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1805 - Countdown to Trafalgar

On the 14th of September 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson boarded HMS Victory at Portsmouth for the last time, after just a few weeks spent with his family after more than two years at sea.  Even then, his time on shore had been largely spent in London advising the Admiralty and government with his expert knowledge of the Mediterranean, a station he had held as Commander-in-Chief during those two years.  He would now re-take command of that fleet, which would, in a little over a month's time, meet the Combined Fleet of France and Spain in the decisive Battle of Trafalgar.

Before boarding the Victory, Nelson wrote the following heart-felt, melancholy and almost prophetic prayer in his private diary:

Friday night at half past Ten drove from dear dear Merton where I left all which I hold most dear in this World to go to serve my King & Country.  May the Great God whom I adore enable me to fullfil the expectations of my Country and if it is his good pleasure that I should return my thanks will never cease being offered up to the Throne of his Mercy.  If it is his good providence to Cut short my days upon Earth I bow with the greatest Submission relying that He will protect those so dear to me that I may leave behind.  His will be done Amen Amen Amen

The National Archive, catalogue reference PROB 1/22


This was not the first time that Nelson had expressed his knowledge that with every battle came the possibility of him being killed - on several pre-battle occasions, he had dramatically declared that likelihood to friends and family in letters, usually composing phrases that would read well as his last words.  If he must die, he wanted it to be a glorious death, and he wanted to be remembered.  But somehow, this is different.  It is a private prayer, a calm acceptance of his fate, and yet also a plea to his God.  Quite poignant, I think.

He then, surrounded by crowds of people who had gathered to cheer their hero, made his way to the dock and as he was rowed out to the Victory, he quietly said to Thomas Hardy,

"I had their huzzahs before.  I have their hearts now."

His diary tells the rest of the story.

September 14th to October 21st 1805

Saturday Sept 14th 1805

At Six o’Clock arrived at Portsmouth and having arrainged all my business Embarked at the Bathing Machines with Mr Rose and Mr Canning at 2 got on board the Victory at St Helens who dined with me preparing for sea.


['arrainged' - this isn't a typo, it is Nelson's own spelling error.]




Saturday Sept 15th 1805

At day Weighed with Light air Northerly at 6 was obliged to anchor at 8 weighed all day Light breezes at sun sett off Christ church all night Light Breezes & very foggy Euryalus in Company.


[Euryalus: 36-gun frigate, Capt. Henry Blackwood.]



Wrote Ly. Hn.

Monday Sept 16th first part Light Breezes & very foggy at noon fresh Breezes Westerly in the Evening off the Berry head 4 miles.  All night fresh Breezes Westerly.


Wrote Ly H

Tuesday Sept 17th fresh Breezes WSW at 9 abreast of Plyo. sent in Euryalus to call out the Ajax and Thunderer all night standg to the Westward Wind from SW to SSW.


[Ajax: 74-gun ship-of-the-line, Capt. William Brown.]

[Thunderer: 74-gun ship-of-the-line, Capt. William Lechmere.]



Wrote Ly H

Wednesday Sept 18 first part light Breezes & heavy western swell Wind South Lay too for the Ajax and Thunderer [signal?] North at noon they joined made all possible Sail all night Breezes vble from SE to SSW swell from the Westward.



Thursday Sept 19th first part fresh gales & heavy sea at noon hard gales at SW at 6 hard Rain wind at NW all night heavy sea & fresh breezes


Wrote Ly Hn

Friday Sept 20th modte Breezes WSW & heavy Sea at 9 Saw a Squadron of Ships of War at 11 passed the Squadron of Rear Adl Stirling consisting of 5 Sail of the Line and one frigate At noon Wind WSW Saw a frigate to Windward which made the private signal at 2 Spoke the Decade carrying the flag of Rear Adl Sir Richd Bickerton Capt Stuart came on board gave him orders for his farther proceeding.  Fresh gales at 3 reeft the Courses.  All night very fresh gales from the NW which came on with heavy rain at 9 oClock


[Decade: 36-gun frigate, Capt. John Stuart.]

[Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling: had remained off Cape Finisterre, in HMS Glory, after the battle there in July.]

[Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Bickerton: had been Nelson's second-in-command during his time in the Mediterranean.]




Saturday Sept 21st 1805

Fresh gales all day at NNW at night wind at North & NE heavy swell.


Sunday Sept 22nd Modte Breezes at NE & heavy swell from NW at 10 o Clock saw a Convoy of 7 Sail under a Vessel of War in the SE quarter at 6 o Clock Euryalus made the Signal that a Vessel was reconnoitering in the East quarter all night fresh gales at East to ESE.



