Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson is generally regarded as the greatest officer in the history of the Royal Navy. His reputation is based on a series of remarkable victories, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar where he was killed in his moment of triumph. The poet Byron referred to him as 'Britannia's God of War'.

Nelson

Nelson joined the navy aged 12 in 1770, and experienced sailing in the West Indies, the Northwest passage when only 14 and in the North Sea. Promoted post-Captain in 1779 at the age of 20, his first command was the frigate HMS Hinchingbroke. Nelson was later charged with taking the young Prince William (the future William IV) to the West Indies aboard HMS Albemarle.

When the French Revolutionary Wars began in 1793, Nelson was given command of the ship of the line HMS Agamemnon and was assigned to the Mediterranean. There he took part in the capture of Corsica in 1794; while directing guns at the siege of town of Calvi he was hit in the face by a shower of gravel and blinded in his right eye.

Nelson first came to fame at the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797 when his initiative in command of HMS Captain helped prevent the Spanish Fleet from escaping the clutches of Sir John Jervis. At the height of the battle he captured two Spanish ships, the San Nicholas and the San José, leading the boarding party in person from one to the other. It was extremely unusual for a flag officer to lead such an attack and was even more remarkable given that the second assault was up the side of the large three deck San José which surrendered immediately. This heroic action became known in the Royal Navy as 'Nelson's Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates'.

One of Nelson's few reverses came in July 1797 during the operation to capture the town of Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands. During the second failed attack, Nelson lost his right arm while leading one of the landing parties in an attempt to assault the town frontally.

In 1798, in command of his own fleet of fourteen ships, he destroyed a French fleet of seventeen in the Battle of Aboukir Bay at the mouth of the Nile. It was the most overwhelming victory in the age of sail. All the key elements of the Nelsonian system were present – personal courage, tactical genius and the sharing of his innovative tactics with his captains, his 'band of brothers'. 

The breaking of the French line by Captain Thomas Foley in HMS Goliath was an excellent example of the tactical independence which Nelson expected of his captains. Following the battle Nelson was based at Naples where his celebrated liaison began with Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British ambassador.

Nelson was only second in command of the fleet sent against Denmark in 1801, but after famously turning his blinded eye to the telescope ordering him to retreat, carried the assault on Copenhagen to a successful conclusion. After this success he was promoted to Vice Admiral and took command of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1803.

Finally at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 with 27 ships of the line he inflicted a crushing defeat on the numerically superior Franco-Spanish fleet of 33, of which only 17 escaped. Hit by a musket ball from a French sharpshooter on the Redoutable at about 1315 he was taken below and died on HMS Victory's Orlop Deck at 1630 in the knowledge that he had achieved another famous victory.

Nelson's genius was to recognise that at this time both the French and Spanish Navies were greatly inferior to the British in professional skills such as gunnery and ship handling and that risks could be taken to win crushing victories. 

Nelson's passion for risk taking lost him the sight of an eye, an arm and eventually his life but, together with his remarkable charismatic leadership skills they created a legend that inspires the Royal Navy to this day. 

Trafalgar Day

Find out more

The Battle of Trafalgar

Find out more

HMS Victory

Learn more

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Learn more
Share