As the strains of ‘The Last Post’ echoed around St Paul’s, down in the crypt cafe, French tourist Nicole Villeneuve raised her skinny latte in a grudging toast to Horatio Nelson. “Ah oui, dest le hero!” she declared, with a Gallic shrug. Under the dome, deep in the bowels of the cathedral, a 70 strong throng squeezed between the pillars of the ornate mosaic tiled Nelson chamber to pay homage to the admiral whose legend has endured for two centuries.

On behalf of the Royal Navy, Rear Admiral Paul Lambert – Capability Manager (Precision Attack) and Controller of the Navy (what would Nelson have made of THAT title) – stepped forward to lay a wreath at the base of the black sarcophagus. The latter was originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey but presented by King George III to entomb the body of the returning hero of Trafalgar.

For the Sea Cadet Corps, PO Cadet James Thompson from London’s Edmonton Unit (TS Plymouth), a 17 year old Navy Board Cadet soon to join the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) as a communicator, added a second wreath, followed by Peter Warwick, Chairman of the 1805 Club, and the RN Associations own tributes.

Lord Nelson St Paul's Tomb

Lord Nelson was famously killed in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and buried in St Paul’s after a state funeral

The simple service, conducted by the Cannon-in-Residence, included the prayer Nelson penned on the eve of Trafalgar in October 1805, and, for the benefit of the uninitiated, a description of the four coffins within the tomb; The first at Nelson’s own request, fashioned from the mast of L’Orient (flagship of the French fleet he defeated at the Battle of the Nile in 1797) which was in turn inside an elm casket encased in lead all of which was lowered into a larger elm coffin complete with adornments of rank.

As the bugler from the Portsmouth based Royal Marines School of Music played the haunting last Post in the miasma of the moment, it was easy to picture the scene in the charnel house which was the Orlop deck of HMS Victory, at the height of the battle, as Nelson lay dying from a French rifleman’s musket shot. His last whispered entreatment was: “Don’t throw me overboard Hardy.”

You could almost hear the minute guns marking time as the flotilla bearing their fallen hero some weeks later came up the Thames from Greenwich; almost see the sailors from Victory joining the mourners to drape the coffin with the flagship’s battle ensign, afterwards torn by souvenir hunters.

In years past just a handful of stalwarts gathered at St Pauls at the 11th hour of the allotted day to keep the wreath-laying tradition alive. But this year, to mark the 250th anniversary of Nelson’s birth the invitation was thrown open and the response far exceeded the organisers expectations.

As well-wishers poured into the already crowded crypt, Peter Warwick, leading light in preserving the “Immortal Memory” surveyed the scene and exclaimed: “It seems the admiral is popular as ever – you could call this a full Nelson!” The ceremony has been given renewed vigour thanks to the behind the scenes efforts of the 1805 Club and there are hopes that, again with a strong Sea Cadet Corps presence, there will be a similar turn out every year from now on.

But, ironically, it was the aforementioned French visitor to the cathedral who had the last word, oblivious to the fact that she shared a surname with Nelsons nemesis (Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve).

French Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve

Villeneuve played a key role in the failed execution of Napoleon’s scheme for the invasion of England in 1805. In the autumn of 1804 Napoleon had named Villeneuve commander of the fleet at Toulon. The duty of Villeneuve’s fleet was to draw the British admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet to the West Indies, return rapidly in secret, and, in combination with other French and Spanish ships, enter the English Channel with an overwhelming naval force for the invasion of England. Villeneuve apparently had little confidence in the success of this operation, but nevertheless he took the command in November. In March 1805 he sailed out of Toulon and succeeded in drawing Nelson after him in a cruise out to the West Indies. Villeneuve’s fleet then returned to Europe in June-July, during which time it fought an indecisive encounter off El Ferrol, Spain, with an English squadron led by Sir Robert Calder.

Villeneuve then turned south to the port of Cádiz, disregarding Napoleon’s standing orders to proceed immediately to the Channel and rendezvous with the other French and Spanish naval forces gathered there. This act of timidity on Villeneuve’s part effectively ended Napoleon’s hopes for an invasion of England while Nelson’s fleet was somewhere else. In Cádiz Villeneuve then received orders to sail his fleet into the Mediterranean for an attack upon Naples, but, while making his preparations, he learned that another officer had been sent to replace him in his command. In a spasm of wounded vanity, he embarked his fleet out of Cádiz to face the waiting fleet of Nelson, and the result was the Battle of Trafalgar of October 1805. Villeneuve’s impulsive decision to leave Cádiz and give battle to Nelson’s better-prepared fleet has been severely criticized.

At Trafalgar Villeneuve showed personal courage, but the incapacity of the Franco-Spanish fleet to maneuver gave him no opportunity to influence the course of the battle, which ended for the French in complete defeat. Villeneuve himself was captured and was taken as a prisoner to England, but he was soon released. Shortly after returning to France he committed suicide at an inn in Rennes, where he had been waiting to learn the extent of the emperor’s displeasure with him.

Text: Britannica Online

Parisienne Nicole Villeneuve added with a wry smile; “Nelson may have been a British hero – but the brandy he came home in was French!

by Roger Busby St Paul’s Cathedral London 11.00 hrs October 21, 2008

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