When Nelson was under-rewarded with a barony for winning the Battle of the Nile, the furious Emma Hamilton wrote to him: ‘Hang them, I say! If I was King of England, I would make you the most noble puissant Duke Nelson, Marquis Nile, Earl Alexandria, Viscount Pyramid, Baron Crocodile and Prince Victory.’
Nelson himself was said to enjoy ‘quiet conversation … not unmixed with caustic wit’, but few of his own jokes have survived. One was delivered when a Yarmouth publican asked if he could rename his establishment The Nelson Arms and the Admiral replied, ‘That would be absurd, seeing I have but one.’ That may not have been as funny as Emma’s, but the story could provide a basis for the theory that he had, or at least appreciated, a sense of humour.
Yet that would have little bearing on his abilities as a naval commander and his influence on the war with France and England’s consequent maritime supremacy. This is the risk that Christopher Hibbert ran when choosing to subtitle his biography ‘A Personal History’. The fascination of Nelson is