HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar

Batlte of Trafalgar 1805

Prior to the Battle of Trafalgar 

Vice-Admiral Nelson hoisted his flag in Victory on 18 May 1803, with Samuel Sutton as his flag captain. The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson (Volume 5, page 68) record that "Friday 20 May a.m. ... Nelson ... came on board. Saturday 21st (i.e.the afternoon of the 20th) Unmoored ship and weighed. Made sail out of Spithead ... when H.M.Ship Amphion joined, and proceeded to sea in company with us" 

Victory was under orders to meet up with Cornwallis off Brest, but after 24 hours of searching failed to find him. Nelson, anxious to reach the Mediterranean without delay, decided to transfer to Amphion off Ushant. The Dispatches and Letters (see above) record on page 71 "Tuesday 24 May (i.e. 23 May p.m.) Hove to at 7.40, Out Boats. The Admiral shifted his flag to the Amphion. At 7.50 Lord Nelson came on board the Amphion and hoisted his flag and made sail."

On 28 May, Captain Sutton captured the French Ambuscade of 32 guns, bound for Rochefort. Victory re-joined Lord Nelson off Toulon, where on 31 July, Captain Sutton exchanged commands with the captain of Amphion, Thomas Masterman Hardy and Nelson raised his flag in Victory once more.

Victory was passing the island of Toro, near Majorca, on 4 April 1805, when HMS Phoebe brought the news that the French fleet under Pierre-Charles Villeneuve had escaped from Toulon. While Nelson made for Sicily to see if the French were heading for Egypt, Villeneuve was entering Cádiz to link up with the Spanish fleet. On 9 May, Nelson received news from HMS Orpheus that Villeneuve had left Cadiz a month earlier. The British fleet completed their stores in Lagos Bay, Portugal and, on 11 May, sailed westward with ten ships and three frigates in pursuit of the combined Franco-Spanish fleet of 17 ships. They arrived in the West Indies to find that the enemy was sailing back to Europe, where Napoleon Bonaparte was waiting for them with his invasion forces at Boulogne.

The Franco-Spanish fleet was involved in the indecisive Battle of Cape Finisterre in fog off Ferrol with Admiral Sir Robert Calder's squadron on 22 July, before taking refuge in Vigo and Ferrol. Calder on 14 August and Nelson on 15 August joined Admiral Cornwallis's Channel Fleet off Ushant. Nelson continued on to England in Victory, leaving his Mediterranean fleet with Cornwallis who detached twenty of his thirty-three ships of the line and sent them under Calder to find the combined fleet at Ferrol. On 19 August came the worrying news that the enemy had sailed from there, followed by relief when they arrived in Cádiz two days later. On the evening of Saturday, 28 September, Lord Nelson joined Lord Collingwood's fleet off Cádiz, quietly, so that his presence would not be known.

Battle of Trafalgar 1805

During the Battle

Nelson's arrival off Cadiz caused great excitement throughout the fleet with a sense that a decisive moment was soon approaching. On 19 October the allied French and Spanish fleet sailed from Cadiz under the command of the French Vice Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve. The British fleet shadowed the allied fleet until it was well clear of the port. On the morning of 21 October off Cape Trafalgar the English fleet prepared to move in to attack. Nelson signalled his fleet to prepare for battle and make more sail. The ships were formed into two columns; the column on the left was led by Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign and the right column by Admiral Lord Nelson in the Flagship HMS Victory.

At eleven forty Nelson informed his second-in-command that he intended passing right through the enemy's line to prevent them from retreating into Cadiz. However the tight formation of the Franco-Spanish ships prevented him from doing so and the signal was followed by 'make all sail with safety to the masts'. During the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson's plan was to sail straight into the line of the enemy fleet although she would have been exposed to the concentrated fire of five allied ships for over an hour without being able to bring any cannons of her own to bear to defend herself. 

