Nelson's Religion

Home Page and More Nelson Resouces

Religion has been described as a power beyond ourselves which makes for righteousness.

The great assertion which lies at the root of Christianity is that "behind all the changes and chances of this mortal life is God, and it is our duty to obey Him, to fear Him, and to love Him."


My soul is full of longing

For the secret of the sea.


Because to them their Commander-in-Chief was a saint, as well as their friend and the national hero, a group of British blue-jackets tore up the Union Jack.

They did this at Nelson's funeral service in St. Paul's Cathedral.

With the reverence and efficiency expected of naval handymen they had lowered the body of the world's greatest admiral into the tomb; then, as though answering a sharp order from the quarter-deck, they all seized the Union Jack and tore it to fragments.

Each took his souvenir of the illustrious dead.

*  *  *  *  *

Nelson was a parson's son. He prayed morning and evening and wrote special prayers in his log when about to engage the enemy in battle.

He spent his life staring calmly into the face of death, expecting, and indeed feeling ready at any minute to meet his Maker, whom he worshipped and, according to his lights, conscientiously strove to serve.

Like Sarah Bernhardt, who imitated him, he took his coffin wherever he went. It came to him as a present from one of his loyal captains after the Battle of the Nile, and was constructed from the mainmast of the Orient, the flagship of the defeated French admiral.

Nelson ordered that this strange present be kept upright in his cabin as a reminder that death was ever before his eyes. But his guests and his staff were  so disturbed by its presence that he yielded to the appeal of a favourite servant and had it carried below - until it should be needed.

Before embarking for Trafalgar the admiral called at his London upholsterer's to arrange that the coffin's history be engraved on the lid, as it was highly probable that he would need its services on his return!

He seems to have had a presentiment that he was about to engage in his last battle, for he remarked to his officers:


“To-morrow I will do that which will give you

younger gentlemen something to talk about and

something to think about for the rest of your lives.

But I shall not live to know about it myself!”


Every time that Nelson caught sight of his his coffin must have given him something to think about.

For the vessel from which it was made was the same burning ship on whose decks the little ten-year-old Casabianca, immortalised in English verse had stood alone waiting for orders.

The brave child and his father were last seen clinging to the floating mast.

The scene of death and destruction when the Orient blew up was probably the most impressive spectacle in the whole of Nelson's life, and one of the most extraordinary in the history of warfare.

During this Battle of the Nile, and in all his battles, Nelson felt himself dependent upon God for guidance and safety.

He emerged from it the national hero and saviour, and to the French - the terror of the seas.

He had shown a resolute courage, wisdom and genius in naval tactics that proved him superior to any officer afloat. Napoleon and his conquering army of Egypt had been cut off completely from France.

Nelson was master of the Mediterranean.

At last he had proved in practice his life-long contention that a uniform conduct of honour and integrity seldom fails to bring a man to the goal of fame. This faith had been his consolation during all the years of effort and disappointment - when undergoing censure, or disobeying unwise orders, attacked in the courts at home for doing his duty abroad, or seeing others rewarded for his own outstanding achievements.

*  *  *  *  *

Nelson was a small man and rather frail. He was several times wounded; he lost an arm and the sight of an eye. Often he was tortured with pain. Yet there never was a braver man or a greater slave to country and duty. "God and my country" were his passion. 

In him there was something of the mystic; his

passion for England and all that was heroic came in a

way that suggested he was in touch with a real source of


The mystic may see a vision in a cathedral, or trace a divine signal on the face of a mountain steep, or hear a voice in the wind or from a burning bush; it is the call to service !

Nelson's call to service for his country came when he was a boy at sea. Disconsolate, he decided that it was impossible for him to rise in his profession.


My mind was staggered with a view of the difficulties

I had to surmount. ...I could discover no means

of reaching the object of my ambition.

After a long and gloomy reverie, in which I almost

wished myself overboard, a sudden glow of patriotism

was kindled in me. . . .

" Well, then!" I exclaimed, " I will be a hero and

confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger!”


This was no mere warm ambitious impulse but an experience, definitely religious. Illumination and power had come to this feeble youth; they were to sustain him continually and to impel him forward to the supreme heights of his profession.

Long afterwards Nelson loved to speak of experience. It seemed that a radiant orb had been dangled before his spiritual eye, a "light from heaven" to guide him forward to victory and glory.

Mystics call Nelson's state of mind before his experience " the dark night of the soul " which usually comes before a miraculous illumination. It would seem to be an essential preliminary. But presently light flashes, and the child of destiny becomes invulnerable until his work is finished, as Nelson's was finished at Trafalgar. Indeed, the completeness of Nelson's last victory was so misunderstood that it was long assumed the best way to win a sea-fight was to rush in, as Nelson would do, and attack the enemy on -sight. The study of tactics in the British navy was therefore practically dropped for almost three-quarters of a century.

