Seaman John Grimshaw

Chronicler of the Battle of the Nile from Aboard Horatio Nelson’s Flagship, HMS Vanguard

John Grimshaw was a seaman who sailed on Horatio Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Vanguard, in the late 1700s. John’s actions in Nelson’s fleet included the famous naval engagement, the Battle of the Nile, which was fought in August 1798. In this engagement, Nelson achieved a lopsided victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet near the mouth of the Nile River. John Grimshaw kept a log starting in 1797 that included the events of the Battle of the Nile. An article by Thomas Jordan appeared in the December 2003 issue of Naval History on John Grimshaw’s chronicle of the battle.


Webpage Credits

Naval History Article on Seaman John Grimshaw – “With Nelson at the Nile”

Article Title and Painting

Encyclopedia Britannica Article on the Battle of the Nile

“A Web of English History” Website Article on the Battle of the Nile

Artists’ Renditions of the Battle of the Nile

Horatio Nelson, Brilliant British Naval Commander

History and Fate of Nelson’s Flagship, the HMS Vanguard


Webpage Credits

Credit goes to Thomas E. Jordan for researching John Grimshaw’s log and publishing the article on John’s account of the Battle of the Nile in Naval History.

Naval History Article on Seaman John Grimshaw – “With Nelson at the Nile”

The text of the article published by Jordan1 in the December 2003 issue of Naval History is shown below; the excerpt specifically related to the Battle of the Nile is indented for emphasis. The images are from a copy of the original article.

Seaman John Grimshaw, a sailor with Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile (above), kept a log beginning on Christmas Eve, 1797. He recorded his “perticalars” on board HMS Vanguard, (opposite, in a drawing by Grimshaw), a 74-gun ship-of-the-line that served as Nelson’s flagship in the battle.

The year 1798 was a volatile one for the Royal Navy, at that time the largest seagoing force in the world. The fleet consisted of ships as large as the Victory with 100 guns and more common 74-gun ships, down to small frigates, sloops, and messenger boats. It was engaged in a struggle for control of the seas against the fleet of revolutionary France and its allies around the world. It also was the year of France’s unsuccessful invasion of Ireland, the last such attempt ever on the British Isles.

Six years before, Napoleon Bonaparte had besieged on land the Mediterranean port of Toulon and had been rewarded by appointment as Commander of the French Army in Italy by the recently established Directoire in Paris. Success followed success, and the great strategist sought to conquer Egypt in pursuit of an empire extending into Asia. Napoleon dispatched a fleet of 1.3 ships-of-the-line, several gunboats, and about 300 transports to convey 30,000 men and their equipment to Egypt.¹ The French fleet under Admiral Francois Brueys eluded Nelson and landed the force that won the Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July.

While relatively invulnerable to all but similar ships, the Vanguard was not immune to the action of wind and waves. John Grimshaw gives frequent accounts of loss of masts and related loss of lives and injury in his notes.² Replacement of masts and spars was a major task and created a period of vulnerability for him and his mates.

The Vanguard sailed to Cadiz, long one of Spain’s great ports and burned by Queen Elizabeth’s sailors in the 16th century, and replenished the supplies consumed by several hundred men over two weeks. From there, she and the Emerald sailed to Gibraltar, where they reported to Earl St. Vincent. The former Admiral John Jervis received his peerage for his victory over the Portuguese, an action in which Nelson distinguished himself. St. Vincent received news of an expeditionary force assembling at Toulon from American travelers.³ Alfred Thayer Mahan criticized Nelson’s response, asserting that Nelson misread the situation and decided Corsica was Napoleon’s objective.[sup4]

In early June 1798, Grimshaw recorded departure of the task force under Nelson, then Rear Admiral of the Blue. After some days in which Nelson was impeded by the absence of frigates acting as scouts, he sent Captain Thomas Troubridge to the strategic port of Naples, which could shelter and provision his fleet. The Bourbon King of Naples was neutral, but his wife was sister to the late Marie Antoinette. Sir William Hamilton’s Wife, Emma, influenced the Queen on Nelson’s behalf. Grimshaw records several visits by the King and the Hamiltons to the Vanguard, which set forth in further pursuit of Brucys’s force. Nelson reached Alexandria before the French and then sailed north.

On 1 August 1798 Nelson returned, and the Goliath found the French fleet at anchor in a single line in the shallow waters of Aboukir Bay, which lies between Alexandria and the Nile delta. Grimshaw’s account of the Battle of the Nile follows:

