Elanor Cowie: Lord Nelson A Hero Who Is Worth The Hype

Roundup: Talking About History

The annals of history are strewn with the names of great men and women who were born into their generation at precisely the right moment to achieve great things. In doing so, they cement their lives and legacies in the public consciousness and the cultural identity of their homelands. For Great Britain - or, some might argue, England - one man who accomplished this feat was Horatio Nelson. His decisive victory at Trafalgar in 1805 lifted the threat of invasion by Napoleon's armies and helped ensure Britain would be the world's dominant naval power for more than a century.

Yesterday, thousands in London and elsewhere marked the 200th anniversary of the battle and Nelson's death aboard HMS Victory. The Queen led commemorations in London by lighting a beacon beside Victory and, throughout the weekend, more than 6000 events will take place. A remembrance service will be held in St Paul's Cathedral tomorrow, where Nelson is buried.

The degree of enthusiasm for the man who died defeating Napoleon is such that "Nelson fever" is said to be gripping the country.

Indeed, this weekend's events conclude a year of celebrations in Britain of the triumph. It may all seem a little over the top, but on closer inspection, a look at his life reveals these modern-day celebrations and remembrances befit a man whose state funeral was the largest ever in Britain at that time.

A procession of mourners measuring nearly two miles followed Nelson's coffin in London.

Yet for those of us whose total knowledge of Nelson extends no further than recognising his eye patch, one arm (lost in battle) and that most misunderstood of lines, "Kiss me, Hardy", just who was Nelson and why does he continue to capture the imagination of so many?

Rewind 247 years (Nelson died at the age of 47). He was born on September 29, 1758, in the village of Burnham-Thorpe in Norfolk, the sixth of 11 children of Edmund Nelson, the village parson, and Catherine, his wife. Mrs Nelson was a descendant of Sir Robert Walpole, who had been prime minister earlier that century and it was her brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, who agreed to take Nelson to sea.

His early years were spent in the Paston School in North Walsham, Norfolk, and then in the Royal Navy. He passed the examination to become lieutenant in 1777 and at the age of 20 was promoted to captain. Five years later, he commanded a frigate to the West Indies.

It has been said that Nelson was a leaderwho was not only respected and liked, but in some cases worshipped by those under him. According to Tim Clayton, historian and author of Trafalgar: The Men, The Battle, The Storm, Nelson was an enormously impressive operator.

"He was a hugely intelligent and hard-working man, " he says. "He was someone who was never happier than when he was being a professional. He was always phenomenally well prepared with the latest information and intelligence before going to battle, and what was perhaps even more remarkable was that he persuaded his captains that they wanted to serve under him.

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