We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Feature essay

Trafalgar, Nelson, and the national memory

  Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) by Sir William Beechey, 1800 Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) by Sir William Beechey, 1800
As the most famous naval battle in British history, sanctified by the heroic death of Britain's greatest admiral, Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson, Trafalgar has held a strong place in the national culture for two hundred years. The battle saw twenty-seven British ships of the line attack eighteen French and fifteen Spanish ships on 21 October 1805, off Cape Trafalgar on the south coast of Spain. It was the largest and bloodiest naval encounter of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792–1815), and the result was crushingly decisive for the war at sea. Without losing a ship, the British captured seventeen and destroyed another one of their opponents' ships. Two days later, when the fugitives recovered two of the captures in a sortie from their refuge in Cadiz, they lost three more wrecked, while four that had fled northward from the battle were captured off Cape Finisterre by Sir Richard Strachan on 4 November, making a total loss of twenty-three. Napoleon eventually rebuilt his fleet, but he never rebuilt its morale. The Spanish never rebuilt their fleet at all.

The Trafalgar captains

As well as the three British admirals who participated (Nelson, Cuthbert Collingwood, Baron Collingwood, and William Carnegie, seventh earl of Northesk), the Oxford DNB includes lives of seventeen of the twenty-seven captains or acting captains of the British ships of the line of battle: Henry William Bayntun, Edward Berry, Charles Bullen, Edward Codrington, John Cooke, Philip Durham, Thomas Francis Fremantle, Thomas Masterman Hardy (who was with Nelson at his death), William Hargood, Eliab Harvey, Sir Richard King, Robert Moorsom, James Nicoll Morris, Isaac Israel Pellew, John Pilfold, Edward Rotheram, and Sir Charles Tyler. In addition are three of the four frigate captains who took part: Henry Blackwood, Thomas Bladen Capel, and William Prowse. Another battleship captain, George Duff, who along with Nelson and Cooke was killed in the battle, is also briefly mentioned under his great-uncle, Robert Duff.

While there were battle-hardened veterans of proven ability among the Trafalgar captains, it has to be stressed that many were not, and that when Nelson took command of the fleet three weeks before the battle, he had many captains he hardly knew. Only five of his ships of the line at Trafalgar had been in his former Mediterranean Fleet. The rest had been hastily assembled from various squadrons of the Channel Fleet and from ships repaired or newly commissioned in home ports. Only eight of the ship-of-the-line captains had served under him before. Apart from Nelson and Collingwood, only five captains had commanded a ship of the line in fleet battle before—indeed, the captains of the French and Spanish combined fleet were more battle-experienced. Thirteen of the latter had recently fought in Sir Robert Calder's action off Ferrol on 23 July, compared with only one of Nelson's captains, and two more Spaniards had commanded at Cape St Vincent in 1797. Of Nelson's other battleship captains, two had commanded a battleship in action against a frigate, seven had commanded frigates in frigate actions, and four had commanded smaller vessels in battle. Five (and Admiral Northesk) had not been in a fleet battle since the War of American Independence over twenty years before, and seven seem to have lacked any fleet battle experience, including one who had not even been in a small ship action.

That these captains generally fought so well when the combined fleet came out says much for the high level of professionalism in a Royal Navy reaching the peak of its performance, and even more for Nelson's charismatic and didactic leadership in uniting this disparate body into an effective fighting force in only three weeks. Nevertheless performance was uneven. One participant, William Pringle Green, later declared that ‘in my opinion if the officers had done their duty in every ship, the action would have been over sooner, and the whole of the enemy taken or destroyed’. An admiral and a number of captains were quietly ‘beached’ over the following year.

