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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: April 2017

Introduction

Summary

Recollect that you must be a Seaman to be an Officer, and also, that you cannot be a good Officer without being a Gentleman.

Vice-Admiral Horatio, Lord Nelson to Mr Charles Connor, 1803

This book is about British naval officers and their place in society at the end of the eighteenth century. It was a tumultuous period, both at home and abroad. Between 1688 and 1815 – what historians refer to as the ‘long eighteenth century’ – Britain and France fought seven major wars lasting almost sixty years in total and culminating in more than two decades of sustained conflict. During the French Revolutionary Wars of 1793–1802 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1803–1815, Britain's survival was in doubt. French forces overran the Low Countries, Italy, and the German states, subdued Austria, Russia, and Prussia, annexed Spain, and invaded Egypt. A major French invasion of Britain was a constant threat. Domestically, population growth and a vibrant popular press combined with changing social mores to unsettle the established hierarchy. Fears of popular uprisings and the influence of revolutionary ideologies from France and America meant that the social elite could no longer count on their future dominance.

It is tempting to tell a story in which heroic naval officers save Britain, her ruling classes, and parliamentary government from Napoleonic tyranny. After all, they commanded the wooden walls that prevented a French invasion and won every major fleet action of the Great Wars. The most frequently told version of this story is depicted in the cover illustration: Vice-Admiral Horatio, Lord Nelson's death at the moment of his victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. With the beams of Victory forming a cross above him, his body is wrapped in a white sheet and bathed in a heavenly glow. His overwhelming triumph, we are to understand, prevented Napoleon and his army from invading and ended the war at sea; his sacrifice, we know, earned him the everlasting thanks of the nation and installed him in the pantheon of national saviours.