The reaction to Nelson’s death at the battle of Trafalgar the previous October was even more remarkable given that only a few years earlier barely anyone had heard of him. His daring exploits at the 1797 battle of Cape St Vincent—when he had boarded and captured two enemy ships— had caught the eye but it was his astonishing victory at the battle of the Nile the following year which made him famous and a household name. Destroying an enemy fleet at anchor in night time was an unheard-of feat garnering Nelson awards, titles and a celebrity which he skilfully exploited through public appearances and a willing press. It also led directly to his affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador at Naples: a relationship which added titillating gloss to his naval achievements.
Nelson’s death at the moment of his greatest victory was a scriptwriter’s dream. Moreover, he had lingered in agony long enough to offer his public a moving commentary on his own fate and, in famously entrusting his mistress to the care of the nation, enough juicy controversy to last the lifetimes of generations of biographers. With ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ he also bequeathed the most memorable sign-off in British history.
The human tragedy of Nelson’s death, however, was not the only reason why hundreds of thousands of people braved freezing temperatures for a glimpse of the admiral’s coffin as it trundled past on a monumental funeral car modelled as his flagship Victory. Grief at a loss which felt highly personal mixed with a national sense of salvation from imminent occupation. Over the previous year Napoleon Bonaparte, now emperor of the French, had parked an army of almost two hundred thousand men at Boulogne ahead of a planned assault on England. Invasion had been expected daily and although Napoleon’s ambition turned east shortly before Trafalgar, there was a palpable sense that Nelson had single-handedly saved the nation from destruction. After months of pent-up anxiety, people could openly indulge in sentiment producing almost a sense of mass hysteria. The death of Churchill after the battle of Britain in 1940 might have generated a similar reaction.
As was to be expected, the government was keen to harness and exploit the public mood and divert attention from its apparent impotence against Napoleon’s mighty armies and from a prime minister William Pitt who, exhausted by the war and drinking heavily, had only days to live (he died aged 46 on 23 January). So Nelson, son of a Norfolk parson, was afforded the pomp and ceremony of a full State Funeral: the first non-royal recipient of such an honour. As was custom, the funeral was arranged by the College of Arms, which oversaw the important heraldic rituals of the ancient ceremony. However, Garter King of Arms, the colourful Sir Isaac Heard, also introduced a strongly theatrical appeal to proceedings staging the lying-in-state, the river procession and funeral itself like a series of dramatic acts. Beneath the grieving, there was a clear intent to entertain the populace with colour, music and spectacle: an age-old remedy for vulnerable government. At times, Heard’s carefully choreographed pageant threatened to overwhelm the meaning of the occasion altogether. So when seamen from Victory tore up a Union flag amid the hush of the cathedral in an apparently spontaneous and affecting fit of violent, grog fuelled emotion, one spectator was heard to say: ‘That was Nelson: the rest was so much the Herald’s Office’.
In many ways, these words go to the heart of Nelson’s legacy. He was a complex human being who achieved remarkable feats of war. And yet, his life was, and is, framed in a highly theatrical, even operatic manner. That is why, two hundred years and a thousand biographies later, Nelson still fascinates us and why we keep returning to his story, drawn like those curious crowds to his funeral.
By Martyn Downer