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The question of Admiral Lord Nelson’s sexual orientation has puzzled leading historians for many years. Though little evidence has ever been produced, the theory he was a raving queen has never been disproved.
As Lord Nelson lay dying on the decks of HMS Victory his last words to Captain Thomas Hardy are commonly believed to have been: “Kiss me Hardy”. Yet there are world-renowned academics who swear they were: “Kiss me harder.” Others argue they must’ve been: “Kiss me handy.” Perhaps we shall never know. On the other hand, maybe we will. For literally, on Nelson’s remaining other (left) hand (it will be remembered Britain’s finest sea lord somehow lost his right arm at Tenerife in 1797, and along with it his right hand, which was at one end of it) traces of spittle could be found and analysed for Hardy’s DNA using all the latest scientific, up-to-the-minute technology. Of course, his corpse would have to be dug up first. Whatever the answer, we do know the implications of those three little words were earth-shattering, sending ripples round the globe that would finally wash right up the steps of Admiralty House with a mighty big splish-splash. The ruffled wigs and stormy waves of which can still be felt today.
Though there might’ve been unfounded rumours floating about of romantic flings with Nell Gwynn, Lady Hamilton, and Ann Hathaway, an expert – who wishes to remain anonymous – believes, as a carefree, gay, young cabin boy, Nelson would’ve had plenty of opportunity to engage in relationships of a more Socratic nature. Certainly, Thomas Hardy was probably a good looking chap, as many a sailor’s roving eye could’ve attested, had they survived to this day. And he probably grew more attractive by the day with the passing months at sea, deprived of female company. A fact that might not have escaped Nelson’s good eye. In the famous novels Hardy wrote later, he never once mentioned Nelson. We can assume it may have been in an effort to forget any goings on below decks he might have felt ashamed of. Or maybe not. Yet it would be remiss of me to choose not to raise the possibility.
Nevertheless, in the absence of eyewitness accounts, as to where the admiral’s sexual proclivities lay, his true fancies have remained a subject of conjecture for more than two hundred years for some, if not the majority. All that is set to change. Dramatic new indications have surfaced, which might paint a quite different picture to the manly, pipe-smoking figure we all imagine him to have been. The downing countless tankards of extra strong ale down at the docks could have just been a cover to hide the real one-armed man behind the eyepatch.
My attempts to uncover the truth, have not always been welcome, the mere suggestion being greeted with a punch on the nose in some pubs. Despite this open hostility, I have attempted to cut to the chase and unearth the real true facts as far as possible. Due to no actual references to his sex life, after hours of painstaking work – mainly checking the laws regarding libel – I have managed to fill the gaps with fascinating theories. Most of which would be impossible to challenge in a court of law, seeing as couple of centuries have elapsed, and eyewitnesses are no longer available to testify. Besides that, you can’t libel the dead, according to a disbarred solicitor I had a natter with in the public bar of The Matelot’s Tackle while doing a bit of researching. Cost me five pints of Badley’s Old Swill and a couple of chasers to find that out.
Though Mrs Nelson never uttered a word about her husband being gay, it is an historical fact that she never denied it. We can only suppose that she might have had good reason. Neither are there any other contemporary written accounts denying he was gay. More tellingly, not one historian has ever been able to produce a verifiable, written record of Nelson denying he was gay. The evidence mounts.
“Any port in a storm” the old saying goes. We all know Jolly Jack Tars have never been too fussy about ‘boarding handsome frigates by the stern’ in foreign backwaters, and we can just as easily assume Nelson was no different, as assume he was. If the admiral was gay, he could’ve been a regular in some of the gay bars in Marrakech that might’ve existed, just before he won the historic Battle of Trafalgar. Furthemore, without hard evidence suggesting otherwise, it can be supposed he might have even disguised himself in woman’s clothes to avoid being recognised. That could be the reason that no firm sightings of him visiting gay bars were recorded at the time.
But just because there weren’t, we can’t assume he wasn’t gay. Back in those days when coming out wasn’t in, gay men kept in the closet. Nelson could easily have been afraid to reveal that he was gay – if he was – because he might have been demoted and the Battle of Trafalgar would’ve been lost by a much less able, heterosexual admiral. Nothing can be ruled out. It must not be forgotten he allowed himself to be painted wearing a powdered wig and very tight trousers on numerous occasions.
Another thing we have to bear in mind is that even if he had been spotted cruising gay haunts, or cottaging the public toilets of Morocco, looking for rent boys, witnesses would’ve kept mum for fear of being asked what they were doing there in the first place.
Contemporary first-hand accounts of Nelson’s sex life appear to be missing for some strange reason, and could have been removed from official documents in an attempt at a cover-up. There is no reference to what he did in his hammock. We don’t even know if he always slept in it alone. What little we do know has been painstakingly pieced together by careful deduction. Assuming that he had a healthy sexual appetite, he could have been on the lookout for partners at sea. Long voyages with all-male crews would’ve narrowed his field of choice considerably. Till the day he died, Nelson’s first mate on the Victory never admitted to any physical contact between the two men beyond the call of duty. Neither did he make any mention of ‘camping it up’ on board. That, and whatever else might have gone on, went to the grave with him.
The fact that questions were never raised in British parliament about Nelson’s sexual orientation reveals more about the prevailing moral attitude at the time than it does about what happened below decks. From the evidence that has survived it becomes increasingly difficult to discount the possibility completely. Unless hard evidence is produced, denying Nelson was gay, suspicions will always remain.
It is an indisputable fact that many top generals and admirals have never admitted to being gay. If Field Marshall Rommel was gay he kept it a close secret, as did General Eisenhower. If he was gay. Adolf Hitler never mentioned a word about being gay, so even if he was, we might never know. Perhaps, not entirely coincidentally, neither did Winston Churchill. Yet it is undeniable both men spent a lot of time with other men of the same sex in underground bunkers. We can only speculate what that might have entailed.
In the same way your parents thinking you’re gay when you’re twelve doesn’t always mean you are, just because someone doesn’t admit to being gay it doesn’t mean that they’re not. If Nelson’s parents thought he was gay at they age of twelve we will probably never know. As my in-depth research revealed far more questions than answers, I leave my readers to make up their own minds.
Olaf Mosely is an occasional guest writer at this blog. His writings do not reflect the views of the publisher.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
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