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Nelson’s Royal Epitaph

Posted by John Sugden, on January 6th, 2014


‘A document found in the back of a 1799 edition of The Navy List records a forgotten attempt of King George III to contribute to the funeral and commemoration of Lord Nelson.’


Although this document is neither dated nor signed, a note in a different hand indicates that the author was Brigadier-General Sir Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner, sometime private secretary to King George III, who was attempting to write an epitaph for Nelson at the request of the King.  General Turner had distinguished himself while serving in Egypt and was honoured by the Sultan of Turkey, but there is no record of his being familiar with either the Royal Navy or Nelson.   The document reflects this, showing false starts, erasures, and general confusion.  In addition, a careful study of the ceremonies, proclamations, and monuments honouring Nelson shows no influence from this document, and suggests that the effort was abandoned.


The real significance of the effort to compose this epitaph reflected by this document – and its eventual abandonment – is the final lingering reflection of the ambivalent and shifting relationship between Nelson and the King.  A detailed study of their relationship reflects this ambivalence and its causes.  In Nelson’s early career (mid-late 1780s) his initial positive reception at Court was soured when his mentoring of the King’s third son, prince William Henry, was perceived by both Admirably and the King as unsatisfactory.  Although in his mid-career (mid-late 1790s) although his position in Court did temporarily improve after his naval victories, it generally declined, probably because the King disapproved of his liaison with Lady Hamilton.  In the three years before Trafalgar, during Nelson’s continuing successes, their relationship still appears lukewarm.  This draft of an epitaph, and its subsequently abandonment, seems to confirm this only fleeting royal favour.

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