October 2013

October in Greenwich is an important month as we celebrate the anniversary of Nelson's great victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

October 21, 1805: Lord Nelson lay dying on HMS Victory, his navy about to defeat the French in the Battle of Trafalgar. 

Days later the body of our greatest sailor lay in state in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College - what was then the Royal Hospital for Seamen, for 3 days before his funeral at St Paul's Cathedral in January 1806. Maritime Greenwich was the epicentre of Britain's naval power. A place Nelson knew well. 

Since that time the Royal Navy has marked the anniversary in many ways. However, it was here in Greenwich that the Royal Navy chose to commemorate his death with a spectacular Trafalgar Night Dinner. In the two centuries since it has become a fabulous tradition. 

Two spectacular dishes are always served - the Baron of Beef and the chocolate Ships of the Line. The Baron of Beef is said to have originated when Henry VIII, whose favourite palace was here in Greenwich, was so taken by a spit roasted double sirloin of beef that he dubbed it 'Sir Loin, the Baron of Beef'. The Baron of Beef is always paraded around the dining hall at shoulder height accompanied by music by naval cadets. 

Adding to the spectacle, dessert takes the form of a flotilla of flaming chocolate ships. After the meal a variety of entertainment follows including sea shanties and other maritime music. The centerpiece of the evening is always the toast to The Immortal Memory of Nelson and those who fell with him. One of the most notable Trafalgar Nights was the 150th anniversary in 1955 when Lord Mountbatten of Burma proposed the toast in the presence of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in the Painted Hall - what was then the Royal Naval College.

In 1998 her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, who served at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich as a young officer, gave the last immortal toast to the mess before the Royal Navy left the historic buildings. At the time it seemed that there would never again be a Trafalgar Night Dinner in the Painted Hall. It seemed the tradition was over.  

... The good news is that the Greenwich Foundation has continued the tradition. Better still, the sparkling event is now open to the public, with fine food, tradition and pageantry with music from the Greenwich Sea Cadets and the Militaire Orchestra. 

A few tickets remain for this year's event on Friday 18 October. Visit www.ornc.org for more information.

Article can be found in the October issue of The Greenwich Visitor. 

Five Facts

  • Lord Nelson lay in State in the Painted Hall for 3 days before his funeral at St Paul’s in January 1806.
  • The Royal Navy has marked Trafalgar Night with a special dinner since the early 19th century.
  • Trafalgar Night Dinners have been held in the Painted Hall since the 1930s.
  • Henry VIII was so impressed with a roast that he dubbed it Sir Loin, Baron of Beef.
  • The moulds used to create the spectacular chocolate Ships of the Line today are the same ones used by the Royal Navy.

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