The Battle of Trafalgar was a naval engagement fought by the Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish ( on the 21st October 1805 ) during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic War. The battle was the most decisive navel victory of the War. Twenty Seven British Ships of the Line led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard the Victory defeated Thirty Three French and Spanish Ships of the Line under the command of the French Admiral Pierre – Charles Villeneuve, in the Atlantic off the south west coast of Spain just west of Cape Trafalgar in Canos de Meca.
The Franco Spanish fleet lost 22 ships without the loss of a single British ship. Admiral Nelson was shot in the chest in the closing part of the battle and subsequently died of his wounds. The French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was captured by the British and brought back to London. He was, as was usual at the time released under his own cognisance , and in fact attended Nelson’s funeral, held at evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Amongst the many memorials to Admiral Lord Nelson is a very enigmatic medal bearing on its Obverse a head and shoulders portrait of the Admiral with his decorations looking out to the left in a sombre and ship-shape manner. Around the edge is the legend “Gallant Nelson died Oct 21st 1805 off Cape Trafalgar”
The reverse of the medal is even more interesting with its legend “Nelsonic Crimson Oakes – Commenced Jany 19th 1808”. At the top of the medal is a representation of The All Seeing Eye and under it is a set of Compasses set at an angle of 45 degrees. There are representations of The Sun, The Moon and The Seven Stars, The Christian Cross resting on the third of a series of Steps and the representation of an Anchor and Hawser similarly resting on the third of a series of steps. Along the bottom of the medal is a representation of Noah’s Ark, set on a stormy sea under a rainbow. The medal was struck by a body known as The Nelsonic Crimson Oakes, which is believed to be basically a benevolent society for Sailors. We find surviving information on this organisation from the year 1811, but no explanation of the Masonic Symbols, so prominently exhibited on the reverse of the medal
These, of course stimulate the natural enquiry – Was Nelson a Freemason? Here again, we find very little firm evidence. One interesting discovery was the publication of Nelson’s Purse, an interesting record of the discovery of Nelson’s blood stained purse and other artefacts recovered by the author Martyn Downer ( ISBN-10-05521 50851 ). However from the Masonic point of view, they again provide more circumstantial support to the case that Nelson was in fact a Freemason. Fortunately we can find some assistance on the web-site belonging to Lodge St Patrick No 468 I.C. located in the town of Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand. Here in an article entitles Admiral Nelson : Hero and Freemason we learn that considerable research has been carried out on this topic by John Hamill of the UGLE in London and he has found that at a meeting held in the Amphibious Lodge No 407 ( a Lodge for Royal Navel Officers and Marines ) held in Stonehouse Plymouth on the 15th August 1787 were several visitors including a Bro Nelson, who had just arrived back in England from Nevis in the Caribbean on the 4th July 1787 aboard HMS Boreas. The Boreas paid off at Sheerness, West Yorkshire on the 30th November 1787. Nevis is important as it was the island, on which as a young sea captain, Horatio Nelson met and married his wife Francis Nisbit, the young widow of a plantation owner.
It is also known that in 1787, Nelson was invited to Plymouth by HRH Prince William ( later William IV ) to witness a stone laying ceremony with members of the Amphibious Lodge No 407 in attendance. Prince William had been made a member of the Amphibious Lodge in Plymouth on the 9th March 1786.
Harmon Le Strange, in his history of Freemasonry in Norfolk records the fact that amongst the furniture of The Lodge of Friendship No 100 at Yarmouth is a carved stone bearing an inscription to Nelson. On one side of the stone there is a text commemorating the foundation of the Lodge of United Friends No 564 on the 11th August 1697 and on the other side is the inscription reading “In Memory of Bro V Nelson of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, who lost his life in the arms of victory in an engagement with the combined fleets of France and Spain off Cape Trafalgar Oct 21st 1805. Proposed by Bro John Cutlove.
At the Masonic Hall in Reading, Berkshire may be seen a framed print with a representation of a banner carried at a procession in York on the day of Lord Nelson’s funeral in London. The banner was made for the Members of Union Lodge at York ( now York Lodge No 236 ) and was decorated with the Bible, Square and Compasses, the Sun, Moon and Seven Stars, and bears the inscription – “England expects every Man to do his duty. In Memory of Horatio Viscount Nelson who fell in the Moment of Victory off Cape Trafalgar Oct 21st 1805. We rejoice with our Country, but Mourn for Our Brother.