is a figure in British history that supersedes the normal boundaries of historical memory. His scarred body, lager-than-life persona, and bloody death at the height of victory have served to make him into something of a mythic figure. Just like King Arthur, he has become the invisible rescuer of bygone days who will come again in the spirit to save Britain in her darkest hour. During the two world wars, this sense of presence was fully realized. Nelson drove back the enemy by sea; the world wars saw the enemy come by air. Even though sea and the air have an aura of otherworldliness about them, they both cast the stark realities of invasion on the island nation.
Nelson was neither saint nor supernatural being. But he was extraordinary, in every sense of the word. His paradoxical character only heightens this fact. He loved with passion and hated with ferocity. He was the epitome of egotism, and yet he was not haughty or unreachable. He was very religious, and yet his actions were often in contrast with his deeply held beliefs. He ran off with another man’s wife and left his own. He could be callous and mean-spirited. His vainglorious pride sometimes jeopardized the success of his mission and the lives of others. But he also had a personal touch, a genuine belief in and love for his cause and the men who fought under him.
Nelson’s courage was of a raw nature, nurtured by an independent spirit and a glory-seeking instinct. He saw himself as God’s officer, fighting for the cause he had been entrusted with by the Almighty. As a young officer, bedridden with a fever, Nelson claimed to have experienced a vision of a glowing orb which inspired him with a sense of purpose and a love for king and country. Later, during his time in Italy as a seasoned naval professional, a Catholic priest approached him, prophesying that he would be instrumental in saving Rome, not just as a city, but as the capital of the Catholic World. This was highly ironic since Nelson was a hard-core Anglican, the son of a vicar. But that didn’t stop him from writing a letter to the pope afterwards, informing him when British naval victories did indeed affect the liberation of Rome, proving the accuracy of the priest’s declaration.
This type of spiritual magnetism electrified the mood of Nelson’s career. But of course, he wasn’t all focused on the abstract world. His genius was quite concrete. He was an innovator and an instructor, never afraid to break tradition and color outside the lines. He wanted his subordinates to learn from him, and yet he also wanted them to experiment for themselves. His aggressive, sometimes impulsive, tactics reveal an appealing rebel streak beneath the conservative veneer, so much like the spirit of Britain in the fullness of her heritage. Also, as the incarnation of the British spirit, he was flawed yet always fighting, never willing to say die or give in to personal apprehensions. Survival with honor was what he gained for his country.
On October 21, 1805, just before the epic naval Battle of Trafalgar which saved Britain and Europe from Napoleonic domination, the Admiral of the British Fleet, wrote the following prayer in his diary. Since his youth he had been of a religious inclination, and despite his less than sterling personal episodes, he did not hesitate to turn to God in his hour of greatest need:
“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.”
The first Brit to hear the news of the victory at Trafalgar and Lord Nelson’s death by a musket ball was a fisherman from Penzance who had heard the tidings from a passing vessel headed for Falmouth. The excited fisherman made landfall and burst into the Union Hotel where, from the gallery above the dining room, the news of the victory was first proclaimed to one and all. The result was a mixture of celebration and sorrow throughout the land. Though the bells were rung for the victory, the clappers were muffled in mourning for the naval hero who had battled to the death so that Britain might have a new lease on life.
Meanwhile, Nelson’s body was pickled in a barrel of brandy on board his flagship HMS Victory. On the voyage home, however, there was a bit of a mix-up, and no one was absolutely certain which barrel contained their beloved admiral. Hence, by the end of the trip, the thirsty sailors had dispatched with protocol and sanitary concerns and consumed every drop of brandy on board. This is the origin of the phrase “tapping the admiral”, meaning getting an alcoholic beverage!
Nelson’s body was finally relocated and hurriedly made a part of an elaborate funeral procession en route to St. Paul’s Cathedral. His coffin was made of wood from the mainmast of the L’Orient, a French ship that he had burned off Abu Qir, Egypt, in 1798, and his marble sarcophagus had originally been intended for Cardinal Wolsey before he fell into disfavor with King Henry VIII. His tomb, needless to say, became a major sight-seers destination. But today, even beyond the significance of his actual resting place, is the aura that hangs over his flagship Victory, where the Trafalgar Prayer was written, the battle was directed, and the commander died. Perhaps it can be summed as one of the great memorials to answered prayer and resilience of the human spirit.
Lord Nelson sacrificed his life so that Britain might grow strong and Western Europe might regain its freedom by breaking the back of Napoleon’s Navy in successive victories, culminating in Trafalgar. For better or for worse, his legacy should be appreciated and remembered, especially in his native land. The lack of interest in him nowadays reveals a dismal reality that modern assessments of the past are clogged with political correctness and shame for past jingoism. The history of a country is the ingredients of identity, and rejecting any part of it is to invite cultural degeneration. The bad should be lamented and the good should be celebrated, but all should be taken into consideration, equipping future generations to imitate the good and avoid the bad. That’s what patriotism, and humanity, is all about.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
And let your perpetual light shine upon them,
May the souls of Lord Nelson and all those who died at Trafalgar
Through the mercy of God rest in peace.
(A version of this article first appeared on Rae-Rae Franchi, my British friend and teen Nelson-enthusiast’s blog, “HMS Hinchinbrook”: http://hmshinchinbrook.weebly.com/3/post/2012/08/the-legacy-of-lord-nelson-by-pearl-author-of-blog-longbows-and-rosary-beads.html
Another variation of it later was posted on “Open Unionism”: http://www.openunionism.com/broken-yet-unbending-lord-nelsons-legacy/)
|The Young Horatio Nelson|