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Trafalgar Day – Nelson and the Cult of Celebrity

[This post was written on Trafalgar Day 2011.]

I am perennially perplexed by the attention given to modern “celebrities”. In 2131, will anyone know who David Beckham was, or any of the stars of X Factor or Strictly? I doubt it.

Two hundred and eight years ago, Horatio Nelson was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar. Few people in history have been so revered. He was Britain’s first mega-celebrity.

On 14 September 1805, Nelson had arrived at Portsmouth and could not make his way to his ship due to the pressure of crowds who wanted to cheer off their national hero. He tried to sneak off at nearby Southsea, but the whole crowd surged to follow and cheer him.

Like all superstars, he did not underestimate his own fame. “I had their huzzas before, I have their hearts now” he told his captain, Thomas Masterman Hardy as he finally stepped from English soil for the last time.

With the victory at Trafalgar, the nation had a victory to celebrate and a hero to mourn.

Vice Admiral Thomas Fremantle commanded the Neptune during the battle. He wrote to his brother William:

“The loss of Lord Nelson is the loss of everything and no man knows which way he is to look for the common & necessary qualities of the command of a fleet of such a magnitude as there is now here.”

When news of the victory reached London nearly three weeks later, his wife Elizabeth Fremantle caught the national mood in her diary:

“In the midst of my delight to hear Fremantle had been preserved in this severe action, I could not help feeling greatly distressed for the Fate of poor Nelson whose loss is irreparable… Poor Nelson! had he survived, it would have been glorious indeed. Regret at Nelson’s death is more severely felt than joy at the destruction of the Combined Fleets.”

Another diarist, Maria Skinner wrote:

“Great news! The combined fleet defeated off Cadiz, but Lord Nelson no more! I could not help being greatly affected by the whole account, and retired to my own room, to vent my feelings.”

Charles Williams, a man who could be a cruel satirist, drew one of the more touching cartoons of the day, portraying Poll greeting her naval husband at Portsmouth.

jack-and-poll-at-portsmouth_bm_croppedPoll says: “Welcome! welcome home my Dear Jack – !! Ah! but you have not brought
the brave Lord Nelson with you, well I hope he is in Heaven.”
Jack answers: “In Heaven! aye to be sure he is Poll. What in Hell should prevent him.”
Image: British Museum.

As every school kid knows, Nelson’s body was brought back to England picked in brandy. He was honoured a state funeral and his body lies in St Paul’s crypt, where he receives flowers on his birthday and the anniversary of his death. He was a celebrity in his lifetime and still is.

So move over Nicole Scherzinger, Simon Cowell and other here today, gone tomorrow “celebrities”. Let’s hear it for real celebrities remembered more than two centuries after their death.