Horatio Nelson, only 47 when he died, was quite the celebrity in his lifetime. The fashion for naming children after him gave rise, inevitably, to people claiming him as their true father, a sort of 19th century version of 'I was Elvis's secret love child.' It is the theme of my latest novel, The Liar's Daughter, published this week.
In some ways Nelson is a puzzle. He was, above all, a dedicated seaman and a very gifted tactician, a practical person, not grandiose, and apparently likeable. But he was also a canny self-publicist. After the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 he made sure the officer returning to England with despatches had his version of events which gave him the credit he was due but might not necessarily get. He also made the astute decision to present the surrendered sword of the defeated Spanish admiral to the city of Norwich. Nelson was a Norfolk man but this gesture wasn't done out of sentimentality. William Windham, the MP for Norwich also happened to be in the Cabinet and was rather well-connected. Getting on the right side of him was a fast-track to fame. Even the King got to hear about Commodore Nelson.
By 1800 Nelson was truly a public figure, and he played it to the full, wearing dress uniform and decorations at every opportunity. I don't think it was about ego. I believe he was always mindful of the precariousness of his profession and of the need to make money, whatever it took. He sensed that his life might be short and he had heavy financial commitments: siblings he wished to help; a wife and a step-son to provide for; Emma Hamilton, a one-woman money-frittering machine if ever there was one; and eventually his adored little Horatia. He stretched himself to the limit of his income to buy the house at Merton so she should have a settled and secure childhood. Or so he hoped.
He was recognised in the street. Wherever he was expected a crowd would gather to cheer him. His image began to appear on scent bottles and milk pitchers. And then he died.
News of his death reached London on November 6th 1805, more than two weeks after the battle at Trafalgar. There was a run on supplies of crepe as everyone rushed to wear mourning. Then there was the long wait for his funeral. The Chatham, with his coffin on board, didn't arrive in the Thames until December 23rd. Plenty of time for the manufacturers of commemorative mugs and cameo brooches to build up speed.
By the way, the seaman's daily tot was discontinued by the Royal Navy in 1970. For reasons of health and safety. They still splice the mainbrace though, on very special occasions. But that's another story for another day.
The Liar's Daughter is published by Quercus, price £16.99