Saying goodbye to Norfolk’s greatest son Horatio Nelson
PUBLISHED: 14:07 09 September 2017
In our latest feature to tie in with the hugely-popular Nelson & Norfolk exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum, Trevor Heaton looks at how the nation said goodbye to its hero.
The nation had never seen anything like it. Horatio Nelson, slain in the hour of his finest triumph at Trafalgar, was being laid to rest at St Paul’s Cathedral in the greatest expression of grief ever made for a commoner.
January 9 1806 was to be an unforgettable day for everyone who witnessed it, took part in the vast and complex ceremonial, or even just read about it.
Or, rather, tried to witness it. Such was the throng that tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets around St Paul’s, with some badly injured in the crush. They had their own, unwelcome, reminders of the day’s drama.
The Nelson & Norfolk exhibition, running at the Castle Museum until October 1, gives a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the very items at the heart of that long and incredible day. Some of them have not being seen together since 1826, and perhaps even since the day of the funeral itself.
In researching and bringing these items together, exhibition curator Ruth Battersby Tooke has been acutely aware of the symbolism involved. For the Fallen Hero was very much public property – or rather, that of the State.
“The whole thing had an establishment feel about it – and a theatrical feel,” she explained. “There were huge arguments about order of precedence, even affecting the Prince of Wales.
“It was a state taking over the death of Nelson to reinforce the message of sacrifice [for the nation].”
There was a clue in the letter which the estranged Lady Nelson received on November 6 from Lord Barham, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Informing Fanny of the death of her ‘illustrious partner’ two weeks before, he confided: ‘The public loss is irretrievable.’
Nelson had served his country well while he was alive. He was to continue to serve it in the afterlife, as a timeless example of courage, daring and self-sacrifice. As historian Colin White has pointed out, Nelson’s funeral was immediately taken over by the State, for the State. “It was almost as if a medieval knight was being taken to his rest,” he said.
Nelson’s body had been brought up the Thames in early January to lie in state at the Painted Hall at the Greenwich Hospital for sailors. It was taken by river to Whitehall the day before the funeral, before being taken to the cathedral by a great procession.
The funeral car containing the coffin was inspired by the Victory, complete with figurehead.
That figurehead is now in the National Maritime Museum, but some of the other elements of the car are being brought together for the first time since at least 1826, when it finally succumbed to the ravages of time after being on display in the Painted Hall for 20 years.
One of them is a hatchment cloth, one of six similar items which were displayed on the funeral car. Of the six, only two now remain – both in private hands. It consists of two heraldic designs – Nelson’s and … no, not Emma Hamilton’s of course, but Lady Nelson, the wronged wife. It is made out of silk satin, with a painted scene (inadvertently creating a nightmare for future conservators). These hatchments were later given to the chief mourners.
As for the other original item from the funeral, that is from the Norfolk Museums Service’s own collections. It came here by a circuitous route – a route which involves one of the eyewitnesses to Nelson’s death.
It had been rescued by one William Rivers, who was a midshipman at Trafalgar, and Nelson’s aide-de-camp. He had had his left foot blown off during the battle and was down in the cockpit of the Victory being treated when his beloved admiral was brought down, hit by a sharpshooter’s bullet.
The exhibition includes a famous print of the death of Nelson which also features the stricken midshipman.
After the war he became Adjutant to Greenwich. Another print in the exhibition shows the funeral car in the hospital’s Painted Hall – and in the foreground is a guide talking to visitors. We don’t know who that guide was, but we have a pretty good idea. You see, he is lacking a left foot…
Rivers was just one of the many, many people whose lives Nelson touched. “It seems so many people had their lives affected by their collision – as it were – with Nelson – people who ended up ‘dining out’ on that for the rest of their lives,” Ruth added.
The funeral drape eventually ended up at Great Yarmouth Sailors’ Home (its 1859 arrival recorded in a minute book, on display here). The Sailors’ Home later became the town’s Maritime Museum before its present role as a tourist information centre.
“I remember it was still hanging up on display when I first saw it,” Ruth recalled. “I told myself: ‘I just can’t believe it’s survived, and it’s here.’”
And survive it has, thanks to a 2004 donation from turkey king Bernard Matthews which saw the drape properly conserved and mounted for posterity. “The silk fringe was late 19th century, but the lettering is Regency water gilding, on velvet.
“These two objects [the hatchment and drape] haven’t been together since 1826, and maybe 1806.” If only they could talk.
And everyone wanted a souvenir of this dramatic and historic day. The ensign of the Victory was meant to be interred with Nelson’s body – but the sailors making the guard of honour for their beloved admiral had other ideas. They tore the great battle flag into hundreds of pieces. Two of these are in the exhibition – one from Paston School (Nelson’s old alma mater) and one from the museum’s own collections. The funeral tickets were keenly sought-after both before and after the event.
And apart from objects directly linked with the day, they were others – many, many others – at several removes. Nelson’s death inspired an incredible range of souvenirs, from, prints to ceramics. Not all, it must be said, were out of the top drawer. They include a poem from Norwich scribe Eliza Postle which, although rather turgid, also shows how deep the death of England’s Hero touched people from all walks of life.
‘Nelsonia’ had already been born, thanks to the stunning victory at the Nile, but the admiral’s death took it to new heights. As historian Kate Williams has observed: ‘Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar produced an unparalleled (and never equalled) outpouring of commemorative goods.”
The rich could have a cameo head of the Fallen Hero set in a ring. The middling sort might plump for a tablecloth with the plan of the Battle, while the poor might scrape together a copper or two for a dramatic print of Nelson in his last moments.
Newspapers describing the events were eagerly sought after. In our own archives the Norwich Mercury, then circulating widely in the Eastern counties, has an incredibly detailed report of the funeral, running column after column in eye-straining type.
No-one wanted to miss a single word, comma or full stop. No-one wanted to forget Nelson. No-one ever would.
“It’s the perfection of the manner in which he died – it’s the grim inevitability of it,” Ruth continued. “It touches so much on the core archetypes in our society.”
There was one person who was forgotten – deliberately. Emma Hamilton’s social position was rendered precarious by the death of her lover. There were many who tolerated her only because of her place in the affections of the nation’s greatest hero.
Without a living Nelson, she was – in the eyes of polite society – nothing.
There was no room for her at the funeral.
Nelson & Norfolk is running at Norwich Castle Museum until October 1. This landmark exhibition celebrates ‘The Norfolk Hero’ from his boyhood in the county to his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. It also explores how his legacy continues to echo down to the present day.Alongside the battle flag, the most spectacular exhibit is the world-famous ‘Nelson Bullet’ – the French sharpshooter’s musket ball which killed the admiral. For full information about opening hours and prices, please see www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk or call the information line on 01603 493648.
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