To this day, Admiral Lord Nelson remains one of Britain’s most heroic figures, military or otherwise. His leadership ability along with his firm grasp of naval strategy and tactics combined to make him a formidable force in the Royal Navy. The Napoleonic Wars provided Nelson with a stage on which to prove his heroism, as wars are ought to do. At the Battle of Trafalgar, a sniper’s bullet snatched his life at the moment of victory. Lord Nelson’s death at Trafalgar became the catalyst that ultimately made him the British hero that he is today.
What follows are excerpts from contemporary accounts of Nelson’s body being brought back to England for his preparation and state funeral.
Transport Back to England & The Coffin
“After the battle of Trafalgar the corpse of the ever-to-be-lamented Admiral Lord Nelson was placed in spirits for the purpose of being conveyed to his native land. It was at first the intention of Lord Collingwood to send home the body in the Euryalus; but the crew of the Victory manifested the strongest reluctance to part with the precious relic. They remonstrated against its removal, through the medium of the Boatswain’s Mate, and urged a plea that could not be resisted: ‘The noble Admiral (they said) had fought with them, and fell on their own deck. If by being put on board a frigate, his remains should fall into the hands of the enemy, their loss would be doubly grievous; and therefore they were resolved, one and all, to carry it in safety to England, or to go to the bottom with their sacred charge.'”
Lord Collingwood, feeling the full force of the representations, acceeded to their wishes, and the Victory, having first proceeded with the British fleet to Gibraltar, left that place on the 4th of November for England.
On the 2d of the following month she arrived at Portsmouth, where she was obliged to remain several days to undergo repairs. On the 10th she sailed for Sheerness, to which place she had been ordered to proceed, for the purpose of being paid off, but owing to the contrary winds, it was the 17th before she could get round the South-Foreland.
Soon after the Victory arrived at Chatham, the body of Lord Nelson was taken out of the spirits, in which it was preserved. No variation appeared in the body, excepting that the lips and the ancles were a little discoloured. A shirt, a pair of silk stockings, and his lordship’s uniform breeches were put on the corpse, a white cambric handkerchief was tied round the neck, and another bound round the forehead to the back part of the head. It was then placed in the coffin made out of the main-mast of the L’Orient, which blew up at the battle of the Nile, presented to him by his friend, Captain Hallowell; it was six feet in length, but rather narrow; the outside was covered with black cloth, and the inside lined with white silk, stuffed with cotton. That coffin was put into a leaden one, soldered up and inclosed in an elm one: it then was removed to the Commissioners’ Yatch, on the deck of which vessel it was placed with a colour suspended over it. The yacht arrived off Greenwich-hospital on the 24th, but as the water was not sufficiently high for landing the coffin, which was very heavy, it could not be removed till the evening. About five o’clock it was lowered from the yacht into a boat, and immediately conveyed to the hospital stairs. The coffin was inveloped in the colours of the Victory, which were bound round it. On landing, it was borne by a party of seamen belonging to the Victory, attended by Mr. Scott, and deposited in the Record-chamber belonging to the Painted Hall, and afterwards placed in a magnificent exterior coffin, previous to its laying in state.”
Excerpt from Fairburn’s edition of the funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson : containing a correct account of his body laying in state at Greenwich, the procession by water and land, with the funeral service, and final interment of the body in a truly magnificent state coffin at St. Paul’s Cathedral, on Thursday, January 9, 1806. [link]
“Recorded honours shall gather round his monument, and thicken over it. It has a solid basis, and will support the laurels which adorn it.”
LAYING IN STATE
On Sunday, January 5th, and the Monday and Tuesday following, the remains of our illustrious hero, deposited and laid out in state, in the great hall at Greenwich hospital, were the object of veneration to multitudes. These crowded, from every quarter, and numbers went away unsatisfied. The arrangements of the solemnity were as follow:—In the funeral saloon, high above the corpse, a canopy of black velvet was suspended, richly festooned with gold, and the Festoons ornamented with the chelengk, or plume of triumph, presented to his Lordship by the Grand Seignior, after the ever-memorable victory of the Nile. It was also decorated with his Lordship’s coronet, and a view of the stern of the San Josef, the Spanish admiral’s ship, already quartered in his arms. On the back field, beneath the canopy, was emblazoned an escutcheon of his Lordship’s arms ; the helmet surmounted by a naval crown, and enriched with the trident and palm branch in saltier—motto, “Palmam qui meruit ferat.” Also his Lordship’s shield, ornamented with silver stars, appropriately interspersed ; with the motto—”Tria juncta in uno,” and surmounting the whole, upon a gold field, embraced by a golden wreath, was inscribed, in sable characters, the word, Trafalgar, commemorative of the proudest of his great achievements.
