The Battle of Copenhagen was fought between the fleets of Britain and
Denmark, right outside the Danish capital of Copenhagen. Britain were
not at war as such with Denmark, the battle was almost a preventative
measure to ensure Britain retained dominance over the seas and the trade
that took place over it. It was the battle after which Nelson
demonstrated he could be a diplomat as well as a warrior.
The Armed Neutrality of the North
By early 1801, it was clear that Britain was rapidly losing allies in the
war with France. Austria and Naples were afraid of France and made
pacts with it, and the coalition between Britain, Russia, Sweden and Prussia
had broken down. Tsar Paul of Russia wasn't happy that Britain had
possession of Malta - he believed he had the right to control it in the name
of the Knights of St John, but the island was perfectly located as a British
naval base, and Britain wasn't about to give it up. So Paul began to
negotiate an alliance with France. In the meantime, he formed what was
known as an Armed Neutrality with Sweden, Prussia and Denmark, with the aim
of defending their right to trade as neutral powers. Russia actually
had very little sea trade, but it suited the Tsar to keep on good terms with
his Baltic neighbours.
Neutral ships were forbidden from carrying contraband between warring
nations. The Armed Neutrality defined contraband as being weapons and
ammo, but the Baltic nations also traded in valuable ship-building materials
such as hemp and timber. As an island in a world of enemies, Britain
relied on her naval superiority, and so had to restrict such goods being
transported to any nation she was at war with. As such, British ships
continued to stop and search neutral merchant ships leaving the Baltic, and
seizing any that carried contraband as they defined it.
Denmark was a commercial nation and didn't particularly want a war with
anyone, but as Copenhagen was situated at the entrance to the Baltic Sea,
she was caught between Britain and Russia. Although opposing Britain
posed a risk to her trade routes, Russia could potentially invade over land,
and in the end Denmark chose to join the Russian side along with Sweden and
France. But during the winter months, the Swedish and Russian fleets
were locked in their ports due to the sea freezing over, leaving Denmark
vulnerable and unaided. This gave the British a small window in which
The Fleet Assembles
Having enjoyed time ashore with the Hamiltons, on the 1st of January 1801
Nelson was promoted to Vice-Admiral, and a couple of weeks later he was
appointed second in command to Admiral Hyde Parker in the Baltic Fleet.
His flagship was to be the San Josef, one of the ships he had so
dramatically boarded back in 1797 during the
Battle of Cape St Vincent, and his captain was to be Thomas Hardy.
Nelson was happy with both choices as the San Josef was a fine ship, and he
knew Hardy well. But in February, he was switched to the St George,
which he complained was in a "truly wretched state", with a "dreary, dirty
and leaky cabin," but she had a shallower draft than the San Josef and so
was better suited to the shallow waters of the Baltic.
In fact most of the ships assigned to the fleet were old and in some cases
badly repaired. The fleet needed to be assembled in a hurry, and
attacking a fortified city carried a high amount of risk even to the best
ships. In short, the ships that the Admiralty chose for the fleet were
But the fleet couldn't leave straight away due to bad weather, and Nelson
never did well when inactive. With nothing to keep him occupied, he
obssessed over Emma, becoming jealous (which is ironic, considering the
nature of their relationship) that she planned to have dinner with the
Prince of Wales, a notorious womaniser. He would write her bizarrely
hysterical letters, sometimes more than one a day. And although he
burnt all of her letters, it seems clear from some of his that she, in turn,
insisted that he should not go on shore, apparently fearful that he would
On top of that, his eyesight was failing, to the point
that the ship's physician instructed him to stop drinking wine and only have
water and plain food. He was also told to stay in a dark room for
three days. That seemed to do the trick, and when his sight improved
he wrote to Emma asking her to sew green eyeshades into his hats to keep the
sun out of his eyes.
Meanwhile, he permanently separated from Fanny, sending her what she later
described as his letter of dismissal. Hearing of the problem with his
eye, she'd offered to come and look after him while still in port.
