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Queen Victoria’s Treasure: The bullet which killed Lord Nelson

In a cabinet outside The Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle sits one of the smallest pieces of history. Once belonging to Queen Victoria and no bigger than a 5p piece, the article in question was deadly.

Now, the bullet which killed Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson is set is take visitors by storm at an exhibition marking the launch of his flagship war vessel, HMS Victory.

On the 21st October 1805, during the Battle of Trafalgar, a French sharpshooter hit the ultimate target. His lead musket ball found Lord Nelson and dealt a fatal wound.

The bullet pierced through his left shoulder, taking with it the lace of his epaulette, and passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae. It finally lodged two inches (five cm) below his right shoulder-blade in his back muscles.

After historical analysis, it is thought that the shot was fired from around 20 metres and was most likely random, and not a targeted shot.

The shot was fired from the top of the mizzen mast on the Redoubtable, a 74-gun French battle ship, which came to the aid of the French Vice Admiral’s flagship. Unfortunately, its marksman was also killed during the Battle and so it is not exactly known who shot Nelson.

Victory‘s surgeon, William Beatty, worked hard and did manage to remove the bullet but the damage had already been done. Nelson died three hours later, around half-past four, murmuring his last words: “God and my Country.”

The bullet which killed Admiral Lord Nelson, encased in its locket shell by surgeon, William Beatty. The inscription inside reads: "The bullet by which Nelson was killed"

The bullet which killed Admiral Lord Nelson, encased in its locket shell by surgeon, William Beatty. The inscription inside reads: “The bullet by which Nelson was killed”  Image Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Ultimately, the ball caused three main issues: bleeding, escape of air into the chest and irreversible spinal damage. Nelson’s body could not cope with the amount of damage that it had dealt him. As the bullet severed his spinal cord, it destroyed the nerves which enable compensation for bleeding. The combination of bleeding and spinal damage meant that Nelson’s body lost too much blood.

After Nelson’s death, Beatty preserved the bullet by having it made into a locket. Set in a crystal case, it is surrounded by pieces of Nelson’s coat lining and epaulette. The piece of braid around the outside of the case was a later addition as it is too large to have been driven in by the missile.

The grisly memento is said to have been worn by Beatty for the rest of his life until on his death, in 1842, his family presented the treasure to Queen Victoria. Today, it forms part of the Royal Collection and usually, it is on permanent display in the Grand Vestibule of Windsor Castle.

Beginning this Saturday,  the bullet will be on loan to Chatham Dockyard for their latest exhibition ‘HMS Victory: The Untold Story‘. The exhibition marks 250 years since HMS Victory was launched and will detail its career.

Victory floated out of the Old Single Dock in Chatham’s Royal Dockyard on May 7 1765 and would go on to gain recognition from leading fleets in the American War of Independence (1775-1783), the French Revolutionary War (1793-1802) and the Napoleonic War (1803-1815).

Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, seen here preserved in dry dock at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth.

Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, seen here preserved in dry dock at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth.

Even though posthumous, Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the 18th century. He commanded 27 ships of the line against a Franco-Spanish fleet of 33, of which they lost 22. Not a single British vessel was lost and, as such, the battle’s success is often cited as the Britain’s greatest naval victory.

Alongside the Nelson bullet will be HMS Victory’s figurehead, which is on loan from the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. The figurehead will form the centrepiece of the exhibition.

The new exhibition, ‘HMS Victory: The Untold Story‘ will run from the 14 February – 31 May 2015 and entry is included in dockyard’s normal admission price.

Image Credits: Neil Howard, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Featured Image Credit: Adrià Fontcuberta

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