The letters that reveal Horatio Nelson’s secrets

He was Britain's greatest naval hero, famed for his victories against the French during the Napoleonic Wars – most famously the battle of Trafalgar, at which he was killed. Now, a BBC Two series explores Nelson’s letters, which reveal how he skilfully used PR to advance his career, and how his passionate love affair with Emma Hamilton changed his life forever

This article was first published in March 2015

Admiral Horatio Nelson. (© GL Archive / Alamy)

Here, writing for History Extra, the director of Nelson: In His Own Words, explores some of Nelson’s most revealing writings… 

“Sir, The ever to be lamented Death of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, who, in the late conflict with the enemy, fell in the hour of victory… I have not only to lament in common with the British Navy, and the British Nation, in the fall of the commander-in-chief, the loss of a Hero whose name will be immortal and his memory ever dear to his country; but my heart is rent with the most poignant grief for the death of a friend…”    
Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood

Cuthbert Collingwood, Horatio Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, could not have caught the mood better in his despatch on the death of his boss: solemn mortification mixed with lip-quivering idealisation. A few weeks later, London expressed those same sentiments as Nelson’s coffin made its stately way to St Paul’s. It was said that huge crowds turned out to watch; the silence broken only by plaintive wails of grief. We wouldn’t witness that again until the funeral cortege of Diana, Princess of Wales made its way to Westminster Abbey, nearly 200 years later.

Some have argued this was the end that Nelson had always envisioned for himself: the navy’s most successful commander, adored by his men, struck down in his finest hour defending his country from her most hated foe, buried in the church that symbolised Britain’s mercantilist power.  

From his early days in the navy, Nelson had always been ambitious. “I wish to be an Admiral and in command of the English fleet. I should very soon either do much or be ruined,” he wrote to his new wife, Fanny, when he was serving as a young lieutenant in Italy.

It was entirely in keeping that Nelson would exhibit such barefaced ambition in a letter; writing to his superiors, his friends, brother officers and family was not just a means of communicating with the outside world (imagine, for a moment, Nelson’s blockade of the French fleet: holed up in his cabin on HMS Victory, with only his junior officers for company and not setting foot on dry land for nearly two years), it was his way of expressing his private and innermost feelings. And hidden in all his correspondence is a far more complex man than the dash-and-glory hero that Collingwood and so many Victorians were so keen to immortalise.

In the ‘rough and tumble’ politics of Britain’s 18th-century navy, opportunities for promotion did not come easily. Years could go by without seeing battle action –the best means for a young officer to show off his tactical nous. Glory in battle, Nelson understood, led to promotion: “If it be a sin to covet glory,” he wrote to Fanny [and to Emma, Lady Hamilton in 1800], quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V, “I am the most offending soul alive.”

But even though his early career was punctuated by seamanship that showed his extraordinary ability to lead men as well as display intense physical bravery – acts he was never slow to report to the Admiralty – by 1797 Nelson was frustrated that his talents were not being properly recognized by his peers. At the victorious battle of Cape St Vincent, Nelson had successfully boarded and captured two vastly superior Spanish men-of-war, but was flabbergasted to read there was no mention of his bravery in the report sent to the Admiralty by Admiral John Jervis.

So he wrote his own report, colourfully bringing to life his own exploits, and sent it to William Locker in Britain, who in turn sent it to The Sun newspaper. His actions reveal Nelson’s profoundly discontented nature: happiness, for the young officer, was only defined by approval and recognition from others.

Nelson’s own report sealed his public reputation as a hero, but he continued to use his letters to ‘spin’ his career. His defeat at Tenerife, which saw the loss of many of his men and his own right arm, could have been career-ending. After telling Admiral Jervis of his failure, he goes on to describe what he imagines the professional consequences will be: “When I leave your command, I become dead to the World.”

The letter ends with: “You will excuse my scrawl, considering it is my first attempt...”– the effort of trying to write with his left hand for the first time seemingly too great to continue. Nelson could quite easily have dictated the letter to a secretary, but his painfully clumsy handwriting sends a clear message to Jervis: how can you possibly terminate the career of a man who writes with such candour and bravery?

His marriage to Fanny had left Nelson emotionally stunted, but his scandalous affair with Emma Hamilton would change him. Nelson, relatively late in life, discovered emotional intimacy and great sex. His letters to Emma were thick with pulsing eroticism: “Last night I did nothing but dream of you altho’ I woke 20 times in the night. In one of my dreams I thought I was at a large table. You was not present, sitting between a Princess who I detest and another, they both tried to seduce me and the first wanted to take those liberties with me which no woman in this world but yourself ever did, the consequence was I knocked her down and in the moment of bustle you came in and taking me in your embrace wispered I love nothing but you my Nelson. I kissed you fervently and we enjoy’d the height of love.”

And the product of their affair – a daughter named Horatia – would change Nelson profoundly. His letters to Emma from HMS Victory are suffused with yearning to be home, pottering around the garden, fixing the guttering of their house in Merton. Nelson, the warrior and single-minded scourge of the French, had become Suburban Man, fussing over the bills, nagging Emma to look after Horatia. “My dearest Emma, I would not have you lay out more than is necessary at Merton. The rooms and the new entrance will take a good deal of money. I also beg, as my dear Horatia is to be at Merton, that a strong netting, about three feet high, may be placed around the river that the little thing may not tumble in and then you may have ducks again in it. I shall be very anxious until I know this is done.”

As I read deeper into his letters and longer into his life, I found his writings profoundly moving. For the first time, Nelson was reaching for contentedness that wasn’t defined by military achievements. Happiness, he had begun to understand, could lie elsewhere: among his family and, more than he imagined was possible, with his daughter. As his fleet rounded Cape Trafalgar, Nelson wrote to Horatia: “My dearest angel, I was made happy by the receiving of your letter of September 19th and I rejoice to hear that you are so very good a Girl. I shall be sure of your prayers for my safety, conquest and speedy return to Dear Merton and our Dear good Lady Hamilton. Be a good girl… receive my dearest Horatia the affectionate parental blessing of your father.”

Nelson knew his duty was to defeat the French. After that, he could do what he really wanted: go home.

David Belton is the director of Nelson: In His Own Words, which aired on BBC Two in March 2015. To find out more, click here.

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