Bullet that killed Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalagar

By Richard Moss | 16 January 2015 | Updated: 21 October 2016

The French bullet that killed Lord Nelson

a photo of a small locket with a piece of lead shot in it
The single lead shot or bullet (musket ball) which killed Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805© Royal Collection Trust / Queen Elizabeth II 2015
When it was removed by surgeon William Beatty, the bullet that felled Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was still fused to the lace from the epaulette of his jacket.

A single lead musket ball fired by a French marine from a nearby vessel, it had entered through Nelson’s shoulder. And although Beatty extracted it from the wound, it had already caused fatal damage to the lungs and spine which meant the surgeon on board HMS Victory was unable to save the Admiral.

Nelson's posthumous victory over the Spanish and French fleets made him a national hero and Beatty preserved the fateful bullet by having it made into a locket, which he is said to have worn for the rest of his life. On Beatty's death it was presented to Queen Victoria.

The grisly memento was among the treasures on display wehn Chatham Historic Dockyard marked the 250th anniversary of the launch of the world’s oldest commissioned and most famous warship.

HMS Victory: The Untold Story was curated by historian, writer and broadcaster Brian Lavery. It explored Victory’s career, unearthing surprising and often little-known stories leading up to and in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar.

As well as the Nelson bullet, which was lent by HM the Queen, other treasures included a sword presented to Admiral Sir John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent, for his victory at the battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797 over the Spanish fleet and an embroidered Order of Bath, presented to Nelson for his part in the same battle and worn on his uniform.

Twenty-two objects were on loan from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, including two impressive models of Victory showing the changes in her construction, original letters and plans and what is thought to be one of the earliest known representations identified as Victory at the head of the Fleet. 

a photo of a figurehead on a ship
HMS Victory Figurehead© National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth
The centrepiece of the exhibition: HMS Victory’s figurehead, on loan from the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth.

Victory floated out of the Old Single Dock in Chatham's Royal Dockyard on May 7 1765 and, in the years to come, gained recognition from leading fleets in the American War of Independence (1775-1783), the French Revolutionary War (1793-1802) and the Napoleonic War (1803-1815).

But it was in October 1805 that she achieved everlasting international fame as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Nelson in Britain's greatest naval victory, the defeat of the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson’s links to Chatham include his first ship HMS Raisonnable, which he joined on the River Medway in 1771. In the same year, he joined his uncle’s ship, HMS Triumph, at Chatham as a captain’s servant. But it is Victory, which is now moored at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, which is celebrated in the exhibition.

"From her quiet beginnings of being moored on the River Medway for over a decade after her launch, to being in the thick of battle and then on to Portsmouth harbour, HMS Victory had a long and varied career," said Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust’s Preservation and Education Director, Richard Holdsworth MBE, promising a number of new perspectives on HMS Victory.

  • HMS Victory: The Untold Story ran from February 14 - May 31 2015.

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