Monday Sept 23rd Fresh gales EbS at 6 o’Clock abreast of Cape Finisterre 17 Lgs at noon modte Wr in Lat 42o: 25N all night fine weather wind Easterly.


Tuesday Sept 24th modte Breezes SE at noon in Lat 4o: 05 No: 3pm Light airs South in the Evening wind Northerly Light Breezes all night at NE and a swell from the NW



Wrote Ly H

Wednesday Sept 25th 1805

Light airs Southerly saw the Rock of Libra SSE 10 Leagues at Sunsett the Capt. of the Constance came onboard sent my letters for England by him to Lisbon and wrote to Capt Sutton & the Consul the Enemys fleet had not left Cadiz the 18th of this month therefore I yet hope they will wait my arrival.


[Capt Sutton: Samuel Sutton, captain of the Amphion.]




Monday Sept 26th Light airs at NW all day Rock of Lisbon in sight to the NNE 13 or 14 Lgs.  At 4 o’Clock sent Euryalus to join Vice Adl. Collingwood with my orders to put himself under my Command considering myself as within the Limits of my Command all night Light Breezes at NW.


[Vice Admiral Collingwood: commanding the fleet off Cadiz in Nelson's absence, and became his 2nd-in-command upon his return.]




Friday Sept 27th 1805 at day light Cape St. Vincent SEbS by Compass 6 leagues saw a Sloop of War or Small frigate East 5 or 6 miles called her in she proved to be the Nautilus Sloop from Vice Ad. Collingwood bound to England with dispatches at noon abreast of Lagos Bay fresh Breezes NW at 1am brought too fresh Breezes NWbN.



Saturday Sept 28th 1805

Fresh Breezes at NNW at daylight bore up & made sail at 9 saw the Aetna Cruizing at noon saw nine Sail of ships of War bearing East Latde. 36: 32 N at one saw Eighteen Sail nearly Calm in the Evening joined the fleet under Vice Admiral Collingwood saw the Enemys fleet in Cadiz amounting to 35 or 36 Sail of the Line.


[Aetna: a bomb ship.]




Sunday Sept 19th fine Weathr gave out the necessary orders for the fleet sent Euryalus to watch the Enemy with the Hydra off Cadiz.


[Hydra: 38-gun frigate, Capt. George Mundy.]



Monday Sept 30th fine weather Wind Easterly.


Tuesday Oct 1st fine Wt. Adl Louis’ Squadron joined with Thunder & Eurymion with sprung masts.  Sent Aetna to cruize under Cape St. Marys Pickle joined from Plymouth.


[Adl Louis: Rear-Admiral Thomas Louis, of the Canopus.]

[Thunder: Bomb ship.]

[Eurymion: I'm not sure what Nelson is referring to here, as I can't find any reference of a ship with this name.]

[Pickle: a 10-gun cutter.]




Wrote Ly. Hn.

Wednesday Oct 2nd

Fine Wt: westerly sent Thunder to Gibr. Sarda. Palermo & Naples.  Sent Canopus, Tigre, Spencer Queen, Zealous to Gibr & Tetuan for water & provn.


[Admiral Louis protested strongly about being sent away, believing that he would miss the upcoming battle.  Nelson assured him that he would be back before the enemy came out, but he was wrong, and Louis and his squadron missed Trafalgar, to his intense disappointment.]

[Canopus: Adml. Louis' ship, 80-guns.]

[Tigre: 80 guns, Capt. Benjamin Hallowell.]

[Spencer: 74 guns, Capt. Robert Stopford.]

[Queen: 98 guns.]

[Zealous: 74 guns, Capt. John Oakes Hardy.]



Thursday Oct 3rd 1805

Fine Weather.  Sent Eurydice to Cruize under Cape St. Marys


Friday Oct 4th

Fine Weather Wind Easterly several Ships of War in sight to the Southward which proved to be Adml. Louis’ Squadron.


Saturday Oct 5th

Fine weather, Bittern joined with 2 transports from Gibr, laying too clearing transports.


[Bittern: 18-gun sloop.]



Sunday Oct 6th

Mode. Breezes ESE clearing transports in the night fresh breezes Easterly.


Wrote Ly. H.

Monday Oct 7th 1805

Fresh Breezes & a hasty sea joined the Amphion with a transport from Lisbon Naiad & Niger with transports from Gibraltr. Sent the Bittern to Lisbon with the Gibr. Mail at noon mode. Breezes & a swell from the Eastward all night fresh Gales Easterly.


[Amphion: 32-gun frigate, Capt. Samuel Sutton.]

