How will history judge Horatio Nelson?

April 8, 2005

Has history been too kind to Lord Nelson? Andrew Lambert and June Purvis fire salvos for each side.


Whether we like it or not, Horatio Nelson remains central to our national image. He stands in majesty at the heart of London, celebrating Britain's part in the defeat of Napoleonic France and the establishment of our global empire. The greatest warrior this country has produced, and the defining genius of naval command, his name and example have inspired the Royal Navy, and most other nations' fleets, to strive for perfection.

But Nelson means more than battles and glory: he remains the ultimate example of leadership. His leadership was a two-way process. Leaders and led need to have confidence in each other, to share common beliefs and values. Operating in an age of astonishing political, social and strategic change, Nelson mastered the complex business of ships and the sea, winds, currents, strategy, tactics, time and logistics. His unique genius elevated the art of war at sea to a new level, combining blinding simplicity with terrible power. Nelson understood the need to annihilate the enemy, to secure all the fruits of battle. His battles served the political object of the campaign and conflict: they were about winning on the largest scale; he did not seek mere tactical triumphs, only engagements that produced major strategic change. This was why the battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar were so remarkable. They changed history.

At the same time he cared for his officers and men with the paternal instincts of a country parson. Nelson took his officers into his confidence and explained to them the ultimate purpose of his actions, to ensure that they would be able to think for themselves if they could not see his signals. He enabled all to excel by taking the time and trouble to place them where they would be most useful and allowing all to contribute to the ultimate victory. He was a brilliant motivator.

But he did not rely on fine words. Nelson led the fleet into harm's way, picking out the enemy flagship as his target, leaving it a crippled hulk and the enemy fleet a leaderless mob. After that his followers could complete the task.

Nelson also had a genius for communication. He did not talk down to the common people or affect a false superiority. At a time when the very basis of the British identity was being forged, Nelson gave the British a unifying, heroic example.

In return he was worshipped by his countrymen, his sailors and his friends.

His combination of genius and humanity explains why every man who ever served with him loved him, and why the men who fought at Trafalgar, and later the whole country, wept when they learnt of his death.

No one ever argued that Nelson was a paragon of matchless virtue. But for 200 years his reputation has been besmirched with accusations of infidelity. The Victorians had problems with his muse Emma Hamilton and tried to airbrush her out of the story. In so doing they missed his single-minded determination to act on his own judgement, his contempt for mere obedience to orders. Rather than understand Nelson, the Victorians, for example, forgot that in 1800 setting aside his wife and living with his mistress was hardly unusual, although giving his wife half his income was very modern. Ultimately, the real issue is simple: Nelson's infidelity is interesting only because he was, as Byron put it, "Britannia's God of War".

Curiously, his private life has helped to keep his name and deeds alive in recent decades, Emma being a critical part of his modern fame.

Further controversy has surrounded Nelson's role in the destruction of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799. Britain could not look on while kings were replaced by republics, or allow it to be said that they abandoned allies, such as Naples' King Ferdinand, in time of need. Consequently Nelson devoted much effort to the recovery of Naples, both to support an ally and to recover the vital naval bases on which his Mediterranean campaign hinged. The common people had never accepted the Republic, preferring their King, for all his faults, and rose up against their new masters as soon as they had the chance with atrocities being committed on both sides. With Naples in turmoil and the republican army unable to restore order, Nelson arrived to persuade the last republican strongholds to surrender to the King. He arrested the republican leaders and handed them over to the restored Neapolitan authorities. A small number, 99 in all, were executed.

Britain had been far less lenient with Irish rebels the previous year.

Desperate for critical copy to counter his genius, some biographers have portrayed Nelson as a ruthless, bloodthirsty and vainglorious fool, who allowed the Neapolitan Court to inveigle him into doing their dirty work.

Such analysis flies in the face of every other action of his life, lacks credible evidence and suggests the truth lies elsewhere.

Yet Nelson had his faults. His vanity, love of applause and vulnerability to flattery made him human, but nothing he ever did was mean, petty or grasping. Nelson shows us that the human spirit can transcend injury and illness, defeat and tragedy. We would all be that much smaller without such heroes - they allow us to believe we can make a difference.

Andrew Lambert is Laughton professor of naval history at King's College London.


