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Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served
 
 

Aftermath and legend

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Nelson legend

The news of Nelson’s death was a defining moment in history. It seemed that everybody, not just in England but abroad, had some recollection of the shock this news brought them. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Naples wrote ‘never can I forget the sorrow and consternation that lay on every countenance…Numbers stopped and shook hands with me, because they had seen tears on my cheek, and conjectured, that I was an Englishman; and several, as they held my hand, burst, themselves into tears’ (Lambert, page 310).

The nation and the government now had to deal with how Nelson’s next of kin were to be provided for and how he would be remembered and commemorated. Nelson’s eldest brother, William, was given a posthumous earldom, an estate and an annual £5,000 pension; Nelson’s surviving sisters each received £19,000; Nelson’s estranged wife, Lady Nelson, was awarded an annuity of £2,000. She also applied and received a grant from the Royal Bounty. Nelson’s will and death duty record reveal the extent of his personal fortune. However, Emma Hamilton, whose well-being Nelson had entrusted ‘to my King and Country’, was ignored by the state. Neither Emma nor their daughter Horatia, were invited to the funeral. Emma died in poverty - even though Nelson had generously provided for her - in Calais, France, on 15 January 1815.

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Lady Nelson’s application to the Royal Bounty after Nelson’s death

 

Nelson’s will

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Nelson’s death duty record

 

Photograph of wooden box containing Nelson's will

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Trafalgar Square

Nelson’s memory had already been immortalised by the most spectacular and lavish funeral London had ever seen. His state funeral and burial at St Paul’s Cathedral was used to capture and define what Nelson meant to the nation. It was without precedent in British history that someone outside royalty - a naval commander, a common man - would be commemorated in such a way, such was the appeal of Nelson and his significance to the nation. Nelson symbolised Britain’s stand for freedom against the tyranny of France in a war, begun in 1793 and ending in 1815, which before the First World War had been called the ‘Great War’. He was considered by many as the figurehead of the struggle against the invading forces of Napoleon, an invasion threat not experienced since the Spanish Armada in 1588. Nelson was also seen to exemplify the greatness of Britain and was regarded as the consummate professional role model to inspire those who served and were to serve in the future in the Royal Navy - the defensive shield of Britain’s realm and empire. Nelson’s memory and great victories were also to be kept in perpetuity by numerous monuments built in his honour after his death in England and overseas, particularly Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square in London. His ship, HMS Victory, was to be preserved, one of the few of its kind, in Portsmouth, England.

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Immortality of Nelson by Benjamin West

Biographers too, both during his lifetime and immediately after his death on 21 October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar, set about attempting to capture what Nelson’s defining qualities and personal characteristics were, whilst at the same time cultivating the Nelson legend. The earliest biographies tended to depict an almost messianic figure, a man without fault. This notion was reinforced by contemporary artwork, for example, that of Benjamin West, which also served as propaganda in the war against France. However, this view has been put into perspective by modern biographers who have presented a more rounded view of Nelson.

Many biographers have focused on Nelson’s more positive qualities - his sense of patriotism, his monarchical beliefs, his devotion to duty and to his country, and his leadership and ambition. Others have highlighted his empathy and generosity towards those who served with and under him, his incredible determination, drive and ruthlessness to succeed and to gain victory at all costs, and his ability to deal with the many demanding facets of his job in regards to naval strategy, diplomacy and command of his ships in battle. All of which are underpinned by a hero’s death in his greatest victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Other biographers have dealt with the darker side of Nelson’s persona: his desire for attention and acclaim; his seeming recklessness; his adulterous relationship with Emma Hamilton; his severe bouts of depression and hypochondria; his almost suicidal search for personal glory; his exaggerated view of himself, for example, as an instrument of God, which he promoted and self-publicised; and his pitilessness and adversity to those that crossed him.

These complex and contradictory personal character traits and qualities were shaped not only by the times and environment in which Nelson lived and worked but also by the individuals who nurtured, supported and recognised his potential and who gave him the opportunity to express his unique talent, along with his own ability to make the most of what destiny and fate were to offer him. His qualities, good or bad, are what set him apart from his contemporaries two centuries ago and what make him continue to stand out today.

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