Letters from the Battle of Trafalgar: Captain Charles Tyler

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Captain Charles Tyler of the Tonnant
Captain Charles Tyler of the Tonnant
In October 1805, Margaret Tyler’s husband Charles was a captain in Nelson’s fleet. Charles Tyler had been with Nelson at Calvi when Nelson lost his eye, they served together at Copenhagen and Charles was now in charge of the Tonnant, the only 80 gun ship in the fleet. January’s item of the month is a series of letters showing a lesser known Trafalgar captain’s touching correspondence with his wife.

The dates almost as much as the contents of the letters left me wondering how Margaret Tyler must have been feeling in late October and early November 1805. The Times of 7 November had announced that in the afternoon of 21 October there had been a great sea battle against the Combined French and Spanish fleet, that Nelson was dead and this was allegedly ‘the greatest victory achieved by any nation’. While not a British ship was lost, two captains, Duff and Cooke had been killed as well as Britain’s favourite Admiral. It is not difficult to imagine the anguish Margaret must have felt for news of her husband. In 1805 news of loved ones trickled through painfully slowly. In the days before the war office telegrams of the twentieth century, news depended heavily on the bonds of friendship and personal correspondence.

The first of Charles’ letters is written from Gibraltar on 29 October. It implies Margaret may already have learned that he had been wounded:

My Beloved Margaret- Before this reaches you the account of our Glorious Victory of the 21st Instant must have reached England and will of course cause the greatest anxiety...I therefore take this earliest opportunity  of assuring you I am in the fairest possible way: The hurt I received was in my right thigh by a musket ball but fortunately done no other harm than passing through it [but] my surgeon is perfectly satisfied  and my health and spirits are so good he gives me hopes I shall very soon get about.

Perhaps wishing to reassure his wife that he is doing all he can to recuperate, Charles adds:

 I am writing this in William Downall's House who has kindly given me a room as the noise on board [is very great and] my cabin is a perfect Barn

The second letter is written just five days later but as it went through Spain to Lisbon 'this will reach you first'. Again Charles’s first concern is to describe his continuing recovery:

I have the unspeakable satisfaction of assuring my beloved and dearest Margaret I am astonishingly recovered for the short time I have been here, the wound in my thigh has the best appearance and the surgeons who have seen it pronounce there is not the smallest danger and in the course of ten days I shall be able to walk.

While he recovered well, the treatment was not entirely to his liking:

My Surgeon would have had me drink plenty of Madeira but I would not, fearing it would increase the inflammation, but thank God every appearance of that is gone.

The importance of friendships are clearly demonstrated in the next letter Margaret received. This was from friend and Captain Richard King of the Achilles, and it contained the news that he had taken and personally posted a third letter from Charles, as the Achilles sailed from Gibraltar before the Tonnant. King wrote: 

I hope you will receive this letter at the same time as his arrives as I put them in the post together.

King was one of the youngest captains in the fleet and the Achilles had been ship-but-one behind Tyler’s Tonnant in the column led by Admiral Collingwood. King must have seen much of the Tonnant’s duel with Spanish Algeciras, when Charles was wounded. He wrote to Margaret from Plymouth where the Achilles had arrived on 1st December, evidently trying to allay her fears as he passed on Charles’ hurriedly written third letter:

I assure you he is doing well. I was with him just before I sailed, saw his Surgeon, who told me nothing could wear a better appearance than his wound did…

Charles’ 3rd letter is covered in smudges and ink blots and was evidently written in hast, but contained news that he was on his way home:

 Thank God my beloved Margaret, we have arrived here [Spithead] after a passage of 13 days from Gibraltar. I have only time to tell you I am much better, the wound in my thigh has healed up but I must expect to go lame for sometime however. You must expect to see me very thin but Devon Air and good living will set me round.

Clearly Tyler expects his wife to feel some alarm and grief that he has been wounded but reminds her that their status dictates she must contain her distress. Concluding with ‘Give my affectionate love to the dear children. I long to embrace you and them’, the tender sentiments of a loving husband make the following stern reminder all the more jarring:

Mind my charges and prove yourself worthy of being the wife of an English Sailor

Clearly he has done his duty and he expects her to do the same!While these letters are written firstly to reassure his wife he has survived and is recovering from his wound, there are two themes which cannot be suppressed: The first is the evident pride and delight that 

I told you my beloved Margaret if they did come out it would be a proud day for old England… Their forces… was 33, ours 27, we have taken and destroyed 22 and those that have escaped are beat up most shockingly…

In the second letter he is euphoric and proud of his injury:

…can you dearest Margaret, regret for a moment your husband was one of the 27 that achieved this glory to their country? I forget my wound and would not now be without it…you may expect to see me with a genteel limp…

But included was something else no letter Trafalgar could omit: 

Most sincerely do we all lament our late, noble and worthy Admiral 

The correspondence does not reveal what their reunion was like nor how well Charles' wound eventually healed. But we do know they died within two months of each other, some thirty years later and are buried together in St Nicholas Church, Glamorgan, where there is also a memorial to this ‘One of the 27’.

The letters of Charles Tyler are catalogued under the reference TYL/1. Letters to his wife are in the second of the two volumes, under folios 197d to f. They can be requested for viewing in the Caird Library by using the online Archive catalogue www.rmg.co.uk/archivecatalogue  

You can register as a reader by using Aeon, the Library’s online ordering system at: https://archiveandlibrary.rmg.co.uk/aeon/

Martin, Archivist

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