London – Greenwich (Borough of) – National Maritime Museum (Nelson’s Death Coat)

This is “one of the most iconic items in our collections” the National Maritime Museum note, the uniform which Admiral Horatio Nelson was wearing when he died. Vice Admiral Nelson was killed on 21 October 1805 during the Battle of Trafalgar, when a bullet fired from the French ship Redoutable hit his left shoulder. The damage done was fatal and Nelson was aware of this immediately and he’s quoted as saying “Hardy, I do believe they have done it at last, my backbone is shot through”. He was carried off to get medical help, stopping en route whilst he gave advice to others whilst the battle continued, dying around three hours after he was injured.

It was suggested to Nelson that he perhaps shouldn’t wear medals on board the ship as it made him stand out to the opposing forces, who could target him. However, removing them was a slight faff as they were sewn on and such was the inaccuracy of weaponry at this time, Nelson didn’t seem to fear much. The ones on display here are those which were on the coat when he died, but they themselves were replicas.

It’s possible to see on the coat a hole where the bullet hit Nelson on the shoulder, making this a slightly grim exhibit, albeit one of national importance. There are also blood marks on the sleeve, which aren’t particularly visible, although it’s thought that these are likely that of Nelson’s secretary, John Scott, who had died about an hour before. Scott’s body’s had been thrown into the sea but blood remained on the deck and Nelson fell onto that spot when he was hit.

The coat was given to Lady Emma Hamilton, who was Nelson’s mistress, but she was in a slight predicament that the Government excluded her from events, and her own husband wasn’t best pleased at this entire situation. She sold the coat in 1814 to help pay off some of her debts and it was later repurchased by Prince Albert, who gave it to Greenwich Hospital.

Copyright of the Royal Collection Trust

One of the joys of history is that most things entwine with each other, although that’s sort of literally the case here. The bullet which killed Nelson, along with bits of his coat that got caught up with it, are exhibited at the Queen’s Guard Chamber at Windsor Castle. It was taken from Nelson’s body by William Beatty, the doctor of HMS Victory, who decided that he quite fancied having a souvenir of the whole incident. He wore this locket for the rest of his life, but when he died his family donated it (probably with some relief) to Queen Victoria.

As an aside, Nelson didn’t want his body chucking overboard as the usual way of getting rid of dead bodies. So, it was Beatty was put Nelson’s body in a barrel of brandy to preserve it whilst the ship set sail back for England. During this period of transportation the gases from the body forced the lid of the barrel off. It’s said that the sailors guarding the barrel were rather surprised by this occurrence….