Trafalgar, battle of

Trafalgar, battle of

Trafalgar, battle of, naval engagement fought off Cape Trafalgar on the SW coast of Spain on Oct. 21, 1805, in which the British fleet under Horatio Nelson won a famous victory over the allied French and Spanish fleets under Pierre de Villeneuve. Nelson's strategy was to divide his own fleet into two sections, one led by himself in the HMS Victory, the other by his deputy Cuthbert Collingwood in the HMS Royal Sovereign, and to penetrate the enemy line in two places. This maneuver resulted in the capture of 20 enemy ships (one was blown up). The British lost no ships. Among the dead was Nelson himself, struck by a bullet from the French ship Redoutable. The decisive English victory ended Napoleon I's power on the sea and made a French invasion of England impossible. The words signaled by Nelson at the beginning of the battle—"England expects that every man will do his duty"—became immortal.

See studies by D. A. Howarth (1969), O. Warner (1971), and A. Nicolson (2005).

The Battle of Trafalgar is an oil-on-canvas painting, created by J.M.W. Turner in 1824. The painting was ordered by King George IV for the Painted Hall at Greenwich, as a pendant for Louthebourg's Lord Howe's action, or the Glorious First of June. It shows the Royal Navy ship HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. It was controversial at the time, since it was not considered to be historically accurate. Turner chose to combine events from several times during the battle:

  • Lord Nelson's famous signal ("England expects that every man will do his duty") flies from the Victory (11:50). Turner shows the signal flags flying from the main-mast, though in reality they would have been flown from the mizzen-mast and were replaced with the signal for "engage the enemy more closely" once the battle commenced.
  • The mizzen-topmast falls (13:00).
  • The Achille is on fire in the background (late afternoon).
  • The Redoutable sinks in the foreground (following day).


  • Tracy, Nicholas. Nelson's Battles: The Art of Victory in the Age of Sail. Chatham Publishing, 1996. (p 194)
  • Geoffrey Quilley, 'The Battle of the Pictures: Painting the History of Trafalgar', in David Cannadine (ed.), Trafalgar in History: A Battle and its Afterlife, (London: Macmillan, 2006), pages 121-138

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