[Naiad: 38-gun frigate, Capt. Thomas Dundas.]

[Niger: 38-gun frigate, Capt. James Hillyar.]



Tuesday Oct 8th

Fresh Breezes Easterly.  Royal Sovereign in sight to Leeward at 4pm she joined, sent the Naid off Cadiz.  Eurydice captured a Spanish Privateer.


[Royal Sovereign: 100-guns, Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood's ship.]

['Naid' - this is Nelson's own misspelling of Naiad, not a typo!]

[The privateer captured by the Eurydice was the 6-gun El Mestuo la Solidade.]



Wednesday Oct 9th

Fresh Breezes Easterly receiv’d an account from Capt. Blackwood that the French ships had all bent their Topgt sails sent the Pickle to him with orders to keep a good look out.  Sent adl. Collingwood the Nelson Touch.  At night Wind Westerly


[Capt. Henry Blackwood of the Euryalus.]

['The Nelson Touch' was the name Nelson gave to his plan for the upcoming battle.  On 1st October, he wrote to Emma Hamilton telling her of his officers' reaction to it: "...when I came to explain to them the Nelson touch, it was like an electric shock.  Some shed tears, all approved - 'it was new, it was singular, it was simple!' and, from Admirals downwards, it was repeated - 'It must succeed, if ever they will allow us to get at them!'"]


Thursday Oct 10th 1805

Fine Wr: Wind Westerly receiv’d an account that the Enemy are ready for Sea and at the very harbours Mouth.  Bellisle made her number at noon Bellisle joind from Plyh: in the Evening the Renommee frigate & Confounder Brig sent the Aetna & Confounder to Gibraltar.  All night very fresh Breezes NW & Rain.


['Bellisle' - Nelson was erratic in his spelling of Belleisle, of 74 guns, Capt. William Hargood.]



Friday Oct 11th fresh Breezes NW.


Sunday Oct 12th fresh Breezes NWesly keeping to the Westward Renomee Joined.

[Nelson crossed out 'Renomee Joined' himself.]


Wrote Ly: Hn:

Sunday Oct 13th 1805

Fine Weather Agamemnon joined from England having fallen in with the French Squadron off Cape Finistr. consisting of 1 Three decker and 5 Two deck’d Ships and had a narrow Escape from Capture.



L’aimable also joined who had likewise been chased Prince of Wales Sailed for England.


[The Prince of Wales (the ship, not the actual prince!) carried Vice-Admiral Robert Calder back to England to be disciplined after his failure to do everything he could to attack the French fleet at Cape Finisterre in July.  She was a 98-gun ship and was desperately needed by Nelson and his outnumbered fleet, but Nelson took pity on Calder and granted his request to return home in his flagship, rather than in a frigate, and thus retain some dignity.]

[Agamemnon: 64 guns, Capt. Edward Berry.  Nelson had commanded her himself from 1793-96, and had been rather fond of her.]



Monday Oct 14th

Fine Weather Westerly Wind sent Amphion to Gibraltar & Algiers Enemy at the Harbours Mouth placed Defence & Agamemnon from Seven to Ten Leagues West of Cadiz and Mars & Colossus five Leagues East from the fleet whole station will be from 15 Lgs: to twenty West of Cadiz and by this Chain I hope to have a constant communication with the frigates off Cadiz.


[Defence: 74 guns, Capt. George Hope.]

[Mars: 74 guns, Capt, George Duff.]

[Colossus: 74 guns, Capt. James Morris.]




Tuesday Oct 15th fine Wt Westerly sent Renommee & L’aimable to Gibraltar & Malta and the transpt to Gibt Adl Louis is order’d to see the Convoy above Cartagena & the frigates to escort them to Malta.  all night mode. Breezs. Westerly


Wednesday Oct 16th

Modte: Breezes Westerly all the forenoon Employd forming the fleet into the order of Sailing at noon fresh Breezes WSW & Squally in the Evening fresh gales Enemy as before, by Sign: from Weazel.


Thursday Oct 17th 1805

Mode: Breezes NWerly Sent Donegal to Gibraltar to get a ground Tier of Casks.  Receivd accounts by the Diligent Store Ship that Sir Richd. Strachan was supposed in Sight of the French Rochford Squadron which I hope is true.  At Midnight the Wind came to the Eastward.


[Donegal: 80 guns, Capt. Pulteney Malcolm.]



[For some of these last entries, Nelson's excitement is illustrated by the harder press of his pen upon the paper.]


Friday Oct 18th fine Weather Wind Easterly the Combined fleets cannot have finer Wt. to put to Sea. 


