Nelson was born on 29 September, 1758, in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England, the sixth of eleven children. His father, Edmund Nelson, was parish priest and his mother, Catherine Nelson, was a grandniece of Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford. His mother died when Nelson was nine. Nelson joined the Royal Navy aged 12 on January 1, 1771. Following the traditional system of patronage, he was made midshipman on his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling's ship.
By 1777 he was made lieutenant and assigned to the West Indies. Here he saw action in the American War of Independence. In June 1779 (aged 20), he was made captain of the recently captured 28-gun French frigate Hinchinbrook - his first command.
In 1781 Nelson took part in a landing at the Spanish fortress of San Juan in Nicaragua. His action however (not covered by his orders) led to many of his men catching tropical diseases. Even Nelson's health suffered, and he was forced to return to England for more than a year.
In 1784, aged only 25, Nelson was senior captain of the Leeward Islands station in command of the 28-gun Boreas. On his own instigation, he began enforcing the Navigation Act in the vicinity of Antigua. Despite being told to desist, he continued to harass illegal trade until 1787. Although in the end Nelson was forced to back down, he did however meet Fanny Nesbit, a widow native to Nevis, whom he was to marry on 11 March, 1787 at the end of his tour of duty in the Caribbean. The marriage was not successful or long lasting, and the couple lived separately after Nelson began his affair with Emma Hamilton.
In 1789 he was put on half pay, only to be recalled to service in 1793. His first command was the 64-gun Agamemnon and his station was the Mediterranean, specifically the Kingdom of Naples. In 1794 he lost the sight in his right eye after being struck in face by flying stones and sand at Calvi, Corsica.
In 1796, the commander-in-chief of the fleet in the Mediterranean, Sir John Jervis, appointed Nelson commodore. His mission was to blockade the French coast. At this point Agamemnon had to be sent back to England for a refit and Nelson was appointed to Captain.
In 1797, Nelson was largely responsible for the British victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. As a result he was promoted to the rank rear-admiral of the Blue. He was later in the same year knighted. He also lost his arm by amputation after being hit above elbow with grapeshot at an unsuccessful attempt to capture Santa Cruz, Tenerife.
In 1798 Nelson was alone responsible for the great victory at the Battle of the Nile, Aboukir Bay, Egypt. Here he destroyed the French fleet supporting Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. For this he received the title Baron of the Nile. He subsequently put palm trees and a crocodile on his coat of arms. He was however piqued that he could not have a higher title than baron.
Although Nelson had met the British Ambassador to Naples (William Hamilton) and his remarkable (and much younger) wife, Emma, in 1793, it was not until after the celebrated Nile battle that Nelson fell in love with Emma Hamilton. Emma hero-worshiped Nelson, and their relationship caused scandal in polite Europe. Nelson and Emma's daughter, Horatia, was born in 1801. Her birth was kept a secret because her parents' relationship remained outside marriage, although Nelson regarded Emma as his wife in the sight of God.
In 1799, he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Red. In the new second-rate vessel, Foudroyant, he aided Admiral Ushakov with the reconquest of Naples, and was made Duke of Bronte by the Neapolitan king.
On January 1, 1801, he was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue (the sixth highest rank) and a few months later he was involved in the Battle of Copenhagen (April 2, 1801). In May, he became commander-in-chief in the Baltic Sea, and was awarded the title of Viscount Nelson by the British crown.
On the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens, returned to duty and was appointed commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean. He had been assigned to Victory in May 1803. He then spent the next two years in the blockade of Toulon. He was promoted to Vice Admiral of the White while still at sea, on 23 April 1804. The French fleet however slipped out of Toulon in early 1805 and headed for the West Indies. Nelson pursued these vessels to the Caribbean, but they evaded him. When he learned that French forces for returning to Europe, he sent a fast frigate ahead to warn the British government, and he himself retired to the residence he shared with Emma Hamilton and their daughter, Merton, in England.
After two months at 'paradise Merton', he was called back to action on 13 September, 1805. Taking up his station off Spain he blockaded the Franco-Spanish fleets in Cadiz.
On October 21, 1805, Nelson fought the Battle of Trafalgar, at which he was shot by a sniper. He lived long enough however to learn that victory had been won. 'Thank God I have done my duty' were his last words.
After the battle, the dismasted Victory was then towed to Gibraltar, with Nelson's body on board preserved in a barrel of brandy. On arrival in London, Nelson's body was given a state funeral and he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral (despite the fact that his battle cry had always been 'Victory or Westminster Abbey'). His coffin was made from the mast of L'Orient which had been salvaged after the Battle of the Nile.
Current scholarship considers that the famous expression 'Nelson Touch' refers to the admiral's renowned ability to inspire his crews. He was voted in the top ten of the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll in the first decade of the 21st century. Alongside the Duke of Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington, he is Britain's most famous military figure.