The Painted Hall is a great symbol of Britain's proud maritime past - so it was only fitting that it should become the resting place of Britain's greatest maritime hero, Lord Horatio Nelson. Nelson's lying-in-state was an occasion of great importance in the history of the Painted Hall - and indeed of London.

“Hardy, I do believe they’ve done it at last … my backbone is shot through.”

The Battle of Trafalgar, 1805 is without doubt the most famous of Britain’s naval victories, and along with Waterloo, perhaps the most famous moment in the Napoleonic Wars. Off the coast of Spain, the Franco-Spanish fleet sought to break the British fleet – led by Vice Admiral Lord Nelson – and take control of the English Channel in order to invade England.

Nelson’s fearless tactics in the battle – breaking military tradition by sailing head-first into the Franco-Spanish line, rather than lining alongside them – brought about a stunning victory against a significantly larger fleet, but also saw Nelson meet his death when shot by a French sniper during the battle. Brought below deck, Nelson died shortly afterwards, his last words fittingly “God and my country”.

Following the battle, Nelson was brought back to London by sea – his body preserved in a cask of brandy, and then a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits of wine. On Christmas Eve, 1805, Nelson’s body was brought up the Thames on a yacht to Greenwich, where it arrived at the Hospital Water Gate. The arrival of Nelson’s body here was a momentous occasion for all of London. It marked the start of a lavish lying-in-state in the Painted Hall, between 5-7 January 1806, before the official funeral at St Paul’s.

Beneath the proscenium arch thousands of mourners flocked to get a glimpse of the coffin.

Nelsons lying-in-state in the Painted Hall

The lying-in-state was a major event attended by thousands

Paintings of the event show a mass of ships accompanying Nelson’s coffin as it arrived; depictions of the Painted Hall’s interior show a similar throng of visitors paying their respects. But perhaps the most powerful records are excerpts from the Times:

6 January 1806: Before eight in the morning, every avenue from the Metropolis to Greenwich was crowded with vehicles of every description …Ten banners, elevated on staves, and emblazoned with various quarterings of his Lordship’s arms and heraldic dignities, each bearing it appropriate motto, were suspended towards the coffin, five on each side”.

8 January: “The road to town from Greenwich yesterday evening was almost choked with the immense concourse of carriages, horses and pedestrians…”

The momentousness of this occasion shows the incredible reputation Nelson had won during his lifetime. This was certainly facilitated by the state, which went to considerable effort to present him as a legendary national hero – but the event was clearly also a display of grassroots popular support. Even ships turned up, the “rough and hardy crew” of the brig Elizabeth and Mary turning up to salute their fallen hero.

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