The Royal Navy at the time was divided into three squadrons - in descending order of seniority, the Red, White and Blue. This system lasted until 1864. After reaching flag rank, an officer's further promotion was strictly by seniority - hence the naval toast 'A bloody war and a sickly season': both offered chances of earlier promotion as dead men's shoes became vacant. A new flag officer became rear admiral of the Blue, then moved on to be rear admiral of the White and lastly of the Red, before becoming vice admiral of the Blue, and so on. Before Trafalgar the rank of admiral of the Red did not exist. Instead, the title of admiral of the fleet was used since that officer was the most senior admiral in the whole Navy.
By definition there could only be one such, and with very rare exceptions this remained the case until 1863. There was no overall fixed number of flag officers, but the system's rigidity meant that if the Admiralty wished to fast-track a particularly gifted captain, others senior to him had to be promoted as well, even if they were less deserving - exactly as happened in Nelson's case. He became captain at the unusually early age of 20, and was made rear admiral of the Blue (and knighted for his part in the Battle of Cape St Vincent) when only 38. He first met Lady Hamilton when he was 35 but did not even begin to fall in love with her until he was 40, just after he had won the Battle of the Nile and been created Baron Nelson of the Nile (1798).
As the affair became common knowledge, a brisk market in lampooning prints began, but the market in heroic prints did not fall off at all: in those more robust days and under the urgent demands of war, although people laughed at him, they did not think him any less a hero for his fallibility. He did not cease to be publicly honoured: following his victory in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, his barony was enhanced to a viscountcy, and he was given royal permission to use his Italian title (Duke of Bronte) in Britain. Similarly, his progress through the flag ranks continued to follow the established system: he became vice admiral of the Blue in January 1801 and of the White in April 1804, the rank in which he died 18 months later.
As we approach the bicentenaries of Nelson's important victories, 'Royal Navy friends' ought to get it right. Lady Hamilton has been much maligned, but it was not the passionate love between her and Nelson which prevented him becoming an admiral; it was a small bullet, scarcely larger than an adult's fingernail, from a wild and lucky sniper's shot, which penetrated his shoulder, pierced his lung and lodged in his spine.
The writer is co-author of 'Nelson: the Immortal Memory' (Dent).Reuse content