Sermon preached at Evensong on the Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity (21 October 2018) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity (21 October 2018) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

In the third sermon of our October preaching series 'For Whom the Bells Toll' the Dean reflects on the life of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

This series remembers the great and the good in the Crypt of St Paul’s in a series of addresses on the lives and achievements of men and women whose memorials are found there.


Today is Trafalgar Day; on this day 213 years ago Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson defeated a French and Spanish combined fleet, and died in the process. The human story of Nelson, the man and the myth around him, has always fascinated people; and when we hear of the battle of Trafalgar, it’s for Nelson’s death that most people will remember it. 

Over to my left some of you will be able to see his monument, with a statue of him standing nobly with a cloak over his right shoulder hiding the loss of his right arm. To Nelson’s right on the monument is the figure of Britannia with two boys, pointing to Nelson as their role model, and on his left there’s an open-mouthed lion, which according to the children’s guide to St Paul’s can be interpreted either as roaring loudly or, as cats are wont to do, being about to vomit, given that Nelson was nearly always seasick when he went to sea.
 
Nelson was very small as a baby and as an adult, not having a strong constitution, often ill with recurrent malaria – and yet a brilliant naval tactician and leader, inspiring great loyalty in his men. 

One of the reasons he was so good was that he was a driven man: he had a deep hunger for fame and fortune, the consequence of being a poor parson’s younger son without much in the way of connections and wealth; and he had a simmering resentment at being overlooked for promotion and given less recognition than other better connected but not so able officers. 

After a twenty-year naval career going up through the ranks to commodore, fighting the Americans and the French, Nelson came to public notice through a bold manoeuvre during the battle of Cape St Vincent against the Spanish in 1797, which made him famous, even though he lost his arm shortly after in a disastrous attack he’d organised in Tenerife. 

He went home to recuperate from losing his arm, and on recovery went back to fight in the Mediterranean, defeating the French fleet and stranding Napoleon’s army in Egypt at the Battle of the Nile. He went on to fight in the Baltic at Copenhagen before the climactic battle at Trafalgar in which he was killed in 1805.

Nelson’s personal life became somewhat scandalous. He was married to Fanny, but saw little of her, and while in the Mediterranean after the Nile began an adulterous affair with Emma Hamilton in more liberal Sicily, with the connivance of her husband who needed his money and support. In 1800 he travelled with Emma and her husband back to England, abandoned his wife, and settled Lady Hamilton and the daughter they had together in his estate in Surrey, where he was immensely popular. 

Nelson worked at being a celebrity – he sponsored poems and songs about himself, he talked up his exploits, he went on walkabouts where he was mobbed, gave liberal charitable funds to the poor, and engaged with the populace as a hero, in an age when heroes were being created as alternative role models for the common man, to head off any thoughts they might have of following the footsteps of the French into a revolutionary republic. 

That’s why St Paul’s Cathedral has so many Napoleonic era monuments like Nelson’s – it’s government sponsored propaganda, because setting up inspiring statues was a lot easier to manage than having your head removed by the guillotine. 

And the monuments in St Paul’s are pagan and not Christian in character, following Roman and Greek models of classical heroism, with Nelson’s right-hand admiral Collingwood and others held in the arms of Greek gods, not the arms of Christ. 

But the public loved it all – the statues and the scandals and the less than respectable way that Nelson carried on, and how they felt that he understood his sailors and was kind to them, and how he was willing to ignore the orders of his superiors in order to be bold and decisive. His ability to successfully run his fleet, to win battles and lead campaigns was unparalleled. 

The nearest person to Nelson today in the popular imagination, though not in ability, might be Princess Diana, someone who captured people’s feelings and sympathy and was seen as not of the establishment; and like her, Nelson’s allure and attraction as a celebrity was heightened by his death. He became a noble and sacrificial figure giving his life for the nation. Some people think that he wanted to die at Trafalgar, but the evidence is that he was hoping to come home again to his adoring mistress and doting public, hoping at last to secure the recognition and money which he was working for. 

As he left his mistress and his only child to go to sea six weeks before Trafalgar, Nelson wrote in his journal: ‘I leave all which I hold dear in this world to go to serve my King and country. May the great God whom I adore enable me to fill the expectations of my country, and if it is his good pleasure that I should return, my thanks will never cease being offered up to the throne of his mercy. If it is his good providence to cut short my days upon earth, I bow with the greatest submission, relying that he will protect those so dear to me that I leave behind. His will be done. Amen, Amen, Amen.’

Nelson sought for adulation and wealth, while ready to do his duty, hoping that he would return from battle with fame for which he would not have to pay the ultimate price. His victory at Trafalgar gave Britain naval supremacy for a century, and laid the foundation for the building of the British Empire. He achieved his aim of being a great admiral, and of being able to repeat over and over as he lay dying that he had done his duty for his country.

Nelson’s body was laid to rest in the Crypt of St Paul’s on 9th January 1806, after much public grief and the most elaborate state funeral ever known, with thousands present. Further thousands of naval veterans and others came to see Nelson’s tomb, by the light of an old lantern handed down from verger to verger, in the dark and dirt of the unlit crypt, with other naval heroes like Admiral Collingwood buried alongside. 

In fact, so many people paid to come and see Nelson’s tomb that Westminster Abbey staff got seriously worried about losing their tourist income, and installed a realistic waxwork of Nelson in a side chapel in order to entice sailors and tourists back to the Abbey, away from the exciting new sculptures at St Paul’s. And adulatory biographies were written about Nelson, suppressing the disreputable aspects of his life which got in the way of the heroic and patriotic story woven around him.

What do we make of all this? Not only of Nelson, but also of all the heroic statues around us of men being gloriously killed for their country as they fought for power; of all the poor sailors and soldiers who had little choice about the fate to which Nelson and others took them; of the slave trade which Nelson like others of his time defended; of Nelson’s love for his mistress and daughter and his abandonment of his wife and his father; of Nelson’s self-obsession and relentless pursuit of recognition? 

Nelson’s most recent biographer describes his career as one of ups and downs, and Nelson as a human being like us: someone with the social attitudes of his time, emotional, disappointed, lonely, embittered and acutely vulnerable. He searched for glory and what he called happiness, but while he found glory, happiness eluded him to the end. 

As Nelson increasingly displayed himself before a public eager for victories and gossip, the fault lines in his character were exposed. No man wanted more to be a hero: he got what he wanted, but he found it bitterly wanting.

This picture of Nelson is very different from the picture of Jesus in the second lesson we heard this afternoon (Matthew 12.1-21). Perhaps a bit like Nelson, Jesus was popular with the crowds, at least for a while, and not popular with those in power. 

But for Jesus, popularity didn’t come because he wanted to be a heroic figure, but because he healed and delivered those in need. When faced with those who would sacrifice the well-being of other people in the name of their God or country, Jesus spoke of and acted out the compassionate nature of God for ordinary people – which Nelson at his best could also do, caring for his sailors and for those in need. But for Nelson, God was a remote figure of justice and providence. God would ultimately decide his fate, but was hardly the God of gentle yet relentlessly deep compassion who we see in Jesus Christ.

We’ve just sung in our hymn of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love which Nelson never found for himself. 

But Jesus served God’s people with warmth and compassion, and unlike Nelson did it both without ego and while knowing he would not return, ready to give his life as a ransom for many, trusting that God his Father would lead him through the storms of sacrifice that lay ahead.
The Gospel of Matthew reading quotes the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen...he will not wrangle or cry aloud, he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory.’

Nelson broke many people and quenched many lives on his way to glory, yet never got what he thought he deserved, and did not find happiness. 

And as we remember Nelson today, we too can be challenged by the relentlessly deep compassion of God in Jesus, who shows us that the way to happiness isn’t to get celebrity and fame and fortune, but to open our hearts to the love of God for us, and to share that love with others.
Happiness isn’t an end to strive for – like Nelson, indeed like Jesus, we will all suffer and be vulnerable as we go through life: but it’s in the love of God for us that we find the security which brings, not happiness, but fulfilment.

And so we put our trust, as Jesus did, in the compassion and grace of God. 

In the words of the hymn we’re about to sing, we pray that God will hold us in calm and in storm, through life and through death, so that in all things we may praise, not ourselves, but the God who loves and saves us. 

To God alone be the praise and the glory, now and for ever. Amen.