Essential Information

National Maritime Museum
Price Free

For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain was at war with European rivals, such as France.  

During this period, the Royal Navy played a crucial role in British daily life. It protected the nation against invasion and generated wealth and employment by defending and promoting trade. 

Britain’s naval successes saw officers achieve celebrity status. The most famous of these was Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose daring victories in the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 established his heroic reputation. 

Triumph and loss, fear and bravery, fame and pain: discover the history of life at sea in the Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery at the National Maritime Museum. 

Inside the gallery

From bustling dockyards to sea battles, the gallery offers an insight into life in the Royal Navy, spanning the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. 

This was a time of turmoil. The Glorious Revolution – which saw James II overthrown by William III and Mary II – and ongoing tensions with France highlighted the ever-present threat of invasion. 


The Royal Navy was Britain’s first line of defence against potential attacks. The Royal Dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Sheerness, Portsmouth and Plymouth were vast industrial hubs, responsible for building and maintaining state-of-the-art warships.

These large vessels accommodated up to 800 crew members, such as officers, sailors, carpenters and surgeons. 

Image: Plymouth Dockyard by Nicholas Pocock (BHC1914)

Life on board was filled with challenges, including cramped conditions and disease. Naval battles came with the risk of serious injury and death; however, victories in these conflicts could result in officers becoming celebrities.

The most celebrated naval officer in British history, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was catapulted to fame following his defeat of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.  

His greatest victory – and final encounter – occurred on 21 October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson led Britain to victory against a combined French and Spanish fleet, but he was killed in the conflict by a musket shot. Nelson’s death resulted in an outpouring of public grief, and he received a state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Following the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain’s naval success continued. In 1815, the Royal Navy played an instrumental part in defeating French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo.

Gallery highlights

Tap the arrows to discover more about items on display in the Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery.

Tap to begin

Nelson's Trafalgar Coat

This is the coat Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was wearing when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. The bullet hole from the fatal musket shot is visible in the left shoulder.  

Made from blue wool cloth, this elaborate coat is adorned with Nelson’s four orders of chivalry: Knight of the Bath, Order of the Crescent, Order of Ferdinand & Merit and Order of St Joachim. 

An image for 'Nelson's Trafalgar Coat'

The ‘Royal George’ at Deptford showing the launch of the ‘Cambridge’

Filled with activity, this scene captures the excitement surrounding the launch of the Cambridge in 1755. The warship can be seen to the left of the painting, decorated with five flags. To the right of the work, the intricate stern of the Royal George – the Royal Navy’s flagship – rises dramatically above a ceremonial barge. 

During this period, the Royal Dockyard at Deptford was a key centre of maritime and naval activity. The painting was created by marine artist John Cleveley, who worked in the dockyard as a shipwright. 

An image for 'The ‘Royal George’ at Deptford showing the launch of the ‘Cambridge’ '

Nelson’s fede ring

Nelson was wearing this golden betrothal ring when he died. Designed to look like two clasped hands, it was one of a pair of rings exchanged by Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. 

Nelson and Emma’s love affair was regarded as scandalous: Nelson was a national hero, and both were already married. In 1801, Emma gave birth to a daughter, which the lovers named Horatia. As HMS Victory sailed into action at Trafalgar, Nelson amended his will, imploring the nation to provide for Emma and their child. 

An image for 'Nelson’s fede ring'

Print of Billy Waters

Born in America during the War of Independence, Billy Waters became a seaman in the Royal Navy. However, his career came to a sudden end when he fell from the rigging of a warship and lost his leg. 

Seafaring involved a high risk of injury. In 1694, Greenwich Hospital (today’s Old Royal Naval College) was founded to look after injured and retired seamen. 

After his accident, Billy took his career in a new direction. He became one of London’s most successful street entertainers, known for his fiddle playing. 

An image for 'Print of Billy Waters'

Nelson’s letter

This poignant document is thought to be Nelson’s first letter written with his left hand. In 1797, Nelson was hit by a musket ball during an unsuccessful attack on Tenerife. Bleeding profusely, he was taken back to his ship where his right arm was amputated – without anaesthetic. 

This letter, written two days after the incident, gives an insight into Nelson’s anguished mental state. He writes: ‘I am become a burden to my friends and useless to my Country.’ Just ten months later, Nelson was back in the thick of battle. 

An image for 'Nelson’s letter'

Destruction of 'L’Orient' at the Battle of the Nile

From towering clouds of smoke to flailing figures in the water, this painting captures the terror and destruction of naval warfare. 

It depicts the climax of the Battle of the Nile, a conflict between British and French ships that occurred in 1798. At the centre of the painting, the British battleship the Swiftsure surges through the waves, complete with billowing sails. To the left, the French flagship L’Orient is ablaze following an explosion, a column of fire erupting from the vessel. 

The blast killed most of L’Orient’s crew: both sides were so shocked by the devastation that fighting ceased for several minutes. 

This painting was made by artist George Arnald in the mid-1820s.

An image for 'Destruction of 'L’Orient' at the Battle of the Nile '

Visiting Nelson, Navy, Nation

Where is the gallery?

Nelson, Navy, Nation is a permanent gallery at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, located on the second floor. Entry to the Museum is free: book tickets online in advance to guarantee entry and receive updates before you visit.

Follow the gallery guide

Tours and audio guides

Nelson, Navy, Nation features as part of the range of audio guides available at the National Maritime Museum. Listen to a free introduction to the gallery here, or find out more about objects on display by ordering a special Treasures Tour.


BSL is included as part of the National Maritime Museum audio guide. Large print guides are also available inside the gallery. For more information about accessibility at the National Maritime Museum, click here.

Gallery closures

Occasionally some gallery closures may affect your visit to the National Maritime Museum. Find details of upcoming closures here.

Ideas for families

Keep an eye out for the special 'Play' boxes dotted around the gallery. Discover what seafarers ate at sea and learn how they kept ships clean!

Make the most of your visit

Find more free galleries and attractions at the National Maritime Museum.

Explore the galleries

See what's on

Tickets and Opening

10am-5pm daily

  • Greenwich Station
  • Cutty Sark DLR
  • Maze Hill Station
  • Greenwich Pier

Visit the National Maritime Museum

Discover epic stories of exploration and endeavour that have shaped our world today

Choose your tickets

National Maritime Museum

  • Guaranteed entry time
  • Access to all free galleries and activities
  • Special exhibitions free in 2024
Free entry
Book online

Member tickets

  • Unlimited free entry
  • Priority booking and exclusive events
  • Access using your membership card
Membership card number required

Become a Member

  • Unlimited entry all year
  • Royal Observatory
  • Cutty Sark
  • Planetarium Shows
  • Special exhibitions
Direct Debit One-off
Individual: £50 Individual: £60
Family: from £60 Family: from £70