Trafalgar and the Passage of Time

Tomb of Horatio Nelson by Thomas H. Shepherd

Tomb of Horatio Nelson by Thomas H. Shepherd

In an age of instant communication, anyone researching the Battle of Trafalgar will immediately be struck by the extraordinary slowness with which the British fleet engaged its enemy, the long delay before these events were reported in British newspapers and the even longer period before Nelson’s body reached its final resting place. The following account covers some of the less well-known facts relating to the Battle and its consequences for Nelson’s mistress and daughter.

At 5.50 a.m. on 21st October 1805, the British got their first sighting of the combined French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar in southern Spain. Just after 6 a.m., Nelson’s ship the Victory gave the signal to prepare for an attack.

However, weather conditions slowed the British fleet’s advance and it was five and a half hours later – at 11.35 a.m. – when the Victory finally sent the famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty”. (Nelson had originally wanted to send a slightly different message using the word ‘confides’ rather than ‘expects’ but was constrained by the rules laid out in the official navy manual, Popham’s signal book).

The first shots were fired by the enemy fleet at 11.50 a.m. Retaliatory shots from the British side were fired by the Royal Sovereign at mid-day.

Robert Sands, a powder-boy on HMS Temeraire, left a unique account of an ordinary fighting man’s experience of the Battle.

The Temeraire was positioned close to the Victory and, as they engaged the enemy, Nelson hailed the Temeraire ordering it to move aside so that he could forge ahead. Sands recalled that Nelson was “on the foredeck with his full uniform on” so that he was clearly visible not only to his own men but also to the enemy.

Fighting was at close quarters with the Victory ramming the port bow of the French ship Redoubtable whose crew had been thoroughly trained in the use of muskets by their Captain.

The noise of battle was deafening and visibility was generally low due to the choking smoke of gunfire which forced Sands and other sailors on the Temeraire up on deck due to the suffocating atmosphere below.

An explosion in the Temeraire’s rear magazine resulted in several men being burnt to death and Sands having to resort to the magazine at the fore of the ship.

Meanwhile, just twenty minutes into the engagement, Nelson was shot by an enemy musketeer positioned 50 feet above him in the mizzen top of the Redoubtable. Nelson and Hardy had been pacing the foredeck watching of the Victory watching the action and Hardy, unaware that Nelson had been hit, continued walking before he realised what had happened.

Mortally wounded, Nelson was carried down to the ship’s cockpit where he was visited during his last hours by his friends and comrades. Certain of his own death, he impressed on them the need to look after his mistress Lady Hamilton and their daughter Horatia. He is said to have died in the arms of the purser Walter Burke who, like Sands and some 99 other veterans of Trafalgar, came from the Medway area in Kent.

At his request, Nelson was not given the traditional sailor’s burial at sea but brought back to England, his remains preserved in a large cask of brandy.

The news of Trafalgar and Nelson’s fate reached England some two weeks after the event. The subsequent arrival of the Victory at Spithead was reported in The Times newspaper on 2nd December.

The Victory then sailed to Sheerness where Nelson’s body was transferred to a private yacht and conveyed to Greenwich where it was laid in a coffin made of wood from the mast of the French flagship L’Orient which Nelson’s forces had defeated in the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

After lying in state, Nelson was given a spectacular funeral attended by royalty. A procession of 10,000 soldiers, 32 admirals and over 100 captains escorted the coffin to St Paul’s Cathedral where it now rests, encased in a black marble sarcophagus originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey.

While the Victory was anchored at Sheerness it became a focus for sightseers, among them the artist Turner who went aboard armed with his sketchbook. The result was his painting ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizzen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory’ which replicated the position from which Nelson was shot.

Despite the public outpouring of grief, the nation failed to observe Nelson’s wishes respecting his mistress and daughter. After a spell in a debtor’s prison, Lady Hamilton fled to France with her young daughter Horatia. Nelson’s celebrated mistress died in poverty in Calais in 1815.

Lacking the legitimacy which would have allowed her to inherit from her father, Horatia lived in straitened circumstances, marrying the Reverend Philip Ward and moving with him to the living of St Mildred’s Church in Tenterden, Kent, where they lived for nearly 30 years.

For his part in the Battle of Trafalgar, the Temeraire’s powder-boy Robert Sands received prize money of £1 17s 8d. His gift to us is a detailed eyewitness account of one of the most memorable events in British history.

Sources and Additional Information:

Books and articles:

Trafalgar The Nelson Touch by David Howarth

Turner A Life by James Hamilton

Nelson’s Descendants and St Mildred’s Church – an account by Hugh Ward. Click here

Places to Visit:

Medway Archives for Robert Sands’s account of the Battle of Trafalgar and information on the Victory’s purser, Walter Burke

Chatham Historic Dockyard (where HMS Victory was built)

HMS Victory, Portsmouth

Nelson’s tomb, St Paul’s Cathedral, London

St Mildred’s Church, Tenterden, Kent

Picture attribution: “Tomb of Horatio Nelson” by Thomas H. Shepherd – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –


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