This is the bullet which killed Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805. Although Nelson died, the Royal Navy won the Battle, devastating the French and Spanish fleets. This ended Napoleon’s hopes of invading Britain and, 10 years later, a British Army completed the final defeat of France at the Battle of Waterloo.
The French musket ball which killed Admiral Nelson was removed from the wound by Dr William Beatty. It was later presented to the doctor by Captain Masterman Hardy, who was with Nelson when he died. It now resides in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.
The ball was fired from the top of the mizzen mast on the Redoubtable, a 74-gun French battle ship. The marksman was himself killed during the Battle of Trafalgar, so we will never know who actually shot Nelson.
The ball was indented several times by striking the Admiral’s epaulette, ribs and backbone. It passed in front of Nelson’s right shoulder joint and entered the chest, damaging two ribs, some lung tissue and the spinal cord, which was cut in half by the missile. It was fired from around 20 metres and was probably a random shot.
The ball caused three main problems – bleeding, escape of air into the chest and irreversible spinal damage. The combination of some blood loss and the cord division meant that Nelson’s body could not compensate for the blood loss. The nerves that enable compensation for bleeding had been damaged in the spinal injury.
The ball is set in a crystal case and is surrounded by pieces of Nelson’s coat lining and epaulette. This piece of braid is too large to have been driven in by the missile and was a later addition. The case and ball became a memorable memento mori of Britain’s greatest naval hero and an impressive status symbol for his surgeon. Dr Beatty’s family gifted the grisly treasure to Queen Victoria in 1842.
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This object is in the collection of Windsor Castle