Norfolk, Nelson’s County
Early Life and Going to Sea
Horatio attended Paston Grammar School in North Walsham and King Edward VI’s Grammar School in Norwich. Catherine died in 1767 leaving Edmund grief-stricken; he never remarried. Favours were sought from relatives to ensure the children were provided for. Edmund wrote, “as it has fallen to my lott to take upon me the care and affectation of double parent, they [the children] will hereafter excuse where I have fallen short and the task has been too hard.” Life was strenuous and the family’s financial troubles were the likely motivation for the Nelson children seeking to fend for themselves. Horatio’s uncle, Maurice Suckling, was the captain of a 64-gun ship and an important influence in his naval career. Horatio persuaded his brother, William, to write to their father asking him to approach Maurice for assistance in joining the navy. He reluctantly agreed to take Horatio to sea at the age of twelve, writing in a letter: “what has poor little Horatio done that he should be sent to rough it at sea? But let him come, and if a cannon ball takes off his head he will at least be provided for.” As a result, Horatio reported to Chatham and joined his uncle’s ship Raisonable in 1771. The young Horatio was weak and suffered from seasickness, an affliction which dogged him throughout his career. However, he excelled in his harsh and varied sea training. After a year, Maurice suggested he serve as a cabin boy in a merchant ship heading for the West Indies. On his return, Horatio wrote “if I did not improve my education, I came back a practical seaman, with a horror of the Royal Navy.” He added, “It was many weeks before I got in the least reconciled to a man-of-war, so deep was the prejudice rooted.” Horatio re-joined the Royal Navy and served as a midshipman on HMS Triumph. At the age of fourteen he heard that the Royal Society was planning a scientific expedition to the North Pole and begged to be allowed to go. He and another boy risked their lives trying to kill a polar bear and, when reprimanded, Horatio said “I wished to kill a bear, that I might carry its skin to my father.”
Horatio Nelson rose through the ranks quickly and for five years was continuously engaged in the naval war which followed the American Declaration of Independence. He was promoted to Post-Captain at the age of twenty and established a strong reputation for bravery and tactical prowess. Nelson lived in the rectory at Burnham Thorpe from 1788 to 1793 with his wife Fanny while being held in reserve on half-pay. Service beckoned again with the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. He fought in minor engagements off Toulon and was involved in the capture of Corsica, where he lost sight in one eye. Nelson distinguished himself in 1797 at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, assisting in the defeat of a greatly superior Spanish fleet. The amphibious attack launched on Santa Cruz de Tenerife was not successful, however. The landing party withdrew with significant losses and it was here that Nelson was wounded in the arm, which was subsequently amputated. A year later, he won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Nile against the French. In 1801 Nelson again proved victorious, at the Battle of Copenhagen.
The Battle of Trafalgar
Nelson commanded the blockade of the Combined Fleet at Toulon and, following their escape, chased them to the West Indies but failed to engage them in battle. He was able to return to England briefly before commanding the Cadiz blockage. The Battle of Trafalgar, fought on 21st October 1805, was the culmination of this intense twenty nine month campaign waged by the Royal Navy to prevent a French invasion of Great Britain (Admiral Sir William Cornwallis maintained the Channel Fleet during this time). Nelson devised a strategy which resulted in the annihilation of the Combined Fleet and established Britain’s total naval supremacy. ‘The Nelson Touch’, as it became known, refers to his unequalled ability to instil courage and discipline in his men, whilst also inspiring unwavering devotion. Nelson’s signal to his fleet from HMS Victory, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, marked the start of the five hour battle. The British Fleet was outnumbered thirty three ships to twenty seven but superior discipline, tactics and training overcame this imbalance. Nelson sailed his fleet in two columns directly cutting through the enemy line, leaving the enemy vanguard unable to interfere in the battle. The Combined Fleet lost twenty two ships whereas the British Fleet did not lose any. Nelson was shot by a French sharpshooter and died shortly before the battle ended, saying “thank God I have done my duty”. His place as one of Britain’s most heroic figures was secured. He received a state funeral and is not buried in Burnham Thorpe, but in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London as per the wishes of King George III. A codicil in his will stated his desire to be buried with his father “unless the King decrees otherwise.”
“A man should witness a battle in a three-decker from the middle deck, for it bewilders the senses of sight and hearing. There was the fire from above, the fire from below […] the guns recoiling with violence, reports louder than thunder, the decks heaving and the sides straining. I fancied myself in the infernal regions, where every man appeared a devil.”
Second-Lieutenant Rotely, Royal Marines
Nelson’s father, Edmund, was rector at All Saints Church in Burnham Thorpe and Nelson was baptised in the font. There is plenty to see inside, including a battle ensign which was flown at the Battle of Jutland from HMS Indomitable, ledger stones for Nelson’s mother and father, and a bust of Nelson. A brother and sister are buried in the churchyard.
In the chancel of All Saints Church in Bircham Newton, seven miles from Burnham Thorpe, a memorial remembers John James Stephens Ward, son of the rector. His mother was Horatia Nelson who was the daughter of Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Horatia’s husband previously served as the curate in Burnham Thorpe.
The mound in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church in Happisburgh is the mass grave of one hundred and nineteen crew members who died when the HMS Invincible sank off the coast here in 1801. The Third Rate 74-gun ship had sailed out of Great Yarmouth with a crew of six hundred men to join the Baltic Fleet under Nelson, in anticipation of the Battle of Copenhagen. A strong wind and tide pushed Invincible off course and she struck a sandbank. A fishing vessel came to her aid but four hundred men died. During works to the drains in 1988, the skeletons were found and the captain of the present HMS Invincible, an aircraft carrier, was contacted. On 24th July 1998 a memorial stone was given jointly by the Ship’s Company and the Parochial Church Council.
In St Laurence’s Church in Brundall there is a memorial to Charles Leath, Midshipman of the British Navy, who died at sea in 1804. The beautifully carved memorial features his sword and sextant in relief at the top. The sextant allowed sailors to more accurately pinpoint their position and distance from their destination. Another memorial, to Robert Cubitt (d. 1851), features a carving of a ship with the inscription “such is life.”
William, Nelson’s older brother, became rector of All Saints Church in Brandon Parva in 1784 and went to sea that year as a naval chaplain under the command of his brother on board HMS Boreas. The discomforts of sea life proved too challenging for William and he returned to Norfolk. He became rector of All Saints Church in Hilborough in 1797. When his brother died, William was created Earl Nelson of Trafalgar and Merton.
“May the Great God whom I worship grant to my Country and for the benefit of Europe in General a great and Glorious Victory, and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it, and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself individually I commit my life to Him Who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully, to Him I resign myself and the Just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.”
Prayer written by Nelson in a letter on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar