Nelson and Agamemnon Part I


Portrait of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship HMS Agamemnon leading the fleet in the Mediterranean Sea in 1796 by Geoff Hunt.

History of the HMS Agamemnon.

HMS Agamemnon was a 64-gun third-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy. She saw service in the American Revolutionary, French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and fought in many of the major naval battles of those conflicts. She is remembered as being Nelson’s favourite ship, and was named after the mythical ancient Greek king Agamemnon, being the first ship of the Royal Navy to bear the name. The future Lord Nelson served as Agamemnon’s captain from January 1793 for 3 years and 3 months, during which time she saw considerable service in the Mediterranean. After Nelson’s departure, she was involved in the infamous 1797 mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, and in 1801 was present at the first Battle of Copenhagen, but ran aground before being able to enter the action. Despite Nelson’s fondness for the ship, she was frequently in need of repair and refitting, and would likely have been hulked or scrapped in 1802 had war with France not recommenced. She fought at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, as part of Nelson’s weather column, where she forced the surrender of the Spanish four-decker Santísima Trinidad. Agamemnon’s later career was served in South American waters off Brazil. Her oft worn-out and poor condition contributed to her being wrecked when in June 1809 she grounded on an uncharted shoal in the mouth of the River Plate.


In late 1792, as the European situation deteriorated and war with France came closer, the Navy began to mobilise. Once again, Nelson reminded the Board that he was anxious to serve. This time he did not rely on Hood, whom he had not spoken to since 1790. Within the month, however, he had seen Lord Chatham at the Admiralty, and had been promised a sixty-four as soon as it was ready, or a seventy-four if he was prepared to wait. Characteristically – and fortunately, as it would turn out – Nelson went for the more immediate prospect, although he was anxious to commission the ship at Chatham, rather than Portsmouth or Plymouth. He got his way, and his exuberance at the prospect was clear from his report of the interview to Fanny: duty called, and in his mind he was already off to sea. By late January he knew the name of his ship: the Agamemnon, then refitting at Chatham. The symbolism of a ship named for the king of men might have been lost on the crew, who referred to her as ‘Eggs and bacon’, but it would be appropriate: over the next three years, the Agamemnon would make Nelson a prince among captains.

To man his new ship, Nelson called back many old Albemarle and Boreas officers and petty officers, recruited in Norfolk, and asked Locker, then commanding at the Nore, to find a clerk and extra men. There was a personal and parochial strain to his selections: his new-entry midshipmen included Josiah Nisbet, a Suckling cousin, and William Hoste, son of another Norfolk parson. He would make them all captains, although only Hoste became a naval hero.

As he rushed back and forth between Burnham, London and Chatham, Nelson was still Hood’s man. Only slowly would he come to rely on his own judgement, and he never dreamt of refusing Hood’s orders as he had those of Hughes a decade earlier. While Hood held command Nelson deferred to him, although unlike most of his fellow captains he never ceased learning from the master. His period under Hood’s orders would be the penultimate stage of his education in leadership and command.

War was finally declared on n February 1793. Initially, the British government had not been unduly concerned by the outbreak of war between Austria and revolutionary France in 1792. The Prime Minister, Pitt, had convinced himself and his colleagues that the internal condition of France was a force for peace, leaving the Ministry profoundly unprepared later in the year when the French extended their war into the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium), an area of fundamental concern to Britain.

The French occupation of Antwerp undermined the basis of British security: a hostile fleet at Antwerp was ideally placed to attempt an invasion, far better than at any French base. Preventing the city from falling into the hands of a major rival had been the basic tenet of British policy since the Tudor period. The threat from the north-east would be a major issue throughout the next twenty-two years of war.