*  *  *  *  *

In Nelson's serene and kindly glance there was something noble and suggestive of those lightning inspirations which enabled him, amid the thunder of battle, to utilise the slightest opportunity which the enemy gave him to achieve complete victory. But there was more in his tactics than a mad dash at the enemy.

Nelson in battle was a man inspired.

Admiral Mahan said of him that “No man was ever better served by the inspiration of the moment; no man ever counted on it less. He thought out his plans carefully in advance, and took special precautions so that his captains clearly understood what they had to do."

To him England’s war against Napoleon was a holy war.

History is full of strange contrasts. Could there have been any greater irony than that two such supreme leaders, probably the greatest general of all times, and assuredly the greatest admiral, should have opposed each other in different elements to decide the fate of the modern world ?

Both Nelson and Napoleon were ambitious in the extreme; both had the same tactical fighting methods -concentration upon the enemy's weakest  and most vulnerable point, and rapidity of decision and movement. Both declared that time was everything; that five minutes made the whole difference between defeat and victory.

Each intensely disliked the other. Each believed that he would have beaten the other in either element.

Napoleon wished that he could be a sailor so that he could have beaten Nelson, and the Admiral's

only reason for wishing to be a soldier was his desire to whip the Little Corporal out of his big boots I Nelson said stoutly:

"I detest Europe for being so mean-spirited as to

submit to the mandates of this Corsican - I blush for

their meanness. If we are true to ourselves, a fig for

the great Buonaparte.”

He would illustrate the way the English should negotiate with Napoleon. Taking up a poker he would say:

“It matters not at all in what way I lay down this

poker. But if Buo!laparte should say it must be placed

in this direction, we must instantly insist upon its

being laid differently.”

That was the Spirit of England speaking during the Nelson era, the spirit of the man who put his telescope to his blind eye and refused to see or respond to his superior's signal to withdraw.

And so, nailing his colours to the mast, he won the Battle of the Baltic.

*  *  *  *  *

Yet he was always a religious man striving to combine his high sense of duty to his country with his duty to his Creator.

At home it was his custom to attend church. On board the Victory divine service was held regularly and respectfully, whenever the weather permitted it.

The Admiral took so keen an interest in the sermons that he was constantly seeking to improve their quality.

If he felt that a sermon had been good and helpful to the men, he told the chaplain so; if he felt the  clergyman could have done better, he would lead him down to his cabin, draw forth a volume of sermons which he had been studying, and point out such passages as he felt might with advantage have been included.

The Nelson Touch - in things of the spirit.

He had the vanity of genius combined with a re- markable humility. When he was at Naples, after the Battle of the Nile, some of his captains decided to have their chief painted by one of the most eminent artists in Italy. But the painter, who had come to breakfast, made no preparation to begin his work. Asked when he would start he answered enigmatically:

" Never! " They stared, and he continued : " There is such a mixture of humility and ambition in Lord Nelson's countenance that I dare not risk the attempt."

*  *  *  *  *

Humanity to a beaten enemy after a battle was Nelson's consistent practice. " When the Danes became my prisoners, I became their protector," he wrote. “In my opinion, nations, like individuals, are to be won more by acts of kindness than cruelty.”

To rebels he was stern, as in the strange case of the captured rebel General Caraccoli, who made a most dramatic reappearance after his execution. Tried by a Neapolitan court-martial on a British ship, he asserted his innocence, but was found guilty.

Nelson ordered that he be hanged at the yard-arm. The indignity of his end rather than death itself was the General's greatest concern ; he begged to be shot. Nelson refused.

British blue-jackets lined the rigging and watched the execution. It is said that Lady Hamilton also looked on. The body was sunk in the bay with three shot attached weighing about 250 pounds.

Some time afterwards, when Nelson was sailing with the Royal family aboard, the King of Naples, looking through his telescope, saw the dead Caracoli, standlng upnght In the water, and moving towards the ship.

A loyalist suggested that the General's spirit was not at ease, and had come to seek the King's for-giveness for disloyalty in life. It was found, however, that the body had nsen and floated, the shot attached to its legs keeping it in an erect position. Nelson ordered it to be taken ashore and buried.

But we must not allow Nelson's conduct at Naples to influence too greatly our judgment of him as a religious man. The circumstances were exceptional, and he must not be too severely blamed for accepting the point of view of the Neapolitan authorities, who regarded Caraccoli and his folIowers as no better than traitors. To him it seemed there was a clear case for severity, and we can only wish that he had investigated the facts with rather more impartiality.

