of stunned silence, as both sides paused to take stock of the massive blast.

Although the fighting started again, all that was at stake was the scale of the British victory. It was shattering, probably the most decisive naval victory of the age of sail. Of thirteen French ships of line, six had been captured, one had exploded, and three had run aground during the night. Admiral Villeneuve, commanding the three ships at the rear of the fleet, decided, probably wisely, that he could do no good, and ordered the survivors to escape. Even now the French were to suffer, as one of the three ran aground and had to be abandoned. Even the two ships that did escape were both eventually captured. Le Genereux was captured by Nelson himself in February 1800, and Le Guillaume Tell at the end of March 1800, Nelson this time playing only a minor part in her capture.

Nelson’s victory at the battle of the Nile had repercussions all around Europe, as well as in Egypt. The defeat of his fleet left Napoleon’s plans in tatters. Instead of being able to move on to threaten India, the French now found themselves on the defensive in Egypt. Napoleon remained in Egypt for another year, eventually abandoning Egypt to return to France, where he quickly seized power. The French occupation itself went on until 1801, when a powerful British force eventually forced them out.

Around Europe news of the victory was received almost ecstatically by many. Almost two years later, on his journey home across Europe, he was still greeted as a hero. The victory at the Nile played a part in transforming the Europe scene. At the start of the year, Britain had been almost entirely without allies. Now the Turks, the Russians and the Austrians all came back into the fight. Perhaps most importantly, Nelson had proved that the revolutionary French could be decisively defeated.

Napoleonic Wars – Naples and Emma

The next two years are the most controversial of Nelson’s career. This controversy has two intertwined causes. The first, and most famous, was Nelson’s famous affair with Emma Hamilton, then the wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy at the court Naples. Second, in part because of his attachment to Emma, Nelson became wrapped up in the essentially futile affairs of the kingdom of Naples, to the extent of receiving an official reprimand for disobeying orders.

Nelson had not been impressed during his previous dealings with Naples, describing it as ‘a country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels’. This attitude was soon to change.

Nelson reached Naples on 22 September. He had already started to receive praise for his victory, but at Naples his reception was enough to turn anybodies head. He was greeted by a fleet of over one hundred boats, whose passengers included King Ferdinand, as well as Emma and Sir William Hamilton. As for Queen Maria Carolina, she was the sister of Marie Antoinette, and so her reaction to the defeat of her sister’s murderers was understandably dramatic.

Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Kingdom had survived since the eleventh century, although the two parts had been separated from time to time. Since 1734 it had been ruled by the Bourbons. Since 1759 that king had been Ferdinand III of Sicily and IV of Naples. Ferdinand was a fairly dreadful king, obsessed with hunting and drinking. He was popular with the lower classes of Naples, whose interests he shared, and largely detested by the rest of society. His regime was typically Bourbon, excluded the educated and aristocratic from any role in government as much as possible. Ironically, the revolutionary politics of France were thus most popular amongst the Neapolitan aristocracy!

Nelson’s head appears to have been turned by his reception in Naples. He appears to have forgotten all of his previous experience of Neapolitan and Austrian armies, ironically gained on this very coastline. Now, Nelson attempted to stir Ferdinand into activity. An Austrian army had temporarily gained some ground in northern Italy.

Nelson managed to persuade Ferdinand to attempt the occupation of Rome, then in French hands. In late November 1798 Nelson landed a force at Leghorn, north of Rome, while the Austrian General Mack, with a Neapolitan army accompanied by King Ferdinand, entered Rome on 29 November.

However, the French had not been defeated, but merely withdrawn temporarily. One week later they began to move back, and the Neapolitan army fled. Ferdinand was forced to return to Naples, where his sudden arrival caused panic, and a rise in republican activity.

It soon became clear that the Court would have to flee to Sicily. On 23 December the entire Court, along with a cast amount of treasure, boarded Nelson’s fleet for the trip to Sicily. It was a dreadful voyage, during which a six year old prince died in Lady Hamilton’s arms. The sole result of Nelson’s activities since the Nile had been the loss of Naples.

