With many uncanny parallels, Lord Nelson’s prayer for divine intervention on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar was answered in ways very similar to Achilles’ prayer during the Trojan War.
After Hektor slew the brave Patroklos and stripped his body of Achilles’ armor, Achilles sought the aid of his sea goddess mother, Thetis. Instantly flying up to Olympos, she requested new armor from Hephaistos and then rushed the divine weapons directly back to Achilles.
Admiral Horatio Nelson, widely celebrated as a national hero for courageously and successfully protecting England from the French fleet since the start of 1805, had just returned home in August after two years of duty at sea.
Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, was being resupplied when word reached Britain that the combined French and Spanish fleet, regrouping in Cadiz harbor, was preparing to launch a colossal attack.
The Perilous Summer of 1805
It was the summer of 1805 and Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet was clearly posing an existential threat to England. Ideally positioned in the Atlantic Ocean, Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was planning a devastating attack on British trading ships and, with success, hoped to attack Britain itself.
Will you call it coincidental, at that very moment, that a well-muscled merman was swiftly plying the waves, bearing Thetis and Hephaistos’ gifts of divine armor for Achilles, fresh from the forge of William Theed the Elder?
When Theed, a Neoclassical sculptor, first displayed his model of Thetis crossing the sea to deliver Achilles’ armor at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1805, the uncanny similarities between the ancient Greek and Trojan conflict and the current English and French conflict resonated profoundly in every British heart.
Nelson was fervently charting his tactics, anxious to set sail, impatient to annihilate the enemies of England. Young men throughout the nation were being called upon to heroically serve their country in raging sea battles against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French. Mothers all across the country were mournfully hugging their boys, whispering tearful goodbyes, watching their sons depart, perhaps for the very last time.
Pacing for two weeks like Achilles in desperate need of his new armor, Lord Nelson prayed for divine intervention and honed his battle plan until HMS Victory was finally ready to set sail on September 15. Assuming his post once more as Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Horatio Nelson departed from his beloved home, Merton, after praying beside his daughter’s bed as she slept. While riding in his carriage to Portsmouth, Nelson wrote the following prayer:
Friday night at half past Ten drove from dear dear Merton where I left all which I hold most dear in this World to go to serve my King & Country. May the Great God whom I adore enable me to fullfil the expectations of my Country and if it is his good pleasure that I should return my thanks will never cease being offered up to the Throne of his Mercy. If it is his good providence to Cut short my days upon Earth I bow with the greatest Submission relying that He will protect those so dear to me that I may leave behind. His will be done.
Amen Amen Amen
Full of foreboding, Lord Nelson had no way of knowing his fate. But, clearly embracing the possibility that he might not survive the war, the admiral put his faith and life on the line, wholeheartedly serving God, King, and Country.
This was the eve of Nelson’s greatest battle–Britain’s continued economic success was entirely depending on Nelson eradicating the Franco-Spanish threat and reestablishing peace in the region.
On the eve of Achilles’ greatest battle, both he and his mother recognized and embraced the coming death of Achilles. Fully aware that the Trojan War would be set on a clear path to its epic end with the catastrophic death of Hektor, Achilles whipped his horses into battle, swearing to the gods that he would not stop his assault until all of the Trojans were sick to death of war.
Fated to follow close on the heels of Hektor’s death, Achilles’ own demise was close at hand. But it would be a heroic path to glory, eternally celebrating Achilles’ life and death, giving birth to the glorious civilization that would be Greece.
On the Eve of the Battle of Trafalgar
A fortuitous calming of winds slowed the French and Spanish ships under Villeneuve’s command and on October 19 his fleet of 33 ships of the line sailed out of Cadiz harbor in haphazard formation. Nelson’s fleet of 27 ships of the line and four frigates were in close pursuit and, at 5:40 am on October 21, the British were about 21 miles Northwest of Cape Trafalgar, with the French and Spanish fleet pinned between the cape and the British fleet.
Nelson’s fleet consisted of 17,000 men to his enemy’s 30,000 and a combined 2,148 guns to the French total of 2,568 guns. However, sending his famous flag signal at 11:45 am, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” Nelson’s battle plan unfolded largely without a hitch.
Winds were very light during the battle, forcing all of the ships to move extremely slowly as they maneuvered into battle formations. The British fleet was approaching in two columns led by Nelson in the Victory and Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign. The French and Spanish ships were not sailing in tight formation but straggling in loose groups stretching in a single line nearly five miles long.
Although taking heavy fire, HMS Victory cut the enemy line between Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure and the Redoutable. Thinking he would shortly board and take the Victory, Villeneuve shouted with misplaced glee, but Nelson engaged the French Redoutable instead, and the Bucentaure faced the full fury of the next three ships in Nelson’s column.
Nelson: “They finally succeeded, I am dead.”
