Military History Horatio Nelson
Paul Krajeski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0009


The life and accomplishments of Horatio Nelson (b. 1758–d. 1805) have fascinated and inspired each generation in the two centuries since his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. Ironically, this naval officer became the face of Britain’s struggle against the armies of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. From humble beginnings as the son of a clergyman, he entered the Royal Navy at twelve. His pre-commissioning excursions to the West Indies, Arctic, and East Indies provided the requisite knowledge of seamanship and naval leadership to pass his lieutenant’s examination in 1777. Thenceforward a combination of ability, ambition, luck, heroism, and patronage propelled him ahead of a very able cohort of peers to the attention of the Admiralty and, eventually, to near-universal adulation by the British public. His path to distinction, however, was not without near misses and controversy. There were frequent brushes with death through illness and combat. He once lamented that an admiral with one eye and one arm was not much use to his country! And there were times when self-confidence bordered on arrogance and operational initiative abutted bold insubordination. His personal life also created potential for derailing his professional ambitions, typified by an adulterous affair with Emma Hamilton that befuddled even his staunchest supporters. Ultimately, Nelson’s shortcomings were overlooked and the opportunities he sought were granted because he produced results, capitalizing on a knack for being at the right place at the right time. In 1797 at the Battle of St. Vincent he led boarding parties from HMS Captain to capture the Spanish ships San Nicolas and San Josef. In 1798 his fleet’s destruction of a French fleet at Aboukir Bay thwarted Napoleon’s ambitions in Egypt. In 1801 the daring assault he led at Copenhagen accelerated collapse of armed neutrality against British interests in the Baltic. The Peace of Amiens 1802 proved a brief interlude for Nelson—its collapse the following year led to his command of the Mediterranean Fleet. With Napoleon scheming to invade Britain, Nelson aimed to prevent French ships in the Mediterranean from accessing the English Channel. To this end he chased Admiral Villeneuve’s squadron to the West Indies and back to European waters, thus setting conditions for the Battle of Trafalgar, which defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet on 21 October 1805. There Nelson lost his life, but this victory established British naval supremacy, compelling Napoleon into unsustainable military adventurism until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

Reference Works

Centuries of evolving technology, tactics, and organization for sailing navies reached an apogee during Nelson’s lifetime. Sound command and operation of a sailing ship required a body of knowledge and experience that took years to master. In modern parlance, building, equipping, manning, and fielding a fighting ship-of-the-line required a system-of-systems which was as sophisticated as any European state could muster at the time. Students easily can be overwhelmed by the specialized and sometimes esoteric language needed to decipher naval operations of this era. Fortunately, an abundance of excellent reference material is available for this task. King 2000 serves as a handy primer for building a rudimentary understanding of nautical words and phrases. Lavery 1989 provides a comprehensive overview of the Royal Navy and its milieu, thus providing background for continued research. Winfield 2005 and Gardiner 2011 delve further into the construction and capabilities of the British warships employed by Nelson and his contemporaries. Knowing Nelson’s contemporaries is central to knowing Nelson. Ralfe 1972 compiled a multivolume set of biographies in the 19th century that is still useful. Nearly all these biographies are updated in the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. White 2002 eliminated some of the guesswork associated with determining those personalities, places, and events germane to Nelson’s life. For a more general reference work that encompasses the wider scope of maritime history, see Hattendorf 2007.

  • Gardiner, Robert. Warships of the Napoleonic Era: Design, Development and Deployment. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 2011.

    Ship draught photocopies on a large page size enable visual analysis of the details, thus enhancing understanding of warship capabilities and limitations by type and country of origin.

  • Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Each entry’s narrative includes end references and bibliography. Last volume includes topical outline, directory of contributors, and index.

  • King, Dean. A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

    A-to-Z quick reference with introductory essays by John Hattendorf on the Royal Navy and J. Worth Estes on naval medicine. Useful for both fiction and nonfiction.

  • Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793–1815. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1989.

    Sixty chapters provide a foundation for development of the vocabulary essential for comprehension of most aspects of the navy’s resources and functions.

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

    Authoritative, succinct narratives of the historically significant British personages during the age of sail.

  • Ralfe, James. The Naval Biography of Great Britain: Consisting of Historical Memoirs of Those Officers of the British Navy Who Distinguished Themselves During the Reign of His Majesty George III. 4 vols. Boston: Gregg, 1972.

    Originally published 1828. Many of the 149 biographies were written by the subjects themselves, with the rich detail and bias inherent to eyewitness accounts.

  • White, Colin. The Nelson Encyclopedia. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2002.

    An arrangement of personalities, place names, phrases, and other categories central to Nelson’s personal and professional life. Contains some never before published letters.

  • Winfield, Rif. British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1793–1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. London: Chatham, 2005.

    Provides details on over 2,000 individual vessels. Includes information on commanders, significant deployments and actions, refits and major repairs, dimensions, and builders.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.