New book puts flesh on the bones of Norfolk’s hero Nelson

PUBLISHED: 12:00 09 October 2012

Lord Nelson.

Lord Nelson.


John Sugden hopes his book isn’t seen as the last word on Lord Nelson – or perhaps that should be the last 450,000 words.

For this gargantuan tome, itself merely the latter half of a two-volume biography of the Norfolk Hero, explores Nelson’s life in greater detail than many might imagine possible given that more than two centuries have passed since his demise aboard HMS Victory.

Dr Sugden’s forensic research uncovered scores of files full of primary sources unknown to earlier biographers. The result is a human portrait that steers clear of idolatry or iconoclasm, instead depicting Nelson in many lights, some more flattering than others.

He also emerges as a very modern hero, almost a prototypical 21st century celebrity such was his flair for manipulating his public image via the media, though at the same time he remained deeply conscientious about his role as a public servant. For an example of the former trait, take his behaviour when personally suggesting a form of wording to the London Corporation by which they might thank him for his efforts at the Battle of Copenhagen. To avoid appearing boastful he claimed the wording came from a letter from “a dear friend”, who apparently hailed him as “the Victor of the Nile, the conqueror of Copenhagen… the terror and stop of the Northern Confederacy, the restorer of the King of Naples, the preserver of Rome, the Avenger of Kings, and the Guardian Angel of England. The only man who in this war has been 127 days in battle and ever came off covered with glory, honour, virtue and modesty, The pride of his country and friends.”

The “dear friend” was his mistress, Emma Hamilton, and Nelson himself served as the citation’s editor, for instance substituting “the only man” for her phrase “the man of men”.

“It’s very modern, and he’s almost the first example you get,” says Dr Sugden. “The only similar figure I can think of is Sir Francis Drake, going back to Elizabethan times, who was also a popular hero who attracted crowds and loved the attention – but even there, you don’t get this conscious milking and manipulation which you do with Nelson, so in that sense he is almost the first great figure of the cult of celebrity. He manipulated the press: he would have versions of his exploits written, either by himself or someone else, and get them into the press one way or another without saying they were from him.

“He was concerned to get his side of the story and a positive image before the public. And he was alert to all ways of doing this in a way only modern people are. For instance, he didn’t just use the press, which was perhaps an old-fashioned way – he knew there was a growing public popularity for engravings and prints, and he sat happily for as many portraits as he could.

“But the thing that really smacks of the modern day is that he virtually invented the walkabout. You think now of royalty going around meeting crowds in a way they never quite did before. You find Nelson doing this two centuries ago.”

Dr Sugden lives in the Lake District but grew up in East Yorkshire, “brought up on the same east coast as Nelson was, but further north, so I know those biting cold winds of winter very well!” Living by the sea sparked a childhood interest in maritime history and Nelson in particular: “from small acorns grow large oaks,” he says.

“I think this book started for me when I was very small – I was nine years old when I first got interested in Nelson. That was just through reading about him in comics and so forth. It’s come and gone over the years, but he’s been a character I’ve constantly been interested in and sometimes got really interested in. This project started in a way at the beginning of the 1980s because at that stage I had been working on another naval figure and began to find all these unused sources about Nelson, and thought for the first time ‘There’s a job to be done here’, because like many people I’d assumed that with so many books on Nelson surely there isn’t much more for me to do.”

First he began exploring small incidents other books mentioned only in passing, going back to the original documents and seeing where they led him. “Gradually I realised that really the whole lot of it needed a sweep, and with a bit of trepidation I had a go!”

The book makes no claim to revelatory discoveries that will topple our previous perception of the man; Dr Sugden’s aim was subtler, to deepen and humanise Nelson as far as possible. He develops into a conflicted character: strong-minded yet vulnerable, in constant need of affection and reassurance yet prone to tempestuous relations with his superiors, colleagues and friends. Social class plays its part – Nelson was a mere commoner engaged in political schisms with some of the wealthiest and most entrenched estate owners in the land. And of course while his naval prowess saved the nation, his adulterous affair with Lady Hamilton scandalised society.

