Frequently Asked Questions about Nelson

Which eye did he lose?

Nelson lost the sight of his right eye at the Siege of Calvi in 1794. There is no evidence that he ever wore an eyepatch and his eye looked quite normal. All the portraits and accounts confirm this.

Which arm did he lose?

He lost his right arm at the attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797. A grape-shot or musket ball struck his right arm just above the elbow and it shattered the bone so badly that amputation was essential.

What was his Naval Rank and appointment?

His highest rank was Vice Admiral of The White. His most senior appointment in that rank was Commander in Chief, Mediterranean Fleet from 1803 until his death at Trafalgar in 1805.

Did he have any children?

His marriage to Frances Nisbet produced no children even though Nelson was stood down on half pay for nearly five years from 1787 to 1793, soon after they had married. His affair with Emma Hamilton resulted in the birth of Horatia in 1801.

Where was Nelson born?

He was born in the village of Burnham Thorpe, close to the north coast of Norfolk in England.

Where is Nelson buried?

His body lies in a coffin in the plinth beneath the sarcophagus in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The sarcophagus was originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey.  It is directly beneath the ornate dome and occupies the central position among the tombs and memorials of the great and famous in British history, some of whom were brother officers who had served under his command.  Nelson’s body lies in a coffin made from the the main mast of the French flagship “L’Orient” which had exploded at the Battle of The Nile in 1798.  The coffin was sent to Nelson by Ben Hallowell of the Swiftsure.  The coffin is contained within a lead casing inside the plinth.

How old was he when he went to sea?

He joined the Royal Navy in 1771 at the age of twelve. In that era, children of this age were old enough to take up training or apprenticeships and it was normal for boys to go to sea to train as officers and, if they passed the examination before the Commissioners of the Admiralty, they could expect to be lieutenants at the age of eighteen.

How long did Nelson serve at sea?

He spent nearly all his adult life at sea. A period of relative peace in Europe saw him at home on half pay from late in 1787 to early 1793. Thereafter, he resumed active sea service and stayed at sea almost continuously until his death in 1805. He spent about thirty of his forty-seven years at sea.

How did he become “Lord” Nelson?

Following his spectacular victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, he was rewarded with the title “Baron Nelson of The Nile and Burnham Thorpe”. He thus became Lord Nelson. In 1801 his victory at Copenhagen earned him a more senior peerage as a Viscount but he was still properly addressed as Lord Nelson.

Did he really have an affair with Lady Hamilton?

Yes. It began in 1798 around the time of The Battle of The Nile when Emma Hamilton was the wife of Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador in Naples. It developed into what amounted to a “marriage” in which they lived quite openly together in an age when this was quite unacceptable and scandalous behaviour since both were already married. In that age, affairs were tacitly accepted provided they remained discreet and out of sight but Nelson and Emma made no attempt to conceal their relationship.

Which ship was Nelson’s first command as a Captain?

Nelson was promoted to Post Captain on 11th. June 1779, three months before his 21st. birthday. At the time he was Commander of the sloop HMS Badger and on 20th. June he handed that command to his friend and colleague Cuthbert Collingwood. On 1st. September he took command of the frigate HMS Hinchinbrook. (It is poignant to note that it was Collingwood who succeeded Nelson to the command of the Mediterranean Fleet in the aftermath of Trafalgar.)

What was the order of seniority in naval ranks in Nelson’s day?

Reading from left to right, this is the ascending order of seniority:

Midshipman > Lieutenant > Commander* > Captain > Commodore* > Rear Admiral > Vice Admiral > Admiral

Ranks marked * were “appointments” made by Fleet Commanders and notified to the Admiralty with the recommendation that the appointee should be promoted to the next rank.

Who or what is a “flag officer”, “flagship” and “Flag Captain”?

A flag officer is a senior officer of commodore status or above with the authority to command a group of ships usually described as a squadron or fleet. As a senior officer he is entitled to a flag denoting his rank and it is flown aboard whichever ship in his squadron or fleet he chooses as his “headquarters” or “flagship”. Thus, the captain of that ship becomes the “Flag Captain” of the squadron or fleet. In Nelson’s career, these are the notable “flag” details giving his rank, ship and captain:

The Battle of St. Vincent, 14th. February 1797
Commodore Horatio Nelson, HMS Captain, Captain Ralph Miller.

The Battle of The Nile, 1st. August 1798
Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, HMS Vanguard, Captain Edward Berry.

The Battle of Copenhagen, 2nd. April 1801
Vice Admiral Lord Nelson, HMS Elephant, Captain Thomas Foley.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21st. October 1805
Vice Admiral Viscount Nelson, HMS Victory, Captain Thomas Hardy.

A “Fleet” can be defined as the total number of ships assigned to a particular part of the world under the “flag” of a Commander in Chief. A “squadron” is a division of this fleet whose command is delegated by the C-in-C to a subordinate “flag” officer. The squadron was an arbitrary number of ships depending upon the task and could vary from two ships to a dozen or more.

What is a “First” lieutenant?

The Admiralty held (and still holds) the Captain entirely responsible for the conduct and safety of his ship. To help him in this task, a heavy responsibility, he is assisted by the most senior of his subordinate officers who, in Nelson’s day, was the most experienced lieutenant assigned to his ship. The First Lieutenant was the “deputy” captain and would take command in the captain’s absence or, in battle, if the captain was killed or wounded.

Was the food in Nelson’s day as bad as we think?

Yes! We wouldn’t have eaten it! But, we have to keep things in perspective. British warships kept live animals on board as far they could and much depended upon the captain as to how often he re-supplied his provisions. “Good” captains tried to keep fresh food available but this was far from easy and “dry” rations weren’t exactly the best way to feed the crew. Foodstuffs may well have been in the hold for months, perhaps years, and must have been unpalatable to say the least. Two hundred years ago life ashore was tough and life at sea had the advantage that at least you would get three meals a day however grim they may have been and you got paid for it too.

Commanding the Mediterranean Fleet blockading Cadiz, Nelson routinely detached ships from the Fleet to replenish and rearm at Gibraltar, usually five or six at a time, to make sure that the crews stayed as fit and healthy as could be achieved.