PROCESSION BY WATER
At half past seven o’clock, on Wednesday, the heralds and naval officers who were to assist at the procession by water, assembled at the Admiralty, and from thence proceeded about eight to Greenwich.
In the first barge, on their return, was the standard at the head; the Guidon was borne by Captain Durham. In the second were the officers of arms bearing the target, sword, helm, and crest of the deceased. In the third was the body. In the fourth was the
- Chief Mourner—Admiral Sir Peter Parker, Bart.
- Train Bearer to the Chief Mourner—The Honourable Captain Blackwood.
- Supporters to the Chief Mourner—Admirals Lord Hood and Radstock.
- Six Assistant Mourners—Vice Admirals Caldwell, Hamilton, Nugent, Bligh,
- Sir Roger Curtis, and Sir C. M. Pole, Barts.
- Four Supporters of the Pall—Vice Admiral Whitshead, Savage, Taylor, andRear Admiral E. Harvey.
- Six Bearers of the Canopy—Rear Admirals Aylmer, Domett, T. Wells, Drury, Sir Isaac Coffin, and Sir W. H. Douglas, Barts.
They were all in mourning cloaks over their full uniform coats. The banner of emblems was borne in this barge, by Lord Nelson’s own captain, Captain T. M. Hardy.
After the four barges came his Majesty’s barge; the barge of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty; then the Lord Mayor, in the city state barge, and other city barges: they had all their colours half staff. As the procession moved from Greenwich, minute guns were fired—the shore was lined with thousands of spectators—every hat was off, and every countenance expressed the deepest regret felt at the loss of so great a hero. Not a vessel was suffered to disturb the procession. The decks, yards, rigging, and masts of the numerous ships on the river, were all crowded with spectators—the number of ladies was immense.
As the procession passed the Tower, the great guns were fired. It reached Whitehall stairs about half past three o’clock. During the time the body was landing, together with the several attendants in the four mourning barges, the King’s, Admiralty, Lord Mayor’s, and City barges, lay upon their oars. Minute guns were fired during the landing of the body. The procession proceeded through a line formed by the Guards to the Admiralty, where it finally closed about a quarter before four o’clock.
PROCESSION BY LAND
The procession did not begin to move from the Admiralty till eleven o’clock on Thursday. It was led by a military force far beyond what any one would think requisite to do honour to a procession, and amounting in number and character, as well as appearance, to a formidable army. There were near 8,000 regular soldiers, consisting chiefly of the regiments that had fought and conquered in Egypt. The 31st, 75th, and 92d, the 10th and 14th Light Dragoons, and the Scotch Greys, challenged particular admiration. Above 20,000 volunteers were employed in lining the streets. The military part of the procession was closed by a detachment of the flying artillery from Woolwich. The troops marched in brigades, and in order of battle, the cavalry being stationed at intervals between the infantry and the flank companies, covering the artillery. The procession may be considered as consisting of three distinct parts, the military, the private carriages, and the mourners. The private carriages were very numerous: the commoners went first, then the Peers, beginning with Burons, and closing with Dukes, next, the Princes, and last, the Prince of Wales. The Dukes of York, Kent, Sussex, and Cambridge, were in the streets very early, on horseback, with their aides de camp, seeing that every thing should be in order. The third part of the procession consisted of the hearse and mourning coaches. The seamen and marines of the Victory, and the Greenwich pensioners, who went in the first part of the procession, bore the most striking marks of deep and unfeigned sorrow; and their recent service caused them to be seen with veneration. A great number of the mourning coaches that followed the hearse, were filled with naval officers, who were all regarded with high feelings of esteem and admiration, being considered as the partners of Nelson’s victories, or participators in the other triumphs that have signalized our flag. This last part of the procession came at a considerable interval after the preceding. It was though necessary to give time to the carriages that had gone past, to set down their company. The whole procession took up above three hours and an half to pass. The military in front began to move forward at eleven, and the last of the mourning coaches passed on a little before three. The day was the most favourable that could be wished, to give glory to a spectacle in which it must delight; the solemn and religious tribute of a grateful nation, fighting for every civil and religious right, to the most illustrious of heroes, and that beneficent Being, who made that hero the instrument of the victory with which he had vouchsafed to bless our arms.
On the procession reaching Temple Ear, it was Joined by the Lord Mayor and Corporation, who fell in immediately after the Prince of Wales; and on its arrival at St. Paul’s, the regular troops who formed part of it, together with the. City Militia, Light Horse, and Infantry volunteers, were stationed to preserve the necessary order. The whole reached the cathedral shortly after three o’clock.
