Trafalgar, Nelson and Napoleon


Near the close of the Century [1789] the French Revolution broke out. It was a violent and successful attempt to destroy those feudal institutions which France had outgrown, and which had, as we have seen, disappeared gradually in England after the rebellion of Wat Tyler (304, 368, 534).

At first the revolutionists received the hearty sympathy of many of the Whig party, but after the execution of Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, England became alarmed not only at the horrible scenes of the Reign of Terror but at the establishment of that democratic republic which seemed to justify them, and joined an alliance of the principal European powers for the purpose of restoring the French monarchy. Napoleon had now become the real head of the French nation, and seemed bent on making himself master of all Europe.  He undertook an expedition against Egypt and the East which was intended as a stepping-stone toward the ultimate conquest of the English empire in India, but his plans were frustrated by Nelson’s victory over the French fleet at the battle of the Nile.

With the assistance of Spain, Napoleon next prepared to invade England, and was so confident of success that he caused a gold medal to be struck, bearing the inscription, “Descent upon England.” “Struck at London, [1804].”  But the combined French and Spanish fleets on whose cooperation Napoleon was depending were driven by the English into the harbor of Cadiz, and the great expedition was postponed for another year.

See Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, “Death of Marie Antoinette.”

In [1801] Robert Fulton proposed to Napoleon that he should build war-ships to be propelled by steam. The proposal was submitted to a committee of French scientists, who reported that it was absurd.  Had Napoleon acted on Fulton’s suggestion, his descent on England might have been successful.

When, in the autumn of [1805], they left Cadiz harbor, Lord Nelson lay waiting for them off Cape Trafalgar, near by.  Two days later he descried the enemy at daybreak. The men on both sides felt that the decisive struggle was at hand.  With the exception of a long, heavy swell the sea was calm, with a light breeze, but sufficient to bring the two fleets gradually within range.

“As they drifted on their path
There was silence deep as death;
And the boldest held his breath
For a time.”

Just before the action Nelson ran up this signal to the masthead of his ship, where all might see it:


The answer to it was three ringing cheers from the entire fleet, and the fight began.  When it ended, Napoleon’s boasted navy was no more.

Trafalgar Square, in the heart of London, with its tall column bearing aloft a statue of Nelson, commemorates the decisive victory, which was dearly bought with the life of the great admiral.

The battle of Trafalgar snuffed out Napoleon’s projected invasion of England.  He had lost his ships, and their commander in his despair committed suicide.  The French emperor could no longer hope to bridge “the ditch,”  as he derisively called the boisterous Channel, whose waves rose like a wall between him and the island which he hated.  A few years later, Napoleon, who had taken possession of Spain, and placed his brother on the throne, was driven from that country by Sir Arthur Wellesley, destined to be better known as the Duke of Wellington, and the crown was restored to the Spanish nation.

Excerpt from The Leading Facts of English History by David Henry Montgomery – 1904


Further Reading and External Links

Nelson at the National Archives

The Battle of Trafalgar

Nelsons Navy