Photographs of this famous place went across the world after VE Day when Europe celebrated peace in 1945. But the real story was written 150 years earlier. Welcome to Trafalgar Square in London. A tourist visited here some time ago and went into the National Gallery just over there asking to buy a print of Nelson’s portrait. The person at the desk said “Sorry, we don’t have a portrait of Nelson Mandela.” “No, it’s not Nelson Mandela that I’m after it’s Horatio Nelson” said the man. “Who?” replied the receptionist. “Lord Nelson, the guy on top of Nelson’s Column outside who won the Battle of Trafalgar, as in Trafalgar Square” he said. “Sorry, I’ve never heard of him” came the reply.
I’ve spent my life helping ordinary people connect with the message of Jesus. It’s amazing how many of us have picked up strange myths and ideas that really have nothing to do with what the Bible says about the God who created us, loves us and has a plan for our lives. A Father who sent his son to live and die to make a way for us to be reconnected to him in this life and the life to come. So, in case you have no idea about the Battle of Trafalgar, a glorious old warship and the guy who was in charge of it, let me explain. On September 15th 1805 the flagship, HMS Victory sailed out of Portsmouth for the south coast of Spain. Standing on deck was a man who would be widely regarded as the finest naval strategist of all time, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
These days, HMS Victory has pride of place in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard and every time a modern warship passes by her, the crew stand on deck in honour of the old lady of the fleet and the epic battle she fought in all those years ago. Lord Nelson is revered among the ranks of the Royal Navy but if the truth is known, his life was a mixed bag of contradictions. Brought up in a devoutly Christian family, Nelson was a man of prayer with a deep personal faith in a God who he believed would fight for him and for those who sought justice for the oppressed. But he wrestled with moral conflicts not just military ones and there were big questions over some of his life choices and attitudes about others. Back to the story.
After a month at sea, Nelson ordered the British fleet to anchor 50 miles off Cadiz. And then, at 6am on Sunday morning 21st October, the lookout high above Victory’s quarterdeck described a forest of masts rising from the ocean. The combined fleets of France and Spain, loyal to Napoleon Bonaparte, were fast approaching and so was Nelson’s moment of destiny. He gave the order to prepare for the engagement and Victory’s guns were rigged for battle. Deep below the waterline, the explosives now had to be brought up to the gun decks. Some of the boys, nicknamed powder monkeys, who carried the gunpowder were only 10 years old.
The carpenters got to work fashioning various wooden plugs and plates to repair the ship for when it would inevitably be hit and the ship’s surgeons sharpened their tools for the amputations they would soon be carrying out. The Franco Spanish fleet was stretched out in a concave line five miles long so the ships in the middle were further away than the ones at the ends of the line. The British fleet sailed into battle in two parallel lines with HMS Victory at the head of the right column and HMS Royal Sovereign on the left.
The guns on those old warships were mounted on the sides and could not fire forwards or backwards. Nelson knew that Victory and Royal Sovereign would be exposed to the total firepower of the enemy as they led the way in. Both were terribly damaged and most of the crew on Victory’s decks were hit. Nelson’s personal assistant was cut in half, his blood is still on the Vice Admiral’s uniform in the museum at Portsmouth. As soon as Victory and Royal Sovereign breached the enemy line they could open fire without reply, because now it was the enemy’s guns that were facing in the wrong direction. 100 canons were fired simultaneously at point blank range from the port side of Royal Sovereign and the starboard side of Victory. Every British ship then sailed into the concave line firing broadside directly at the French and Spanish warships.
And then in the smoke of the battle, Nelson was struck by a sniper as he gave orders on the quarterdeck of the flagship. The projectile passed through his shoulder, severing a main artery, he was bleeding to death. The crew carried their intrepid leader below deck where he died as the battle was won. When Jesus was bled and died on a Roman cross, 2,000 years ago, the ultimate battle was waged. The Bible says that his death secured the eternal victory over the power of the grave and through his sacrifice we can be reborn into a new life in relationship with God. Shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Nelson withdrew to his private quarters to pray to his Father in Heaven. These are the words he wrote down that day as he prepared for the battle that would end his life on this earth.
Great God whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe a victory untarnished by misconduct. For myself, I commit my life to him who made me. I resign myself to him and to this cause which has been entrusted to me to defend. Amen.
The battles that you face are probably not ones that involve canons and gunpowder but they are battles nevertheless. You can know the God that Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson prayed to on HMS Victory on that perilous morning in October 1805. Let him be the captain onboard the ship of your life today.