If you have ever been to London, chances are you will have passed Trafalgar
Square, at the heart of which stands Nelson's Column, a 185-tall monument at
the top of which is perched a statue of Britain's most famous Admiral.
He stands looking over the Admiralty, from whom he took his orders; the
Thames, up which his funeral procession sailed; and, far beyond, Portsmouth,
where his famous ship HMS Victory
still resides. But who was he, and what did he do to deserve such a
memorial? Here is a summary of the essential things you need to know.
(You can also refer to the
for a chronological summary of his life and career.)
- Born on the 29th September 1758 in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk.
- Died on the 21st October 1805, aged 47, of wounds sustained during
the Battle of Trafalgar.
- Married Frances Nisbet on the 11th March 1787 at Nevis in the West
Indies. They had no children.
- Had one daughter, Horatia, by his mistress, Emma Hamilton.
Horatia was born on the 29th January 1801. Nelson and Emma had
another daughter, born in 1803, but she died shortly after she was born.
Defender of King and Country
(for a more comprehensive chronology of Nelson's
life, please see the
Nelson joined the navy aged 12, thanks to his uncle, Captain Maurice
Suckling of the Raisonnable.
American War of Independence (April 1775
- September 1783)
- Passed his lieutenant's exam in London in April 1777, aged 19.
- His first command of a ship was that of the
16-gun brig sloop, in December 1778.
- His first command of an expedition on land was to capture Fort San
Juan in Nicaragua, in 1780. It was a failure, and the majority of
the crew of his ship, the Hinchinbrook, and Nelson himself,
fell ill with tropical fever.
French Revolutionary Wars (April 1792 -
- As Captain of the Agamemnon, joined the Mediterranean
fleet, where he quickly gained the respect of the Commander-in-Chief,
Admiral John Jervis, who trusted him with small independant commands.
- Took part in the siege of Bastia in January to August 1794, during
which he suffered the injury that would leave him sightless in his right
eye for the rest of his life.
- Promoted to Commodore in March 1796, aged 38.
- Fought at the Battle of Cape St Vincent on the 14th February
1797. Nelson's daring actions, personally leading the boarding
party that captured not one, but two Spanish ships, threw him to
prominence amongst the fleet.
- Promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1797, and created a Knight of the Bath.
- Led an attack on Santa Cruz in Tenerife, on the 24th July 1797.
The attack failed disastrously, and Nelson received a wound in his right
arm which meant it had to be amputated.
- On the 1st August 1798, Nelson commanded a fleet of 13 ships
against the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. The French
fleet were annihilated; one ship blew up and all the rest bar two were
captured - but those two were captured later on. In England,
Nelson started being revered as a hero.
- Given the title Baron Nelson of the Nile.
- After the battle, Nelson stayed at Naples with Sir William and Lady
Emma Hamilton. He grew close to the royal family there and became
caught up in Neapolitan affairs; he was involved in pushing for an
attack on Rome, evacuating the royals and the court from Naples to
Palermo to escape the French attack, and then recapturing Naples.
- The King of Naples granted Nelson the Dukedom of Bronte in 1799.
From then on, Nelson always signed his letters as 'Nelson & Bronte'.
- Nelson returned to England with the Hamiltons in November 1800, and
in January 1801 he was promoted to Vice-Admiral.
- As second-in-command under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, Nelson led a
division against a Danish fleet at anchor, at the Battle of Copenhagen
on 2nd April 1801. Though it was a victory, it was a close one,
and Nelson described it as the bloodiest he'd fought in. He then
played a vital role in diplomatic talks with the Crown Prince of
- In July 1801, Nelson was given command of the anti-invasion
operations in the Channel. In August, he launched a boat attack
against the French invasion forces gathering at Boulogne, but the attack
did not go well.
The Napoleonic War
(May 1803 - November 1815)
- In May 1803, Nelson was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the
Mediterranean, and sailed there aboard the
Victory, where he
maintained a partial blockade of Toulon, hoping to draw the French fleet
- In April 1805, the French fleet escaped, and Nelson chased them to
the West Indies and back to Europe, where they retreated into Cadiz.
- On the 21st October 1805, Nelson commanded the British fleet of 27
ships-of-the-line against 33 combined French and Spanish ships, at the
Battle of Trafalgar. He issued his famous signal,
expects that every man will do his duty, followed by the signal for
close action, his final signal. Around half an hour after entering
battle, leading the way in the
Victory, Nelson was shot.
The musket ball passed through his left shoulder, pierced his pulmonary
artery, and lodged in his spine. Carried below to the
cockpit, he survived for a further three hours, continuing to give
orders. He passed away after learning that the British had been
- Nelson's body was preserved in spirits and carried back to England
aboard his battered flagship. He was given a full state funeral in
January 1806, and entombed within the crypt beneath St Paul's Cathedral.
Honours and Titles
This is the full list of all Nelson's titles, as inscribed on his tomb
and read out at his funeral:
Lord Horatio Nelson
Viscount and Baron Nelson, of the Nile and of Burnham
Thorpe in the County of Norfolk;
Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Hilborough in the said
Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath;
Vice Admiral of the White Squadron of the Fleet;
Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels
in the Mediterranean;
Duke of Bronte in the Kingdom of Sicily;
Knight Grand Cross of the Sicilian Order of St
Ferdinand and of Merit;
Member of the Ottoman Order of the Crescent;
Knight Grand Commander of the Order of St Joachim.
well as these titles, Nelson was awarded honours which he wore proudly
emblazoned on his dress uniform (the flashy one worn for portraits and
formal occasions), and of which he had sequined replicas sewn onto his
working uniforms, such as the one he was wearing at Trafalgar. Three of
them were awarded by foreign powers, so he had to obtain permission from the
British King to be allowed to wear them. He was deeply grateful and
proud of these honours, particularly because he often felt the British
Government hadn't done enough to reward him for his services. But the
stars, and particularly the chelengk in his hat, were very large and flashy,
and he was often ridiculed and accused of vanity - a famous caricature shows
him as a little man weighed down by large badges and an oversized chelengk,
and Earl St Vincent once described him as "strung with ribbons, medals etc
and yet pretended that he wished to avoid the honours & ceremonies he
everywhere met with upon the Road."
