Nelson's Victory was not the first of His Majesty's Ships to bear that name. It had been passed on, as was and is the custom, and the first-rate laid down at Chatham on 23 July 1750 was the fifth in line. Her construction was oddly spasmodic over a period of almost exactly 15 years, and she was not launched until 7 May 1765. Of 2,162 tons, her gun deck was 186 feet long, 34 feet longer than her keel. She had a beam of 52 feet, and depth to hold of 21½ feet. The armament she mounted varied considerably over the span of her active life, but consisted at Trafalgar of 108 guns: on her lower deck, 30, 32-pounders; middle deck, 28, 24-pounders; main deck, 30, 12-pounders; quarter deck, 12, 12-pounders; forecastle, six 12-pounders, and two 68-pound carronades. Before an extensive refit carried out in 1903, the guns on her lower deck were heavier, all of them 42-pounders. A first-rate of this size would normally ship a crew of 837 men.
The Victory saw no action until 1778, when she was the flagship of Admiral Keppel in his indecisive battle with D'Orvillires off Ushant on 27 July. She saw action again in 1781, and again off Ushant, this time wearing the flag of Admiral Kempenfelt, having taken part the previous year in the Relief of Gibraltar under Lord Howe. Lord Hood commanded Victory during the evacuation of Toulon in 1793, but it was under the flag of Admiral Sir John Jervis that she first really lived up to her name in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797. She was given to Admiral Lord Nelson upon his appointment to Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean in 1803, and apart from one or two very- brief periods he spent the rest of his life on board.
That Victory was a splendid three-decker under sail is witnessed by the succession of illustrious flags she wore, and although her name is forever linked with that of Nelson, this is her story and not primarily his. Sir John Jervis was another redoubtable seaman, and when in 1797 he commanded the English fleet at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, he rose to the occasion with distinction.
Apparently forgetful of the crushing defeats inflicted by Drake in 1588 and by Tromp in 1639, Spain signed a treaty with France in 1795 and declared itself at war with England in October of 1796. In February 1797 Jervis was patrolling England's long-time favourite hunting g ground, the waters off that rocky headland at the south-western tip of Portugal known as Cape St Vincent. The Spaniards, hitherto reluctant to engage the English at sea, had ventured out of port to escort a convoy of merchantmen with 27 ships of the line including the Santissima Trinidad of 136 guns, by far the biggest man-of-war in the world.
Jervis in Victory attacked this great fleet with just 15 sail of the line one of which, HMS Captain, flew the pendent of Commodore Nelson. It was a battle reminiscent of David and Goliath with Jervis outnumbered two to one. The action began around noon, and all was over in two or three hours with the Spaniards soundly defeated. Nelson in Captain had taken two Spanish ships, the San Joseph of 112 guns and the San Nicholas of 80 guns, and the Santissima Trinidad struck her colours in surrender. She thus avoided possible sinking, and afterwards escaped being taken as a prize. In recognition of his great St Valentine's Day victory his grateful monarch elevated Jervis to the peerage with the title Earl of St Vincent.
Nelson hoisted his flag in Victory in 1803, and smart and clean after her refit, she sailed from Spithead on 20 March. Her gun decks would have been given a fresh coat of red paint (to minimise the psychological effect on her gunners when the footing became awash with blood) and the yellow bands along her hull doubtless bright as gold. But the blood which was shed in the heat of battle was only a part of it, and Nelson's devotion to his flag-captain Hardy reveals a curious anomaly of character not easilly excused. It is quite evident from Victory's log, and not a little from contemporary portraits, that Hardy was a harsh and cruel man. In the eighteen months between July 1803 and December 1804 he ordered a staggering 380 punishments by the lash, including three of `flogging around the fleet'. The men, William Brown, John Marshall, and Richard Collies, were each sentenced to 100 lashes, 50 alongside Victory, and 50 alongside each of three other ships. Whilst it is true that the captain of a flagship remains in entire command of all administration it is equally true that Nelson, never an excessive flogger himself, could easily have intervened. Flogging in the nays was not fully suspended until 1879.
But whereas the men on Victory's lower deck lived lives no better than those of some animals, the admiral's `family' on the quarterdeck lived in considerable style. They rose at six o'clock and took a gentle stroll up top before sitting down to a lavish breakfast of tea, hot rolls, cold meats and preserves. Dinner served promptly on the stroke of six bells (three o'clock) consisted of three main courses and a dessert of choice fruits, each course accompanied by a different vintage wine. The `family' went to bed when Nelson 'cut to bed, not later than nine o'clock.
In 1804, when she was persuaded by Napoleon to renew her war against England, Spain can only be described as a veritable glutton for punishment. Nelson regarded the Spaniards with contempt, and had little more respect for the French. He was exasperated by their practice of running away from a fight, and ached to get to grips with them. After several abortive attempts to do so, he returned to England arriving on 18 August, 1805. There he spent just over three weeks on shore and it was during his final day in London that he met, for the first and final time, the future Duke of Wellington.
Back on board Victory, Nelson hoist his flag and sailed out of Portsmouth on Sunday 15 September. The combined fleets under overall command of the French admiral Villeneuve in Bucentaure, a total of 35 sail of the line, were safe in harbour at Cadiz, and Nelson took up station off the Costa de la Luz. Villeneuve ventured out of his sanctuary on 19 October, bound for a passage through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. Nelson gave hot chase. Villeneuve's nerve failed him on the approaches to the straits, and he ordered a return to Cadiz. It was a fatal error. On that morning of the 1st, Nelson had the wind in his favour, and the Spanish commodore in his ship the San Juan Nepomuceno is on record as having said `our fleet is doomed'.
He was right. The English men-of-war, inferior both in size and number but far superior in experience, fighting spirit, seamanship and gunnery, fought a battle off Cabo Trafalgar which, so far as the combined fleets were concerned, ended in disaster. First in magnitude among their ships destroyed and sunk was the mighty Santissima Trinidad (Trinidada), lucky escaper after her previous surrender to the English at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. After being engaged by Victory, Villeneuve surrendered Bucentaure, and both he and his ship were taken.
But the English, too, suffered a disaster. At about a quarter past one in the afternoon, with the battle only two hours old and not yet won, Victory was disengaged from the Bucentaure and fighting hard almost scuppers-on with the French ship Redoubtable. Nelson, with his customary and some say foolhardy disregard for personal safety was directing the conflict from an exposed position up on the quarterdeck and must, in a uniform bedecked with all the trappings of his rank, have presented a fine, prime target. An unknown and forever unsung musketeer took aim from one of Redoubtable's fighting-tops, and Nelson fell mortally wounded with a leaden ball in his breast.
Victory's last fighting action took place in the Baltic in October 1812, and after being paid off in Portsmouth before the end of that year, she never went to sea again. She was docked for repair in 1814 and emerged two years later with a built-up bow and, among many other alterations, the bands along her gunports painted white instead of yellow. Used then as a floating utility for over a hundred years on, she was moved to dry dock in 1922, when work began to restore her to the condition and appearance she had at Trafalgar. Flagship in her time of half a dozen famous admirals, including the most famous of all, HMS Victory is preserved today at Portsmouth, more than two hundred and fifty years after her keel was first laid, viewed and admired by visitors from many parts of the world.
OF H.M.S. VICTORY