About we discovered the French Fleet laying at anchor [at] Baguin roads at the Mouth of the river Nile [.] At 28 past 6 o’clock they French hoisted their colours and Commenced firing on our Van ships[.] 2 post 6 came to anchor with our best hour [bore?] along side of the Spartate of 74 guns witch was continued till 11 past 8 when our opponent struck and sent lieut Galey with a party of Marines to take possession of her. At 9 saw 3 other ships strike to the Zealous, Audacious, and Minitaur and saw the L’Orent took fire the ships a tied still Keeping up their fire[.] At 11 saw L’Orent Blow up with a great explosion[.] The enemy ceased their fire[.] At 10 minutes post saw another ship On fire wich in 2 minutes was Extinguished and afresh Cannon coding began 20 minutes 11 wich cease of firing far 10 min when it was again renewed. 10 min before 12 a total cease of firing. At 12 Boat with a parry of Marines and 2 Officers was sent out to reconise a ship wich was drifted below the Fleet waith no mast nor bosprit wich proved to be the Bellerophon wich in returning came through the reck of the L’Orent and saved 2 men and one boy. The boat not being hable to hould any more as there was a great meney French men upon the rack wich cried out to the boat as she passed them. At 3 the boat returned from the second[.] 10 past 5 the Enemy’s ships to the south began firing[.] 55 minutes post 5 the French Frigate fired broadside and struck her colours in 10 minafter she was seen on fire[.] At 6 am the Goliah bore down to the enemy’s ships to southward and wich had not yet struck[.] 41 mm past 6 she began firing at a frigate and the Zealous got under way and went ahead[.] Continued until  [.] At 50 post 6 one of the enemy’s ships of the line fared some guns and then struck her colours[.] At 55 past 5 the Zealous got under way and went ahead[.] 55 past 10 the English ships began firing at a French frigate gave her two broadsides and then ceased[.] ½ past 11 2 line of Battle ships and 2 frigates got under way and stud out for say our ships firing at them as they passed them. 45 minutes past 12 the Zealous wich was cruising out gave a broadside to each ship as she passed them.

Beyond Grimshaw’s good account of the battle is the geopolitical significance of the action. The victory of Nelson’s group stranded Napoleon’s army after its victory at the Battle of the Pyramids. Further, it ended the possibility of a recoup in India, and of threats to Australia and other lands. Of course, a few generations later, French influence in Southeast Asia flourished and persisted well into the 20th century.

The action at Aboukir Bay consisted of a night assault on the French fleet that lay at anchor in water deemed too shallow to permit a flanking attack on the leeward side. Nelson sent his ships both to leeward and to windward of the French column, and some of his ships were able to sail between French ships and deliver lethal blows. The major incident was setting the L’Orient on fire; that event followed a predictable course, culminating in a gigantic explosion in which nearly 1,000 men perished. Grimshaw described efforts to save the crew of the L’Orient. Mahan stated that Nelson sent the Vanguard’s first lieutenant in an attempt at rescue.[sup5] Nelson himself received a serious and bloody scalp wound, which he thought mortal until the surgeon sewed him up and his sight returned. Nelson sent dispatches to Admiral St. Vincent off Cadiz through Captain Edward Berry on the Leander, who was captured by the Genereux on 6 August. A second ship, the Mutine, carried the news of victory to Naples, and London learned of the news two months after the event. Grimshaw’s list of men and ships in the action is detailed and suggests that he was conscious of the significance of the ordeal he had experienced. With regard to Grimshaw’s ship, Mahan observed that “the worst slaughter in Vanguard was at the forward guns,” a site apparently not assigned to Grimshaw.

Serving on Nelson’s flagship did place him at the center of events. Grimshaw’s detailed account suggests through its lists of ships and casualties that the account as a whole may have been compiled from daily notes and later sources. This is not to suggest, however, that the document was drafted anywhere hut on the Vanguard, and the canvas cover on the holographic document suggests a nautical setting.

Grimshaw’s narrative contains few references of a personal nature. What is curious is the lack of reference to Nelson, whose reputation was established at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent; at Trafalgar, it was enhanced and then burnished by his death. Grimshaw lists him merely as a casualty. Grimshaw appears as an intelligent, lightly schooled man and an experienced seaman. Undertaking a task such as this would be unlikely in a man going to sea for the first time.



1 D. King, A Sea of Words (New York: Holt, 1995).

2 J. Grimshaw, “Perticalars of the Procidings of His Majesty’s Ship, the Vanguard.” The journal is now held privately. The date, 1797, is the same date Grimshaw placed on his title page.

3 J. Woolford, “Nelson and the Nile,” Military History, August 1998.

4 A. J. Mahan, The Life of Nelson, vol. 1 (Boston: Little Brawn, 1897).

5 Mahan, The life of Nelson.


By Thomas E. Jordan

Article Title and Painting

The title of Jordan’s article is on a backdrop of a painting that shows vividly the battle action during the Battle of the Nile, as shown below.

Encyclopedia Britannica Article on the Battle of the Nile

The article in Encyclopedia Britannica online, shown below, provides background and additional detail on the Battle of the Nile.

Battle of the Nile also called  Battle of Aboukir Bay, Aboukir also spelled Abuki  (Aug. 1, 1798), battle that was one of the greatest victories of the British admiral Horatio Nelson. It was fought between the British and French fleets in Abu Qir Bay, near Alexandria, Egypt.

The French Revolutionary general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 made plans for an invasion of Egypt in order to constrict Britain’s trade routes and threaten its possession of India. The British government heard that a large French naval expedition was to sail from a French Mediterranean port under the command of Napoleon, and in response it ordered the Earl of St. Vincent, the commander in chief of the British fleet, to detach ships under Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson to reconnoitre off Toulon and to watch French naval movements there. But Nelson’s own ship was dismasted in a storm, and his group of frigates, now dispersed, returned to the British base at Gibraltar. Meanwhile, St. Vincent sent Nelson more ships, which joined Nelson on June 7, bringing his strength up to 14 ships of the line.

