The life and career of Horatio Nelson
We hold a vast array of documents relating to Horatio Nelson’s 37-year-long career in the Royal Navy. They showcase his emergence from humble beginnings and his outstanding naval prowess in becoming one of Britain’s greatest heroes.
Extract from the ship’s muster book of HMS Raisonnable
Catalogue reference: View the record ADM 36/7669 in the catalogue
The ship’s muster book of Nelson’s first ship HMS Raisonnable, records that a Horace Nelson from Wells, aged 12, was mustered on 1 January 1771 as a midshipman. This predates Nelson’s actual appearance on the ship by several months.
Influence and interest were important for many would-be officers embarking on a naval career. Nelson was fortunate in this respect as his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling, who was to play a pivotal role in his early career, had secured Nelson his first appointment.
Suckling’s influence jump-started his nephew’s career before it began, enabling Nelson to gain the minimum 6 years’ service required to take the examination to qualify as a lieutenant.
Nelson's lieutenants’ passing certificate
Date: 9 April 1777
Catalogue reference: View the record ADM 107/6 in the catalogue
When Nelson took his lieutenancy examination, his uncle Maurice Suckling was Comptroller of the Navy, the highest ranking official of the Navy Board. Suckling was also one of the officers on Nelson’s examination board. Allegedly he did not inform his fellow officers on the board that Nelson was his nephew because he did not want him to be favoured.
Nelson’s passing certificate shows the ships he served on prior to his examination and the time he spent on each of them.
Nelson was under 19 years of age when he successfully passed his lieutenancy examination. Naval regulations stipulated candidates had to be aged 20 or over, but this was not enforced in Nelson’s case, maybe because of Suckling’s influence.
A letter written by Horatio Nelson
Date: 7 August 1804
Catalogue reference: View the record ADM 1/408 in the catalogue
This letter was written by Nelson in his capacity as Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean to the Admiralty from HMS Victory on the 7 August 1804.
It gives an insight into his skill as an administrator and practical knowledge of the cost of lemon juice, both in England and Sicilly. Lemon juice was vital as a measure to stave off the disease of scurvy among Royal Navy ships’ crews.
Medical officer’s journal for HMS Theseus
Date: 25 July 1797
Catalogue reference: View the record ADM 101/123/2 in the catalogue
In this extract from the medical officer’s journal for HMS Theseus there is a description of the injury sustained by Nelson which led to the amputation of his right arm. It was caused by a musket ball passing a little above his elbow and severing an artery.
Perhaps surprisingly, he sustained this wound on land while leading a military assault to capture the Spanish Island of Tenerife. After the amputation without anaesthetic Nelson was reputed to declare to the surgeon that he should have heated the knives used, as cold knives caused more pain.
HMS Victory ship’s log for the Battle of Trafalgar
Date: 21 October 1805
Catalogue reference: View the record ADM 51/4514 in the catalogue
Under Nelson, the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815) won some spectacular naval battles. These included the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and Copenhagen in 1801. Nelson’s finest naval victory, which cost him his life, was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
This extract is from the ship’s log for HMS Victory on the 21 October 1805 which records Nelson’s death shortly after 3.40pm after having been given the news of a great victory.
Date: 10 May 1803
Catalogue reference: View the record PROB 1/22 in the catalogue
One of the most significant documents held by the National Archives relating to Nelson is his final will and testament.
Leading up to the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson had become increasingly anxious about his personal finances being estranged from his wife. He was also concerned about how he would provide financially for his mistress, Emma Hamilton and their illegitimate child, Horatia.
He first drew up his will on 10 May 1803 to which subsequently he added many further codicils.