Battle of Copenhagen (1801)

Battle of Copenhagen turning a blind eye

Prior to the Battle

Shortly after his arrival in England, Nelson was appointed to be second-in-command of the Channel Fleet under Lord St Vincent. He was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue on the 1st of January 1801 and travelled to Plymouth, where on 22 January he was granted the freedom of the city. On the 29th of January Emma gave birth to their daughter, Horatia. Nelson was delighted, but subsequently disappointed when he was instructed to move his flag from HMS San Josef to HMS St George in preparation for a planned expedition to the Baltic. 

In early 1801, the British government assembled a fleet off Great Yarmouth at Yarmouth Roads, with the goal of breaking up the League of Armed Neutrality comprising Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, and Russia. The Leaque was arranged by the Russian Tsar Paul to enforce free trade with France. The British viewed the League to be very much in the French interest and a serious threat. According to the British, its existence threatened the supply of timber and naval stores from Scandinavia. If the Russian fleet joined with the Swedish and Danish fleets, the combined fleets would form a formidable force of up to 123 ships-of-the-line. The British fleet was under the command of Admiral Hyde Parker, with Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson as second-in-command.


Nelson joined Admiral Sir Hyde Parker's fleet at Yarmouth, from where they sailed for the Danish coast on the 12th of March.  The British fleet reached the Skaw (Danish: Skagen) on 19 March, where they met a British diplomat, Nicholas Vansittart, who told them that the Danes had rejected an ultimatum.

Although the Admiralty had instructed Parker to frustrate the League, by force if necessary, he was a naturally cautious person. He wanted to blockade the Baltic despite the danger of the combination of fleets. In the end Nelson was able to persuade Sir Hyde to attack the Danish fleet currently concentrated off Copenhagen. On the 3th of March, the British force passed through the narrows between Denmark and Sweden, sailing close to the Swedish coast to put themselves as far from the Danish guns as possible; fortunately for the British, the Swedish batteries remained silent. The British had no reliable charts or pilots, so Captain Thomas Hardy spent most of the night of 31 March taking soundings in the channel up to the Danish line. Even so, the British ships were not able to locate the deepest part of the channel properly and kept too far to seaward.


Parker gave Nelson the twelve ships-of-the-line with the shallowest drafts, and all the smaller ships in the fleet. Parker himself stayed to the north-east in the Kattengat to cover Nelson’s fleet with the heavier ships – whose deeper drafts did not allow them to safely enter the channel. Nelson transferred his command from the large 98-gun HMS St George to the shallower 74-gun HMS Elephant for the same reason.

Nelson's plan was for the British ships to approach the weaker, southern end of the Danish defences in a line parallel to the Danish line. As the foremost ship drew alongside a Danish ship, it would anchor and engage that ship. The remainder of the line would pass outside the engagement until the next British ship drew alongside the next Danish ship, and so on. A force of frigates, commanded by Captain Edward Riou of HMS Amazon, would attack the northern end of the line. Should the British be unable to subdue the stronger, northern defences, the destruction of the southern ships would be enough to allow the bomb vessels to approach within range of the city and force negotiations to prevent the bombardment of the city.

The Battle 

On the morning of 2 April 1801, with a southerly wind, the British ships lead by Nelson attempted to enter the harbour, while the Danish fleet (stationed in the city's inlet), formed a blockade. For this purpose, the Danish mainly used older ships that were not meant to sail in the sea. The British were not aware that both the modern Royal Danish Navy and many merchant ships were well hidden in the Roskilde fjord. The battle began badly for the British, with HMS Agamemnon, HMS Bellona and HMS Russell running aground. 

The loss of the three vessels required hurried changes in the line and weakened the force's northern end. The British encountered heavy resistance, partly because they had not spotted the low-lying floating batteries, and partly because of the courage with which the Danes fought. 