King Ferdinand now showed his true character. Having briefly attempted to act like a soldier, his first concern on Sicily was to organise his hunting dogs again. He was much happier in exile in Palermo than he had been in Naples, and it later proved very hard to persuade him to return.

Exactly when Nelson and Emma Hamilton became lovers in not clear. There are some suggestions that it was soon after Nelson’s arrival in Naples in September 1798, while other sources suggest that although they grew close, it took until 1800 for the relationship to blossom. It was a truly unusual relationship. Sir William was much older than Emma, having ‘inherited’ her from his cousin in 1786. He appears to have been aware of her affair with Nelson, but he seems to have expected something similar from early in their relationship, and the three of them settled into an odd, but apparently stable relationship, which was to continue after their return to England, and only end with Sir William’s death.

For the moment, the main significance of Nelson and Emma’s relationship is that it appeared to influence his professional judgement. For nearly two years he was tied to Naples, even going to the extent of ignoring a direct order. In part this was caused by his own sense of honour. Having given the advice that had lost Naples, he felt it was his duty to protect Sicily.

Admiral Étienne Eustache Bruix
Admiral Étienne
Eustache Bruix

His relative inaction in 1799 was brought into stark relief between April and October. Admiral Bruix, the French Minister of Marine, had been ordered to take the Brest fleet to sea, in order to relieve the force isolated in Egypt. He evaded the blockade, and headed towards the Mediterranean. At Cadiz, Admiral Lord Keith managed to prevent him joining with the Spanish fleet, but he was able to break into the Mediterranean.

There, he wasted a great chance to defeat the Royal Navy. By the time he returned to Brest, Bruix commanded a fleet of forty three ships, significantly bigger than any British fleet in the area. Nelson’s own fleet was scattered around the entire eastern Mediterranean on a variety of diplomatic and military missions, while Lord Keith only had 31 ships.

Luckily for Nelson and Keith, Bruix failed to take his chance. Even worse, when he reached Cartagena, where the Spanish had 19 ships of the line, the allies could not agree on a common strategy. The Spanish had no interest in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, and would not agree to combine forces with Bruix. Frustrated, Bruix returned the Brest, having missed the greatest chance for a French naval victory.

Nelson had received news of the French fleet on 12 May. At first his actions were uncontroversial. He gathered his fleet together, and took up a post north-west of Sicily, where he stayed from 21 to 28 May. However, the situation was about to be complicated by developments in Naples.

Over the previous few months, a royalist uprising led by Cardinal Ruffo, had been gaining strength. Now it was close to capturing Naples itself, and Nelson was preparing to transport the Neapolitan army back from Palermo to Naples. On 13 June, the troops boarded Nelson’s ships, just in time for news to arrive that Bruix was off the Italian coast. Once again Nelson took up position north of Sicily, but once again Bruix did not appear.

Aware of the danger from Bruix and the risk involved in the operation itself, Nelson decided that the attack on Naples was worth trying. In the event, his fleet reached the city to find it already in the hands of Cardinal Ruffo.

Nelson spent a controversial month at Naples, to which we will return later. Bruix was still at large, and now it appeared that he was heading towards Minorca, then a key British base. On 13 July, Nelson received orders from Lord Keith to take as many ships as he could to defend the island. Astonishingly, Nelson refused. His argument was that the defence of Naples was far more important than the defence of Minorca.

Admiral Lord Keith
Admiral Lord Keith

Whatever the truth of this claim, it was not Nelson’s job to make such a decision. Lord Keith was commander in chief in the Mediterranean, and Nelson should have obeyed his orders. He received reprimands from Lord Keith, from St. Vincent, from the First Sea Lord and from the Board of the Admiralty. Just about any other admiral would have been removed in disgrace (only fifty years before, Admiral Byng had been executed for failing to relieve the same island).