The French expedition eluded the British warships and sailed first for Malta, which the French seized from the British early in June. After spending a week at Malta, Napoleon sailed with his fleet for his main objective, Egypt. Meanwhile, Nelson had found Toulon empty and had correctly guessed the French objective, but because he lacked frigates for reconnaissance, he missed the French fleet, reached Egypt first, found the port of Alexandria empty, and impetuously returned to Sicily, where his ships were resupplied. Determined to find the French fleet, he sailed to Egypt once more and on August 1 he sighted the main French fleet of 13 ships of the line and 4 frigates under Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigailliers at anchor in Abu Qir Bay.

Although there were but a few hours left until nightfall and Brueys’ ships were in a strong defensive position, being securely ranged in a sandy bay that was flanked on one side by a shore battery on Abu Qir Island, Nelson gave orders to attack at once. Several of the British warships were able to maneuver around the head of the French line of battle and thus got inside and behind their position. Fierce fighting ensued, during which Nelson himself was wounded in the head. The climax came at about 10:00 PM, when Brueys’ 120-gun flagship, which was by far the largest ship in the bay, blew up with most of the ship’s company, including the admiral. The fighting continued for the rest of the night, with the end result that the British warships destroyed or captured all but two of Brueys’ ships of the line. The British suffered about 900 casualties, the French about 10 times as many.

The Battle of the Nile had several important effects. It isolated Napoleon’s army in Egypt, thus ensuring its ultimate disintegration. It ensured that in due time Malta would be retaken from the French, and it both heightened British prestige and secured British control of the Mediterranean.

Nile, Battle of the. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June 2, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

“A Web of English History” Website Article on the Battle of the Nile

A particularly good description of the Battle of the Nile, including an excellent map of the deployment of the ships, is provided on the “Web of English History” website and is included below. 

The French sailed from Toulon on 19 May and headed towards Malta to capture the island. The fleet comprised thirteen ships of the line, eight frigates, two Venetian 64s, eight Venetian frigates, eight corvettes and four hundred transports carrying 36,000 troops. Vice-Admiral Brueys, the commander, was on board the flagship, L’Orient. His subordinates were Villeneuve, Blanquet-Duchayla and Decrès.

After the French had captured Malta and Gozo without resistance and set sail once more on 18 June, the likely destination of the French appeared to be Egypt. Nelson guessed correctly that the French were heading for Alexandria but did not find the French until three weeks after Napoleon had landed, taken Alexandria, won the Battle of the Pyramids and entered Cairo. Napoleon ordered Brueys to take up a defensive position at anchor, which he did on 8 July in Aboukir Bay. This place was chosen because his flagship was too big to anchor in Alexandria harbour.

The position taken by Brueys was much weaker than he thought. Men-of-war needed a depth of 30 feet in calm water. Brueys had anchored his ships virtually parallel to the four fathom (24 feet) line but not close enough to it. His flanks were unprotected, his ships were about 160 yards apart and half his men had been sent ashore. No proper survey of the Egyptian coast had ever been made and Brueys may well have assumed that the British would approach cautiously, sounding as they went and correcting their charts. He may have supposed that he would have time to prepare for battle. It was late in the day when the British squadron’s approach was sighted and Brueys thought that the battle would take place on the following day, giving him the whole night in which to improve his position. He probably did not imagine that the British would risk a night action in uncharted waters.

He was wrong. The British fleet sailed on and at 5.30 pm Brueys signalled his ships to clear for action on the seaward side. Some of his men were still ashore and he tried to make up for this by borrowing seamen from his frigates. His thirteen sail of the line included his flagship and three 80-gun ships, the Franklin, the Guillaume Tell and the Tonnant. He had also four frigates, two corvettes, three bomb vessels and some gunboats. He placed his flagship in the centre of his line, supported by the Franklin and Tonnant. Rather belatedly, he ordered his ships to lower a second anchor and send a cable to the next ship astern, thus ensuring that their broadsides would continue to bear.

By this time, Nelson had seen his chance. A fleet at anchor was at a disadvantage because the attacking fleet could concentrate on a part of the defending line. Also, the French ships were held by a single anchor, so there was room between them and the sand bank where they could swing. It was possible for the British fleet to pass them to the landward and seaward, ensuring that some would have an opponent on either side. Nelson’s ships took up formation as they approached the enemy. Nelson sent three signals; first, to prepare for battle; second, to be ready to anchor by the stern; third, to concentrate on the enemy’s front and centre. He had previously ordered his ships to fly the white ensign so they could recognise each other more easily in the dark.

The Culloden struck a reef during the approach, was saved with difficulty and played no part in the battle. Nelson fought with only twelve 74-gun ships, together with the obsolescent Leander, which went first to the Culloden‘s rescue and so arrived rather late on the battlefield.

As it grew dark Nelson’s leading ship, the Goliath led the way inside the French line, the Zealous, Orion, Theseus and Audacious following suit., Nelson’s flagship, Vanguard, now came up on the outside of the French line, supported by the Minotaur and Defence. This was the situation that Nelson had wanted, with five French ships overwhelmed by eight British opponents. They were the oldest and weakest French ships. They had been ready to engage with the seaward battery and were caught with their guns not even run out. Several had opponents on either side. It was now dark and the Bellerophon engaged the Orient. The Majestic went on to engage L’Heureux and ended up exchanging broadsides with Le Mercure. The three rear French ships were left without opponents. At this time, with victory already certain, Nelson was wounded. He was on deck again later and retained command.