“I think people are more interesting the more you learn about them, and a lot of the books edited out all the details about people and stuck to the bare bones. What I wanted to do was put that flesh back on the bones so that somebody that didn’t know Nelson at all would pick up this book and enter his world. I’d followed his life in that way, trying to explain how he lived and how he reacted and what he was trying to do at every stage: the circles that he went into, the personalities that influenced him… I was trying to re-create that now-lost 18th century world that Nelson lived and moved in.

“There were surprises – he was a much deeper, more complicated man than I’d taken him to be. When I was a boy I was attracted by the serial heroics, and you go beyond that and find that there was a very serious public servant there who became a lot more than an admiral.”

There’s as much swashbuckling as sensitivity, of course. Nelson: The Sword of Albion spans from 1797 to his death in 1805, eight years that saw him ascend from national to international fame owing to his exploits at the Battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. There were also lesser-known yet equally gripping campaigns to liberate the Italian states from French domination, in which he often secured unlikely triumphs against the odds.

Horatio Nelson was born at Burnham Thorpe rectory in 1758, the sixth child of eleven born to the Rev Edmund and Catherine Nelson. While the rectory is long gone, many buildings with strong connections to Lord Nelson survive, such as his father’s church in the village, or his grandfather’s at East Bradenham, or places where he socialised such as Aylsham’s Black Boys Inn, where he attended a dance in 1792.

“He always was very proud of being a Norfolk man and used to like meeting people who were from Norfolk – when he toured round meeting his men, if he found somebody from Norfolk he would have a very familiar conversation with them and start talking about the local fairs. He clearly had an attraction for Norfolk that lingered. But as he became more famous he didn’t get back to it very much.

“The big difference for him between Norfolk and the places he needed to be as an international figure was that Norfolk, and Burnham Thorpe [in particular], was isolated in the 18th century. It was very quiet and remote. People were born, lived and stayed in that area. There was a parochialism, and I think when Nelson went back to Norfolk after his earlier services when he became a captain in the West Indies and came back with his wife in 1788, he went back to live in Norfolk for the best part of five years, I think he found it very narrow compared with his wider experiences.

“His father used to say about Burnham Thorpe, ‘All is hush at noon as at midnight’, meaning nothing happened there other than the creaking of hay-wagons and the cry of seabirds on the saltmarshes. Between 1793 and his death in 1805 he never really went back, but he talked about it often and expressed a wish to be buried in his home village if there was no state funeral.”

There was one, however, and in January 1806 Nelson was interred in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. His home county built its own memorial in the form of the Norfolk Naval Pillar at Great Yarmouth, the town where he landed after the Battle of the Nile. As Dr Sugden observes in his preface the intervening two centuries have seen undulations in interest in his life – “he never ceased to be a very famous person of course, but I think partly there were some wider issues. History wasn’t doing well in schools for example, it wasn’t a subject that education paid very much attention to, and academically the historians were interested in economic and social analysis rather than the lives of great men.

“But I think there were other things as well. The nation was very aware of Nelson at times when it was endangered, because they had an affinity with this great hero who had delivered them from their enemies long ago, and the Nelson spirit was seen as an important thing to conjure up.

“But after the second world war, that sort of threat seemed to drift away and in the 1960s one of the great fashions was anti-militarism. The idea of patriotism was deeply unfashionable, and Empire didn’t conjure up the pride it did in the earlier part of the century – it was almost seen as something to be ashamed of.”

Since his death’s bicentenary Dr Sugden has noted a resurgence. And while his books may appear to leave little space for future authors, he believes there will long be more to say about such a significant and interesting figure.

“I wouldn’t want anyone else to think there’s nothing more to do. There’s still stuff out there and it would be nice to think I could pass the flag on to someone else who can carry it into battle in the future.”

Nelson: The Sword of Albion, by John Sugden, is published by Bodley Head at £30.

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