Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Battle of Trafalgar

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Home life

Nelson and the Hamiltons settled into domestic life at Merton. But it was not ideal. Horatia, Nelson and Emma’s daughter, could only visit when Sir William was absent. Also, Emma had turned their home into a shrine to Nelson. Sir William remarked ‘I have no complaint to make but I feel the whole attention of my wife is given to [Nelson] and his interest at Merton’ (Morriss, page 125). Nelson’s father died on 26 April 1802. He did not attend his father’s funeral at Burnham Thorpe, apprehensive of meeting his wife. Nelson accompanied the Hamiltons on a tour in the summer of 1802 of Sir William’s estates in West England and Wales. On their travels Nelson was met with scenes of public jubilation. He also appeared on 7 February 1803 as a witness at the high treason trial of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, which took place at the Session House, Newington, Surrey.

On 6 April 1803 at 23 Piccadilly, London, Sir William died in Emma’s arms with Nelson present. Nelson wrote ‘the world never lost a more upright and accomplished gentleman’ (Bennett, page 218). Sir William in his will bequeathed to Nelson a picture of Emma describing him as ‘the most virtuous loyal and truly great character I ever met with. God bless him, and shame fall on those who do not say Amen’ (Bennett, page 218). Nelson could not now live with his mistress Emma without drawing increased public speculation about their relationship. Nelson left Merton, taking lodgings in Piccadilly, London. His absence from Emma became more permanent when on 14 May 1803 he was appointed Mediterranean commander-in-chief. Diplomatic relations between Britain and France had deteriorated and were now brought to crisis point over Britain’s refusal to evacuate Malta and Napoleon’s unwillingness to withdraw troops from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Piedmont, conditions both countries had agreed upon when signing the Treaty of Amiens. Britain declared war on France on 16 May 1803. Before Nelson joined his ship HMS Victory at Portsmouth on 18 May 1803, he and Emma arranged for their daughter, now aged two, to be baptised Horatia Nelson Thompson at St Marylebone parish church.

Nelson was tasked with defending Malta, Gibraltar and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and to prevent, and destroy it if it escaped, the French fleet at Toulon joining the French fleet at Brest. This was crucial as Napoleon’s Grande Armée of 114,000 troops, assembled by him at Boulogne to invade Britain, required a large flotilla to transport them across the English Channel. Napoleon, now First Consul of France, estimated that ‘only ten hours would be needed for landing…disciplined and victorious soldiers upon a coast destitute of fortifications and undefended by a regular army’ (Terraine, page 18).

The fleet at Nelson’s disposal to combat this threat and carry out his operational responsibilities comprised 10 ships-of-the-line and three frigates. Along with the onerous duties already mentioned he had to monitor Cadiz, in case Spain sided with France, and keep a watch over Naples. Added to this was the difficulty of maintaining and provisioning a blockade of Toulon, ensuring his men remained healthy and free from scurvy, making sure morale did not drop, and preserving his ships from damage at sea far from any naval base. During this 18- month blockade fresh food and water were usually sought by Nelson from the Maddalena Islands, off north Sardinia. Nelson purposefully did not keep a close blockade of the French fleet at Toulon. Confident he could annihilate the French fleet in battle at sea, Nelson hoped this strategy would tempt it out to join other parts of the fleet scattered in French ports so they could combine together to provide Napoleon with enough ships to transport his troops across the English Channel. Nevertheless, this was a risky tactic in case the French escaped unnoticed.

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Nelson's attitude towards the welfare of French prisoners of war


Letter by Nelson to William Marsden, Admiralty 12 August 1804

Blockade duty routine was disrupted by news from home and world events. Nelson learnt early in 1804 that Horatia had caught smallpox and that Emma was pregnant. Horatia recovered but Emma and Nelson were to lose a baby daughter. In France, Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of the French by the senate on 18 May 1804. He later crowned himself Emperor at Notre Dame Cathedral on 2 December 1804. Moreover, Spain joined France, declaring war on Britain on 14 December 1804. This worsened the position of Nelson’s fleet, increasing the possibility of a combined Franco-Spanish fleet reaching the English Channel and the eventuality of an invasion of Britain.

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Letter by Nelson to William Marsden, Admiralty 16 August 1804

The stress Nelson was under at this time caused him severe health problems: ‘the constant anxiety I have experienced has shook my weak frame and my rings will hardly keep upon my fingers. What gives me more concern…is that I can every month perceive a…loss of sight’ (Morriss, pages 136-37). In August 1804 he asked the Admiralty for leave on account of his health.

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