In the centre of the French line the Peuple Souverain, after being trapped between the Orion and Defence was dismasted and driven out of the battle line. The Leander moved into the gap. A French frigate, the Serieux, opened fire on the Orion and was sunk when the fire was returned. The Bellerophon, dismasted and severely damaged by the French flagship, drifted out of the line but the Swifsure and Alexander took her place. At 9 pm, a fire was seen on board L’Orient and the guns of the Swifsure concentrated on the spot. At about 10 pm, the French flagship blew up. The son of Luce Julien Joseph Casabianca – Giocante, aged 12 – remained on watch until he and his father died in the explosion. The poem, The boy stood on the burning deck was written
about the incident. The nearer ships were in danger from the falling wreckage. The Franklin struck her colours at midnight. The Tonnant was then the only French ship still firing and she was dismasted by 3 am. At 4 am, the action was renewed and the Heureux and Mercure were cannonaded into surrender. The Timoleon had run ashore but the Généreux and Guillaume Tell, with two frigates, were sufficiently undamaged to make their escape. The Tonnant then surrendered and the crew of the Timoleon set their ship on fire and escaped ashore. Of the French ships of the line one had blown up, nine had surrendered, one was wrecked, one was burned and only two escaped.

Artists’ Renditions of the Battle of the Nile

The conditions that existed during the Battle of the Nile are captured at least in part by artworks prepared after the battle. Because of its fame and the lopsided victory achieved by Nelson, apparently many paintings have been created of the scenes of the battle. Many of these paintings are included on the following website and are shown below, with the captions provided on the website for each painting. 

Ivan Berryman: Battle of the Nile

Sunset over Aboukir Bay on 1st August 1798 as ships of the Royal Navy, led by Nelson, conduct their ruthless destruction of the anchored French fleet. Ships shown from left to right. HMS Orion, Spartiate, Aquilon, Peuple Souvrain, HMS Defence, HMS Minotaur and HMS Swiftsure 

Graeme Lothian: Admiral Nelsons Victory at the Battle of the Nile

During the Napoleonic Wars after the Royal Navy left the Mediterranean, Napoleon was ordered to seize Egypt and to secure the Red Sea for France. When the British heard of the French landing, Admiral Horatio Nelson, with a Royal naval squadron, was sent to Egypt. On the 1st August, Horatio Nelson discovered the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay , the French fleet consisted of 13 ships of the line, 4 naval frigates and a variety of troop ships. Admiral Nelson had a force of 14 ships, he divided his fleet into two, sailed one half of his fleet into the bay of Aboukir between the French and the shoreline, while the 2nd half of his fleet sailed the other side of the French line. The French fleet was almost entirely destroyed with only 2 French ships escaping. This British naval victory ended Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Aboukir Bay is East of Alexandria in Egypt.

Anthony Saunders: Battle of the Nile

On the 1st August 1798, thirteen French ships of the line sate at anchor in Aboukir bay off the coast of Alexandria Egypt, in support of Napoleon who was inland with his troops attempting to conquer the country. As night time approached so did Lord Horatio Nelson and the British fleet. nelson had been hunting Napoleon at sea for months; at Aboukir Bat he had found the French fleet, trapped and unprepared for battle. Nelson’s audacious plan was to attack the French on their unprotected port side, the plan had its risks, the whole of the British fleet could run aground in the Shallows – nut Nelson knew the waters too well. The battle of the Nile was one of the most decisive in the history of naval warfare. By the end of the battle nearly all three French ships were sunk or captured. the 124 gun flagship the pride of the French navy L’Orient, has exploded with such ferocity that it halted the battle for over ten minutes. Napoleon’s ability to dominate the region had been crushed, whilst Nelson was to become a hero throughout the whole of Britain.

Ships form left to right. HMS Thesius, L’Heureux, le Tonnant, HMS Akexander, L’Orient HMS Swiftsure, HMS Defence, L’Auilon and HMS Vangard

Thomas Luny: The Battle of the Nile

August 1st 1798. The British naval force destroys the French vessels, which were the lifeline to the French army commanded by Napoleon, occupying Egypt.

Thomas Pocock: Battle of the Nile, 1st August 1798

Battle of the Nile , 1st August 1798 by Pocock

B.F. Gribble: The Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile by B F Gribble

Charles Dixon: The Majestic at the Battle of the Nile 1798

The Majestic at the Battle of the Nile 1798 by Charles Dixon

Majestic battleship, 1,642 tons. Launched Blackwall. Heaviest guns, 32 pdr.

Antique lithograph prints, published circa 1902 from the series “Britannia’s Bulwarks”. 

Robert Taylor: Battle of the Nile

Battle of the Nile by Robert Taylor

Vice Admiral Nelson catches Napoleon’s fleet by surprise in Aboukir Bay , August 1st 1798.

Horatio Nelson, Brilliant British Naval Commander

Horatio Nelson’s portrait and signature are provided on the following website and are included below. 

A biography of Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson, is available on Encyclopædia Britannica Online and is shown below.

Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson

born Sept. 29, 1758, Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, Eng.

died Oct. 21, 1805, at sea, off Cape Trafalgar, Spain in full Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe, also called (1797-98)  Sir Horatio Nelson,  or (1798-1801)  Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe 

British naval commander in the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, who won crucial victories in such battles as those of the Nile (1798) and of Trafalgar (1805), where he was killed by enemy fire on the HMS Victory. In private life he was known for his extended love affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, while both were married.

