The Battle of Copenhagen


(1st/2nd April 1801)



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The background to the action

To Great Britain, the Baltic lands were not only a traditional source of trade, they provided naval stores of a quality and in an abundance not to be matched elsewhere: timber above all, but also hemp, canvas, pitch, tar, rosin, turpentine, brimstone, copper and iron. 


Unhappily for Britain, and sometimes for themselves, the interests of the Baltic powers and Britain did not always coincide. The ongoing conflicts between the European countries and earlier America had caused the Baltic states to form what was termed an Armed Neutrality. The idea behind the association was "free ships, free goods". This concept could never be acceptable to Britain, one of whose means of imposing her will upon an adversary, and thus of winning her wars, was controlling sea traffic to her own advantage, and by blockade and embargo.


During 1798 to 1800 there were isolated instances when Britain impounded Danish and Swedish ships. This caused Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Prussia to formally knit together in an association which included amongst its objects:

  • that every neutral should be free to navigate from port to port and on the coasts of nations at war
  • that the declaration that cargoes do not include cntraband shall suffice to prevent inspection.

By now Napoleon considered France and Russia to be at peace with each other, and all was now set for a clash, which only a miracle could prevent. As London saw it, the Armed Neutrality was nothing less than a direct and substantial augmentation of the French navy. It ranged most of Europe against an island which was fighting for survival, and which could afford to pull no punches.   

A Baltic Fleet

In the year 1801 Britain's "Channel Fleet", under the command of Earl St Vincent, covered the whole East and South coast of Britain, and down through the Bay of Biscay and the coast of Portugal. 

As the tension mounted with the Armed Neutrality it became obvious that at some point a squadron may need to be sent to deal with matters in the Baltic.


On 26 January it was reported in the Times that Sir Hyde Parker was in fact to command a Baltic Squadron with Lord Nelson as his second-in-command.


The Admiralty started to formulate their plans by instructing St Vincent to keep certain ships - namely London, St George, Courageux, Russell, Warrior, Defiance, Saturn, Edgar and Bellona to the North of Brest. The also ordered that the "navy Board bring forward the bombs which require repair at Sheerness as well as the fireships . . . . navy board to inform us what number of flat boats there are at any of the ports.


The ships were instructed to to assemble in the Yarmouth Roads.

By now the ships had taken on the status of a Fleet, with Hyde Parker as Commander-in-Chief. 

Prompt action was required, since by early April the ice would melt which would enable the Russian fleet to combine with the Danes and the Swedes. 


Admiral Hyde Parker

Parker was a respectable officer, of a well established naval family. His father (also Hyde Parker) had been Commander-in-Chief on the Leeward Islands station and in the East Indies. Hyde Parker jr. had been made Commander-in-Chief on the Jamaica station in 1796 and in the following four years the prize money earned on that station had significantly increased his wealth. 

However, it must be said that he did not have the recent personal experience of war needed to equip him for the arduous and complicated task of disrupting a dangerous maritime coalition.


Towards the end of 1800, Parker had married, for the second time, this time to a girl of just 18.

As the ships moved from Spithead to Yarmouth, Parker travelled by carriage to the sea port. His  wife accompanied him and they stayed at the Wrestler's Arms where the young Lady Parker settled down to make the best of what social life that old Norfolk seaport could offer.       

Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson 

On 1 January 1801, Nelson was promoted to Vice-Admiral.

With Earl St Vincent as Commander-in-Chief, Nelson was appointed to the Channel Fleet.

This was not a good time in Nelson's life. On 13 January he had the disagreement with his wife that caused their final and irreconcilable separation. He was besotted with Emma Hamilton who would give birth to their daughter before the month was out. His behaviour was frowned on by both St Vincent and his old friend Thomas Troubridge and he felt they were conspiring to keep him out "of the way".


He was having ttrouble with his good eye, and was soon to be involved in a law-suit over prize money.   

When the Baltic Fleet was assembled he was appointed to be second-in-command under Hyde Parker.

Even this was not enough to improve Nelson's humour as he felt himself to be a better seaman than Parker. He wrote about Parker "Our friend is a little nervous about dark nights and fields of ice, but we must brace up; these are not times for nervous systems."


(Even St Vincent had his doubts, he is recorded as saying - he should have been in no apprehension if he (Nelson) had been of sufficient rank to take the chief command; but that he could not feel quite so sure about Sir Hyde, as he had never been tried.)

Nelson had initially selected the San Josef (captured by Nelson at Cape St Vincent), but before he left Portsmouth for the rendezvous off Yarmouth, he moved his flag to the St George, which had a shallower draft - more suitable for the waters he would soon experience .

17 January 1801 Nelson arrived at Plymouth and hoisted his flag in the San Josef
12 February 1801 In Torbay, Nelson shifted his flag to the St George
17 February 1801 Nelson was ordered to place himself under the command of Admiral Hyde Parker, in the fleet destined for the Baltic.
21 February 1801 Arrived at Spithead and proceeded to London for a short period of leave
27 February 1801 Nelson arrived back at Portsmouth and boarded the St George, commanded by his old friend Captain Hardy (now Sir Masterman).  
28 February 1801

The St George and various other ships got under weigh at daylight. On board were 760 troops of the 49th regiment and 100 of a rifle corps.

Such was the urgency that the caulkers and painters remained on board.  

6 March 1801 Nelson arrived of Yarmouth and was surprised and somewhat annoyed to find that the Commander-in-Chief was living ashore. When he learned that Parker's wife had arranged an elaborate ball for the following week, he wrote to the Admiralty expressing his disquiet. 
11 March 1801 The letter had its desired effect and Parker received a formal instruction to set sail 
12 March 1801 The fleet finally set sail from Yarmouth. It was made up of fifteen ships of the line, two fifty-gun ships, frigates and brigs. Three more sail-of the-line joined off the Danish coast, (it would have been four, but the Invincible was lost, with almost all hands, off the Norfolk coast. 
18 March 1801 The Fleet reached the Naze of Norway
19 March 1801 The Fleet was off the Scaw
23 March 1801

Parker's instruction from the Admiralty was to appear off Copenhagen and demand that Denmark withdraw from the Armed Neutrality, enforcing this 

On this day Nelson and Parker met to discuss possible tactics. 

The conference was not in Nelson's style, for the agenda kept all options open, including the most cautious. 


Later Nelson wrote to Troubridge at the Admiralty: "Little did I think it was to converse on not fighting" and to Parker "I am confirmed in my opinion that not a moment should be lost in attacking the enemy: they will every day and hour be stronger." He stressed to Parker that "Never did our Country depend so much on the success of the Fleet as on this."


He suggested to Parker two eco shoes methods of attack that would prevent the Swedish Fleet combining with the Danes and also gave them the possibility of an attack on the Russians.

He concluded that: "The boldest measures are the safest." 


Perhaps his stress on safety appealed to Sir Hyde, because he now prepared to take the fleet through the narrows between Kronborg castle on the Danish shore and the batteries on the Swedish coast.

24 March 1801 The Fleet was off Elsineur
29 March 1801 Nelson shifted his Flag from the St George to the shallower draught Elephant and took command of about half the fleet - ten sail of the line with shallow draught and twenty-seven smaller ships, including frigates, bomb-ketches and fire-ships for a direct attack upon the city, perhaps to be followed by the landing of troops. 
30 March 1801

The whole fleet sailed in two divisions and safely passed the narrows, keeping towards the Swedish shore, where the batteries remained silent, while the Danish fortress erupted in the smoke and flame of an ineffective cannonade at extreme range. It was now eighteen days since he had sailed from Yarmouth, if Nelson had had his way he would have been attacking the Danish capital in eight.

30 March 1801



By 10.00p.m. the Fleet was anchored close North of Copenhagen. 

Parker, Nelson and other senior officers went on board the frigate, Amazon, for a reconnaisance mission.

The prospect was awesome.

Approach from the North meant facing the formidable Trekoner batteries, named after the three crowns of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Th twin forts mounted 30 24-pounder guns and 38 36-pounders, equal to the heaviest artillery carried  in a ship's broadside

Approach from the South required a passage of the Outer Channel between the islands of Amager and Saltholm. That having been achieved, a change of wind was essential, in order to approach inshore by sailing along Amager's easter side. 

The land defences were supplemented by the following:

The two-decker hulks, Elephanten and Mars, andabove then in the fairway were two 74-gun ships, alarge frigate, and two 18-gun brigs, all rigged.

In a narrow channel between the shore and the sands of the Middle Ground lay a line, about one and a half miles long, of 18 men0of-war, armed hulks and flaoting batteries, covering the east front of the city, and mounting over 600 guns. On shoals behind this line were a number of armed zebecs, while on the shore were covering batteries. 

There were parallels with what Nelson had faced at Aboukir Bay. In both cases the British had to attack an anchored line of enemy warships, reinforced by shore batteries. In both cases, the navigational difficulties were considerable, and only partly charted. 

31 March 1801


Nelson was again out in a frigate, with the leading artillery officers, to take the closest possible view of the Trekoner defences.

31 March 1801


A Council of War was held on the Elephant. 

Nelson had already made his point: "It looks formidable to those who are children at War, but to my judgement, with ten sail-of-the-line I think I can annihilate them; at all events I hope to be allowed to try." 

Parker decided that Nelson should make an attack, but allowing him in fact twelve ships-of-the-line and all the small craft.

Parker would not take part in the attack, but the Elephant, plus the seven remaining ships-of-the-line, sailed to the North, up the other side of the Middle Ground, in order to prevent the Russians joining battle.

Although some thought Nelson too sanguine, he would hear nothing of it, saying "The more numerous the better" and "I wish there were twice as many; the easier the victory, depend on it."   

1 Apr 1801


Nelson again went in the Amazon to test the depths of the Outer Channel 

1 Apr 18011


Nelson went on board the London to receive final instructions from Parker
1 Apr 1801 2.30p.m. Nelson made the signal to his squadron to weigh anchor and led by the Amazon, the ships passed safely down the Outer Channel.

1 Apr 1801


The whole force was at anchor off the southern end of the Middle Ground, two miles from the Danish line. Under cover of darkness Captain Hardy rowed right up to the nearest ships of the Danish line, sounding round.  

1 Apr 1801


Nelson, Foley and Riou arranged the order of battle and those instructions which were to be issued to each Ship on the succeeding day 

1 Apr 1801


Hardy returned, and reported the practicability of the Channel, and the depths of the water up to the Enemy's line.

2 Apr 1802


Nelson had finished dictating his instructions, some of it from his cot, due to the extreme exhaustion he was now feeling.

2 Apr 1802


The clerks had finished transcribing the instructions. Nelson, after a fitful night, was up and dressed.

2 Apr 1802


Nelson made the signal for all captains, and by 8 o'clock the instructions were delivered

2 Apr 1802


Various pilots and masters came on board the Elephant 

2 Apr 1802


The first signals flew up the Elephant's halyards: first, to weigh anchor and make sail; each captain knew where his position should be.


British Ships

Danish Ships

Ship Guns Commander Ship Guns Commander
Polyphemus 64 John Lawford Provesteenen 56 Lassen
Russell 74 William Cuming Wagrien 48 Risbrigh
Isis 50 James Walker Rendsborg 20 Egede
Bellona 74 Thomas B Thompson Nyborg 20 Rothe
Edgar 74 George Murray Jylland 48 Brandt
Ardent 64 T Bertie Svaerdfisken 20 Somerfeldt
Glatton 54 William Bligh Kronborg 22 Hauch
Elephant 74

Vice-Admiral Nelson

Thomas Foley

Indfodsretten 64 Thura
Ganges 74 Thomas Fremantle Hayen 20 Moller
Monarch 74 James R Mosse Elven 6 Holstein
Defiance 74

Rear-Admiral Graves

Richard Retalick

Gerner Radeau 24 Willemoes
Agamemnon 64 Robert D Fancourt Dannebroge 26



La Desiree(Frigate) 40 H Inman Aggerhuus   Fasting
Amazon(Frigate) 38 E Riou Charlotte Amalia 26 Kofod
Blanche(Frigate) 36 GE Hammond Holsteen 60 Ahrenfeldt
Alcmene(Frigate) 32 S Sutton Saelland 74 Harboe
Arrow(Sloop) 30 W Bolton Hjelperen 20 Lilienskiold
Dart(Sloop) 30 JF Devonshire Three Crowns Battery, mounting 160 guns
Zephyr(Sloop) 14 C Upton A frigate ready for sea
Otter(Sloop) 14 G MacKinley Two ships of the line ready for sea
7 Bomb vessels Two ships of the line
  Two gun brigs


Armed schooners and vessels


Nelson's instructions for the battle had three main elements.

1. The British were to anchor opposite their alloted opponent and, when that had been battered into submission, move along the line, passing the disengaged sides of their own ships, to attack another.

2. Seven bomb-ketches were to anchor to the east of the British line and throw their bombs over it.

3. Finally, when the Trekroner batteries were silenced, they were to be stormed by landing parties of infantry, marines and sailors.

2 Apr 1802


The Battle of Copenhagen began disastrously. As the British ships began to sail up the King's Channel, the Agamemnon was unable to weather the shoals at the entrance to the channel and never came into the action. The Russell and the Bellona both grounded.

At 10.40 Parker heard the enemy batteries open.

Nelson's division was reduced from twelve to nine of the line, and the gunnery of the Danes was superior to his expectations.

Nelson rapidly tried to revise his tactics, taking the Elephant into the position left vacant by the Bellona. As the Ganges passed, he hailed Fremantle to place her as close as possible ahead of his flagship. The Monarch imitated the example of the Ganges and dropped into the berth originally intended for the Elephant.

2 Apr 1802


By seventeen minutes past eleven the battle had become general, 

2 Apr 1802


Each ship, as she arrived opposite to her number in the Danish line, anchored by the stern and presented her broadside to the enemy. From that moment, in Nelson's words, "Here was no manoeuvring. It was downright fighting."


With the British ships anchored some 200 yards from their enemies guns the battle became a series of half-blinded, deafened duels between batteries of cannon at point-blank range.

Each ship presented sudden scenes of horror.


Meanwhile Captain Riou led his sqaudron of small craft to attack the Trekroner batteries.

The Elephant engaged the Danish flagship Dannebrog and two floating batteries ahead of her. As shot passed through the main-mast, sending splinters flying about them, Nelson remarked with a smile to Colonel Stewart theat this was "warm work". He stopped at the gangway for an instant, and his look and next sentence were imprinted on Stewart's memory for ever. "But, mark you, I would not be elsewhere for thousands." 

2 Apr 1802


From several miles to the North, Parker tried to assess the state of the battle. After two hours, the rumble and thunder of gunfire continued, heavy as ever.

He also saw that two of Nelson's ships were flying distress signals and that one appeared to have run aground.


Judging from what he could see, and the fact that the wind and current prevented his bringing his own division into the action, Parker told his flag captain: "I will make the signal of recall for Nelson's sake. If he is in condition to continue the action, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat . . . . "

It is claimed that Parker was aware of the consequences to his own personal reputation; but it would be cowardly in him to leave Nel;son to bear the whole shame of the failure, if shame it should be deemed.

