Nelson Goes Global: The Nelson Myth in Britain and Beyond

  • John M. MacKenzie


Trafalgar Day1 remains a resonant date in the calendar, commemorated in many places in the Anglophone world. The continuing significance of this day, remembered annually in so many places for almost two hundred years, is ample evidence of the mythic status of the action it commemorates and the most famous actor at the centre of that victory. Indeed, the legendary status of Horatio Nelson is probably the greatest of all the heroic myths created by the British to explain the essence and uniqueness of their history. In the nineteenth century, the mythic hero became a central instrumental device for British social cohesion. In explaining the history of a nation whose unity was only a recent creation it also performed vital economic and strategic roles. When Thomas Carlyle wrote in Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) that ‘No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men’ he produced a manifesto for the teaching of history in the Victorian age and for the preparation of the countless books of heroes published in those years.2


Town Council Foundation Stone British Empire Centennial Celebration Heroic Myth 
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  1. 2.
    Carlyle recognised the heroic significance of Nelson and chose to write about him in an early stage of his career. Andrew Lambert, Nelson: Britannia’s God of War (London: Faber, 2004), pp. 334–5.Google Scholar
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    For other analyses of imperial myths, see John M. MacKenzie, ‘David Livingstone and the Construction of the Myth’, in Graham Walker and Tom Gallagher (eds), Sermons and Battle Hymns (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990), pp. 24–42;Google Scholar
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    A number of biographers have commented on Nelson’s fascination with Wolfe. Sir N.H. Nicolas’s Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Nelson (7 volumes, London, 1844–46) contain a number of references.Google Scholar
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    Notices to all Masonic lodges and public bodies were issued in The Herald in late July 1806. The account of the laying of the foundation stone appeared on 4 August 1806. Other accounts can be found in Robert Chapman, The Picture of Glasgow or Stranger’s Guide, editions of 1806, 1811, 1818, pp. 178–9;Google Scholar
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    As well as the spectacular monuments described here, Nelson was also commemorated in a host of other ways, from a great range of paintings and their associated prints (still to be seen in the shops of Greenwich today) to countless ceramics, medallions and the extraordinary glass pictures which were published within six months of his death. See L.P. Le Quesne, Nelson Commemorated in Glass Pictures (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2001).Google Scholar
  20. For some of the ceramics, see David Williams, ‘Nelson Commemorated’, The Trafalgar Chronicle, no. 14, 2004, 88–99. All forms of Nelson commemorative material can be found in the Nelson Gallery of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.Google Scholar
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© John M. MacKenzie 2005

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  • John M. MacKenzie

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