Sir  William Hoste (1780–1828) by William Greatbach, pubd 1833Sir William Hoste (1780–1828) by William Greatbach, pubd 1833
It must also be remembered that Trafalgar took place without some of the British navy's best commanders. Indeed, had the galaxy of talent who ‘just missed’ Trafalgar been present, one might wonder how many of the fifteen fugitive allied battleships would have escaped. Nelson had just sent away for resupply or repair six of his best ships (including those of Admiral Sir Thomas Louis, Pulteney Malcolm, Benjamin Hallowell Carew, and Robert Stopford), and had dispatched his brilliant protégé, William Hoste, into the Mediterranean. Sir Robert Calder left the fleet a week before the battle to face court martial for failing to follow up his initial success at Ferrol (would he have saved his reputation had he listened to Nelson's promptings to stay longer in case the enemy came out?); Calder took as witnesses two captains, one being William Cheselden Brown, so that two ships were commanded in the battle by their first lieutenants (including John Pilfold, subsequently protective uncle to the young poet Shelley). Not yet arrived from Britain were admirals Sir Thomas Duckworth and Edward Thornbrough, and Richard Goodwin Keats.

The battle

The number of detachments which weakened Nelson's fleet was one factor that encouraged Admiral Villeneuve, commander of the combined fleet, to sail from Cadiz in pursuance of Napoleon's orders. Another was Napoleon's declining faith in Villeneuve's leadership, prompted by Jacques Alexandre Bernard Law of Lauriston, the French general commanding the troops with Villeneuve's fleet. Lauriston had reported that Villeneuve's diversionary raid on the West Indies and attempt to reach the channel on his return had both been aborted because of the admiral's fear that Nelson was in pursuit. Villeneuve felt that his combined French and Spanish fleet lacked the discipline, training, and co-ordination to win unless it was in far superior numbers. But when he heard that Napoleon intended to replace him, wounded honour forced him out to face the waiting British fleet. Lauriston left the fleet three weeks earlier to join the campaign in central Europe and so missed the disaster his machinations had helped bring about.

Sir  Henry Blackwood (1770–1832) by John Hoppner, 1806Sir Henry Blackwood (1770–1832) by John Hoppner, 1806
Fully informed by Henry Blackwood's scouting frigates, Nelson tracked and on 21 October attacked the enemy fleet in a battle that began about noon and continued until after five. Nelson took a huge calculated risk by leading his ships in a head-on attack against the full weight of the broadsides of the enemy line, justified in the event by their deplorable shooting. (To reduce such risks the naval architect Sir Robert Seppings subsequently radically redesigned the bows of new British warships to give them greater protective strength and forward firepower to survive a similar attack.) Villeneuve himself was captured and attributed his defeat to the British superiority in three-deckers (seven to four), the heavy calibre of their guns, the unity and speed of their movements, and the experience acquired by three uninterrupted years at sea which was lacking in a large proportion of the combined fleet. That experience was particularly important in enabling the battle-damaged British fleet to survive the storm that followed the battle on the 22nd and lasted several days.

Those who served in Nelson's ships

While accounts of the battle have traditionally focused largely on the commanders, the Oxford DNB also offers a glimpse of a few of the many thousands who manned Nelson's ships. One who achieved instant fame was the master's mate of Defiance, James Spratt, who swam to and boarded the French Aigle single-handed and held out until help arrived. Although he was promoted lieutenant for his bravery, his wounds limited further advancement. Another serving in Defiance, Surgeon William Burnett, was knighted as one of the most distinguished physicians and medical administrators of his day. The seaman William Robinson (who later passed under the pseudonym Jack Nastyface) manned a gun in Revenge, and recalled how Nelson ‘was adored’ by those below deck.

The long period of naval warfare from the 1790s, coupled with victories like Trafalgar, also provided opportunities for men of humble origins to use their naval careers to rise up in society—opportunities subsequently lost in the long years of peace that Trafalgar helped win. John Pasco, Nelson's signal lieutenant at Trafalgar, and now best known for his signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ raised before the battle, was the son of a caulker in Plymouth Dockyard. William Blight, lieutenant in Britannia, had entered as a volunteer in 1793. Both went on to achieve post rank and ended as retired rear-admirals.

