|Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott , 1799|
Not a week ago I told of the final hours of an iconic figure of our Georgian age, the doomed Queen Marie Antoinette. Today I find myself bound to relate another sad death, that of our very own Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson at the legendary Battle of Trafalgar.
On 21st October 1805 the Royal Navy fought the combined might of the French and Spanish navies in the most decisive conflict of the War of the Third Coalition, the Battle of Trafalgar. Although the Royal Navy would claim the all-important victory the price was high; Nelson's death plunged the country into deep mourning for its national hero. By the end of the day the French and Spanish fleets would be annihilated, Napoleon's plans for glory lay in tatters and the stage was set for English dominance over the ocean for decades.
|The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Denis Dighton, 1825|
In the heat of the close-quarters battle Nelson strode the deck of his flagship, HMS Victory, with the ship's captain, Thomas Hardy, by his side. As Victory neared the enemy line officers implored Nelson to retire to another vessel but the Admiral refused, determined to lead the battle from the front as he stood true to his own famous word that "England expects that every man will do his duty". The fighting was vicious and Nelson's secretary, John Scott, fell victim to a cannonball whilst all around him crewmen were dying or injured. Under fire from the French ships and sharpshooters in their rigging, Nelson and Hardy never left the deck of the Victory, issuing orders and commands to their crew. Clad in a dress uniform coat and proudly displaying his Orders of Knighthood, Nelson was a constant, visible presence on the deck, never taking his eye from the battle.
|The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner|
It was after one o'clock when a shot was fired from the French vessel, Redoubtable, and Hardy turned to see Nelson collapsed on the quarter-deck, his hand clutched to a wound in his left shoulder. The ball had struck Nelson and travelled through his torso to smash his spine, leaving the Admiral with no hope of survival. Hardy later reported that Nelson knew precisely what had happened, telling him, "My backbone is shot through.".
Sergeant-Major Robert Adair and two marines carried the mortally wounded Admiral below decks whilst Hardy remained in command. Even then Nelson continued to issue orders to his men and when he was joined by the Victory's surgeon, William Beatty, he told the medic that nothing could be done for him and asked that Beatty tend other men who might still be saved. Made as comfortable as possible, Nelson was kept cool and refreshed and asked to see Hardy, telling Beatty to remember him to those who loved him. Joined by chaplain, Alexander Scott, and other important crewmen, Nelson continually asked for Hardy and eventually, an hour or so after the wound was inflicted, the Captain joined them below decks.
|The Death of Lord Nelson in the Cockpit of the Ship 'Victory' by Benjamin West, 1808|
After listening to a report on the successes of the battle. Nelson told his friend that he knew his time was limited and reminded him to anchor, fearing that a storm was approaching and set on capturing 20 of his opponent's vessels. Fading fast, Nelson asked Hardy to ensure that Lady Hamilton was cared for and then asked, "Kiss me, Hardy". After a kiss to his cheek and forehead, Nelson began to slip into incoherence and finally died at half past four, his last words recorded as, "God and my country".
|The Death of Nelson, 21 October 1805 by Arthur Devis, 1807|
Nelson's body was stored in a cask of brandy, camphor and myrrh and kept under heavy guard on the mast of the Victory. With her precious cargo aboard, the shop was towed to Gibraltar where the admiral's corpse was placed in a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits of wine. This cask was made from the mast of L’Orient, a French ship destroyed in the Battle of the Nile. As the sad preparations to return were made, a messenger was dispatched to send word to London and Lady Hamilton. She later recalled that she greeted the news of Nelson's death with horrified shock and swiftly slipped into debt and despair, neither she nor her daughter, Horatia, offered any support despite Nelson's express wishes that they be cared for. King George III himself greeted the news of the Admiral's death with horror, supposedly commenting, "We have lost more than we have gained."
Nelson finally reached England on board his flagship on 23rd December and his coffin was taken to Greenwich Hospital, where it would remain until January 1806. Over the three days in which Nelson's body lay in state, 100,000 people filed through the Hospital to pat their last respects. With the Admiral's death, Britain lost one of the greatest heroes of the Georgian age and his funeral reflected his status in the country he had given his life for. It was a magnificent affair and one that we shall visit on another day.