Early years

Horatio Nelson was the sixth of 11 children of the village rector, Edmund Nelson, and his wife, Catherine. The Nelsons were genteel, scholarly, and poor. The family’s most important connection from which Nelson could expect preferment was that with a distant relation, Lord Walpole, the descendant of Sir Robert Walpole, who had been prime minister earlier in the century. Decisive for Nelson’s life, however, was his mother’s brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, who was to become comptroller of the British Navy. When Horatio’s mother died, Captain Suckling agreed to take the boy to sea.

Nelson’s first years in the navy were a mixture of routine experience and high adventure. The former was gained particularly in the Thames estuary, the latter in a voyage to the West Indies by merchant ship and a dangerous and unsuccessful scientific expedition to the Arctic in 1773. Nelson had his first taste of action in the Indian Ocean . Soon after, struck down by fever—probably malaria—he was invalided home, and, while recovering from the consequent depression, Nelson experienced a dramatic surge of optimism. From that moment, Nelson’s ambition, fired by patriotism tempered by the Christian compassion instilled by his father, urged him to prove himself at least the equal of his eminent kinsmen.

In 1777 Nelson passed the examination for lieutenant and sailed for the West Indies , the most active theatre in the war against the American colonies. Promoted to captain in 1779, at the early age of 20, he was given command of a frigate and took part in operations against Spanish settlements in Nicaragua, which became targets once Spain joined France in alliance with the American Revolutionaries. The attack on San Juan was militarily successful but ultimately disastrous when the British force was almost wiped out by yellow fever; Nelson himself was lucky to survive.

In 1783, after the end of the American Revolution, Nelson returned to England by way of France. On his return to London he was cheered by the appointment, in 1784, to command a frigate bound for the West Indies . But this was not to be a happy commission. By rigidly enforcing the Navigation Act against American ships, which were still trading with the British privileges they had officially lost, he made enemies not only among merchants and shipowners but also among the resident British authorities who, in their own interest, had failed to enforce the law. Under the strain of his difficulties and of the loneliness of command, Nelson was at his most vulnerable when he visited the island of Nevis in March 1785. There he met Frances Nisbet, a widow, and her five-year-old son, Josiah. Nelson conducted his courtship with formality and charm, and in March 1787 the couple was married at Nevis .

Returning with his bride to Burnham Thorpe, Nelson found himself without another appointment and on half pay. He remained unemployed for five years, aware of “a prejudice at the Admiralty evidently against me, which I can neither guess at, nor in the least account for”—but which may well have been connected with his enforcement of the Navigation Act. Within a few days of the execution of King Louis XVI of France in January 1793, however, he was given command of the 64-gun Agamemnon.

Service in the Mediterranean

From this moment, Nelson the enthusiastic professional was gradually replaced by Nelson the commander of genius. The coming months were probably his most tranquil emotionally. At home waited a loving wife, whose son he had taken to sea with him. His ship, fast and maneuverable, and his crew, superbly trained, pleased him. His task was to fight the Revolutionary French and support British allies in the Mediterranean . Assigned to the forlorn defense of the port of Toulon against the revolutionaries—among them a 24-year-old officer of artillery, Napoleon Bonaparte—Nelson was dispatched to Naples to collect reinforcements. He later gratefully recognized that he owed the success of his mission largely to the British minister—the adroit and
scholarly Sir William Hamilton, who had lived at Naples for 30 years and whose vivacious young wife, Emma, was in the queen’s confidence.

When Toulon fell, Lord Hood, Nelson’s commander, moved his base to Corsica , where Nelson and his ship’s company went ashore to assist in the capture of Bastia and Calvi, where a French shot flung debris into Nelson’s face, injuring his right eye and leaving it almost sightless. At the end of 1794, Hood was replaced by the uninspiring Admiral William Hotham, who was subsequently replaced by Sir John Jervis, an officer more to Nelson’s liking. At the age of 60, Jervis was an immensely experienced seaman who quickly recognized Nelson’s qualities and who regarded Nelson “more as an associate than a subordinate Officer.” The arrival of Jervis coincided with an upsurge of French success by land so that the British were forced to abandon their Mediterranean bases and retreat upon Gibraltar and the Tagus .

Battles of Cape St. Vincent and the Nile

After a rendezvous with Jervis in the Atlantic off Cape St. Vincent on the previous day, Nelson on Feb. 14, 1797, found himself sailing in mist through a Spanish fleet of 27 ships. The Spaniards were sailing in two divisions and Jervis planned to cut between the two and destroy one before the other could come to its assistance. But he had miscalculated, and it became clear that the British ships would not be able to turn quickly enough to get into action before the Spanish squadrons closed up. Without orders from Jervis, Nelson hauled out of line and attacked the head of the second Spanish division. While the rest of Jervis’ fleet slowly turned and came up in support, Nelson held the two Spanish squadrons apart, at one time fighting seven enemy ships. The efficiency of British gunnery was decisive, and he not only boarded and captured one enemy man-of-war but, from her deck, boarded and took a second.