As the naval war wound down, and the navy was demobilized after 1815, many junior officers who fought at Trafalgar struggled hard to achieve distinction. Some took service in foreign navies: George Rose Sartorius lived eighty years beyond Trafalgar, becoming an admiral in the Portuguese navy and admiral of the fleet in the Royal Navy; Frank Abney Hastings commanded in the Greek navy during their war of independence. John Hindmarsh became the first governor of South Australia in 1836, while John Franklin gained renown as an Arctic explorer. Others tried to make inventive use of the technical talents they acquired in the navy: William Pringle Green was awarded a silver medal from the Royal Society of Arts for his improvements in rigging ships, while James Henry Johnston pioneered steam navigation along the Ganges from the 1830s. Richard Marks, an enlisted seaman who rose through the ranks to be master's mate and was promoted to lieutenant for his conduct at Trafalgar, subsequently forsook a promising naval career to take holy orders, and from his living at Great Missenden wrote missionary tracts for seamen. Some also gained infamy: the unordained chaplain of Britannia, Lawrence Hynes Halloran, was subsequently transported to Australia for forgery.

The British officers and men won little prize money from the battle since all but four of their captures sank in the storm that raged for the two days following or were destroyed to prevent their recapture by the allied sortie from Cadiz. What most took from the battle were their memories to tell when they got home. Here, however, the reality of the encounter could become cherished myths of the British public, and memory could become distorted. James Sanger (d. 1850) fought at Trafalgar; subsequently he became a showman and fathered two of the great circus proprietors and performers of the Victorian era, John Sanger and George Sanger. Family tradition had it that he had been pressed into the navy and served on Nelson's Victory in the battle. But the fleet muster books, recently published as a CD-ROM, reveal that he had enlisted as a boy marine and had served in Defence, one of the ships that entered late into the battle. Was he, or his family, turning memory into a melodrama in which he could be cast as a victim of the pressgang, yet also one who shared closely in the glory of another victim, Lord Nelson?

Enshrining a national hero

Sir  Thomas Masterman Hardy (1769–1839) by Richard Evans, 1833–4Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy (1769–1839) by Richard Evans, 1833–4
The death of Nelson overshadowed even the magnitude of the victory. From the officers and men who unashamedly shed tears as the news spread after the battle, to the public who turned out in their hundreds of thousands to show their respect and affection at his magnificently impressive state funeral in the following January, the nation gave itself to an extraordinary display of public emotion unmatched before the funerals of Sir Winston Churchill and Diana, princess of Wales. Nelson's name would not be forgotten. The Oxford DNB provides three examples of parents bestowing his name on children born after his victory at the Nile, and two after Trafalgar (see the entries on the pantomimist Richard Nelson Lee and the publisher Samuel Fores), as well as eleven others since (among them the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Horatio Nelson Smith) whose Nelson forename might reasonably be ascribed to him.

For the nation Nelson became the symbol of British seapower and his victories at the Nile and Trafalgar the conclusive realization of that power. He and his achievement remained an ongoing inspiration to the navy, quickly shown by two of those who missed Trafalgar. Richard Keats hung a picture of Nelson on Superb's mizzen stay when going into action in the annihilation of a French squadron at St Domingo four months later, and William Hoste hoisted the signal ‘Remember Nelson’ when leading his frigate squadron to destroy a superior Franco-Venetian force off Lissa in 1811. There was also a downside in that Nelson and Trafalgar became the yardsticks by which naval performance was subsequently measured. Public expectations frequently demanded the impossible, for the particular, advantageous Trafalgar circumstances could never be replicated, and brave men like Sir Christopher Cradock led their crews to their deaths attempting to live up to the spirit of Nelson against the odds.

Trafalgar in the national culture

The inspirational effect of Trafalgar was seen also in the way it embedded itself in the national culture. Perhaps ultimately those who profited most from Trafalgar were less the participants than the men and women inspired to celebrate or commemorate the battle in literature, art, and architecture. From minor poets such as Elizabeth Bentley, Margaret Chalmers (whose brother William died at Trafalgar), George Mogridge, and William Rees to generations of marine artists—Nicholas Pocock (who painted pictures of the start and end of the battle), Joseph Cartwright, Denis Dighton, William John Huggins, John Wilson, William Lionel Wyllie, and Montague Dawson—the theme has been played upon, and has drawn in a wider range of artists, including Benjamin West, Daniel Maclise, and J. M. W. Turner.

