England's - and the world’s - most famous sailor, Admiral Lord Nelson, is revered for his bravery and seamanship in winning four major battles. Trafalgar Square in London is testament to his greatness from a grateful nation. But few people seem to realise that Horace Nelson was a North Norfolk parson’s son who learned to sail on the Norfolk Coast at Burnham Overy Staithe near Holkham.
Returning to England following his famous victory at the Nile in 1798 – one of the greatest naval battles ever fought – Nelson, a rear admiral and a peer, told an adoring crowd in Great Yarmouth, “I am myself a Norfolk man and I glory in being so”.
He learned to sail at the age of 10 and never forgot his Norfolk roots throughout his glittering career where he was recognised for his unconventional tactics and his grasp of strategy.
Some Nelson experts say he spoke with a Norfolk accent and that his last words when dying of his wounds on HMS Victory at Trafalgar were a command to Captain Hardy spoken using Norfolk terminology. Nelson said, "Do, you anchor Hardy." This was thought to be a question but in Norfolk dialect it was an order to ‘get on with it’.
Despite his death ten years before the end of the war, he played a major role in the defeat of Napoleonic France.
But Norfolk has never fully trumpeted its most famous son. And you could be unaware of his Norfolk roots in the village where he was born, baptised and educated unless you really search for the links.
Nelson’s significance in his home county is low key and, typically of Norfolk - underplayed. The sleepy village of Burnham Thorpe, population 144, remains undisturbed by any Admiral Nelson mania.
At Burnham Thorpe - 13 miles west of Blakeney - you can see the site of The Parsonage where Nelson was born in 1758. The building was demolished in 1803. You can visit the 13th century All Saint's Church, where Lord Nelson’s father Edmund was rector for 48 years. The church, which was completely restored in honour of Nelson, still has the font where Nelson was baptised, the graves of his parents and siblings, and some interesting Nelson memorabilia.
Wood from Nelson’s most famous ship, HMS Victory, was used to build the church altar, lectern and rood screen. It was given to the church in the 1880s by the Lords of the Admiralty,
On the wall near the font is a small, inscribed plaque made from oak and copper from HMS Victory on which Nelson fought and died at Trafalgar.
There are also reproduction documents including Nelson’s baptism record from the church registry, two marriages where Nelson was a witness, and newspaper reports of Nelson’s death and state funeral.
The church also has the unique right to fly the white, pre-1801 ensign flag from its tower.
Nelson’s wooden medicine chest containing a number of glass bottles with silver caps was given to the church in 1964.
A bust of Nelson was put in the church by the London Society of East Anglians in 1905 to celebrate the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Nelson fought the combined fleets of the French and the Spanish in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. It was a huge victory and followed three other notable triumphs by Nelson. But Nelson was struck by a French musketeer's bullet at Trafalgar and died on HMS Victory at the age of 47.
He was given a state funeral with full military honours on January 8, 1806, attended by the Royal Family, nobility, civic dignitaries and army and navy officers including 31 admirals and 100 captains.
He was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, despite his wish to be buried with his father at Burnham Thorpe. Hundreds of people had seen him during five days of lying in state in the Painted Hall at the Royal Hospital in Greenwich. His body was then rowed up the Thames to Westminster in the state barge of King Charles II.
The musket shot which killed Nelson is part of the Royal Collection Trust and can be seen at Windsor Castle. The uniform in which he died, still stained with blood, is also on public display in the new ‘Nelson, Navy, Nation’ gallery at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.
While the church in Burnham Thorpe recognised the Nelson link immediately, it was not until 1975, 200 years after Nelson’s birth, that a village sign signifying the connection with England’s greatest naval hero and his victories was unveiled at Burnham Thorpe. The sign was presented to the village by the Royal Navy.
Nelson in all his portraits is almost as famous for his long-term injuries and wounds as for his naval victories. He lost the partial sight of one eye in a skirmish in Corsica in 1794 when a cannonball threw gravel in his face. He had his right arm amputated in 1797 when he was wounded by splinters in an attack in Santa Cruz.
He was injured again in 1798 in the Battle of the Nile when he destroyed 13 French ships in an audacious attack. He travelled to Naples in Italy to convalesce and it was there he met and fell in love with Emma Hamilton, the young wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to Naples.
The two became lovers, although both were married at the time, and caused public scandal and embarrassment to the navy. It also led to Nelson becoming estranged from his wife Fanny who stayed with and cared for Nelson’s father the Rev Edmund Nelson.
Nelson’s father was the rector of Burnham Thorpe from 1755 for 48 years. Nelson was one of 11 children three of whom died in infancy. His mother Catherine, who was related to the Walpole family, died when Horace, as he was known in the family, was nine. In fact, Horatio was not even the first Horatio in the family as he was named after a brother who had died at just three months old.
Nelson was educated at Burnham Thorpe school, Norwich Grammar School in Cathedral Close, and at Paston College in North Walsham. His uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling of Woodton Hall near Norwich, a naval sea captain, was persuaded to take the 12 year-old Horatio into the navy.
And nobody expected this young Norfolk lad to end up as Viscount Nelson, Baron of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe, and perhaps the most famous hero in naval history.
At the end of the American War of Independence in 1783, Nelson found himself without a ship to command. He spent five years in semi-retirement with his young wife Frances (Fanny) Nisbit on half pay in Burnham Thorpe carrying out refurbishment of his father’s rectory and digging a garden pond.
The church and rectory was a short walk from Nelson’s local pub which was called the Plough Inn, in his time. After his semi-retirement on being given command of a ship he held a party at the pub for Norfolk men who volunteered to join his ship.
The Plough Inn was renamed the Lord Nelson in 1798 after his victory at the Battle of the Nile.
It has recently been closed for five years and had a £1 million refurbishment and extension in 2020. There were plans to display further Nelson artefacts to celebrate the national hero’s links to this tiny village.
It wasn’t until 2005 when Nelson’s county of birth decided to recognise the Nelson link. It changed all county signposts on roads into Norfolk to read ‘NORFOLK Nelson’s county’.
However, Norfolk did build a Nelson’s column long before London’s tribute in Trafalgar Square. A 144-feet tall Grade I listed monument in Great Yarmouth on the east coast was erected in memory of Nelson who sailed from and landed at the port on several occasions. The column was completed in 1819, pre-dating London’s 169-feet-tall monument by more than 21 years.
The Great Yarmouth column in Fenner Road now seems tucked away in what is an industrial area of the sea-side town. Its first custodian was James Sharman, a Yarmouth man who was a crew member on HMS Victory at Trafalgar.
Historian Charles Lewis, former curator of Great Yarmouth Museums, has been linked with Norfolk’s maritime history for more than 30 years and has written an authorative book on Nelson called ‘Nelson “I am myself a Norfolk man”'.