In 1793 Britain lacked the troops to take on France in the Low Countries, her old ally Holland was no longer a major power, and the military resources of the three eastern monarchies – Austria, Prussia and Russia – were largely occupied by the partition of Poland. In addition all three were close to bankruptcy. The minor powers and petty principalities of Europe were no better placed. The only assets that Britain could use to secure her strategic interests were her fleet, and her credit. Pitt, committed as he was to fiscal stability, was convinced the French would be defeated by the collapse of their economy. To this end, Britain applied her major military effort to the French West Indian islands, the motor of their economy and source of key maritime resources, ships and seamen. The islands would also be useful assets for any peace negotiations, and end the threat to the immensely valuable West India shipping from locally based warships or privateers.

To address the European dimension of the French problem, Pitt needed to build coalitions based on mutual interest, money and sea power. Mediterranean strategy was driven by the need to secure a friendly base within the Straits. Gibraltar was unable to handle a large fleet, and without a major base, like Minorca, Naples or Malta, the fleet would be hard-pressed to protect British merchant ships, let alone exert any influence over France. As Hood’s fleet was assembling, British diplomacy was building a useful coalition. Piedmont-Sardinia signed a treaty in April, promising to keep fifty thousand troops in the field, in return for an annual subvention of £200,000 and the presence of a major fleet. The King of Sardinia was anxious to recover Nice and Savoy, which the French had seized in 1792.

In July, Naples promised to provide six thousand troops and a naval squadron at no expense, although the British would have to transport the soldiers. Further treaties with Spain and Portugal completed a Mediterranean system that encircled France, while providing bases and troops. Keeping the French fleet inside the Straits would greatly simplify the defence of oceanic trade, while providing distant cover for the West Indian campaign. With a fleet in place, and allied armies to hand, France could be invaded on all fronts, her resources stretched along her frontier from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees.

As Commander in Chief in the Mediterranean, Hood was taking on the most complex task that fell to a British officer in wartime. While his primary task, like that of Howe off Brest, was to watch the French fleet and give battle if it came out, he was also responsible for theatre strategy, alliance-building and coalition warfare. Naval dominance, by battle or blockade, would enable Britain to use the Mediterranean for trade, diplomacy and strategy. He was to use any opportunity of ‘impressing upon the States bordering on the Mediterranean an Idea of the strength and Power of Great Britain’. This would require the fleet to be spread across the theatre.

By staying in port the French would force Hood to keep his battlefleet concentrated, while trying to protect trade from Gibraltar to the Dardanelles, cooperate with allies and clients and exert diplomatic leverage over the Barbary states. In conducting these multifarious tasks he would have to rely on his own judgement, forming his plans on the basis of local information supplied by British diplomatic representatives, and any intelligence that could be gleaned from passing ships, local newspapers, and chance occasions. Furthermore he would have to operate without a major base, or dry-dock. It was a task that called for a range of skills above and beyond fleet command – it needed a self-sufficient, confident personality, with the political courage to take responsibility for major initiatives without being able to consult London. Only Hood and Nelson truly rose to the challenge of commanding the Mediterranean theatre.

In March the Agamemnon went down the Medway to Sheerness: Hood hinted that Nelson should prepare for a cruise and then join the fleet at Gibraltar. The combination of getting to sea and a letter from Hood put Nelson in fine spirits; he told Fanny that ‘I was never in better health’. While the ship completed for sea Nelson’s personal possessions arrived on coasters from Wells. A short stretch down to the Nore in mid-April demonstrated a key feature of his command: ‘we appear to sail very fast’. Desperate to join Hood, and fearful that his orders might change, he found every delay for bad weather a terrible trial. The vigour with which he drove two French frigates and a corvette into La Hougue, while cruising off the Normandy coast, spoke volumes about his anxiety to prove himself.

Nelson was anxious to get on with the war, and found another Channel cruise with Admiral Hotham’s division between Guernsey and Land’s End doubly annoying as neutral ships reported that the French Atlantic ports were full of captured British merchant ships. Not content to do as he was told, Nelson needed to know the purpose of his orders, spending much mental effort trying to understand their rationale. This was an important lesson in command: as a result of his frustration, he himself would always take junior commanders into his confidence, ensuring they understood the broader mission so they could exercise their judgement rather than relying on orders.

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