20 Facts About Horatio Nelson

Few military commanders can rival the scale of Horatio Nelson’s legacy, made all the more potent by his death in the midst of his greatest victory.

The monument bearing his name, Nelson’s Column, stands in London’s Trafalgar Square and dominates the centre of the British capital. Here are 20 facts about him.

1. Horatio Nelson was born in 1758 in Norfolk

He was the son of Edmund, a clergyman, and Catherine, who died when he was nine years old.

2. At 14, Nelson took part in an expedition to the Arctic

During the expedition, he defended a small boat from a walrus attack.

Horatio Nelson in 1781. Credit: National Maritime Museum / Commons

3. Nelson met his mistress Emma Hamilton in 1793

After meeting in Naples, the pair began an affair despite both being married. By the time they returned to England with Hamilton’s husband, Sir William Hamilton, in 1800, Emma was pregnant with Nelson’s child.

4. Nelson had been married for 10 years when he met Emma

Nelson separated from his wife, Frances Nisbet, following his return from Naples in 1800 but she received half of his income during his lifetime and a generous pension after his death.

A portrait of Emma Hamilton by the English painter George Romney.

5. Nelson lost the sight in his right eye during the siege of Calvi in 1794

Contrary to some depictions, however, evidence suggests that he did not wear an eyepatch.

6. He was shot in the arm during the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797

The musket ball severed an artery and his arm was amputated immediately – without anaesthetic.

7. In August 1798, Nelson defeated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt

Following the achievement, King George III made him Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe (his birthplace).

8. The decoration on his hat was called a chelengk

It was given to Nelson by the sultan of Turkey in recognition of the former’s defeat of the French fleet at the Nile. The central diamond sat in a clockwork mount that rotated.

The chelengk on Nelson’s hat is clearly visible in this portrait. The Ottoman military decoration was stolen in a raid on the National Maritime Museum in the 1950s.

9. Nelson and Hamilton “married” in 1805

The day before Nelson sailed for Trafalgar, he and Hamilton took Holy Communion together and exchanged rings.

10. Nelson referred to his battle plan at Trafalgar as the “Nelson Touch”

The tactic is better known as “crossing the T”. Rather than forming up in a single line of battle and engaging broadside, Nelson formed two columns with the intention of slicing through the Franco-Spanish line. In the resulting melee, Nelson believed the superiority of British gunnery would win the day.

11. He called his captains a “band of brothers”

It was a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry V play. Prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson thoroughly briefed his captains about his plan, ensuring they understood every detail. But he also encouraged them to use their own initiative and to react to the battle as it developed rather than be hampered by rigid orders.

Nelson’s signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”. Credit: Tkgd2007 / Commons

12. As the British fleet closed in on the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, Nelson flew his famous signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”

The signal used the Popham flag code, developed by Rear Admiral Sir Home Popham and adopted by the Royal Navy as standard in 1803.

13. Nelson received a fatal wound at Trafalgar

At around 1.15pm, as he walked the quarterdeck of the HMS Victory, Nelson was hit by a bullet from a musket, which punctured his lung and fractured his spine. He died several hours later.

14. His last words were, “Thank God I have done my duty”

Three accounts of Nelson’s death all state that these were his final words. By the time of his death, the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar was clear – the Royal Navy had proved victorious.

Painter Denis Dighton’s imagining of Nelson being shot on the quarterdeck of the Victory. Credit: National Maritime Museum / Commons

15. The Battle of Trafalgar was followed by a terrible storm that lasted seven days

Fifteen of the Franco-Spanish ships taken as prizes by the British fleet either sank or were abandoned in the storm, including the French flagship, the Bucentaure.

16. Nelson’s body was preserved in brandy

The day after the battle, Nelson’s body was placed in a barrel filled with brandy. His body did not arrive back in England until the December of that year.

17. Emma Hamilton ended her life destitute

Despite Nelson changing his will to request that Hamilton be provided for, she and her daughter Horatia received no financial support after his death. She became an alcoholic and accrued huge debts that led to her spending time in debtors’ prison.

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, built between 1840 and 1843. Credit: Elliott Brown / Commons

18. 100,000 people attended Nelson’s lying in state

He lay in state in Greenwich for three days in January 1806. His funeral took place on 9 January.

19. His sarcophagus was originally designed for Cardinal Wolsey

Wolsey fell out of favour with Henry VIII who took possession of the then unfinished sarcophagus, intending to use it himself.

20. The British Navy toasts the “immortal memory” of Nelson on Trafalgar Day

The first recorded instance of the toast dates back to 1811.