Friday 21st October 2011

Twas in Trafalgar's Bay

Today is the anniversary of Lord Nelson's victory over the Combined Fleets of France and Spain in October 1805. The Battle of Trafalgar was a bitter-sweet affair; it was fought and won against superior numbers; it was of momentous importance in its consequences - Britannia would rule the waves for a hundred years and more and any impending threat of a French invasion of these shores was immediately extinguished. However, when it was understood that it was won at the cost of Lord Nelson's life, there was little or no public rejoicing at the news, and only a peel of dumb bells was rung by way of muted celebration.

 

Here is Robert Southey, poet-laureate and early biographer of Nelson on the subject:

 

The death of Nelson was felt in England as something more than a public calamity; men started at the intelligence, and turned pale, as if they had heard of the loss of a dear friend. An object of our admiration and affection, of our pride and of our hopes, was suddenly taken from us; and it seemed as if we had never, till then, known how deeply we loved and reverenced him. What the country had lost in its great naval hero--the greatest of our own, and of all former times--was scarcely taken into the account of grief. So perfectly, indeed, had he performed his part, that the maritime war, after the battle of Trafalgar, was considered at an end: the fleets of the enemy were not merely defeated but destroyed; new navies must be built, and a new race of seamen reared for them, before the possibility of their invading our shores could again be contemplated. It was not, therefore, from any selfish reflection upon the magnitude of our loss that we mourned for him: the general sorrow was of a higher character. The people of England grieved that funeral ceremonies, and public monuments, and posthumous rewards, were all which they could now bestow upon him, whom the king, the legislature, and the nation would have alike delighted to honour; whom every tongue would have blessed; whose presence in every village through which he might have passed would have wakened the church bells, have given schoolboys a holiday, have drawn children from their sports to gaze upon him, and "old men from the chimney corner" to look upon Nelson ere they died. The victory of Trafalgar was celebrated, indeed, with the usual forms of rejoicing, but they were without joy; for such already was the glory of the British navy, through Nelson's surpassing genius, that it scarcely seemed to receive any addition from the most signal victory that ever was achieved upon the seas: and the destruction of this mighty fleet, by which all the maritime schemes of France were totally frustrated, hardly appeared to add to our security or strength; for, while Nelson was living, to watch the combined squadrons of the enemy, we felt ourselves as secure as now, when they were no longer in existence.

 

The banner above is one that used to hang in Madron church, in the wild west of Cornwall. It is said to have been commissioned by local fishermen who had got the news of the battle along with that of the death of Lord Nelson off His Majesty's schooner Pickle, the little boat that carried the news home. According to the story they took this news into Penzance where they disturbed Mayor Giddy at his Guy Fawkes banquet; he in turn seized the scoop by announcing it from the minstrel gallery of the Union Hotel in Chapel Street. The same fishermen were likewise inspired to have this banner made and lodge it reverentially in the local church. Anywhere other than Cornwall this story would be called a legend - officially the news was landed along the coast at Falmouth, from whence it travelled with Lt. Lapenotiere, RN, post haste up the long, rutted road to the Admiralty in London. But if ever you find yourself in Penzance, do you mind you keep this under your hat.

 

Two hundred and six years later, let us un-muffle the bells and have a Happy Trafalgar Day!

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