Nelson (Life Overview)

Horatio Nelson is one of the most famous characters in British history. He is probably the most famous sailor of all time for us as a country because of his epic defeat of the French at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s life, however, was about more than this single battle.

Born in 1758 in Norfolk, Nelson was the sixth out of eleven children born to the Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine. His early years were spent at home and at school. Like many young man of his time his career was mapped out for him early and he joined the Navy. Although he learned early on that he suffered from seasickness this was to become his career for life.

Nelson was just 12 at this point. It may seem like a young age to us but it was a common age to start working in that period. Things may have been made easier for him, at least to begin with, as his Captain on his first ship was his uncle on his mother’s side of the family. He joined this ship, the Raisonnable, at one of the lowest ranks of Ordinary Seaman or Coxswain.

Nelson was soon promoted to Midshipman status which enabled him to start training for officer status. His uncle left the Raisonnable to become the Comptroller of the Navy in the 1770s. His role here may have helped his nephew’s case. At the relatively young age of 20, Nelson was made into a Post-Captain. He continued to move up through the ranks for the next few years.

By 1784 Nelson was serving on the Boreas as Captain based in the West Indies. Whilst in this region he met and married his first wife, Frances Nisbet. His next captaincy was aboard the Agamemnon. This gun-ship was involved in the war efforts of the time. During this period Nelson was struck in the face by cannon shot debris which is where he famously lost his eye.

Nelson was a good Captain in both peace and war and soon rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. He was also recognised for his actions in the battle at Cape St Vincent by being knighted. During the attempt to take over the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, however, he was badly injured once again. This time he lost a lot of his right arm.

In this period he also won the Battle of the Nile. Future plaudits gave Nelson the right to call himself Baron Nelson of the Nile. Having spent much of his battle career fighting the French he was ordered to go to Naples in 1797. The Royal family were being held by the French and he was tasked with rescuing them.

During this period Nelson met Emma Hamilton. They fell in love and he abandoned his first wife to bring Emma home to England in the early 1800s where they went on to have a daughter, Horatia. Flaunting convention in this way did not go down well with the establishment and Nelson was summarily ordered back to sea to help fight the Battle of Copenhagen.

Again, Nelson led the English forces to victory. This led to him being made Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic Sea and Viscount Nelson in 1801. Despite his unconventional domestic life Nelson remained a true hero of the people and the establishment had to acknowledge this. Whilst it might be expected at this stage in life that Nelson could give up active service he once again set out to defend the country when it became obvious that Napoleon was trying to invade via the English Channel. During a hiatus of hostilities he returned home to be made Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, a Vice Admiral and head of HMS Victory.

By 1805 the armistice with Napoleon ended and Nelson headed out to lead the fleet in HMS Victory. The ensuing battle, the Battle of Trafalgar, is Nelson’s most famous and his last. Hit by sniper shot Nelson died just a few hours after victory was won. Nobody really knows if he did utter those well-known words “ Kiss me Hardy” as he died.