The Battle of Cape St. Vincent won for Jervis the earldom of St. Vincent and for Nelson a knighthood, which coincided with his promotion by seniority to rear admiral. His first action in command of a major independent force, however, was disastrous. In the course of an assault on Tenerife , a grapeshot shattered his right elbow, and back in his flagship the arm was amputated. In the spring of 1798 Nelson was fit enough to rejoin the Earl of St. Vincent, who assigned him to watch a French fleet waiting to embark an expeditionary force.

Cruising off the port in his flagship, the Vanguard, Nelson was struck by a violent northwesterly gale that blew his squadron off station and carried the French well on their way to their destination, Egypt. The British set out in pursuit, Nelson believing that the French were going either to Sicily or Egypt. After a somewhat confused chase the British caught up with the French
squadron in the harbour at Alexandria, near the mouth of the Nile , on Aug. 1, 1798 . There the British saw the harbour crowded with empty French transports and, to the east, an escorting French squadron of 13 ships anchored in a defensive line across Abu Qir Bay near the mouths of the Nile . Once the signal to engage had been hoisted in the Vanguard, Nelson’s ships attacked the French. With the French ships immobilized, the attacking British ships could anchor and concentrate their fire on each enemy before moving on to demolish their next target. Its outcome never in doubt from its beginning at sunset, the battle raged all night. By dawn on August 2, the French squadron had been all but annihilated. The strategic consequences of the Battle of the Nile were immense, and Nelson took immediate steps to broadcast the news throughout the Mediterranean as well as hastening it to London. Nelson was made a baron in recognition of his victory at the Battle of the Nile .

At Naples, the most convenient port for repairs, he was given a hero’s welcome, stage-managed by Lady Hamilton. A prolonged British naval presence in Naples was useful in supporting the shaky military strength of King Ferdinand, the one major ruler in Italy to be resisting the southward march of the French, who had already taken Rome and deposed the pope.

The love affair that developed between Nelson and Emma Hamilton came at a time of crisis. With Nelson’s encouragement, King Ferdinand had indulged his own fantasies of glory and, openly joining the alliance of Great Britain, Russia, and Austria against the French, led his own insignificant army to recapture Rome. Not only was this a disastrous failure but the French counteroffensive drove him back to Naples , which itself then fell. Nelson had to evacuate the Neapolitan royal family to Sicily, and at Palermo it became obvious to all that his infatuation with Emma Hamilton was complete. She had proved herself indispensable company to him.

Blockade of Naples and battle of Copenhagen

In the summer of 1799, Nelson’s squadron supported Ferdinand’s successful attempt to recapture Naples, but word of his dalliance with Emma had reached the Admiralty, and his superiors began to lose patience. Bonaparte had escaped from Egypt to France, and the French still held Malta when Lord Keith, who had replaced St. Vincent as commander in chief, decided that the enemy’s next objective would be Minorca . Nelson was ordered to that island with all available ships but refused on the grounds that he expected the threat to be toward Naples. Events justified him, but to disobey orders so blatantly was unforgivable. The Admiralty, also angered by his acceptance of the dukedom of Bronte in Sicily from King Ferdinand, sent him an icy order to return home.

In 1800 he returned, but across the continent in company with the Hamiltons. When the curious little party landed in England, it was at once clear that he was the nation’s hero, and his progress to London was triumphal. Nelson was promoted to vice admiral in January 1801. Emma was pregnant by him when he was appointed second in command to the elderly admiral Sir Hyde Parker, who was to command an expedition to the Baltic. Shortly before sailing, Nelson heard that Emma had borne him a daughter named Horatia.

Parker’s fleet sailed for the first objective, Copenhagen, early in 1801. At first Nelson’s advice was not sought; then, as Danish resistance became increasingly likely, he could record, “Now we are sure of fighting, I am sent for.” By the stratagem of taking the fleet’s ships of shallower draught through a difficult channel, Nelson bypassed the shore batteries covering the city’s northern approaches. The next morning, April 2, he led his squadron into action. There was to be no room for tactical brilliance; only superior gunnery would tell. The Danes resisted bravely, and Parker, fearing that Nelson was suffering unacceptable losses, hoisted the signal to disengage. Nelson disregarded it, and, an hour later, victory was his; the Danish ships lay shattered and silent, their losses amounting to some 6,000 dead and wounded, six times heavier than those of the British.

Before this success could be followed by similar attacks on the other potential enemies, Tsar Paul of Russia died and the threat faded. Parker was succeeded by Nelson, who at last became a commander in chief. He was also made a viscount. The Admiralty, well aware of his popular appeal, now made maximum use of it by giving him a home command. At once he planned an ambitious attack on the naval base of Boulogne in order to foil a possible French invasion. He did not take part himself, and the operation was a gory failure. A second attempt was abandoned because of peace negotiations with France, and in March 1802 the Treaty of Amiens was signed.

At last there was time to enjoy the fruits of his victories. Emma had, on Nelson’s instructions, bought an elegant country house,

Merton Place, near London, and transformed it into an expensive mirror for their vanities. At last her husband rebelled, but it was too late for change, and he appeared reconciled to his lot when, early in 1803, he died with his wife and her lover at his side.