Saturday Oct 19th fine Wt. Wind Easterly at ½ pt: 9 the Mars being one of the look out Ships made the Signal that the Enemy were coming out of Port made the Signal for a general Chase SE.  Wind at South Cadiz bearing ESE by Compass distance 16 Leagues.  At three the Colossus made the Signal that the Enemy fleet was at Sea in the Evening made Sigls to Observe my motions during the night, for the Britannia Prince & Dreadnought they being heavy sailers to take Stations as Convenient and for Mars, Orion Bellisle Leviathan, Bellerophon & Polyphemus to go ahead during the Night and to carry a light Standing for the Streights Mouth


[Britannia: 100 guns, flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir William Carnegie, Earl of Northesk.]

[Prince: 98 guns, Capt. Richard Grindall.]

[Dreadnought: 98 guns, Capt. John Conn.]

[Orion: 74 guns, Capt. Edward Codrington.]

[Leviathan: 74 guns, Capt. Henry Boynton.]

[Bellerophon: 74 guns, Capt. John Cooke.]

[Polyphemus: 64 guns, Capt. Robert Redmill.]

['Streights': this is Nelson's misspelling of Straits.]

[Phoebe: 36-gun frigate, Capt. Thomas Capel.]



Sunday Oct 20th 1805

Fresh Breezes SSW and rainy.  Communicated with Phoebe, Defence and Colossus, who saw near forty sail of ships of War outside of Cadiz yesterday evening, but the wind being Southerly they could not get to the Mouth of the Straits.  We were between Trafalgar and Cape Spartel.  The frigates made the signal that they saw 9 sail outside the Harbour; gave the Frigates instructions for their guidance, and placed Defence, Colossus and Mars between me and the Frigates.  At noon fresh gales and heavy rain, Cadiz NE 9 Leagues.  In the afternoon Captain Blackwood telegraphed that the Enemy seemed determined to go to the Westward; and that they shall not do if in the power of Nelson and Bronte to prevent them.

at 5 Telegraph’d Capt. Bd. that I rely’d upon his keeping sight of the Enemy at 5 o’Clock Naiad made the signal for 31 Sail of the Enemy NNE.  The frigates and Look out Ships kept sight of the Enemy most admirably all night and told me by Signals which tack they were upon.  At 8 We wore & stood to the SW and at 4am wore and stood to the NE.


This is Nelson's last diary entry, and is known as his 'Trafalgar Prayer'.

Monday Oct 21st 1805

At day light saw the Enemys Combined Fleet from E to ESE bore away made the Signal for order of sailing and to prepare for Battle the Enemy with their heads to the Southward, at 7 the Enemy wearing in succession, May the Great God whom I worship Grant to my Country and for the benefit of Europe in General a great and Glorious Victory, and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it, and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet, for myself individually I commit my Life to Him who made me, and may his blessing light upon my Endeavours for serving my Country faithfully.  To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is Entrusted to me to Defend.

amen, amen, amen.




NOTE ON SOURCES: This diary has been published before, however I have given the National Archive as my source as this was what I myself used.


Notes on abbreviations and naval terminology Nelson used, for people (like me!) who don't know much about such things.

'beating up': to 'beat' means to sail close to the wind.

Courses: the lowest sail on each mast (the mainsail, foresail and mizzen).

Fathoms: a measure of depth (one fathom is 6ft).

'fetch'd': to fetch is to reach a mark without tacking.

'fms': abbreviation of fathoms, a measure of depth (one fathom is 6ft)

'Gibt'. or 'Gibrt': abbreviations for Gibraltar.  Sometimes (as on 21st August) this refers to the place (which was a British naval base), sometimes (as on 23rd August) HMS Gibraltar, an 80-gun 2nd rate ship.

'hove to': past tense of 'heaving to' which is a way of stopping the ship.

'laying too'to 'lay to' means to remain stationery while heading into the wind.

Leagues: a measure of distance (one league is three nautical miles).

lgs: abbreviation of leagues, a measure of distance (one league is three nautical miles).

'modte' or 'modt': abbreviation for moderate.

Reef: to reef means to reduce the area of sail exposed to the wind, which would protect it from strong winds, or slow the ship.

Storm Staysails: very small sails that have one or two sides attached to a stay (one of the ropes or wires that helps hold the mast in place), the only sails that would be flown in a heavy storm to keep the ship in control. 

Tack: to sail directly into the wind by zig-zagging.

Tkd: abbreviation of tacked.

Topgallant: the mast or sail above the main mast and mainsail.
Topsailsthe second sail up a mast.

'wt': abbreviation for weather.


Copyright Vicki Singleton 2013.