At the Battle of Trafalgar, on October 21, 1805, Admiral Horatio Nelson faced incredible odds and yet won, thus preventing the French invasion of Britain and establishing British control of the oceans.

But the price he paid - his life - was the ultimate sacrifice. The nation mourned and he became one of Britain's best-loved heroes.

But has history been too kind to Nelson? I think it has. Andrew Lambert is a Nelson scholar; I am not. Yet it seems to me that he writes an overwhelmingly non-critical appraisal of his subject, presenting him almost as a secular deity. In particular, Lambert glides over two aspects of Nelson's life that make him less than heroic, namely his role in the destruction of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799 and the treatment of his wife.

In his recent revisionist biography of Nelson, the independent scholar and author Terry Coleman offers a more measured view, pointing out that Nelson was not only a fanatic for duty, but also a royalist so infatuated with the Divine Right of Kings that he began to see himself as the instrument of God.

Nelson's conduct towards the Neapolitan rebels, asserts Coleman, was "hasty, unnecessary, duplicitous, not that of an English gentleman, and in no proper sense his duty. What he did was pitiless". But Lambert protests that such claims fly in the face of "every other action" of Nelson's life.

"Nothing he ever did was mean, petty or grasping," he writes.

Tell that to his long-suffering wife, Frances ("Fanny"). It has been common among Nelson historians, invariably men, to blame Fanny Nelson for the breakdown of their marriage. "Though Fanny had done nothing wrong," Lambert states in his book Nelson: Britannia's God of War , "she was not a fit consort for a hero, and she was unable to bear his children. The problem was that Fanny did not see this, and persisted with her attempts to win him back. This was profoundly embarrassing for Nelson, and made the whole affair much more public than it might otherwise have been."

There are always two sides to a marriage. And this marriage was definitely crowded. Yet Lambert takes Nelson's side. However, recent research by naval historian Colin White has unearthed poignant letters from Fanny to Alexander Davison, Nelson's close friend, which reveal how she did everything she could to save her marriage, even though she knew that Emma was about to give birth to Nelson's child.

When Nelson said goodbye to Fanny on January 13, 1801, he intended it to be their final parting. However, he lacked the courage to tell her directly, even signing some of his letters "Your affectionate Nelson". He may have been a hero on the public stage, but in his private life he was a coward.

The scheming Emma played her part well too, spinning a story about Fanny as a wicked, malicious woman who made Nelson's life miserable. As with many straying husbands, Nelson sent confusing messages to Fanny, posting his final "letter of dismissal" on the 14th anniversary of their wedding. The deeply hurt Fanny, conscious of Nelson's popularity and future reputation, destroyed the cruel letters he sent to her. We know of their existence only through sources that have since come to light. Ironically, Fanny's loyalty has added to the Nelson myth, a myth that has been used to perpetuate certain male views of heroism and leadership.

The deeds of men such as Nelson should be taught in history courses, warts and all. The problem has been that, until recently, history was largely written by men and about the activities of such "great men" in war, politics, diplomacy and administration. Yet this "top down" view of history, still strongly evident on our TV screens, is both elitist and sexist.

The development of both social history and women's history in the 1970s - with their broadening of the concept of history and inclusion of the social and cultural aspects of the everyday experiences of life for "ordinary people" - was a reaction to this approach.

It is scholars, invariably women, working in women's history who have played the critical role in documenting the range of activities their forebears engaged in, whether as political activists, domestic servants, factory hands, mothers at home, missionaries or workers for the Empire. And here we come to the crux of the matter. What we consider historically "worthy" is value laden.

Feminist historians, black activists, and gay and lesbian researchers all have differing heroes who epitomise the values they uphold, not necessarily those of the nation. In 2005, when the definition of "history" is in flux, we need to reflect the diversity and heterogeneity of our British cultural past, to embrace a much wider range of heroes than Nelson.

As another great Nelson, namely Nelson Madela, the Black South African activist, has said: "I have been asked a question many a time, 'who is your hero?' I say, my hero does not depend on the position a person occupies. My heroes are those simple men and women who have committed themselves to fighting poverty wherever that is to be found in the world."

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history at Portsmouth University.

NPG debate

How will history judge Lord Nelson ? will be held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on April 14 at 7pm. For tickets, telephone 0207 306 0055 extension 216.

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