Norfolk Superhero #1 - Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson
- Categorized in: Norfolk Superheroes
Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson
Nelson is the most famous Briton who ever lived.
(Well, top five anyway. Certainly top ten.)
Nelson is one of the most famous Britons who ever lived.
The reason you are reading this in English, and more importantly understanding it, is arguably thanks to him. When global supremacy was up for grabs in the early days of the nineteenth century, and it was looking scarily like the French might climb to the top of the pile, Lord Nelson, commander of the British Navy and acknowledged military genius, sent the Emperor Napoleon’s fleet to the bottom of the drink at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
This meant that if Napoleon wanted to make a nuisance of himself (and he certainly did that), he had to limit himself more or less to mainland Europe. From then on, and for a long while, Britain would rule the waves, and so the world could damn well learn English while they were about it.
Such were the implications of Nelson’s finest hour, and this was not lost on the British establishment. You may have noticed, when following the tourist trail around London as a Spanish teenager (or any kind of teenager for that matter), that the biggest square in London is named Trafalgar Square, and the tallest column in the capital (and possibly the world) has our friend Nelson perched on top.
That’s where he ended up. But where did he begin?
He was born in a tiny village nestled beside the North Norfolk coast called Burnham Thorpe in 1758. The son of a parson and a lady of the Norfolk nobility, he was the sixth of their eleven children. (Please note friends who “stop at two” that you may be denying the world some of its most towering genius.) Inspired by his uncle – a man with the very Norfolkish name of Captain Suckling – he went to sea aged just 12 years old. Famously, he suffered from seasickness from the day he set sail to the day he died.
He spent the next forty odd years carving out a successful career for himself in the British Navy. In the early years, he crossed the Atlantic many times and even attempted to retrieve the skin of a polar bear for his father, when on an expedition to find the elusive North-West Passage (a sea-passage north around North America to reach the Pacific). Sadly, he succeeded neither in finding the passage (there isn’t one) nor in catching the bear. In his twenties, he saw a lot of duty in and around the Caribbean. This was when his famous rivalry with the wily, lecherous and very real pirate Captain Jack Sparrow developed. The megalomaniac British captain in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise is loosely based on a young Nelson. However the actual result was somewhat different from the way the movie portrays it – Nelson caught up with Captain Jack Sparrow and his Black Pearl a little way off the island of Tobago. Sparrow and his surviving men were shipped back to London and were hung, drawn and quartered, the last men in history to suffer this punishment. Meanwhile, Nelson got a promotion.
During this time he met and married his wife, Frances “Fanny” Nisbit – a colonial. (A bit like Elizabeth Swann perhaps, but less pouty.) During a brief period of peace, they returned to England and he installed her in his childhood home of Burnham Thorpe, in Norfolk. She was to become the Jennifer Aniston of our little tale.
For Nelson himself, there then followed a period when he struggled to find a job, since fewer war-ships were on active duty and the Admiralty refused his applications for command. The best thing that could have happened to him, then, was when the French slaughtered their king and many of his powdered pals, and so began the almighty free-for-all that became the Napoleonic Wars.
Early on in this lengthy conflict, Nelson called in to the city of Naples for reinforcements against the French. Here he met Lady Emma Hamilton for the first time, the wife of the British envoy to the kingdom of Naples, Lord Hamilton. Lady Hamilton in fact started life the daughter of a blacksmith. But by all accounts she was an astonishingly beautiful brunette, who had climbed her way up through society, progressing from maid, to dancer and model, occasional actress, to mistress to a couple of nobles, before being shipped out to Naples (under false pretences) and married off to an aging ambassador, where she became bosom buddies with the Queen of Naples. She became famous for developing what she called “Attitudes” – essentially dressing up and posing as famous (and alluring) women of history. The world (or at least the great names of Europe) fell at her feet. (As it happens, an allegedly equally beautiful ancestor of my own, Ida Brun, was great friends with her and developed the same new art form of these “Attitudes” to the delight of Copenhagen’s high society. So it goes.) These girls were the original MAWs. (Model-Actress-Whatever). But Lady Hamilton was a particularly famous one.
So when Nelson returned five years later, victor of the Battle of the Nile, a war hero of 40, minus an arm and a few teeth, the two most famous Britons of their day were the perfect (if scandalously illicit) match. Thus was born the Brangelina of the turn of the 19th century. Spare a thought for poor old Fanny (aka Jen), languishing under a drear Norfolk sky back in Burnham Thorpe, watching the sea-gulls turn, whilst Lady Hamilton sparkled in the reflected light of the sapphire waters off Capri.
Old Lord Hamilton apparently didn’t mind them carrying on their very public affair, appearing rather to condone it, and it’s true that the two of them remained devoted to each other to the very end. They loved not only each other, but also how stupendously famous the other was and how good it made them look. Since both of them were incurably vain, the relationship worked well for them.
