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Nelson, Naval Maverick

Julian Humphrys looks at the life and complex character of one of Britain’s most-loved military heroes

Britain has had its fair share of heroes, but very few have commanded the same affection that Nelson did. “We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased. The great and gallant NELSON is no more.”

FIRST FAREWELL The 12-year-old Nelson says goodbye to his grandmother upon joining the Navy

With these words, The Times summed up the mood of the nation, for the news of Nelson’s death at Trafalgar was met with an outpouring of public grief that wouldn’t be matched until the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, nearly 200 years later. His loss was felt particularly keenly in the Navy. Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s normally reserved second-in-command, wept at the news, while a boatswain’s mate on board Victory cried so much that he was unable to pipe the men to quarters. When Nelson’s co n was taken for burial in St Paul’s Cathedral a few weeks later, huge crowds of mourners showed up to line the streets.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN Nelson was baptised at All Saints’ church in Burnham Thorpe, north Norfolk


The graves of Nelson’s mother and father are situated on the north side of the chancel, while his brother and sister are buried in the churchyard.

TROUBLED WATERS Nelson attacks a polar bear while searching for a north-east passage to the Pacific

Horatio Nelson was born seven weeks prematurely, on 29 September 1758 in the Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe, where his father was the parish priest. Although he was hurriedly baptised because nobody expected him to live, Nelson survived, but in 1767, when he was just nine, his mother died. It was an event that would leave a permanent mark on his personality. He developed into an engaging, impulsive boy with a strong religious faith who craved affection, attention and approval – characteristics that he would carry with him to his grave. In 1771, aged just 12, he joined the Royal Navy with the help of his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He spent most of his teenage years at sea, sailing thousands of miles from the Bay of Bengal to the Arctic, and surviving not only a severe bout of malaria but also, if the stories are to be believed, a brush with a polar bear.

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The January 2017 issue of History Revealed.