"I Really Do Not See The Signal"

Admiral Parker could see little of the battle owing to gun smoke, but could see the signals on the three grounded British ships, with Bellona and Russell flying signals of distress and Agamemnon flying a signal of inability to proceed. Thinking that Nelson might have fought to a stand-still but might be unable to retreat without orders (the Articles of War demanded that all ranks 'do their utmost' against the enemy in battle), at 1:30pm Parker sent the signal for Nelson to withdraw, reasoning:


"I will make the signal for recall for Nelson's sake. If he is in a condition to continue the action he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat and no blame can be imputed to him."

Nelson was informed of the signal by the signal lieutenant, Langford. He ordered that the signal be acknowledged, but not repeated "I told you to look out on the Danish commodore and let me know when he surrendered. Keep your eyes fixed on him", Nelson then turned to his flag captain, Thomas Foley, and said "You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes." Nelson raised the telescope to his blind eye, and said "I really do not see the signal.

Rear Admiral Graves repeated the signal, but in a place invisible to most other ships while keeping Nelson's 'close action' signal at his masthead. Of Nelson's captains, only Riou, who could not see Nelson's flagship HMS Elephant, followed Parker's signal. Riou withdrew his force, which was then attacking the Tre Kroner fortress, exposing himself to a heavy fire that killed him.

The battle lasted for three hours, leaving both Danish and British fleets heavily damaged. 

Perhaps because of inexperienced crews, several Danish ships fired on British boats sent out to them after their officers had signalled their surrender. Nelson said that he "must either send on shore and stop this irregular proceeding, or send in our fire ships and burn them" and went to his cabin to write a note to the Danes. He sent it with a Danish-speaking officer, Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger, under a flag of truce to the Danish-Norwegian regent, Crown Prince Frederik. The Prince accepted and at 4 pm, a twenty-four-hour ceasefire was agreed.

Of the Danish ships engaged in the battle, two had sunk, one had exploded, and twelve had been captured. The British could not spare men for manning prizes as they feared that further battles were to come. They burned eleven of the captured ships and only one, Holsteen, was sailed to England with the wounded under surgeon William Fergusson. Holsteen was then taken into service with the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Holstein (later HMS Nassau).

Parker approved of Nelson's actions in retrospect and Nelson was given the honour of going into Copenhagen the next day to open formal negotiations. At a banquet that evening Nelson told Prince Frederick that the battle had been the most severe he had ever been in. The outcome of the battle was a 14-week armistice. During the armistice, Armed Neutrality would be suspended and the British were to have free access to Copenhagen. Danish prisoners were also paroled. In the final hour of negotiations, the Danes found out (but not the British) that Tsar Paul had been assassinated. 


Parker was recalled on the 5th of May, and ordered to hand his command over to Nelson. Nelson became commander-in-chief in the Baltic Sea. As a reward for the victory, he was made Viscount Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk, on the 19th of May 1801. In addition, on 4 August 1801, he was created Baron Nelson, of the Nile and of Hilborough in the County of Norfolk, this time with a special remainder to his father and sisters. Nelson had sailed to the Russian naval base at Reval (now Tallinn), in May, and there learned that the pact of armed neutrality was to be disbanded. Satisfied with the outcome of the expedition, he returned to England, arriving on the 1st of July. 

Leave in England 

After a brief spell in London, where he again visited the Hamiltons, Nelson was placed in charge of defending the English Channel to prevent an invasion of the French. Nelson spent the summer reconnoitring the French coast, but apart from a failed attack on Boulogne in August, he saw little action. On the 22nd of October 1801 the Peace of Amiens was signed between the British and the French, and Nelson – in poor health again – retired to Britain where he stayed with the Hamiltons. On the 30th of October Nelson spoke in support of the Addington government in the House of Lords, and afterwards made regular visits to attend sessions. The Hamiltons and Nelson embarked on a tour of England and Wales, visiting Birmingham, Warwick, Gloucester, Swansea, Monmouth and numerous other towns and villages. Nelson often found himself received as a hero and was the centre of celebrations and events held in his honour. In 1802, Nelson bought Merton Place, a country estate in Merton, Surrey (now south-west London) where he lived briefly with the Hamiltons until William's death in April 1803. The following month, war broke out again and Nelson prepared to return to sea.