I’ve had a thing for Horatio Nelson since my father took me to visit HMS Victory when I was six years old. To see the very place where someone so famous had died made a great impression on my gruesome young mind. Later in life I became more interested in the particulars of the fatal wound - left pulmonary artery severed by a musket ball - but nowadays it’s the little personal details I love, such as what he was wearing at Trafalgar. Clothes draw you closer to the dead.
First, his breeches: standard-issue, white twill, fall-front style with little brass buckles and flag officer’s buttons. What’s so affecting is the way they’ve been hacked open, for swift removal when he was carried below decks for the surgeon to examine him.
Then there are his stockings, embroidered with his laundry mark and stained with blood, but probably not his own. John Scott, his secretary, was killed by a cannon ball in the opening minutes of the battle and Nelson fell in Scott’s blood when he himself was hit. I have this notion that Nelson had loops stitched to his stocking tops, to help him pull them up one-handed and so not always need the assistance of a valet. But there are no loops on his battle stockings - you can see them in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich - so I must have imagined it.
They have his coat there too, and that really has a tale to tell. Nelson’s detractors sometimes suggest that he had a death wish, or that arrogance drove him to dress for the battle in his chivalric bling, tantamount to painting a bull’s-eye on his chest and challenging the enemy to shoot him. In fact he wore what was known as his ‘undress coat’ and the bling was a rather muted embroidered replica of the real badges. There’s a silk loop on the right cuff, which was hooked over a lapel button to keep his empty sleeve out of the way. And then there’s the shattered left epaulette which marks where the musket ball struck him.
While Nelson was dying a young midshipman called George Westphal lay injured close by and Nelson’s coat was rolled up to make a pillow for him. The blood from Westphal’s head wound congealed and stuck to the bullion fringe of the epaulette which had to be cut away to free his hair. He made a full recovery and was allowed to keep the piece of gold fringe as a memento. The coat, stained with blood, was given to the Nelson family who loaned it to Lady Hamilton, for her lifetime. But when she fell on hard times she pledged it as security for a loan and for many years it was lost to view. How it came to be retrieved and given to the nation is a story for another day.