The waxwork effigy of Nelson in Westminster Abbey (left) is said to be an
extremely realistic likeness, as the artist (Catherine Anders) had known and
sculpted an image of Nelson before his death. Along with the medals
around his neck, the four stars can be seen embroidered onto his coat, and
the chelengk on his hat. From the top, clockwise:
Knight Companion of the British Order of the Bath
was awarded the Order of the Bath on the 27th May 1797, after the
Battle of Cape St
Vincent. He knew that he would likely be awarded a baronetcy, but
Nelson was concerned because it was a hereditary honour that would pass to
his heirs, and he didn't possess a great fortune to pass along with it.
For that reason (and also because he craved public recognition, which the
bright red sash and shiny star would certainly bring), he requested an
honour which would 'die with the possessor', and so he was granted a
Knighthood of the Order of the Bath.
The name of the Order of the Bath originates from medieval times, when the
ritual conferring a knighthood required the person to cleanse themselves by
fasting, praying and washing. Over time, however, the rituals
gradually fell into disuse. The Order was revived by George I in 1725,
as an elite knighthood comprised of the Sovereign, the Great Master, and 36
Knights Companion, and was awarded to officers of the armed services who
deserved special recognition.
Fun fact: The motto of the Order of the Bath is 'Tria Juncta in Uno' which
means 'Three Joined in One'. Nelson, Emma and William Hamilton (who
was also a knight of the Order of the Bath) used that motto as an in-joke to
refer to their arrangement when they were all living together quite happily.
Knight of the Ottoman Order of the Crescent
the Battle of the Nile, Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey,
and which Egypt was then part of)
wanted to reward Nelson for the victory, by giving him a chivalric honour.
However, all the ones in existence at that time in his country could only be
given to Muslims, and Nelson was of course Christian. So in August
1799, the Sultan solved the problem by creating the Order of the Crescent
especially for him, and Nelson was its first knight. It was later
awarded to several other British army and navy officers who achieved success
against Napoleon's forces in the Eastern Mediterranean. He also
awarded Nelson with the chelengk - see below.
Perhaps because it had been created especially for him, Nelson was extremely
proud of this honour. He wasn't given official permission by the
British king to wear it until March 1802, but he used the title after his
name after the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801.
Like all his honours, a replica was sewn onto all of Nelson's coats, but it
was upside down! The star was supposed to be to the right of the
crescent, but on his Trafalgar coat and the one on his Westminster Abbey
waxwork, it can be seen on the left.
Knight Grand Commander of the Order of
Order of St Joachim was created in 1755, with its first Grand Master being
Prince Christian Franz, in the German duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.
It's a charitable Order, and significantly, embraced both Catholic and
Protestant members at a time when religion was a cause of great violence in
Europe and other chivalric orders would be on one side or the other.
Nelson was unanimously voted to have the honour conferred upon him on the
14th September 1801, as a reward for the Battle of the Nile. The Grand
Master of the Order, Count Ferdinand Karl III, had seen his father (the
previous Grand Master) have his lands confiscated and then taken prisoner by
Napoleon. So he had a particular special reason for wishing to confer
such an honour upon the British admiral who had handed Napoleon such a
The king granted Nelson permission to wear the insignia in July 1802, and
it meant a lot to Nelson to be able to do so.
Knight Grand Cross of the Sicilian Order of
St Ferdinand and of Merit
the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Nelson stayed at Naples with the Hamiltons,
and became something of an adviser to the royal family of the Kingdom of the
Two Sicilies. When the French invaded Naples, Nelson helped the royal
family and court escape to Palermo, and then he was instrumental in taking
King Ferdinand IV wanted to reward Nelson for his efforts, but the
existing Neapolitan chivalric order, the Order of St Januarius, could only
be given to catholics. So, in the same way as the Turkish Sultan
created the Order of the Crescent, Ferdinand created the Order of St
Ferdinand and of Merit, named after his ancestor Ferdinand the Great, King
of Castile, which could be given to someone from any religion. The
Order was created in April 1800, to reward people for 'extraordinary and
important services' and for showing 'extraordinary proofs of loyalty and
attachment to our royal person and to the monarchy'. After his actions
in Naples, which damaged his reputation in England, no one could argue that
Nelson's loyalty to the King of the Two Sicilies was anything other than
content simply with creating a new chivalric order with which to honour
Nelson, Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire also sent him a gift of a
chelengk. Originally, the word chelengk was defined as 'a bird feather
which one attaches to one's cap as a sign of bravery', and it was awarded
for miltary merit. Nelson was the first non-Ottoman to receive one,
and he wore it in his Admiral's dress hat.
The chelengk was an aigrette made of 300 diamonds in the design of a
flower with 13 rays fanning out from it, each ray representing one
of the French ships captured or destroyed at the Battle of the Nile.
It contained a tiny hidden clockwork mechanism which could make the large
centre diamond rotate so that it would sparkle as it caught the light.
Though a chelengk of some variety was a fairly common reward among the
Ottomans, the one made specially for Nelson was exceptional in that it was
worth as much as one decorating the turban of the sultan himself.
Official Website of the British Monarchy
Ottoman Orders and Decorations
Copright Vicki Singleton 2013.