Horatio Nelson, Britain’s most celebrated naval hero, is born in Burnham Thorpe, England. In the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, he won a series of crucial victories and saved England from possible invasion by France.
The son of the village rector, he entered the British navy as a midshipman at the age of 12. He traveled the world’s oceans and at age 20 was made a captain. After Spain joined France in its alliance with the rebellious American colonies, he raided Spanish holdings in Central America and the West Indies. In the years after the American Revolution, his zealous enforcement of the Navigation Acts, which restricted England’s carrying trade to English ships, made him unpopular. Between 1787 and 1792, he received no new naval commission. In 1793, however, war broke out with Revolutionary France, and he was immediately given command of the 64-gun Agamemnon.
He served in the Mediterranean, fighting at the port of Toulon and helping to capture Corsica. While ashore on Corsica assisting in the siege of Calvi, he lost the sight in his right eye after being injured by debris from a French shot. Four years later, on February 14, 1797, he acted boldly and without orders and single-handedly took on an entire squadron of Spanish ships that were about to surprise a British fleet off Portugal’s Cape St. Vincent. For his heroic contribution to British victory at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, Nelson was knighted and made a rear admiral. Later that year, he led the unsuccessful British assault on Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands and was shot in the right arm, forcing its amputation.
After his recovery, he pursued a French expeditionary force to Egypt and succeeded in destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798, thereby stranding French General Napoleon Bonaparte and his army in Egypt. Nelson was hailed as a great hero and went with his squadron to Naples, where he began an affair with the wife of a British minister. Nelson had a wife in England. He aided Ferdinand, king of Naples, in his struggles against republican revolutionaries but later was recalled to England after he refused an order to take his ships to Minorca. Due to his overwhelming public popularity, however, Nelson was made a vice admiral instead of being punished when he returned to England.
In April 1801, Nelson engaged Danish naval forces at the Battle of Copenhagen. Ordered to withdraw by his superior officer during the fiercely contested battle, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and said, “I really do not see the signal.” An hour later, victory was his. He was made an admiral and viscount and instructed to return to England to protect the Channel against an expected French invasion. In 1802, a brief interlude of peace with the French began, and Nelson lived with the minister’s wife in the countryside.
Upon the renewal of war in 1803, he was given command of the Mediterranean fleet, and he blockaded the French port of Toulon, trapping a French fleet for nearly two years. Meanwhile, French Emperor Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain. He induced Spain to declare war against England and in 1805 ordered the French and Spanish fleets to break out of the British blockades and then converge as a single enormous fleet in the West Indies. The Franco-Spanish fleet, Napoleon hoped, would then win control of the English Channel, and an invasion force of 350,000 could cross to the British isle.
In March 1805, French Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve’s fleet broke through Nelson’s blockade at Toulon under cover of bad weather. Nelson set off in pursuit, chasing the French to the West Indies, where Villeneuve found himself alone at the appointed meeting place in the Antilles. Not daring to attack Nelson, he recrossed the Atlantic and retreated to the Spanish port of Cadiz, where a Spanish fleet lay. Napoleon called off his English invasion for the time being, and the British blockaded Cadiz.
In October, Napoleon ordered Villeneuve to run the blockade and sail to Italy to assist a French campaign. On October 19, Villeneuve slipped out of Cadiz with a Franco-Spanish force of 33 ships, but Nelson caught him off Cape Trafalgar on October 21. Nelson divided his 27 ships into two divisions and signaled a famous message from the flagship Victory: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” In five hours of fighting, the British devastated the enemy fleet, destroying 19 enemy ships and capturing Villeneuve. No British ships were lost, but 1,500 British seamen were killed or wounded in the heavy fighting. The battle raged at its fiercest around the Victory, and a French sniper shot Nelson in the shoulder and chest. The admiral was taken below and died about 30 minutes before the end of the battle. Nelson’s last words, after being informed that victory was imminent, were “Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.”
Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar ensured that Napoleon would never invade Britain. Nelson, hailed as the savior of his nation, was given a magnificent funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. A column was erected to his memory in the newly named Trafalgar Square, and numerous streets were renamed in his honor. The HMS Victory, where Nelson won his most spectacular victory and drew his last breath, sits preserved in dry-dock at Portsmouth.