On the quarterdeck of the Elephant, Lieutenant Langford, turning his telescope on the distant flagship, saw the signal to discontinue action. The admiral appeared not to have heard and when the lieutenant shouted again, called back irritably: "Mr Langford, I told you to look out on the Danish commodore and let me know when he surrendered; keep your eye fixed on him."


At this, the dutiful Langford asked a question that could not be ignored: should he repeat the Commander-in-Chief's signal to the other ships? "No, acknowledge it," snapped Nelson, thn asked whether his own signal for close action was still hoisted. Being told that it was he ordered: "Mind you keep it so."


Then, walking to and fro nervously working the stump of his right arm, he stopped by Colonel Stewart and said, "Do you know what's shown on board of the Commander-in-Chief? No. 39!" Asked what that meant, he replied, "Why to leave off action! Now damn me if I do!" Then he turned to Foley and as reported, said: "You know Foley, I have only one eye - I have a right to be blind sometimes" and then, with the archness peculiar to his character, putting the glass to his blind eye, he exclaimed, I really do not see the signal!"

Another eye witness reported Nelson as saying: "the enemy were gallant fellows, but if he could not beat them in two hours he must take three, or if that would not do, he must take four hours to do it."

Captain Riou in the Amazon, stationed at the head of the line could not see Nelson's flagship, but he could see the London clearly.


An exceptionally skillful and determined officer, he was nonetheless far too juniour to disobey the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. He not only repeated the signal himself, but acted on it. Turning to withdraw, Amazon and the other small craft were exposed to rafing fire from the Trekroner battery. Colonel Stewart recorded that:


"Riou, sitting on a gun, was encouraging his men, and had been wounded in the head by a splinter. He had expressed himsef grieved at being thus obliged to retreat, and nobly observed, "What will Nelson think of us?" His Clerk was killed by his side; and by another shot, several of the Marines, while hauling onthe main-brace, shared the same fate. Riou then exclaimed, "Come, then, my boys, let us all die together!" The words were scarcely uttered, when the fatal shot severed him in two."     

2 Apr 1802


From 2 p.m. onwards the Danish ships and batteries, which were by now smoking wrecks, ceased firing.

At long last the two leading ships of Parker's division had now arrived on the scene, causing the remainder of the Danes ahead of the Elephant to strike.


Nelson was always humane to the victims of war, and determined if he could to put an end to the action. He sent a message to the Danish Crown Prince Frederick which started "Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark,when no longer resisting . . . . "

The reply asked "what was the particular object of sending his flag of truce?"

Nelson wrote back "Lord Nelson's object is humanity . . . . he will esteem it the greatest Victory he ever has gain'd if this flag of truce be the happy forerunner of a lasting and happy Union between my most Gracious Sovereign and His Majesty the King of Denmark."  

2 Apr 1802


The action which had endured for five hours was now over.

The British had lost a thousand men killed and wounded, a third of them dead or dying; the Danes a hundred more than that.

Nelson quipped; "I have fought contrary to orders and I shall perhaps be hanged; Never mind, let them!"

The aftermath of the battle

2 Apr 1802


Nelson was rowed over to the London. 

At the Nile his agenda was "First to secure the victory, and then to make the most of it" and here he was considering how best to secure by negotiation what he had alread won by force. 

When the Danish Adjutant-General left the London at 8 o'clock - a twenty-four hours' truce had been agreed upon.


Parker asked Nelson to go ashore next morning and conduct negotiations with the Crown Prince fo a further term of truce.

Nelson slept on the St George that night - after he wrote to Emma with the words; "Very tired after a hard fought battle."

3 Apr 1802


Nelson visited his own ships, which were already looking orderly: wreckage cut away, severed rigging and tattered sails replaced, blood washed away and decks scrubbed with vinegar.

However, his principle task was ashore, a meeting with the Crown Prince in the Amalienborg Palace. 