Around fifteen minutes before midday Nelson's famous signal broke out to the Fleet' England expects that every man will do his duty' shortly followed by' Close Action'. Nelson ordered the signals to be kept up. They remained that way until they were shot away. by one the ships in Nelson's division which pushed through the gap the Victory had made and began to attack the ships of the allied centre. Each of Nelson's Captains' had orders that once they had broken through the lines they were to find their own enemy ships and fight their own separate battles. Although it was a high-risk plan Nelson relied on the superior morale and gunnery training of his crews which could maintain a far more deadly rate of fire than his opponents. These tactics eventually proved to be decisive.  

At the start, fitful winds made it a slow business, and for more than six hours, the two columns of British ships slowly approached the French line before Royal Sovereign, leading the lee column, was able to open fire on Fougueux. Around 30 minutes later, Victory broke the line between Bucentaure and Redoutable firing a treble shotted broadside into the stern of the Redoutable from a range of a few yards. The Redoubtable Captain, Jean-Jacques Lucas had given his men special training in small arm fire of musket and pistol shot with devastating effect. At times the decks of the Victory were being swept clear by a hail of deadly shot. Although Nelson was aware he could clearly be seen on deck wearing his full admiral uniform, issuing orders and would therefore be a prime target, he was determined to lead his men from the front and consequently soon to be one of the casualties himself. At a quarter past one, Nelson was shot, the fatal musket ball fired from the Redoutable entering his left shoulder and lodging in his spine. 

Such killing had taken place on Victory's quarter deck that Redoutable attempted to board her, but they were thwarted by the arrival of Eliab Harvey in the 98-gun HMS Temeraire, whose broadside devastated the French ship. Nelson's last order was for the fleet to anchor, but this was countermanded by Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. Victory suffered 57 killed and 102 wounded.

As he was carried below decks, Nelson requested his face to be covered so his men could not see he was hit. He was to lingering down in the cockpit in great pain for three hours. Fortunately however Nelson lived long enough to hear that he had won a decisive victory, something which Britain so badly needed and for which he had planned so carefully. He died at half past four. The Victory's crew insisted on their right to take back home to England the body of their beloved commander, which was to be specially preserved in a cask of spirits of brandy. Victory carried Nelson's body to England, where, after lying in state at Greenwich, he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral on 9 January 1806.

Battle of Trafalgar 1805


Although the Victory was potted with shot and some being of heavy calibre very few had penetrated the ships hull. Every one of the thirty-three British ships returned from the battle. Out of the forty enemy vessels at Trafalgar, nineteen were taken as prizes, of which only four were saved. After the battle off Cape Trafalgar near Gibraltar, the damage was listed in The 'Remark Book' by Mr. R.F Roberts who was a Midshipman on the Victory:

  "The hull is much damaged with shot in a number of places, several along the water line. Several beams and riders, knees shot through, and a broken starboard cathead. Timbers of the Head and Stem full of shot with lots of parts damaged. Chains and Channels shot away, the Mizzen mast shot away nine foot above the deck, bulwarks shot away, the main mast was full of shot and sprung, the Main Yard gone, the main Top-Mast cap shot away. The Main Topsail mast yard shot away. The Foremast shot through in many places, the Foreyard shot away, Bowsprit, Jib Boom and cap shot-away. Spritsail yards and Flying-jib boom gone. Fore and Main Tops shot away and the ship taking in 12 inches of water an hour."

From this report by the midshipman it was clear the Victory was in a serious condition. When the battle was over, the Victory was not able to move under her own sail. The ship took another pounding in a great storm and had to be towed by HMS Neptune to Gibraltar for repairs. Eventually seven days after the battle the Victory arrived in Gibraltar. After the necessary temporary repairs and a difficult journey the Victory arrived back home in Portsmouth Harbour on the 4th of December. The battered old ship eventually was to return to her birthplace, Chatham in Kent where she underwent the second major refit of her long career. Her steering-wheel, shot away during the battle, was replaced with one bearing the words of Nelson's famous signal; 'ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. ' while a special plaque was placed at the spot on the quarterdeck where Nelson fell.

Unfortunately although the Battle of Trafalgar did not bring the peace the British had hoped for it did inflict a crippling blow on the French navy. It brokeFrance as a maritime power and freed England from the threat of invasion, eventually leading to the collapse of the French Empire and the downfall of Napoleon in 1815. More importantly however it established Britain as the world's supreme naval power for the next hundred years.