One of the major problems in following the Immortal Memory trail is separating legend from fact. The historic record is almost always incomplete or contradictory, and that’s invariably the case with the most momentous events or historic personages.
So it is with Nelson. I shot this sunrise photo from Portsea showing the Nelson statue looking out towards Spithead where HMS Victory was anchored in September of 1805 (Royal Navy line of battle ships rarely tied up next to a wharf, as it’s difficult to dock and leave dock without engines). After leaving Emma Hamilton and coming down from London by coach, Nelson breakfasted at Portsmouth’s George Hotel. Thereafter he supposedly left the Portsmouth fortress through a sally port near this spot and was rowed out to the Victory in a ship’s boat, all the while contemplating his mission to save England from invasion. That would leave this spot as Nelson’s last view from English soil, but a similar distinction is claimed by Southsea, about 400 yards further south, and a Nelson monument stands there also (see below).
Nelson’s body was later brought back to Spithead on the Victory in a cask filled with spirits, but I couldn’t find any reference to where it was landed. No matter which version of the last moments story is correct, it is moving and fuels the Nelson legend.
Behind the Nelson statue in this shot is the Royal Garrison Church, which during Nelson’s time would have been fully roofed. The damage came from German bombs in World War II, which also destroyed the George and damaged the Victory.
As Nelson walked down to his barge, according to one contemporary Nelson biographer, probably with hagiographic hindsight, “A crowd collected in his train . . .; many were in tears, and many knelt down before him and blessed him as he passed. . . . They pressed upon the parapet to gaze after him when his barge pushed off, and he was returning their cheers by waving his hat. ‘I had their huzzas before’, he told Hardy, ‘I have their hearts now.'”
At some point shortly before the battle, Nelson composed a prayer, which is also memorialized on the Portsea monument. Nelson’s prayer shows the resignation and fatigue he must have felt after his too-brief six weeks leave from blockading the French Fleet. Nelson had been C-in-C Mediterranean since war was renewed between England and France in May of 1803. Blockading was hard duty and it told on men and ships. During the intervening two and a quarter years Nelson had been almost constantly at sea, including an epic chase across the Atlantic and back trying to bring the French to battle. Nelson’s sentiments were also probably driven by the sense that he finally faced an opportunity for total victory. A few weeks before another English admiral failed to bring on an action with a significant portion of the French fleet when it escaped from port. That heightened Napoleon’s invasion threat and eventually led to the combination of the Spanish and French fleets in Cadiz. When he arrived off Cadiz with Victory and took command of the blockading squadron, Nelson found himself with the rare opportunity that England had sought for years. Despite being outnumbered in line of battle ships, Nelson’s plan was to await the sailing of the combined fleet, break their line, bring on a general melee, and (he hoped) achieve an overwhelming victory that would save England.