In contrast, Nelson received a slap on the wrist, combined with a temporary promotion to commander in chief in the Mediterranean while Lord Keith chased the French back to Brest. This can only have been due to the magnitude of his victory at the Nile – to dismiss in disgrace the victor of the Nile within a year of his victory would have been an acute embarrassment. There was also a general appreciation that Nelson was one of the most able Admirals that Britain had ever had, and that the navy needed his services.

Meanwhile, Nelson was busily involving himself in Neapolitan politics. Cardinal Ruffo had agreed to generous capitulation of the French and republican forces in Naples. Neither Nelson nor King Ferdinand were willing to agree to this, and the armistice was immediately revoked. The Neapolitan Admiral Caracciolo, who had earlier been given permission to return to Naples to deal with his private affairs, but had then agreed to take command of the rebel navy, was captured, tried and executed in a single day. The resumption of Royalist rule in Naples was followed by a period of repression for which Nelson has sometimes received the blame, rather unfairly.

Perhaps tellingly, King Ferdinand soon returned to Palermo, arriving on 5 August. Nelson was to remain at Palermo for much of the rest of the year, coming increasingly under the influence of Emma Hamilton, and slowly damaging his reputation. Lord Keith was now back in command, and eventually he ordered Nelson to meet him at Leghorn.

This meeting led indirectly to the capture of one of the two French ships to escape from the Nile. Nelson met Keith on 20 January 1800. They both returned to Palermo, from where they moved on to Malta, still in French hands. On the trip to Malta, the fleet got separated in heavy fog. On 18 February, his small squadron encountered a French force attempting to take supplies to the besieged island. Amongst the French ships was Le Genereux, one of the two survivors of the Nile. After a sharp chase, she was forced to surrender.

Captain Sir Edward Berry, c.1799
Captain Sir Edward Berry, c.1799

Keith and Nelson came back together off Malta. Lord Keith ordered Nelson to take personal command of the blockade, but claiming ill health (a constant theme with Nelson), he returned to Palermo, leaving Captain Berry to conduct the blockade. This was probably the final straw for his superiors, and Nelson was quietly ordered to return home.

This journey home was itself extraordinary. Nelson had been offered a frigate for the trip home, but had refused on grounds of size. Instead, the journey was made overland, via Vienna, Prague, Dresden and Hamburg. This land route was soon to become more dangerous as a result of Napoleon’s victories that year, but for the moment it was safe enough. The party that set out included Emma and Sir William Hamilton as well as the Queen of Naples, who was going to visit Vienna.

Nelson was greeted as a hero all the way home. At Vienna, Haydn renamed a newly composed mass as the Nelson Mass. All along the route, parties were arranged. Nelson’s main concern was about his reception in England, where he arrived on 6 November 1800.

He was right to be concerned. While the popular reaction was as ecstatic as anywhere else, he was less well received at court and in official circles, where his actions in Naples and his affair with Emma combined to reduce his popularity. Even his fellow naval officers were not impressed with his behaviour, especially noting the amount of medals and awards he was wearing, many of them awarded by foreign courts. Nelson did not aid his cause by wearing his foreign awards before gaining official permission to do so.

His return must have been particularly hard on Lady Nelson, who having waited patiently since April 1798 for the return of her husband now found herself supplanted by Emma. After a painful couple of months, in early January 1801 she stormed out during breakfast. She and Nelson probably never met again.

Napoleonic Wars – Denmark

Nelson’s time with Emma was also limited. A major expedition to the Baltic was about to be launched, and the Admiralty clearly felt that Nelson needed to be found some active service to clear his mind, or at least distract him.

Accordingly, Nelson was appointed second in command of the expedition. On 13 January 1801, the newly promoted Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson left London for Plymouth, where he briefly raised his flag in the San Josef, before transferring to the St George on his way to join the fleet at Great Yarmouth.