Finally realising he was unable to give his attention to both a wife and a
mistress, and probably also feeling guilty that Fanny continued to care for
him even knowing he was in love with another woman, he told her that he
didn't want any help from her or, indeed, from anyone, and that he hoped
that the income he'd arranged for her would be enough to keep her satisfied.
She never saw him again.
On the 1st of February, Nelson heard that Emma had given birth to their
daughter, Horatia (although his choice of name had been Emma). He was
beside himself with joy. Paranoid about their letters being
intercepted, when writing about Horatia he and Emma had agreed on a kind of
code, adopting the names of an imaginary couple, the Thompsons. Mrs
Thompson was supposedly in Emma's care, and Mr Thompson was part of Nelson's
crew. When Nelson wrote to Emma in ecstatic terms about the birth, he
wrote in the third person, as if he were writing on behalf of Thompson and
asking Emma to pass the words on to Mrs Thompson. But Nelson being the
emotional man he was, he sometimes got carried away and forgot, switching
back to the first person. Emma didn't want it to become public
knowledge that she had a daughter by Nelson, and so they pretended that they
adopted the Thompsons' child, calling themselves her godparents.
On the 23rd February, Nelson was able to find the time to go to London to
visit Emma and Horatia, and then set sail for Yarmouth, arriving on the 6th
March. There he found Admiral Hyde Parker ashore with his new wife.
Nelson as usual was impatiently eager to get going, and was irritated that
Parker did not share his sense of urgency and was prepared to hold up the
sailing of the fleet so that he had time to arrange a ball for his wife.
Nelson was keenly aware of the short window they had in which to attack the
Danes before the ice melted, which usually happened in late April/early May,
when the Swedes and Russians could come to their aid. Any delay could
risk them missing the opportunity. So he wrote to Earl St Vincent, 1st
Lord of the Admiralty, giving his view that "our friend is a little nervous
about dark nights and fields of ice". The letter had the desired
effect - St Vincent wrote to Parker on the 11th March, and the fleet sailed
the next day.
Nelson didn't really appreciate being second in command to Parker, and St
Vincent had also expressed concern that Nelson was a difficult subordinate.
But Parker had been given the command because he had extensive knowledge of
the Baltic, and Nelson had been sent with him to do 'the fighting part'.
It took Parker a little while to learn how to handle Nelson, and in the
beginning he didn't confide in him or share intelligence he had with him.
That attitude went completely against everything Nelson believed about
leadership - he got the best out of his subordinates by standing on their
level, taking them into his confidence.
The problem was somewhat helped by Nelson sending Parker the gift of a large
fish which had been caught by an officer of the St George.
Parker apparently softened towards him, and responded with a note with some
of his plans.
On the 24th March, the fleet reached Elsinore, north of the Sound between
Sweden and Denmark. The British Foreign Office had sent a Mr
Vansittart to Denmark, and he reported that the Danes refused to leave the
Armed Neutrality. So a battle was inevitable. Nelson wrote some
ideas to Parker. In his opinion,
"...not a moment should be lost in attacking the Enemy: they will every
day and hour be stronger... the boldest measures are the safest."
'The Boldest Measures are the Safest'
There were two ways to approach Copenhagen; via the Sound or the Belt.
The Sound would take them between the Kronborg Castle at Elsinore on one
side, and Swedish guns on the other side, both of which were highly likely
to fire on them. But the Belt was a longer route and dangerous to
Indecisive, Hyde Parker sent for Nelson and Captain Murray of the Edgar, who
was familiar with the Baltic waters. Murray's choice was the Sound,
but Nelson impatiently said, "I don't care a damn by which passage we go, so
that we fight them!"
Eventually Parker decided to take Murray's advice and go via the Sound, and
on the 30th March the fleet set sail, Nelson shifting his flag to the
Elephant. In the end, the route wasn't nearly as dangerous as
Parker had feared. No guns at all were fired from Sweden, so by
sticking close to that side, the fleet stayed out of range of the shots from
the Danish castle and suffered no casualties. Nelson disdainfully
"More powder and shot I believe never was thrown away. The
Elephant did not return a single shot, I hope to reserve them for a better
Having made it safely through the Sound, the fleet anchored.
