Horatio Nelson, Hornblower Prototype and Hero of Trafalgar

Horatio Nelson, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, was born on 29 September 1758, the sixth child of Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine Suckling in a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk.

Young Horatio Nelson

Horatio, called Horace by his family, was the fifth son born to Edmund and Catherine, but two of his elder brothers tragically died in infancy. The newborn Nelson was so weak and sickly that his parents baptized him hurriedly, fearing he was doomed to join his eldest brothers in an early grave. He was named for his godfather, Horatio Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, his mother’s. Catherine Suckling Nelson was a great-niece of Robert Walpole, the first 1st Earl of Orford, and the Walpoles had continued to aid the less wealthy branches of the family, such as when Robert Walpole’s son, Horace Walpole, had secured Rev Nelson the rectory Burnham Thorpe after Edmund and Catherine’s marriage.

Happily, little Horatio Nelson did live, and was joined nearly annually by another brother or sister until there were eight surviving siblings in total (another baby boy, George, was lost in 1765). Regrettably, Catherine Suckling Nelson died on 26 December 1767 – but not in childbirth — at the age of 42, when Horatio was only 9 years old. His father, who never remarried, was devastated by her loss and terrified he would not be an adequate parent for his surviving children, one of whom was a 6 month old baby.

Fortunately, Catherine’s family once more stepped up. Her brother, Captain Maurice Suckling,  agreed to help Horace launch a naval career as soon as the boy was old enough. On 1 January 1771, at the tender age of 12, young Horace came about his uncle’s ship, the third-rate HMS Raisonnable , as a midshipman and began his officer training under Captain Suckling.


They quickly discovered poor Horace got terribly seasick.

Thus, with a preteen boy casting up his accounts over the side of the ship, began one of the most celebrated naval careers of the Georgian age and the Napoleonic Wars.

Nelson is justifiably famous for his role as an Admiral in the Royal Navy, and for his death at Trafalgar during the height of his fame. There are many blog posts about that aspect of Nelson, written by people with a much greater knowledge of naval warfare than myself. My interest is in Nelson as a person – the man behind the heroics.

Horatio Nelson

For one thing, let there be no doubt that Nelson (albeit brilliant) wouldn’t have gotten as far in the navy as fast if it hadn’t been for the social connections of his extended family promoting him along the way. Not only were the Walpoles peers of the realm, they were part of an incredibly powerful political dynasty. Moreover, his uncle, Captain Suckling, became Comptroller of the Navy in 1775, a perfect place to aid his nephew Horace. Finally, his father sister, Alice Nelson, made a fortuitous marriage Reverend Robert Rolfe, whose sister-in-law was Jemima Rolfe nee Alexander, James Alexander, 1st Earl of Caledon‘s niece. All of these connections would have know the lines to tug to get Nelson onto a good ship, put in the best prospects, and recognized for his work in the speediest manner.

His family connections do not mean that Nelson was NOT deserving of command. It simply means that he was given ample chances to thrive thanks to an entrenched sociopolitical kinship web. In contrast, Nelson’s good friend, future Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, was every bit the commander and tactician Nelson was but his humbler origins meant his promotions came slower and his opportunities were fewer until he became close to Nelson. 

Lord Horatio Nelson By John Hoppner

Besides being plagued with seasickness his entire naval career, Nelson was also in surprisingly delicate health. During his time in the West Indies he almost died from yellow fever and contracted malaria, which repeatedly rendered him unfit to serve. If it hadn’t been for a black “doctoress” named Cubah Cornwallis (the mistress of Captian William Cornwallis, who was probably a kind of de facto wife since she was given his last name as is typical of plaçage) then Nelson might not have survived. As it was, he was so weakened by illness that he had to turn down the captaincy of the he 44-gun frigate HMS Janus  and return to England for a long convalescence. The malaria would, as malaria does, crop up from time to time to wreck his constitution for the rest of his life.

Nelson’s love life was nearly as dramatic as his naval career. He married, on 11 March 1787, a sweet young widow from Nevis named Frances “Fanny” Nisbet and brought her home to live in his father’s house at Burnham Thorpe in 1788.

Mrs Fanny Nelson

England was at peace, and Nelson was as hard pressed to find a ship as any other captain at the time, and so he and Fanny stayed with the elderly Edmund Nelson while Nelson made frequent trips to London to try to secure a post. In 1790 Edmund moved out of the rectory so that Fanny and Horace could have their ‘own’ establishment, but Edmund’s new home, a cottage at Burnham Ulph, was close enough for frequent visits.

By the time Nelson received the command of the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon in January 1793, Fanny was as beloved by Edmund Nelson as any of his own daughters. He acted as her guardian when Horace was at sea, and Fanny would go with him to Bath in the hopes of improving his health. Fanny read to him, cared for him, and doted on him, all while remaining faithful and in love with his most famous son. How could Edmund not love her? How could anyone not love her?

Thus, when Horace fell madly in love with Lady Emma Hamilton at the end of 1797 and moved in with Emma and her husband William in 1800 (London was aghast), Edmund Nelson was heartbroken by his son’s dismissal of Fanny.

George_Romney_-_Lady_ Emma Hamilton_as_Circe

Edmund, the mildest of men, could not help but take his son t task for treating Fanny, who was the best daughter-in-law ever created, in such an infamous and humiliating manner. Nelson, burdened by guilt for his ungentlemanly behavior, accepted his father rebukes, but nevertheless could not give up the woman he loved so ardently. Nelson wrote to Fanny, explaining that, “I love you sincerely but I cannot forget my obligations to Lady Hamilton or speak of her otherwise than with affection and admiration.”