As the Victory locked masts with the Redoutable, the French crew launched an attempt to board and take the Victory. In the midst of the fray, a French soldier fired a musket from the mizzentop of the Redoutable, hitting Nelson in the left shoulder. The bullet passed through his spine and lodged in the muscles of his back and Nelson cried out, “They finally succeeded, I am dead.”
Carrying Nelson below decks, the British soldiers redoubled their efforts and another British ship approached the Redoutable, firing a carronade at the exposed French crew and causing many casualties.
By 13:55 the Redoutable surrendered. Three hours later, the Bucentaure surrendered, as well. As more and more British ships approached their turn at the top of Nelson’s two strategic battle columns, they overwhelmed the straggling line of French and Spanish ships from left and right. By evening, the British had taken 22 enemy vessels and they had lost none of their own.
At 16:30, three hours after being hit, Nelson’s voice was fading and his pulse was very weak. Surgeon William Beatty reports that Nelson looked up as Beatty took his pulse. Admiral Horatio Nelson murmured, “Thank God I have done my duty,” and then he closed his eyes forever.
History Often Repeats Itself
Philosopher George Santayana famously stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But, for those who study it closely, history often repeats itself in very fascinating ways.
As Nelson lay dead in his beleaguered ship on the wine-dark Atlantic Ocean, the grey skies clouding England’s continued economic success gave way to a rosy-fingered dawn. Considered “the most important sea battle of the 19th century,” the victory at Trafalgar gave rise to Britain’s imperial power, ensuring the security of the world’s largest sea power for 100 years.
However, passing its flame from generation to generation, the legacy of Achilles’ heroic glory isn’t repetitive Empire. It is repetitive inspiration, aspiration, motivation. Empires wax and wane, fizzle and fade. We have seen this in Classical Greece, the cradle of our Western Civilization.
The Ancient Greek empires passed away, and others with it, including the Roman and British empires, but the glorious flame that kindled Western Civilization still burns brightly today in the hearts of her citizens.
We are generations repetitively inspired by heroic deeds of ancient heroes, aspiring to imitate them, and motivated by their memories. Raising the standard of living for all of its citizens, the birth of Western Civilization ushered in an era of disdain for tyranny and dictatorship that still thrives today.
Our countries and cultures across the West are not immune to corruption, but we enjoy national infrastructures that ensure basic human comforts for everyone on the street. Our lives are not overwhelmed with the stress and anxiety of poverty-ridden populations preoccupied with feeding hungry children in dog-eat-dog worlds ruled by systems of law ensuring nothing but blind obedience to fascist dictators.
If you haven’t lived in a country ruled by a fascist dictator, you may not know first-hand what life is like on a day-to-day basis for all but a very elite few. My experience living through the 2011 Egyptian revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak was both the most thrilling moments of my life and the most disgusting.
Imagine accomplishing a total revolution–the complete overthrow of a dictator–only to witness the transition from one dictatorship to another, and the new one is even more malevolent than the one overthrown. Repetitive dictatorship is all that Egypt has ever known, and likely all that can survive under the overwhelming circumstances.
I’ve learned first-hand to appreciate the intrinsic values embedded in Western Civilization. From the poorest citizens to the highest political officials, we genuinely care about each other’s wellbeing and many of us generously and selflessly strive to meet the needs of others, spending whatever it takes–money, time, and energy, to help each other overcome obstacles preventing us from achieving our full human potentials.
I’ve come to believe that Westerners are blessed with an Olympian flame, an enlightened love of human decency, that we are very fortunately born with. We carry Achilles’ legacy of selfless glory, very likely kindled at conception, glowing in our hearts and passing miraculously into the hearts of our children.
Very few of us will likely get the opportunity to achieve the status of hero, as Achilles at Troy, or Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, but we all carry the flame–the spark of glory–that inspires our fondest aspirations and motivates us to strive for whatever level of success is written in our fates, even in our darkest moments.
And, even in our darkest moments, we never know when or how, but divine intervention may be close at hand. Just as we remember in the case of Achilles at Troy, and Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, allegorically speaking, Thetis might still be plying the waves, en route to the next needy hero, delivering the glorious armor of Achilles.
Celebrating 250 Years of Artistic Tradition at England’s Royal Academy
In 1811, William Theed the Elder was elected an associate of England’s Royal Academy and became a Royal Academician in 1813. Participating in a tradition that began in 1769, one year after the founding of the Royal Academy, Theed exhibited his sculpture of Thetis delivering Achilles’ armor at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1805.
Held every year without exception since 1769, this year, 2018, celebrates the 250th exhibition, with over 1,200 works on display. A “panorama of art in all mediums,” the 250th Annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in Burlington House, Piccadilly, in central London, promises to colorfully carry on the proud tradition as the largest and most popular open exhibition in England.
On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Gallery 548, this powerfully evocative sculpture of Thetis delivering Achilles’ armor across the sea was the first bronze cast of the model by William Theed the Elder. A second bronze cast was presented to King George IV in 1829 and is still in England’s Royal Collection.