The issue at stake was Britain’s right to search neutral shipping. As a naval power, a key part of Britain’s strategy in any war was to keep her own trade intact, while blocking that of her enemies. In order to do this, the Royal Navy had to be able to stop and search any neutral shipping. In contrast, the key neutral powers supported the theory of Free Ships and Free Goods. In essence this meant that any ship that declared itself free of contraband should be allowed to continue on, especially if escorted by neutral warships.

The issue was further complicated by the various definitions of contraband. The neutral powers tended towards restricted definitions, limited to direct military goods, while the British tended towards a wider definition.

The main neutral powers at this point were the Scandinavian states. Britain depended on the Baltic trade for many naval supplies, including timber, tar and canvas. The same was potentially true of the French, and so the Royal Navy exercised what it saw as its right to stop and search any neutral ship it suspected might have contraband headed for France.

This led to a series of clashes, first with Sweden in 1798, then with Denmark in 1799 and 1800. At this time, Denmark still included Norway and had a good sized navy. Denmark controlled access to the Baltic, with Copenhagen a key part of that control. After the seizure of a Danish frigate and her convoy of six merchant ships in June 1800, the Danes decided to approach the Russians.

Despite a brief period of alliance with Britain, Tsar Paul was strongly anti-British (and only marginally sane). Tension over the fate of Malta also played a role in his change of alliance. On 27 August 1800, Tsar Paul issued a declaration inviting Sweden, Denmark and Sweden to join with Russia in an Armed Neutrality. The aim of this was to use force to defend convoys of neutral ships. In Britain it was seen, with some justification, as a move that could only help the French.

This viewpoint was reinforced by Danish actions. On 29 March 1801, the Danes declared an embargo against British ships, and then seized Hamburg. Soon afterwards she occupied Lubeck. Both cities were major ports and free cities, and important trading partners for Britain.

By this time, the British had already decided to intervene. Nelson was appointed as deputy commander of the fleet in January. His commander was Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, a senior admiral with many years of service in the West Indies and the Mediterranean. He was a respectable but fairly placid Admiral, and Nelson’s appointment was probably essential to the success of the expedition.

The success of the expedition was largely due to Parker’s eventual willingness to acknowledge that Nelson was the more experienced man. Their relationship was still distant when the fleet set sail on 12 March. Two days later, they had started to improve. The key to this improvement appears to have been Nelson’s knowledge of his superior. When an officer on his ship caught a large turbot, Nelson had it sent over to Parker, who was famous for his love of luxury.

Their relationship continued to improve all the time they were at sea. They reached the sound between Sweden and Denmark on 24 March, by which time Nelson was confident enough to send Parker a memo detailing his suggestions for what they now knew was likely to be a fight.

Their first decision was how to approach Copenhagen. The city is sited on the east coast of the island of Zealand, the part of Denmark clossest to Sweden. The direct route was the Sound, between Zealand and Sweden. This was the clearer water, but also the best defended. There was a Danish fortress at Helsinger (Elsinore), and a Swedish fort on the opposite shore. The alternative was to sail through the Belt, between Zealand and the rest of Denmark. This was lightly defended, but much harder sailing.

Parker demonstrated how different he was to Nelson by holding a council of war to decide which route to take. Nelson was never a fan of these councils, on the grounds that they rarely decided on decisive action. This council was an exception, probably because of Nelson’s presence.

At first, Parker was in favour of the Belt, a slower but possibly safer approach, but eventually it was decided to risk the Sound. On the morning of 30 March, the fleet set sail down the Sound. Luckily, the Swedes had not yet decided how to react, and so the guns on the eastern bank of the Sound did not fire. This made the heavy fire from the Danish guns utterly ineffective, as the fleet was able to stay out of range.

The fleet anchored between Van Island and Saltholm Islands, to the north east of Copenhagen. The port of Copenhagen was well defended. The northern approach was guarded by the Trekroner Battery (Three Crowns), a powerful fort built on piles off shore. The Trekroner contained 30 24-pounder guns and 38 36-pounders, making her the equivalent of at least at 120 gun ship of the line. Worse, it was generally accepted that in any duel between a warship and a fort, the fort had the advantage, in that it could direct its fire more accurately, without the effects of the ocean swell.

