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Lord Nelson was cruelly killed in the hour of Britain’s victory

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, London, Rivers, Ships on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

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This edited article about Lord Nelson first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Funeral procession of Nelson,  picture, image, illustration

An accurate view from the house of W Tunnard on the Bankside, adjoining the site of Shakespeare Theatre, on 8 January 1806, when the remains of the great Admiral Lord Nelson was (sic) brought from Greenwich to Whitehall, by J T Smith

It was the thickest fog that London had endured for many years, but some carriages on that November night in 1805 crawled slowly towards their destinations, carrying passengers with urgent business to attend to. Two of them went through the gates of the Admiralty at around 1 am, each containing a Naval officer who by sheer coincidence, was bearing the same news.

The news was at once triumphant and tragic. On October 21, the British fleet had smashed the combined fleets of France and Spain, but Lord Nelson, Britain’s greatest sailor had been killed in the hour of victory.

The newspapers carried the story on November 7, but by then most people had heard the news. People meeting in the streets first spoke of Nelson, then of his victory. Even the London mob, which normally celebrated victories riotously was stunned and still.

It was to be two full months before the funeral, the most grief-stricken public funeral in British history. Horatio Nelson was no saint. He was not much to look at; a small, one-armed, one-eyed man, not a good husband, sometimes loathful, a man who could lose his temper. But he was brave and lovable, a kindly man adored not only by the ordinary people of Britain, but, more significantly, by his crews.

The Navy of 1805 was no place for weaklings. Many sailors had been “press-ganged” into service, where they found the food as bad as the discipline. The lash was freely administered. Yet, given a fine captain, most British tars were as proud and happy as they were adored by their countrymen.

Nelson was not just a fine captain; he was a perfect one, whose men would do more than their very best for him. When he was killed, the heart went out of the Fleet. One letter will suffice to show the general feeling. It was from a sailor called Sam, who simply and memorably wrote to his father: “I never set eyes on him (Nelson) for which I am both sorry and glad; for to be sure I should like to have seen him, but then, all the men in our ship who have seen him are such soft toads, they have done nothing but Blast their Eyes and cry ever since he was killed. God bless you chaps, that fought like the Devil, sit down and cry like a wench.”

Nelson’s body was destined for St. Paul’s Cathedral, not the ocean which is the final home of so many sailors, great and small. There was no lead for a coffin in his ship, “Victory”, so they laid him in a cask filled with brandy to preserve his body. Even in death, he seemed alive to at least one sentry. Enough air came out of his body to make his head rise up, to the terror of the sentry, and rumours ran round the ship that the admiral had come to life again!

“Victory” reached Spithead (Portsmouth) on December 5, showing her battle scars, and with her flags at half mast, and later in the month sailed to the Nore (in the Thames estuary). Now the body was in a splendid coffin and it lay in State in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. More than 30,000 people filed by it. On January 8, in a howling gale, it was taken up river to London, escorted by nine admirals and 500 Naval pensioners, as well as the Lord Mayor and Corporation, to lie over night at the Admiralty.

The night of January 8-9 was a bitter one, during which nobody seemed to sleep. Vast crowds had flocked into the capital, including 31 admirals and 100 captains, all in their full dress uniforms.

An hour before dawn, the drums began to beat, the drummers being the volunteer corps lining the streets between the Admiralty and St. Paul’s. It was a perfect January day. Though the cathedral was almost packed out by 9 am with ticket holders, the huge procession of soldiers and sailors did not march off until noon. It was so long a procession that the leading troops, the Scots Greys, reached St Paul’s before the final contingent of senior officers had left the Admiralty.

Every window was crammed along the route, while below the vast crowds were silent. There were respectable people of all classes, beggars off duty, cripples, men and women in rags, all joining in tribute. The only slight noise, except when bands played and soldiers marched by, was a murmuring, swishing sound as thousands raised their hats while the magnificent funeral car passed. And, almost more moving than the sight of the coffin was the “Victory’s” crew marching after their dead admiral. Handel’s “Dead March” was played, and the procession reached the cathedral.

Inside, the funeral service began, with the cathedral lit by candles and torches. There were members of the royal family there, as well as Nelson’s own family; and even the Garter King of Arms, whose job it was to read out Nelson’s titles and honours was carried away by the scene. He suddenly added: “The hero who in the moment of victory fell, covered with immortal glory.”

These words seem flowery today, even about Nelson, but they did not seem so at the time. The British, as tough a breed then as any in the world, were not ashamed to show and express their feelings publicly. They would weep openly. It was the later Victorians who preached self control and a “stiff upper lip”.

The final moments of the funeral saw the most moving moment of all. The coffin was to be lowered into the crypt and a party of men from the “Victory” were meant to furl their ship’s colours, shot through with cannon and musket balls, and lay them on the coffin.

But when their moment came, they grabbed the largest of the three colours, tore a big piece of it off, and swiftly divided it up so that each of them had a memento of their hero. It was unplanned, unexpected and bad discipline, but it moved those who saw it to tears.

Nelson remains to this day the most truly beloved war hero of the British. Even the toughest sailors in battles a century or more after his death were inspired by the memory of him to fight that much harder. No one can really explain his enduring appeal, but it is indisputable.

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