This coat was worn by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson when he commanded the British fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805. In this major sea battle, the British navy defeated the combined fleets of the French and Spanish navies, temporarily ending Napoleon Bonaparte’s threat to invade Britain. Although this coat made Nelson highly conspicuous during the battle, he chose to wear it on deck to inspire his men. Nelson was shot at the height of the battle and mortally wounded. The bullet hole can be seen on the left shoulder of the coat.

France was at war with Britain almost continually between 1793 and 1815 (the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars). As an ‘island nation’, Britain had to ensure military strength both on land and sea. At that time Britain was a very wealthy country, with much of its wealth coming from international trade, particularly the transatlantic slave trade. The growing industrial revolution also played a part in its healthy economy, particularly through the manufacture and trade in textiles (such as this uniform). It was no wonder France wanted to gain control of Britain as part of its campaign to gain new territories and spread revolutionary principles across Europe and the wider world.

Protecting Britain from invasion and protecting its global sea-trade routes was of the utmost importance. This job fell to the Royal Navy. The dependence on the Navy for the nation’s prosperity and sovereignty meant that it was a major source of national pride, and those who were successful in the Navy became national heroes. Horatio Nelson became Britain’s most famous naval hero, after commanding a number of successful and crucial sea battles. The most famous of these was the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place off the coast of Spain, near the city of Cadiz, in 1805.

Nelson’s democratic leadership style and innovative battle tactics were revolutionary for the time and became know as the ‘Nelson touch’.

Despite the combined fleets of the French and Spanish navies being larger than those of the British, Nelson’s motivated, loyal and highly trained force won the Battle of Trafalgar and retained control of the oceans. Although mortally wounded, Nelson lived long enough to learn that his fleet had won. Nelson’s democratic leadership style and innovative battle tactics were revolutionary for the time and became know as the ‘Nelson touch’. The victory cemented Britain’s reputation as ruler of the seas and temporarily halted Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain. However, the wars soon continued and it wasn’t until Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that Britain finally ended the threat of French control.

Nelson became a national hero and was given a state funeral – an honour usually only reserved for a King or Queen. He was immortalised in monuments around the country – most famously Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square in London, which was named after the battle. His face appeared on every conceivable type of memorabilia, from cups, Toby jugs and doorstops to clocks, snuff boxes and even children’s toys. The importance of this victory still resonates across Britain today and lives on in the names of pubs and streets across Britain.

Did you know..?

After he was shot and killed, Nelson’s body was placed in a barrel of brandy to preserve it on the 6 week journey back to England.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

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This object is in the collection of Royal Museums Greenwich