Running south for a mile and a half was the Danish fleet, moored just off the coast, in a position where the ships could easily be reinforced. In total, there were 18 ships of the line and armed hulks (dismasted ships, no longer able to sail, but still able to produce powerful broadsides in this position). Behind them were yet more guns placed in forts on the shore. In theory, the English were outgunned, and in a very weak position.

Nelson did not agree. Although he was aware of the strength of the Danish position, and had more respect for the Danish seamen than he ever had for the Spanish or French, he was aware that many of the Danish ships had only recently been commissioned, meaning that their crews would be inexperienced. This would reduce the accuracy of their fire, and more importantly their rate of fire.

Nelson’s plan was to split the fleet into two. The entire fleet would anchor south of Copenhagen on the night before the attack (1 April). He would then take the smaller ships and attack the Danish ships at anchor. The larger ships would be unable to close with the Danes, as there were unknown shoals just off shore, so Parker would take the larger ships to the north of Copenhagen, to block any sorties from the city itself, and if the weather allowed to attack the Trekroner battery.

Parker agreed to this plan. He gave Nelson twelve ships of the line (two more than Nelson had requested, but as we will see several of the British ships ran aground, so the extras came in useful). Nelson transferred his flag to the Elephant, as his own flagship was too big to take part. Amongst the ships of the inner squadron were several familiar to Nelson, including his own Agamemnon. Once again, Nelson had a fleet he could trust in.

The plan was the most elaborately worked out of any of Nelson’s battles. Started at the southern end of the Danish line, each of his ships was allocated a target. If all went well, all twelve of Nelson’s ships would face an opponent, allowing them to overwhelm their selected foes, before moving on to the remaining Danish ships, always assuming that they had not surrendered by then.

On the morning of 2 April, the plan did not go entirely as planned. The Agamemnon missed her turn, and was unable to make any progress against the wind. Two more ships ran aground on the shoals. The remaining nine ships were soon heavily engaged. The Danes suffered heavy casualties amongst their gun crews, but they were able to replace them from the shore. The fighting was probably the hardest of any of Nelson’s battles.

Three hours into the battle, at around 1.30, the battle’s most famous incident occurred. It casts an interesting light on how Nelson was seen by his colleagues. Parker had been watching the battle from the north, unable to play any significant role due to contrary winds. He was becoming increasingly nervous as the battle went on. Eventually, he decided to raise the signal for ‘recall from action’. However, he did not intend this order to be binding. Well aware of Nelson’s attitude to such things, Parker is recorded as having said

If he is in a condition to continue the action successfully, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat, and no blame can be imputed to him.

While the motive was good, the order was not. Nelson’s force was not in a position to withdraw without suffering huge losses. The entire fleet would have had to sail past the Trekroner batteries, still firing fiercely. Worse, while Nelson could probably be relied on to ignore the order if justified, several of his captains were nearer Parker, and there was a danger that the northern part of Nelson’s fleet could have dissolved. One ship, the Amazon, did obey the order, at the cost of her captain, killed as they were turning.

What happened on Nelson’s ship is justifiably famous, and is well recorded by eyewitnesses. At first, Nelson had simply ignored the order, but when he eventually acknowledged it, it was only to say,

.. I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes.

At that point, he placed his eyeglass to his blind eye, and continued the fight. This was entirely justified. From Nelson’s position it was clear that the Danish resistance was starting to fade. At around two, the first of the Danish ships fled, and by half past two much of the fighting was over.

Nelson now showed his diplomatic skills. He was not interesting in annihilating the Danish fleet, and between two and three send off an offer to truce, which was eventually accepted. By the time the Danish flagship Danneborg exploded at 4.30, the fighting was over.