Ordinarily he was gentle, considerate and forgiving.

His warm and generous nature made him hate to inflict punishment, even when it had to be done in the interests of dIscipline. Those who served under him clamoured to continue with him when he changed his ship.

Some of his crew became Methodists. These, offended by the oaths of their shipmates, desired  a  separate mess, and Nelson, who was never to use a coarse expression, and who, like Washington, refused to lie, instantly consented.

The health and comfort of his sailors, and that all should receive a due reward for their services, were his constant anxiety. When he, himself had been overlooked in the honours awards, someone spoke to him of pity.

" Pity! " he rapped out. " Don't pity me. One day I shall have a Gazette of my own! "

And he did.

But he had pity for little midshipmites who came aboard. When he saw one of them looking timidly into the rigging, fearful of the coming order to go aloft, he would challenge the lad to a race to the masthead.

When, breathless, they faced each other at the peak, he would laugh at the landlubbers ashore, who were afraid of this kind of life.

The midshipmite was being taught courage without knowing it.

His men were proud to be under a hero whose name was feared all over Europe, and they told with zest of such incidents as that which occurred just before Trafalgar.

Nelson, unobserved, had seen a signal officer stamp his foot with vexation after the mail-boat had departed. He asked what was wrong.

The officer hesitated. " Well, if you must know, my Lord, I will tell you. You see the coxswain there. We have not a better man aboard. He was so busy getting off the mails that he forgot to drop his own letter to his wife in the bag. He has just discovered it in his pocket."

"Signal her back," said Nelson. " His letter shall go with the rest. . . ."

Two of his captains were not on speaking terms and Nelson gave them a short lesson in brotherly love and the team spirit. He ordered the two to meet and, pointing to the French ships, said :- " Gentlemen, there is the enemy. Shake hands and be friends." They obeyed.

*  *  *  *  *

Study Nelson's face and you see a striking resemblance to Wolfe of Quebec and Frederick the Great. Each possessed features inclining to effeminacy, a refinement of the jaw, chin and mouth, redeemed from the commonplace by an audaciously pointed nose.

There is a steady fearlessness in Nelson's glance. Nevertheless, he had a fear-spot - this sailor who as a boy said that he never knew fear.

Drawn swords and flame-spouting guns, the surgeon's knife and the storm-whipped ocean stimulated his courage. But there came a day when he showed the white feather. He was home in England driving in a four-horsed phaeton, and the pace must have been lively.

The friend who drove had said there was no danger, the horses were completely under control and he was accustomed to handling them.

" We had not driven far before I observed a peculiar anxiety in Nelson's countenance and presently he said, , This is too much for me, you must set me down.' "

The driver protested, but Nelson insisted. The Admiral was no speed-hog. He admitted that the bravest man felt anxiety when entering battle, though he himself dreaded disgrace more than death.

In his features, too, there was great intelligence, a fine sense of morality and justice. He tried to square those qualities with his conduct towards Lady Nelson and Lady Hamilton. And failed as dismally as enemy admirals failed before the magic of the Nelson Touch. Pacing his quarter-deck, on a tossing ship, facing an enemy superior in numbers and equipment, Nelson was invincible; Nelson in love was Nelson vanquished.

For though neither philanderer nor libertine, he was defeated on a moral issue. Napoleon admitted to seven mistresses and probably had many more. Nelson had one. After he had received the applause of half a Continent for his victory at the Nile he still declared that his wedding-day was the happiest day of his life. But he had already fallen in love with Lady Hamilton.

Both Lady Nelson and Lady Hamilton have been portrayed as angels and as their opposites. The simple truth is that Nelson after his marriage became - infatuated with a woman of no social position in this country, though of great personal charm, from whom he had neither the wish nor the self-control to break free.

He was great, but not great enough to win the most difficult of all battles. His only child was Lady Hamilton's daughter Horatia.

Lady Hamilton has been " written up " as the divine lady, but her " divinity " was shown in captivating our greatest hero of the sea and stealing him from his wife just at that enviable hour when he had burst into dazzling fame. Both Nelson and his paramour were undoubtedly in love with one another; though both had been in love before with others, and, in particular, Lady Hamilton, whose career was more picturesque than pure, had had many lovers.

Nelson and Lady Hamilton suffered the penalty of folly; and Lady Nelson suffered too.

 While England was sounding his praises he went to Court and was received by the King and duly snubbed. The King inquired after his health and shook his hand. Then, without waiting for a reply, he turned to an unknown general and engaged him in animated conversation for half-an-hour.

