Admiral Nelson signed letter

SKU: PT1154

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  • Half a letter from Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson to Captain William G Rutherford, commander of HMS Swiftsure
  • Signed in June 1805, just over five months before Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar
  • Written amidst the British pursuit of the French fleet to the Caribbean 
  • Find out more about this fascinating letter here 

Nelson (1758-1805) was a British naval officer famous for his victories against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. He was known for his superb leadership skills and somewhat unconventional strategies. Nelson was involved in battle almost constantly between 1793 until his death in 1805. During this time he lost the sight in his right eye at the Battle of Calvi in Corsica and lost his right arm at Santa Cruz in Tenerife. Admiral Lord Nelson is remembered as one of the greatest British war heroes in history. He died during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

This is the bottom half of a letter Admiral Nelson sent to Captain William G Rutherford (commander of the HMS Swiftsure) in June 1805. That's five months before the Battle of Trafalgar. Rutherford took command of the Swiftsure in May 1805, after Nelson appointed him to the position during the blockade of Toulon.

The British blockaded the port, intending to draw out the French fleet. But the French, under Admiral Villeneuve, gave the British the slip and escaped through the Strait of Gibraltar – heading west to the Caribbean.

Nelson took several ships (including the Swiftsure) and set off in hot pursuit. On June 4, 1805, the British fleet arrived into Barbados. Nelson had received word from the governor of St Lucia that the French had gone to Trinidad and Tobago. He picked up troops from Barbados, intending to smash the French. But on June 9 he learned the information was incorrect. The French fleet had actually gone north to Martinique. There they'd captured a strategic sea fort (Diamond Rock) and headed home.

Dejected, Nelson ordered the fleet to return to Europe. They dropped the extra troops at Antigua on June 13.

But this 6.5 x 8 inch letter dates to June 4-9, when Nelson still believes he's on the tail of the French fleet. He orders Rutherford to give troops the full complement of food and provisions, to steel them for the battle ahead.

The letter is likely written by a secretary and reads: “…any distinction in victualling them would under the present circumstances be in my opinion very improper, it is my intention as we may soon be in Battle with the Enemy and the stay of the troops on board cannot be many days, that they shall be victualled the same as the respective ships companies.

“It is therefore my direction that you cause the troops who may be embarked from Barbadoes onboard his majesty’s ship under your command to be victualled at full allowance of all species of provisions the same as your ships company during their continuance on board.”

Below Napoleon signs “Nelson & Bronte”.

Spanish King Ferdinand III appointed Nelson First Duke of Bronte in 1799, in thanks for his help in subduing a rebellion in Naples. Nelson was proud of his new title and incorporated it into his signature. He tried out a few different ways of writing it (including "Bronte Nelson of the Nile”) before settling on the current form. He changed his autograph often throughout his life. This is the last variant he used.

The present example is clear and fine. Its connection to a key moment in British naval history provides enhanced appeal.

The flight of Admiral Villeneuve was the last major naval action before the Battle of Trafalgar. After arriving back to the UK in August, Nelson was hailed the saviour of the British colonies in the Caribbean.

On September 2, he was told the French and Spanish had combined fleets at Cadiz. So began the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Swiftsure would play a decisive role at Trafalgar, taking on four French ships and dealing the final blow to the Achille. After the battle it attempted to tow the Redoubtable, the French ship from whence Nelson’s fatal shot came, but cut it free when it started to sink.

Rutherford was a fascinating character and the only American-born commander at Trafalgar.

Born in North Carolina to loyalist parents, who fled to the Caribbean at the outbreak of the American Revolution, he rose quickly through the ranks of the British Navy – taking his first command post in 1794.

Nelson’s signature is in high demand, with letters relating to his naval career particularly sought after. This is a particularly important specimen, directly connected with the last manoeuvres before the Battle of Trafalgar.   

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