Parker displayed his passive tendencies on the following day. It was Nelson who was sent into Copenhagen to treat with the Prince Royal of Denmark, who was regent for his father. Despite the naval victory of the previous day, these negotiations were in some ways more important. The Dane’s problem was that whatever they did would annoy one or the other of the great powers of Europe. While the British fleet was temporarily in command of the sea off Copenhagen, the Russians loomed larger in the Danish mind.

In the end, the best Nelson was able to negotiate was a fourteen week armistice, during which the Danes would leave the Armed Neutrality and allow the British freedom to trade in Copenhagen. Nelson’s aim was to use this time to deal with the Russian fleet, then return to Denmark to negotiate a more permanent peace.

The rest of Nelson’s time in the Baltic was something of an anticlimax. Tsar Paul had been murdered on 24 March, before the battle had been fought, and replaced by his son Alexander. The new Tsar was less anti-British than Paul, although he was later to ally with Napoleon, at least for a period. Nelson had replaced Parker as commander in chief in the Baltic on 5 May, placing him in charge of the Russian negotiations.

These went well. Alexander was already moving towards peace, and Nelson gave him the space to move gracefully away from his father’s position. Nelson’s brief visit to Russian waters ended with the peace assured. In contrast, it was clear that the tensions with Denmark where not over. Indeed, a second expedition was needed in 1807, to make exactly the same point about free trade.

Nelson’s health was now starting to cause some concern. With his job finished, he now agitated to be replaced, and the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl St. Vincent, agreed to this. Nelson returned to Yarmouth on 1 July 1801, where his first concern was to visit the wounded from the battle of Copenhagen. After that, he returned to London, and to Emma Hamilton, with whom he was about to enjoy just under two years of something approaching domestic life.

Napoleonic Wars – Home Defence and Peace

This is not to say that Nelson was not almost immediately found a new command. 1801 saw the first real invasion scare. As a result of the Peace of Lunévulle (February 1801) between France and Austria, Britain once again stood without allies. This time, Napoleon took the idea of invasion seriously. An army 40,000 strong, supported by flotilla of barges, took shape around Boulogne.

Nelson was almost immediately appointed to the Downs command. This was an important, but unglamorous command, stretching from Beachy Head in Sussex to Orfordness in Suffolk. Nelson’s new command had two main duties. The Downs channel was the main approach to London, so one duty was to protect the shipping. The second and more important duty at this point was to provide the first line of defence against any French invasion fleet.

By 1801 this defensive activity had settled into a routine. Squadrons of light ships – Nelson had 57 frigates and smaller ships – cruised constantly off the French coast, keeping a watch on the invasion ports. Behind them was a line of coastal ships and behind them were the Martello towers, based on a fort on Corsica.

This regular blockade did not suit Nelson. He believed in taking the action to the enemy, and so decided to launch an attack on the enemy shipping at Boulogne. The attack, launched on 15 August, was a total failure. The French were better prepared than Nelson had expected, and the British ships became separated before the attack, so individual British attackers found themselves facing a concentrated fire. Nelson’s main regret was that he had not accompanied the attack himself.

The whole enterprise quickly became superfluous. A preliminary peace agreement was signed in the autumn of 1801, and ratified as the Peace of Amiens in April 1802. Nelson had applied for leave as soon as the first agreement was signed, although he remained at his post across the winter of 1801-2, only leaving after the official signing of the peace.

Nelson spent this brief period of peace at Merton Place in Surrey, a house picked out by Emma Hamilton. There, he lived in the same unusual threesome that had developed at Naples, although this time Sir William Hamilton was probably less happy with the level of activity. Nevertheless, this was probably the happiest period of Nelson’s life. In April 1803, Sir William died, leaving Nelson and Emma free of one complication. Sadly, this new state of affairs was not to last. Once again, the war clouds were gathering.

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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 (19 January 2006) Nelson, Horatio, Admiral (1759-1805): 1798-1803,

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