Though Lord Horatio Nelson lost an eye and an arm in battle and shocked public sensibilities by having a public affair, the dashing officer eventually became so beloved by the British public that bystanders burst into tears of admiration when he passed through the streets.
Nelson had risen through the ranks to gain command of his own ship by age 20 in 1778; and he didn’t gain that position by playing it safe. Always leading in the thick of battle, the 30-year-old lost an eye at a battle in Corsica when cannon fire hit a sandbag filled with rocks and sand, sending debris into his face. Later in life at the Battle of Copenhagen Nelson intentionally raised his telescope to his blind eye and turned to his aide, honestly remarking that he had not seen any signal to retreat—and so he ordered an attack.
At age 40 in the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a musket ball hit his right arm and required its amputation. A half hour after the surgery, he returned to duty in the fight.
Early in this meteoric career, while Nelson served duty in the West Indies, he met and married Frances Nesbit. The couple became estranged over time and Nelson fell in love with Emma Hamilton. Frances issued an ultimatum that he must choose between his wife and his lover; he chose Emma and had a daughter with her. His open affair sat uneasy with his peers; and after his death they gave her no financial assistance, causing her to flee debtors with her daughter Horatia. During his lifetime, though, Nelson was so wildly popular that his personal life went virtually unchallenged.
Nelson defeated Napoleon’s eastern fleet at the Battle of the Nile, but it was Nelson’s spectacular strategy in the Battle of Trafalgar that sealed his fame. The battle had huge implications: if Nelson could not defeat the Franco-Spanish navy, Napoleon would certainly invade and perhaps conquer Britain. From the deck of his flagship HMS Victory, Nelson sent his armada a phrase that became legendary in naval history–“England expects that every man will do his duty”—and engaged the enemy.
The battle was won, Britain was saved, but Nelson himself was killed by the bullet of a marksman who recognized Nelson’s rank displayed on his uniform. The brilliant admiral was 47 years old. To preserve his body for burial, his body was placed in a cask of brandy and returned to Gibraltar where he was placed in a coffin filled with wine. Finally, the body was transported back to England where, after a 4-hour service attended by thousands, he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey.
By 1835 his admirers placed his statue atop a column in a London plaza. This is, of course, the famous Trafalgar Square.
Next time: Walking to Tea in Grantchester
Photo credits: Open Sources