Victory at Trafalgar

Bonaparte was known to be preparing for renewed war, and, two days before it broke out, Nelson, in May 1803, was given command in the Mediterranean, hoisting his flag in the Victory. Once again he was to blockade Toulon, now with the object of preventing a rendezvous between the French ships there with those at Brest in the Atlantic and, after Spain declared war on Britain, with Spanish ships from Cartagena and Cádiz. A combined force of that size could well enable Bonaparte to invade England; and in early 1805, Napoleon, who the previous year had crowned himself emperor, ordered the fleets to converge for this purpose. The French and Spanish squadrons were to burst through the British blockade; run for the West Indies; and after ravaging British possessions and trade, return across the Atlantic in a single invincible fleet to destroy the British near Ushant, an island off Brittany, and take control of the English Channel while it was crossed by an invading army of 350,000.

In March, Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, who was to be in overall command, broke out of Toulon under cover of bad weather and disappeared. Nelson set off in pursuit. Villeneuve cut short his marauding, but his fleet was intercepted and damaged by a British squadron. Failing to win control of the English Channel , he ran south to Cádiz.

Nelson put into Gibraltar , made dispositions for the blockade of Cádiz, and returned to England. During his 25 days at home, he planned the strategy for the confrontation with the Franco Spanish fleets that seemed inevitable; 34 enemy ships were blockaded in Cádiz by smaller numbers under Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. Although Napoleon, abandoning the plan of a cross-Channel invasion, began to redeploy the Grand Army, in Britain the danger of invasion seemed as pressing as ever, and Nelson appeared the country’s hope.

When his orders came, Nelson on September 15 sailed in the Victory. He was now at the height of his professional powers. Worshiped by his officers and sailors alike, he was confident that his captains understood his tactical thinking so well that the minimum of consultation would be required. On his 47th birthday he dined 15 captains in his flagship and outlined his plans to bring on a “pell-mell battle” in which British gunnery and offensive spirit would be decisive. He planned to advance on the Franco-Spanish fleets in two divisions to break their line and destroy them piecemeal. This was the final abandonment of the traditionally rigid tactics of fighting in line of battle.

After receiving Napoleon’s orders that he must break the blockade, Villeneuve, on October 20, sailed out of Cádiz. At dawn next day, the Franco-Spanish fleets were silhouetted against the sunrise off Cape Trafalgar , and the British began to form the two divisions in which they were to fight, one led by Nelson, the other by Collingwood. As the opposing fleets closed, Nelson made his famous signal, ” England expects that every man will do his duty.” The Battle of Trafalgar raged at its fiercest around the Victory, and a French sniper, firing from the mast of the Redoutable, shot Nelson through the shoulder and chest. He was carried below to the surgeon, and it was soon clear that he was dying. When told that 15 enemy ships had been taken, he replied, “That is well, but I had bargained for 20.” Thomas Hardy, his flag captain, kissed his forehead in farewell and Nelson spoke his last words, “Now I am satisfied. Thank God, I have done my duty.”

Although the victory of Trafalgar finally made Britain safe from invasion, it was, at the time, overshadowed by the news of Nelson’s death. A country racked with grief gave him a majestic funeral in St. Paul ‘s Cathedral, and his popularity was recorded in countless monuments, streets, and inns named after him and, eventually, in the preservation at Portsmouth of the Victory. Emma Hamilton and his daughter, however, were ignored. Emma died, almost destitute, in Calais nine years later. Horatia, showing her father’s resilience, married a clergyman in Norfolk and became the mother of a large and sturdy family.


Nelson had finally broken the unimaginative strategic and tactical doctrines of the previous century and taught individual officers to think for themselves. His flair and forcefulness as a commander in battle were decisive factors in his two major victories—the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar. In the former, he had destroyed the French fleet upon which Napoleon Bonaparte had based his hopes of Eastern conquest, and in the latter he had destroyed the combined French and Spanish fleets, thus ensuring the safety of the British Isles from invasion and the supremacy of British sea power for more than a century. Spectacular success in battle, combined with his humanity as a commander and his scandalous private life, raised Nelson to godlike status in his lifetime, and after his death at Trafalgar in 1805, he was enshrined in popular myth and iconography. He is still generally accepted as the most appealing of Britain’s national heroes.

Tom Pocock

Additional Reading

Robert Southey, The Life of Nelson (1813, reissued 1969), one of the first and the most reliable of the many biographies, treats with delicacy the more intimate aspects of Nelson’s private life. A.T. Mahan, The Life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain, 2nd ed. rev. (1899, reissued 1969), is a biographical study by the American naval historian. Carola Oman, Nelson (1946, reissued 1970), a perceptive and intelligent biography, is accurate and well written. Oliver Warner, A Portrait of Lord Nelson (1958, reissued 1987), is a good study, written with personal and professional understanding. Geoffrey Bennett, Nelson the Commander (1972), relates the admiral’s career to the naval practice of his own and later times. Christopher Lloyd, Nelson and Sea Power (1973), is an introduction to his life and influences. A recent, more popular biography is David Howarth and Stephen Howarth, Nelson: The Immortal Memory (1988, also published as Lord Nelson, 1989).

Nelson, Horatio Nelson, Viscount. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June  4, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <

A portrait of Nelson is also provided on Ecnyclopedia Britannica Online and is shown below.

Lord Nelson, detail of an oil painting by J.F. Rigaud; in the National Maritime Museum , Greenwich, By courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Eng.