On the entrance into the cathedral, the heralds, &c. were followed by the great officers of stale, Peers, then Peer’s sons, Knights of the Bath, Baronets, members of the House of Commons, &c. &c. Court of Aldermen, &c. the Lord Major, preceded by the city Regalia; afterwards the Dukes of Cambridge, Sussex, Kent, Cumberland, Clarence, and York, and lastly, the Prince of Wales. Then followed the Bishop of Lincoln (the Dean) and the Bishop of Chester, Dr. Moss and Dr. Western preceded the banner of emblems, which was borne before the canopy by the captain of the Victory, T. H. Hardy, &c. &c. The body now entered the choir, close to which followed, in deep sables, the Reverend Earl Nelson, his eldest son Lord Merton, and the chaplain, the Reverend Mr. Scott. To these succeeded the chief mourner, Admiral Sir Peter Parker, supported by Admirals Lord Hood and Haddock, the flag officers, post captains, commanders, lieutenants, the rear being brought up by the mournful display of the colours of the Victory, borne by select seamen of that ship, and flanked by an equal number of Greenwich pensioner, in mourning loose coats, with a gilt armorial badge on the left arm. The coffin being placcd on a stool, covered with black, and with gold tassels, Sec. All who formed the procession having taken their places, the Prince being seated on the right of the bishop’s throne, the choir door closed, and the funeral service commenced. The psalms for the occasion were sung in the solemn chaunt of H. Purcel. The Magnificat was also sung admirably by the whole choir, and afterwards Dr. Green’s sublime anthem, “Lord let me know the end and number of my days.’” During the performance of the choir service, the body of the church was illuminated by lamps throughout, but in a most striking and beautiful manner, by a large frame covered with black, and on which were placed, in black frames, nearly five hundred lamps, the whole forming an immense octangular lanthorn, which became suspended by a rope from the centre and summit of the cupola, overhanging the spacious amphitheatre (covered also with black) as the place of interment.
The choir service ended, the procession returned in the same order to the place of interment Dr. Croft’s “Man that is born” was sung from a gallery erected on the back of the organ loft; and, after Handel’s divine anthem, “His body is buried in peace!” The Bishop of Lincoln having read the service, except the last prayer, the body was placed on a platform, and solemnly descended by balance weight, twenty feet to the vault beneath. The last prayer ended, a grand and solemn dirge was sung, composed for the occasion by Mr. Attwood; after which, the style, title, and dignities, of the deceased Peer were proclaimed by the Earl Marshal Deputy, when the wands of office were broken, and the awful ceremonial closed by the colours of the Victory being deposited with the chieftain who so gloriously fell under them!
Thus has died, and thus has been buried, with the tears of a nation over the bier of their benefactor—a man as truly our own, as truly formed in the characteristic mould of British virtue, as has ever dignified the most golden page of our days of glory,—a man whose courage was a principle, and not a passion,—an element which, cherished by natural honour, informed and animated his prudence; and thus, by a rare union of judgment and resolute enterprise, rendered it equal to the perils of the time :—a man whose exalted merit was only equalled by his retreating simplicity, a simplicity so without any visible promise, any external appearance of the mighty soul within, that the hero was unknown till seen in his acts, and then, by his unequalled modesty, seemed known as such to all, but unknown to himself—and if any thing be yet wanting to complete the full measure of that excellence with which the best of our poets have ever arrayed that fond image of their imagination, a perfect English hero, he had it; for, with a piety equal to his valour, considering himself, in his best successes, as an humble instrument of his God ; he imputed the whole of his success to the protecting hand of Providence, and that Providence, in return, remembering him in the day of peril, and in the hour of death, allotted him a death in victory, and an eternal name amongst the brave defenders of their country. Let us hug the bright example, the dear remembrance, to our hearts; and the fire of patriotism kindling from his funeral pile, may animate others to similar heroism.
We have nothing to say to recommend the following epitaph, but that it comes from the heart.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF HORATIO LORD NELSON,
WHO, PIOUS, BRAVE, AND FORTUNATE,
BELOVED BY MEN AND IN PEACE WITH GOD,
WANTED NOTHING TO COMPLETE THE FULL MEASURE OF HIS GLORY,
BUT MUCH TO THAT OF HIS REWARD.
HEAVEN AND HIS COUNTRY UNITE TO DISCHARGE THE DEBT;
HEAVEN BY TAKING HIM TO ETERNAL HAPPINESS,
HIS COUNTRY BY DEVOTING HIM TO ETERNAL REMEMBRANCE.
GLORIA DEO, DATI ET ADIMENTI.
Excerpt from The Monthy Mirror (January 1806). [link]