Edmund remained loyal to Fanny, but did go visit his son and Emma (still married to their roommate William Hamilton), especially after Emma gave birth to Horace’s only surviving child, Horatia, on 29 January 1801.

Horatia Nelson c. 1815

In the end, Fanny was a better daughter than Horace was a son. Edmund Nelson’s end was clearly near in the spring of 1802, and it was Fanny came from London to attend him at Bath, while Horace, who was in ill-heath himself, did not. (Although Horace DID write that if his father asked to see him again, then he would certainly come, ill-health or not.) When Edmund died on 26 April 1802, at the age of 80, Fanny, not his famous son, was with him

Nelson, regardless of his personal quirks and unconventional relationships, remained immensely popular among the genera pubic. His charisma and genuine concern for his crew and fellow seamen – ‘the Nelson touch‘ –  also earned him his crews’ loyalty and made him a favorite within navy circles as well. The steadfast friendship of his naval comrades, and his own fast-thinking strategizing, often saved him when he crossed the line from ‘bold’ to ‘rash’. 

For example, at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, Nelson disobeyed the direct orders of Admiral John Jervis and engaged three ships in the Spanish fleet’s vangaurd, “which consisted of the 112-gun San Josef, the 80-gun San Nicolas and the 130-gun Santísima Trinidad.” Not only did his friends Captain Thomas Troubridge’s ship the HMS Culloden  and Captain Cuthbert Collingwood aboard the HMS Excellent rush in to help him, but when they won the fight, capturing the San Nicolas onto San Josef , Nelson was given almost all the credit. Not only did Jervis not reprimand Nelson for his disobedience (because he “liked” him), but Nelson was made a Knight of the Bath based on his account of the battle despite the fact Rear Admiral William Parker,  who had watched the engagement from the HMS Prince George, disputed Nelson’s claims.

Nelson at the Surrender_of_the_San_Nicolas_at_St_Vincent

Nelson’s crew was so devoted to him that on at least one occasion an ordinary seaman was willing to risk death to save his commander. At the Assault on Cadiz, Nelson (who was now a Rear Admiral of the Blue) engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the commander of the Spanish gun-boats, Don Miguel Tregoyen. “Twice Nelson was nearly cut down and both times his life was saved by [his coxswain] John Sykes who took the blows and was badly wounded.” An eyewitness recounted:

“Twice Sykes saved him; and now he saw a blow descending that would have severed the head of Nelson. In the second of thought that a cool man possesses, Sykes saw that he could not ward the blow with his cutlass…. He saw the danger; that moment expired and Nelson would have been a corpse: but Sykes saved him – he interposed his own hand ! We all saw it…. and we gave in revenge one cheer and one tremendous rally.”

History is unsure of what happened to Sykes after. He either became a gunner on board the HMS Andromache and was killed by a rupturing cannon in October 1799, or he became a Greenwich fishmonger and died at around 80 years old on 22 May 1841. However, since Nelson himself reported Sykes dead in 1799, I think he probably died while on Andromache.


Later, when Nelson made a hash of things at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, an adoring public “refused to attribute the defeat at Tenerife to him, preferring instead to blame poor planning on the part of St Vincent, the Secretary at War or even William Pitt.” Part of the reason for the public support was that Nelson had lost his right arm below the elbow after being shot in the forearm with a musket ball, but the lion’s share of Nelson’s support was his perceived heroics at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent and the Blockade of Cádiz. The British were determined that their wounded hero would not be knocked off his pedestal.

Horatio Nelson’s fame was cemented for life when he died at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

At the start of the battle, Thomas Hardy, captain of Nelson’s flagship, the first-rate HMS Victory , suggested Nelson take the decorations off his coat, so he wouldn’t be such a good target for enemy marksmen, but Nelson refused. As a result, Nelson was indeed targeted by a marksman and shot, with the bullet entering at his left shoulder, passing through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and finally coming to rest in the Admiral’s back muscles two inches below his right shoulder blade. He was taken below to the ship’s surgeon, William Beatty, but Nelson told him not to bother because he had been shot through the spine. He also begged Beatty and Captain Hardy to remind his friends to take care of Lady Hamilton and Horatia.


Nelson’s funeral in London was as lavish as any Roman Emperor’s could have been, with “a funeral procession consisting of 32 admirals, over a hundred captains, and an escort of 10,000 soldiers” to take the his coffin from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral. There, Nelson was laid to rest in a sarcophagus originally created for Henry VIII’s chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

A near-cultish veneration of Nelson would arise after his death, and his legitimate family members were well rewarded for being related to him, so that his brother, Lord Nelson’s brother, Reverend William Nelson, was created Earl Nelson and Viscount Merton of Trafalgar and Merton, and also inherited the Dukedom of Bronté from Naples.


The people he love the most, though, were left to languish because they were not legally bound to the great naval hero. Although Nelson’s last will and testament requested that the government take care of Lady Hamilton and Horatia as a tribute to his services to the country, his posthumous pleas were ignored. Lady Hamilton died in poverty in Calais, in 1815, and Nelson’s daughter would thereafter raised by her youngest paternal aunt, Mrs Catherine Nelson Matcham. She later married Rev Philip Ward and had 10 children, and acknowledged herself as Nelson’s daughter but never as Lady Hamilton’s offspring.

One of Nelson’s most interesting legacies is that he was the obvious model for Horatio Hornblower, the navy officer in a series of best-selling early 20th century novels by C. S. Forester. In turn, the protagonist of the Forester novels was the inspiration for Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek , when he created James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard.

Hortatio Nelson therefore still lives, sailing between the stars, ever-victorious, ever-heroic … just under a different name.

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