Nelson, Horatio Nelson, Viscount. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June  4, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <

History and Fate of Nelson’s Flagship, the HMS Vanguard

“Ships of the World: an Historical Encyclopedia” is maintained on the website of Houghton Mifflin (address shown below). It contains the following entry on the HMS Vanguard. 

HMS Vanguard

3rd rate 74 (3m). L/B: 168 × 47 (51.2m × 14.3m). Tons: 1,664 bm. Hull: wood. Comp.: 530. Arm.: 28 × 32pdr, 30 × 24pdr, 16 × 9pdr. Built: Deptford Dockyard; 1787.

When France under the Directory declared war on Great Britain in 1793, the Kingdom of Naples allied itself with Britain, which was forced thereby to commit major resources to the Mediterranean. The British presence there intensified even more after Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796. The next year, Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson had his right arm amputated after an attempted landing at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. His first flagship upon returning to duty was HMS Vanguard, Captain Edward Berry commanding, and he was immediately sent to cruise off Toulon to determine the intentions of the huge French fleet mustering there under Vice Admiral François Paul Brueys d’Aiguïlliers. On May 20, 1798, Vanguard was dismasted in a gale and made repairs at Sardinia, returning to Toulon to find that the French had sailed, also on the 20th. Earl St. Vincent then appointed Nelson—over two more senior officers—to search for and destroy the French armada, numbering some 75 warships, 400 transports, 10,000 sailors, and 36,000 soldiers.

By June 7, Nelson had a fleet of 14 ships of the line but, through a confusion of orders, no frigates, a situation that led him to declare, “Frigates! Were I to die this moment, want of frigates would be found engraved on my heart!” Lacking these “eyes of the fleet,” he was unable to locate the French armada until after it had captured Malta, at which point he supposed it to be headed for Egypt to establish a bridgehead for the capture of British India. Finding no French in Alexandria, Nelson put back to Sicily for water and provisions. Setting to sea again, on July 28 he learned that the French had been seen bound for Egypt, to which he now returned. On August 1, the British were off Alexandria, and that same afternoon found the French fleet of thirteen ships of the line and four frigates anchored in line ahead in Aboukir Bay. Many of the crews were ashore watering ship, and though they were recalled immediately, Admiral Brueys seems to have believed that Nelson would attack the following morning and that he had a night to prepare.

Nelson felt that when the French cleared for battle, they would assume that his attack would come from the sea and not bother with the guns facing the shore. At 1630, five of Nelson’s ships passed between the French van and the shore while Vanguard and five other ships anchored to seaward. Seven French ships were pummeled by thirteen British (Culloden had run aground and Swiftsure and Alexander did not arrive off Aboukir until 2000), while the rest of the French fleet remained out of action to leeward. Nelson described the action briefly in a letter to Lord Howe:

I had the happiness to command a band of brothers; therefore, night was to my advantage. Each knew his duty, and I was sure each would feel for a French ship. By attacking the enemy’s van and centre, the wind blowing directly along their line, I was able to throw what force I pleased on a few ships. This plan my friends readily conceived by the signals,… and we always kept a superior force to the enemy. At twenty-eight minutes past six, the sun in the horizon, the firing commenced. At five minutes past ten, when the Orient blew up, having burnt seventy minutes, the six van ships surrendered. I then pressed further towards the rear; and had it pleased God that I had not been wounded and stone blind [from a piece of scrap iron that hit him in the forehead], there cannot be a doubt but that every ship would have been in our possession.

In the event, the Nile proved the most decisive victory of its day, and Rear Admiral Comte de Villeneuve escaped with only Généreux, Guillaume Tell, and two frigates. Two ships of the line were sunk, three were beyond repair, and six were taken into the Royal Navy. Nelson was honored with a peerage (Baron Nelson of the Nile and Burnham-Thorpe) and with gifts from Czar Paul of Russia, Ottoman Sultan Selim III, and the East India Company, among others.

France’s army in Egypt remained cut off in the Middle East until 1802, although Napoleon returned to Europe in October 1799. In the meantime, French continental armies advanced through Italy with little resistance from the fragmented republics. In December 1798, the Neapolitan royal family sailed to exile in Sicily aboard Vanguard. Shortly thereafter, Nelson commenced a blockade of Malta, which held out for two years. Nelson later shifted his flag to HMS Foudroyant, and in 1800 Vanguard returned to home waters. Though she remained in active service, she was not present at the other major battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Reduced to a prison ship in 1812 and a powder hulk in 1814, Vanguard was broken up in 1821.

Bennett, Nelson the Commander.

A painting of the HMS Vanguard by Ivan Berryman appears on the following website and is shown below. 

HMS Vanguard at Portsmouth By Ivan Berryman

Proud flagship of Admiral Nelson at the battle of the Nile. HMS Vanguard is pictured lying near the entrance of Portsmouth harbour at sunset in company with another Nile veteran HMS Majestic. Vanguard one of fourteen 3rd rate 74,s penned by the famous ship designer Slade was launched in 1787 and enjoyed a long and eventful career under numerous Commanding officers. In various roles until finally being broken up in 1821. 


1Jordan, Thomas E., 2003, With Nelson at the Nile: Naval History, v. 17, issue 6 (December 2003), p. 32, 4 p.

Webpage History

Webpage posted June 2005. Upgraded August 2005 with addition of images from original article.