Colin White surveys current scholarship on the national hero and announces an autumn lecture series devoted to him.
A captain before he was twenty-one, a household name throughout most of Europe at thirty-nine, and killed in action just three weeks after his forty-seventh birthday, Nelson lived a colourful life. Not content with winning some of the most resounding victories in British history at the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805) – and losing an arm and the sight of an eye in the process – he also had a tempestuous and very public love affair with Emma Hamilton, one of the most beautiful women of his day. An affectionate, engaging and loyal friend and father, he was also ruthless and occasionally even cruel. Uninspiring in his personal appearance, he was nevertheless one of the most charismatic leaders Britain has ever produced, able to inspire devotion, even love, in those who served with him. It is this combination of opposites that makes Nelson so fascinating and, as a result, there always seems to be something new to be said about him, some new light to be shed on his complex character.
As the so-called ‘Nelson Decade’ approaches its climax with the commemoration of the bicentenary of Trafalgar in 2005, new research is throwing fresh light on the familiar story. International conferences on his key battles have brought together scholars from both sides of former conflicts in a sharing of information that has changed our perception of the conduct and progress of those battles. For the first time, it has become possible to see them in the round and to understand more clearly the reasons why Nelson and his colleagues were so successful.