As Nelson landed and passed through the streets, Colonel Stewart reported that "the population showed an admixture of admiration, curiosity and displeasure." 

3 Apr 1802


At noon Nelson dined in the Palace, and after dinner, had a conversation of two hours alone with the Prince, (that is, no Minister was present,) only his Adjutant-General, Lindholm, was in the room.

Nelson's bargaining position was that the Danes should should join their Fleet to the British, or disarm. This put the Prince in a difficult position since he knew such action would result in attack by Russia and/or loss of their international trade. 

3-7 Apr 1802

Negotiations between the palace and the two British flagships continued by letter with Nelson reporting progress both to the Admiralty and the Prime Minister.
8 Apr 1801

Nelson again went ashore, with a larger suite including Colonel Stewart, to present a formal armistice agreement.

Nelson drove a hard bargain. He was prepared to threaten a resumption of hostilities; "Tell him that we are ready at a moment; ready to bombard this very night."

A small compromise was that the initial period of the armistice would be for fourteen rather than sixteen weeks.

12-22(?) Apr 1801

With the confidence of a three month truce, Parker, Nelson and seventeen of their sail-of-the-line sailed into the Baltic.

There was a threat of the Swedish fleet "coming out" that did not materialise, and Nelson fretted with frustration when Parker refused to sail for the eastern Baltic to confront the Russians. 


The fleet returned to Copenhagen where Parker was met with a message from the Admiralty ordering him to hand over command to Nelson and return home. Wors of Parker's timidity - particularly during the action off Copenhagen - had reached St Vincent, who had ordered his recall to certain retirement and possible court-martial.

6 May 1801 For the first time, Nelson hoisted his flag as an official Commander-in-Chief and he immediately took the fleet to Revel, which Parker had declined to do.
14 May 1801

The fleet arrived off the Russian base to find that the ice had cleared in the the gulf, so enabling the ships there to withdraw and combine with their main fleet.


Controlling his impulse to present another ultimatum, Nelson became a diplomatist, and writing to the Tsar said that the presence of his ships was prompted solely by "my desire to pay marked attention to His Imperial Majesty".

His restraint was justified when three days after he had sailed, the Armed Neutrality was disbanded.

>17 May 1801 Nelson sailed from Revel, and on this day he applied to be superseded in the command, in consequence of ill health
11 June 1801 By the 11 June his health was much improved, maybe as a result of the warm milk forced on him at 4a.m. each day and the lozenges provided by Captain Murray.
>12 June 1801 A cutter, reported in sight during the afternoon, joined at 11p.m. She brought the news that he had been created a viscount and, better still, that as soon as his successor, Admiral Pole, arrived to relieve him, he could return home.
>19 June 1801 Pole arrived - Nelson resigned the command of the Baltic Fleet, and sailed in the Kite brig for England
Back in England

True to his normal character, no sooner had Nelson landed at Yarmouth than he visited the naval hospital which was crowded with sailors wounded in the action at Copenhagen. This unique quarter of a million project, carried out by the north west company Captain International involved the complex re-planning and renovation of two floors, creating several distinctive areas working together in one environment


He stopped opposite a bed on which a sailor was lying, who had lost his right arm close to the shoulder joint, and the following short dialogue passedbetween them:

Nelson: "Well, Jack, what's the matter with you?"

Sailor: "Lost my arm your honour."


Nelson paused, looked down at his own empty sleeve, then at the sailor, and said playfully, "Well, Jack, then you and I are spoiled for fishermen."

To some people in England the closeness of the relationship with the Danes meant that Nelson's victory was not greeted with universal acclaim. When Nelson attended St James's Palace, the King did not even mention it saying merely, "Lord Nelson, do you get out?"


The Coronet proves once again that Nelson' ship was able to create and implement a wide range of styled interiors to suit their eclectic client base.


No Gold Medal was awarded to the captains, and Nelson spent the remainder of his life trying to get proper recognition for them and the other men who had been in the action.