Nelson’s vanity extended a little further. Portraits of him show a stalwart, shrewd man of resolute brow and well-formed features. However, it never shows the lazy eyebrow that hung low over his right eye. He had painters air-brush this from history. However, the one surviving child that Nelson ever sired – Horatia Nelson, born to Lady Hamilton – carried this same feature. It reappears many times down their bloodline. She had ten children, some of whom later settled in her father’s home county of Norfolk. And if ever you encounter someone with a lazy right eyebrow in the wilds of North Norfolk, chances are they can trace their bloodline back to the man himself.
However, a droopy eyebrow was the least of Nelson’s worries. Active service in rampaging around the Mediterranean had seen him lose an eye, an arm, and plenty of teeth, and these wounds caused him ill health for the rest of his life (did I mention he got seasick too?). Nevertheless, enduring all this, at the Battle of the Nile, where he took another wound, Nelson effectively thwarted Napoleon’s military ambitions in the East, capturing a large chunk of the French fleet, and leaving Napoleon to scuttle back to Europe undetected in a fishing boat, abandoning his land forces to rot with the plague in the heat of the Levant.
This victory alone would have secured Nelson’s superhero status (for Brits at least). But he went on to defeat the Danish fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen a few years later. Famously during the battle, when things weren’t looking great for the British fleet, Nelson’s superior officer Admiral Sir Hyde Parker (yes, his real name) signaled for him to withdraw. When told of the signal, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and said, “I really don’t see the signal.”
The Battle brought about an armistice, and Nelson went ashore to negotiate this with the Danish Crown Prince, by all accounts, a fairly hapless individual who unnecessarily sold out the Danes on that occasion. However, while ashore, Nelson dispatched one of his men to obtain “the finest ale he could lay his hands on”. A while later, the man returned with a local inn-keeper by the name of Jacobsen, bearing a keg of beer on his back. The man tapped the barrel and drew off a tankard of the stuff, handing it to Nelson with the words, “Probably the best beer in all of Copenhagen” in heavily accented English. Having tasted it, Nelson declared, “Not at all, sir – probably the best beer in all the world.” The man’s son was went on to found a local brewery years later, but Nelson’s verdict had obviously not been forgotten. He named it after his son, Carl, and you’ve probably heard of it. Carlsberg.
Nelson’s greatest glory was saved for the very last, when he commanded the British fleet at the battle of Trafalgar. Here, the British caught the French and Spanish fleet unawares (this seemed to happen a lot), and through the use of highly unusual and bold tactics, destroyed both of these as an effective military force for a very long time. And so we Brits all sing - Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves. The only rather tragic and yet poetical fly in the ointment being that a French sniper, positioned up in the rigging of a nearby ship, had spotted Nelson through the heat of the battle, and shot him through the spine.
Nelson hung on for a good three hours below-decks on HMS Victory, among the blubbering attentions of various junior officers, and the occasional report that the battle was going splendidly. It was during this time, as he slipped into the shadowy embrace of death, that he uttered such gems as “Kiss Me, Hardy” and “Thank God I did my duty.”
“Kiss me, Hardy” is an odd one. Some have said what he meant to say, or in fact did say was “Kismet, Hardy”, Kismet being the Arabic word for “It is written”. In other words, “such is life” or more prosaically “Shit happens”. However, the devoted Captain Hardy (who had been his companion for many years by then) kissed him anyway.
Also worth noting is that, even after all those years, Nelson still spoke with a thick Norfolk accent. (It’s difficult to imagine Brad Pitt getting where he is today with one of those, but I guess the world was more tolerant of parochial bumpkins in those days.) So rather than Nelson uttering, “Thank God I did my duty” in cut-glass BBC-English as many of the movies would have it, it would more likely have come out something like “Thenk Gawd Oi ded moi doo’eee”.
The great man perished, and amid the celebrations across the land at the unequivocal victory over the French, many bittersweet tears of mourning were shed. Not least, by Lady Hamilton who recorded that when the man from the Admiralty arrived at her house in London, bearing news of the victory and of Nelson’s death, he didn’t need to say a word. She saw the tears welling in his eyes, and she collapsed, shrieking, to the floor.
The sad footnote to this for her was that afterwards she fell into sickness and penury, dying fat, forgotten and penniless, in exile from her debtors, in Calais at the age of 49. This in spite of the fact that Nelson had left elaborate instructions for her to be taken care of by the government in the event of his death. The British Government, to its shame, couldn’t see past the scandal and abandoned her to hardship, instead furnishing lavish honours and rewards on Nelson’s brother.
So it goes.
Meanwhile, according to the paintings, flights of angels were singing Nelson to his heavenly rest, applauded by all manner of military heroes from down the ages on his way up there. For a Norfolk boy, he had certainly transcended his humble beginnings, and in my opinion, well deserves his perch up there over the fine and fair city of London.
As Norfolk Superheroes go, he’s a tough act to follow.
If you were even mildly interested by the verbal outpouring above, please be kind and make a donation to Nelson's Journey - the charity founded in his name which cares for bereaved children in Norfolk.
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