How Nelson Became a Hero


By Kathleen Wilson, published 31st August 2005

The fittest man in the world for the command' of the Mediterranean, Lord Minto declared of Horatio Nelson on 24 April 1798, following Nelson's inventive assault on Spanish ships off Cape St. Vincent. 'Admiral Nelson's victory [at the Nile]… is one of the most glorious and comprehensive victories ever achieved even by British valour,' the London Chronicle exulted later that year. Nelson's breath-taking exploits on the high seas, his courage and aggression in combat and his quixotic generosity to his men had quickly catapulted him to fame, enmeshing his reputation with the best of the English national character. '[W]ith the brilliant qualities of a hero, Lord Nelson unites a feeling and generous heart, a quick discernment of occasion, and popularity of manners', affirmed the Gentleman's Magazine in 1801, surveying the acclaim of the people on Nelson's tour to Fonthill. We are so familiar with Nelson the legend that the historical mechanics and the cultural significance of his extraordinary reputation as England's greatest admiral are rarely examined. Yet even in his day, Nelson was a controversial and political figure, whose insubordination, physical deformities and low-born mistress repelled many of his contemporaries, including...

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