National Maritime Museum
02 Oct 2015
21 October marks Trafalgar Day - the anniversary of one of Britain's most important naval victories. Amy Miller has worked on the conservation of Nelson's Trafalgar uniform. Through her work she can settle the debate whether the shiny orders adorning his coat led to his death at the hands of a sniper. The rear-admiral’s undress uniform worn by Horatio Nelson when he was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, is one of the most iconic objects in our collection. The battle itself, a ruthless victory against the combined French and Spanish fleets is something that has had a very long reaching cultural impact in terms of forging British identity. Its legacy is apparent in London place names – Trafalgar Square being the most obvious. But even in something as simple as Nelson’s signal to begin the battle, “England Expects Every Man will do his Duty” an abbreviated version – ‘England Expects…’ is consistently invoked in the sports pages.
Further, it is during this period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that the Times, in a 1796 round-up of autumn fashion, first calls that blue-black colour used in naval uniform -- Navy blue, in tribute to a string of naval victories. So, we wear these links to Trafalgar today. However, the embroidered stars or honours on his uniform, replicas of Nelson’s orders of chivalry, have often been attributed as one of the contributing factors to his death. The day after the news of his death was received in Britain, The Times reported: ‘the gallant Nelson received a musket ball in his breast. What was very remarkable, it absolutely penetrated the star which he wore.’
In reality, the bullet went through his shoulder, but it is this idea of the hero’s death that it pierced him through his honour. But the orders themselves become a key element in the popular accounts that circulated in the mid-nineteenth century of his death. In one, Captain Hardy asked him not to wear his orders as they would mark him out. Nelson is said to have replied either that he did not have time to change his coat or, more popularly, ‘in honour I gained them; in honour I will die in them.’
It was also reported that he was asked to cover his orders, which were sewn on to all his coats so not easily removed. Dr Beatty pointed out, as early as 1807, that ‘It has been reported, but erroneously, that His Lordship was actually requested by his Officers to change his dress, or to cover his stars.” The focus on these honours also echo critical comments in the popular press from Nelson’s lifetime – that he was loaded with stars and orders –leading to the conclusion that Nelson’s vanity was the cause of his death, not the sharpshooter in the Redoutable. That his brightly embroidered and spangled stars would have made him instantly identifiable to the sharp shooters and sealed his fate on the quarter-deck.