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Horatio Nelson

The National Archives holds a vast array of documents relating to the career of Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) which showcase his emergence from humble beginnings and his outstanding naval prowess.

A black and white engraving of Horatio Nelson.

Nelson in the archives

The National Archives holds many documents relating to Nelson’s life in the Royal Navy, ranging from logs, journals, diaries and letters which record his joining the Royal Navy at the age of 12, becoming a captain at the age of 20, and his promotions to Admiral.

Nelson’s life and career was turbulent, marked with episodes of controversy and disrepute and periods of unemployment, but most notably punctuated with a series of glorious naval victories – the like never before achieved in the history of naval warfare.

Records of Nelson's professional life

Nelson’s first ship

Nelson was born on 29 September 1758 in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England. His father, Edmund, a Reverend, came from a long line of clergymen, whereas his mother, Catherine Nelson née Suckling, was from a more prominent family. Her brother, Maurice, had a distinguished Royal Navy career.

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 was really 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 and was using his influence to jump start his nephew’s career before it began, enabling Nelson to gain the minimum six years’ service required to take the examination to qualify as a Lieutenant.

Nelson qualifies as a Lieutenant

On taking his Lieutenancy examination, Nelson’s uncle Maurice Suckling was Comptroller of the Navy, the highest ranking official of the Navy Board, and one of the officers on Nelson’s examination board. Allegedly, Suckling 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 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.

Nelson’s letters

The National Archives holds many letters written by Nelson throughout his illustrious naval career.

One such letter written by Nelson in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean to the Admiralty from HMS Victory on the 7 August 1804 gives an insight into his skill as an administrator and practical knowledge of the cost of lemon juice, both in England and Sicily. Lemon juice was vital as a measure to stave off the disease of scurvy, among Royal Navy ships’ crews.

HMS Victory flying Nelson's signal, centenary of Trafalgar

HMS Victory flying Nelson's signal, centenary of Trafalgar. Image library ref: COPY 1/490 (481)

Illnesses, injuries and wounds

Nelson, who suffered from sea sickness, endured various life threatening diseases, injuries and wounds throughout his naval career.

In the medical officer’s journal for HMS Theseus dated 25 July 1797, there is a description of the injury sustained by Nelson which led to the amputation of his right arm which was caused by a musket ball passing a little above his elbow 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.

Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar

Under Nelson the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815) won some spectacular naval battles, for example, the Battle of the Nile (1798), and Copenhagen in 1801. Nelson’s finest naval victory, which cost him his life, was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

A plan of the three positions of the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Position of the British Fleet commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (catalogue reference: MPI 1/536)

The ship’s log for HMS Victory on 21 October 1805, records Nelson’s death shortly after 15:40 when he died after having been given the news of a great victory.

Your Trafalgar ancestors

Find out whether you have an ancestor who served with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. We've listed all of those who served in the Battle of Trafalgar (on the British side!) along with their service histories and any biographical details we've found. Can you find your ancestor?

Nelson's will

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 and how he would provide financially for his mistress, Emma Hamilton, and illegitimate child, Horatia.

He first drew up his will on 10 May 1803, to which subsequently he added many further codicils.

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