Sir  Christopher George Francis Maurice Cradock (1862–1914) by unknown photographer, 1914Sir Christopher George Francis Maurice Cradock (1862–1914) by unknown photographer, 1914
The immediate demand for portraits and prints, as well as instant ‘Lives’, was soon commercially exploited by the publisher Thomas Tegg and the naval author John Charnock. It was then followed by more considered biographies: Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1813) remained a constant best-seller to the end of the century. Theatrical and showground re-enactments continued: Edwin Ransford starred in the nautical drama The Battle of Trafalgar in 1832, while the young artist David Roberts was inspired to draw having watched a performance in Edinburgh. Memorials soon appeared in Birmingham, Dublin, and Great Yarmouth as well as Bridgetown, Barbados. John Flaxman produced the memorial in St Paul's Cathedral, London (1808–18), while William Wilkins designed the Nelson Pillar, Dublin (1807), and a revised version for Great Yarmouth in 1819. Nelson's achievement was finally recognized in London with the creation and naming of Trafalgar Square in the 1830s (George Ledwell Taylor) and, after two competitions, the erection of Nelson's Column (1843), which drew in much of the sculpting talent of the nation (Sir Richard Westmacott, William Railton, Edward Hodges Baily, Musgrave Lewthwaite Watson, and William Frederick Woodington), and assured the continuance of the memory of the battle and the hero in the life of the nation. However, it was not until 1895 that the newly formed Navy League, trying to re-ignite public interest in the navy, had 21 October adopted as a national Trafalgar Day commemoration. The Fantasia on British Sea Songs by Sir Henry Joseph Wood was composed for the Trafalgar Day centenary concert in 1905 and is still played on the last night of the Proms. With Nelson's Column and his lovingly preserved flagship Victory, it survives as a tangible reminder of the battle.

The significance of Trafalgar

Among the national myths of Trafalgar was the belief that Nelson had been martyred saving the country from invasion. In fact the gathering threat from Austria and Russia in central Europe had already induced Napoleon to abandon his unrealistic invasion plans and to march east in a pre-emptive strike against Austria. The combined Franco-Spanish fleet that sailed from Cadiz on 19–20 October 1805 was destined not for the channel but for Italy, to protect the emperor's southern flank against Anglo-Russian seaborne attack. Moreover Trafalgar did not stop Napoleon. From Nelson downwards the British seamen fought Trafalgar believing that a resounding victory would bring about peace. But Napoleon counterbalanced that victory by defeating Britain's European allies, and Britain faced a further decade of fighting before the French emperor was finally overcome. Rather the victory restricted the directions in which he could operate. It did not prevent an immediate invasion, but it did postpone the prospects of future invasion almost indefinitely. Britain was left secure in its control of the seas, and Napoleon was forced into ever more extreme political and economic measures to bind the continent against the ‘nation of shopkeepers’—which eventually turned most Europeans against him and provided the armies to defeat Napoleon, which Britain lacked the manpower to do itself.

In both its immediate strategic and its long-term cultural impact, the battle of Trafalgar was, to borrow the words used on another occasion by Sir Winston Churchill—a great admirer of Nelson—more the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end.

Michael Duffy


W. Beechey, oils, 1800, NPG; Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson [see illus.] · J. Hoppner, oils, 1806, NMM; Sir Henry Blackwood, first baronet [see illus.] · R. Evans, oils, 1833–4, NMM; Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, first baronet [see illus.] · photograph, 1914, Hult. Arch.; Sir Christopher George Francis Maurice Cradock [see illus.] · W. Greatbach, line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in H. Hoste, ed., Memoirs and letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, bart., 2 vols. (1833); Sir William Hoste, first baronet [see illus.]