Nelson assumed with chagrin that the two could not have been discussing the General's victories.

The Admiral thought that he could brave public opinion with his mistress, and the Royal snub did not mean that others at the Court were more moral than he; but they were more discreet. The antagonism which he aroused only stimulated his open nature to greater determlnatlon.

Excuses can be made both for him and for his mistress, but none that does not apply with equal force to Hollywood romances. His own was marked with other painful occurrences, which, if he had known a little more about a woman’s psychology, might have been avoided.

He seems to have been oblivious to the Scriptural and the psychological truth that out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh. As witness this incident !

The family solicitor was breakfasting with Lord and Lady Nelson in London, and a cheerful conversation on indifferent subjects was proceeding when the Admiral spoke of something that been said or done by "dear Lady Hamilton."

Lady Nelson rose from her chair and exclaimed with much vehemence: " I am sick of hearing of, ‘dear Lady Hamilton,' and am resolved that you shall give up either her or me."

With perfect calmness the Admiral replied : " Take care, Fanny, what you say. I love you sincerely, but I cannot forget my obligations to Lady Hamilton, or speak of her otherwise than with affection or admiration."

Without uttering a soothing word or gesture, and muttering that her mind was made up, Lady Nelson left the room, and shortly after drove from the house. They did not live together again.

Nelson made ample provision for her during his life and after his death. In later years she continually talked of him, and always. attempted to palliate his conduct towards her. She was warm and en- thusiastic in her praises of his public achievements, and seems to have bowed in dignified submission to the errors of his domestic life.

In later years she lived in Paris with her son by her first marriage, and one of her sayings to her granddaughter has pathos.

" When you are older, little Fan, you too may know what it is to have a broken heart."

*  *  *  *  *

Nelson's infatuation destroyed his domestic happiness and tarnished his name. Yet he saved England.

In seeking out the French Fleet and destroying it he showed an unequalled perseverance. He continued to rely upon the guidance and help of the divine Providence.

When roused to undertake one of his conquering  cruises he would say, " I will do my best, and hope that God Almighty will go with me." When his ship was damaged in the Gulf of Lyons he was gratefully humble and said :

“I ought not to call what happened to the Vanguard

by the cold name of accident. Firmly I believe that

it was the Almighty's goodness - to check my

consummate vanity.

I believe that it has made me a better officer, as I

feel confident that it has made me a better man.”

Despite Lady Hamilton, Nelson was a man with an abnormally high moral sense, but with " a blind spot."

His infatuation for " Emma " was unfortunate. But Nelson never seems to have thought thought  he was acting immorally. I think he reasoned there are certain things in life which are so strong that even the moral law must bow before them, and that when two people believe that they are essential to each other's happiness, no moral stigma ultimately can be attached to their relations.

Though false, it is not a new doctrine.

On the other hand, we have no Scriptural grounds for supposing that immotality is a vice more displeasing to the Almighty than any other, as respectable people often suppose it to be. Christ did not  accuse the Pharisees of immorality, but he said the publicans and the prostitutes entered the Kingdom before them.

*  *  *  *  *

Just before Trafalgar an officer surprised Nelson in his cabin as he was writing his last prayer – for England and humanity.

May the great God whom I worship grant to my

country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a

great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct

in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after victory

be the predominant feature in the British Fleet !

For myself ...I commit my life to Him Who

made me, and may His blessing light upon my

endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I

resign myself and the just cause entrusted to me to

defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.

In the cabin above his bed hung the portrait of Lady Hamilton. It was taken down while clearing for action, and the men were instructed to take care of his guardian angel.

Coming on deck, Nelson decided to amuse the Fleet with a few signals, and he seems to have annoyed Collingwood, who was preparing to fight a four-decker.

" Why doesn't Nelson stop signalling ? " growled Collingwood.

Then - "England Expects Every Man To Do His Duty " fluttered above the Victory. Cheers rose all along the line. From Collingwood too.

The fatal shot was fired, and Nelson' s spinal column was broken. Down in the cockpit, in great pain, he hears that ten of the enemy's ship have already surrendered.

"I hope none of our ships have struck."

"No fear of that," says Hardy.

Nelson dies in the moment of victory, repeating to himself his vindication :

"Thank God, I have done my duty!"

Just before, as his mind goes back to his beloved Emma and his daughter Horatia, he utters a pathetic expostulation :

" Doctor, I have not been a great sinner ."

*  *  *  *  *

His sailors adored him, and called him Saint  Nelson.

Perhaps they were right, for though he sinned, he was at heart - a saint