- Grose, Kelvin
- 19th century wars
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Much has been written about Nelson in the lead up to this bicentenary of his death at the Battle of Trafalgar and here the author dispels the myth of “Nelson’s Blood”- the matelot’s legendary tot of rum.
When Lord Nelson died at 4.30 pm on 21 October 1805, there was no lead on board HMS Victory for a coffin, so a cask called a Leaguer (the largest size aboard) was chosen for the reception of his body. The hair was cut off (and given to Emma Lady Hamilton, as Nelson had asked), the body stripped of clothes (except for a shirt) and put in the cask which was then filled with brandy. ((‘William Beatty, M.D., The Death of Lord Nelson, Constable, Westminster, 2nd edition, 1895, p. 58.)) The cask was then put under the charge of a Marine sentry on the Middle Deck. It stood on its end, having a closed aperture at its top and another below. In that way the old brandy could be drawn off and new brandy poured in, without disturbing the body.
On 24 October there was a “disengagement” of air from the body; the sentry became alarmed when the lid of the cask opened to allow the discharge of gas from inside. The brandy was then drawn off and the cask filled again before the arrival of the Victory at Gibraltar on 28 October, where fresh spirit was procured. ((Ibid., pp. 58-59.))
The Victory left Gibraltar and passed through the Straits during the night of 4 November. At noon the next day they joined Collingwood off Cadiz. ((Ibid., p. 60 Ibid., pp. 61-62.))
It took the Victory five weeks to arrive at Spithead, during which time the brandy was renewed twice more. ((Ibid., p. 61.))
On 11 December Lord Nelson’s body was taken from the cask and found to be in a state of perfect preservation, “without being in the smallest degree offensive”. The bowels were then removed, as they were in a state of decay. While Dr Beatty was doing this, he found the ball that had killed Nelson. It had passed through the spine and lodged in the muscles of the back, a little below the shoulder blade. ((Ibid., pp. 61-62.))
On the way, it fractured the second and third ribs. ((Ibid., p. 66))
Lord Nelson’s remains were wrapped in cotton vestments, and rolled from head to foot in bandages, the ancient way of embalming? ((Ibid))
The body was then put into a leaden coffin filled with brandy holding in solution camphor and myrrh. This coffin was then enclosed into a wooden one made from the mainmast of the French ship L’Orient, presented to Nelson by his friend Captain Benjamin Hallowell of the Swiftsure after the Battle of the Nile. ((Ibid., p.67.))
The leaden coffin was then opened and the body taken out. All the officers of the Victory, together with Admiral Collingwood and Captain Hardy’s friends were present at the time of the body’s removal from the leaden coffin. The undecayed state of the body, after a lapse of two months, surprised all.
The body was then dressed and placed in the shell made from L’Orient’s mast, and covered in shrouding. This was then enclosed in a leaden coffin, which was immediately soldered up and put into another wooden shell. It then left the Victory and was conveyed to Greenwich Hospital. ((Ibid., p.68))
Beatty found Nelson’s body in a very healthy state. There were no morbid indications. The heart was small and dense in its substance. Similarly, the lungs, liver, stomach and spleen were sound. All the vital parts were:
“..so perfectly healthy in their appearance, and so small, that they resembled more those of a youth than of a man of 47.”11 The immediate cause of Nelson’s death was a bullet wound to the left pulmonary artery, which bled into the chest cavity. ((Ibid., p.76.))
Nelson preferred to be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral rather than Westminster Abbey because he believed Westminster Abbey would revert to the swamp from which it came. ((Ibid., p.70.))