10. Oct, 2021

Text

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. 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.

Nelson’s body arrived at Rosia Bay, Gibraltar onboard HMS Victory which was being towed in to port, arriving there on 28th October 1805 where his body was changed from the barrel of brandy to one of alcohol (spirit of wine) for the return journey home. HMS Victory set sail from Gibraltar and passed through the Straits during the night of 4 November. At noon the next day they joined Collingwood off Cadiz.

It took the Victory five weeks to arrive at Spithead, reaching England on 4 December 1805, during which time the brandy was renewed twice more.

Back in London on 11 December 1805 Victory’s surgeon William Beatty performed an autopsy on Nelson’s body, extracting the musket ball that had killed him. Nelson’s body was then placed in a lead coffin filled with brandy. On the 21 December the lead coffin was opened and the body was placed in another coffin made from L’Orient’s mainmast - a French ship that had been destroyed in the Battle of the Nile - a present given to Nelson in 1799 from Benjamin Hallowell, then captain of HMS Swiftsure. The coffin was then placed in another made of lead and then another of wood. The coffin was collected by the Sheerness dockyard commissioner George Grey’s official yacht Chatham on 23 December from HMS Victory moored in the River Medway and taken up the River Thames to Greenwich Hospital. The coffin was collected on 25 December at Greenwich Hospital and placed in a private room until 4 January 1806.

For three days from 4 January 1806 Nelson’s body lay in state in Greenwich Hospital’s Painted Hall. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 people visited the Hall to pay their last respects. On 8 January 1806 the coffin was transported by the King’s Barge up the River Thames - followed by a two-mile procession of boats - to Whitehall Steps and from there taken to The Admiralty in Whitehall. The day of Nelson’s funeral, 9 January 1806, was fine and bright. Thousands of people lined the streets, along with 30,000 troops, to watch the funeral procession march from Whitehall to St Paul’s Cathedral. The procession included royalty, nobles, ministers, high-ranking military officers and at least 10,000 soldiers. The funeral service itself was attended by 7,000 people including seven royal dukes, 16 earls, 32 admirals and over 100 captains together with 48 seamen and 12 marines from HMS Victory. The service, which commenced at 13:00, ended at 18:00 when Nelson’s coffin was lowered into a marble sarcophagus originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey in St Paul’s Cathedral’s crypt. The order of proceedings was interrupted when seamen from HMS Victory ripped the flag from their ship, which had been draped over the coffin, into pieces for personal mementos.