There were two possible ways to approach Copenhagen in order to bombard it. A large shoal
called the Middle Ground effectively created two channels. Guarding
the northern end of the inner channel were the two heavily armed Trekroner
('three crowns', name after the three crowns of Denmark, Sweden and Norway)
forts. But to avoid them by approaching the south would be a feat of
difficult navigation. It meant passing the Middle Ground by heading
south down the outer channel. Then the wind would have to change
direction in order for the ships to go up the narrow channel between the
Middle Ground and Copenhagen, where the depth of the water was unknown to
To make matters worse, Parker's delay in sailing had given the Danish time
to strengthen their defences. Close to the Trekroner forts were the
heavily armed Elephanten and Mars hulks, two 74s, a
frigate and two brigs. Stretching along the shoreline was a line a
mile and a half long of 18 ships of the line and floating batteries, covered
by batteries on the shore itself. The Danes had also removed the buoys
marking the shoals and Middle Ground, making it even more dangerous and
difficult to navigate.
Parker called a council of Nelson, Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, Captain of
the Fleet Dommett, and Colonel Stewart. Stewart was the commander of
troops which would form landing parties, and he was a great admirer of
Nelson. He later wrote a detailed account of the battle. Captain
Riou in the frigate Amazon was used for surveying the area.
During the council, Nelson paced up and down as the difficulties posed by
the Swedish and Russian fleets were discussed. When the subject of the
number of Swedes was discussed, he snapped, "The more numerous the better!"
And of the Russians, he said, "So much the better, I wish they were twice as
many; the easier the victory, depend on it." He already had a plan of
attack for the Swedes and Russians if he should have to fight them: he would
attack the front of their line and confuse their movements as much as
As for the Danes, Nelson believed he could defeat them with ten ships.
Parker gave him 12, and allowed him free rein to organise the attack as he
pleased. Captain Riou in the Amazon had taken artillery
officers to have a look and see if it was possible to bombard the docks, but
they confirmed that it would only be possible once the defensive line of
ships was destroyed. So the plan was for Nelson to take his division
down the outer channel, then turn back up the inner channel and attack the
southern end of the Danish line. The heaviest ships would stay in
Parker's division to the north, and with them he would prevent an attack
from the harbour, and attack the Trekroner forts.
All through the night and on the morning of the 1st of April, Nelson and
Captain Riou in the Amazon surveyed the outer channel and tested
the depth of the water. The surgeon of the Elephant wrote,
"I could only admire when I saw the first man in all the world spend the
hours of the day and night in the boats, and wondered when the light showed
me a path marked by buoys which was trackless the previous evening."
At 2.30pm, Nelson's division set off, led by the Amazon, down the
outer channel, and anchored two miles from the end of the Danish line.
Whether by luck or instinct, Nelson had judged the weather perfectly, and
the northerly wind lasted long enough to get them to where he wanted them to
be, and then it dropped.
During the night, Captain Hardy went out in a boat and sounded the depth of
the water. Using a muffled pole so the Danes wouldn't hear the
splashing of oars, he was able to get so close to the Danish ships that he
could hear men talking! He found that the water was deeper where the
ships were anchored.
With his preparations almost complete, Nelson summoned his captains -
including Hardy, Foley, Thomas Fremantle of the Ganges, Edward
Riou, Henry Inman of the frigate Desiree, his second-in-command
Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves of the Defiance, and Colonel Stewart
- aboard the Elephant for dinner. According to Stewart,
Nelson was in high spirits and, as was his way, charasmatically inspired
After they left, Riou and Foley stayed to help Nelson arrange the Order of
Battle. Having worked all day and the previous night, Nelson was
exhausted, and eventually Riou, Foley and Nelson's servant, Allen, managed
to persuade him to rest. Even then, he dictated orders from his cot
until 1am. They were left to the clerks to transcribe and Nelson
slept, but still he awoke every half an hour to get reports on the wind, and
as it turned southerly he called to the clerks to hurry up. Before
6am, he was dressed, had breakfast, and the orders had been delivered to his
Next: The Fleets