Trafalgar Day is commemorated each year on 21 October, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which established Britain’s naval supremacy for over a century. Here we take a look at what happened on that important day, which took place 217 years ago, and explore some of the ways that it is celebrated both in the UK and around the world.
The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21 October 1805, off the Cape of Trafalgar on the coast of Spain. The conflict marked the culmination of a naval campaign led by the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who intended to gain control of the English Channel as part of his planned invasion of Britain. A combined French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships led by Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve squared up against the British fleet of 27, commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Villeneuve’s ships formed a single line while Nelson’s fleet divided in two to attack the enemy. As the Royal Navy closed in on the Franco-Spanish line, Nelson issued his famous flag signal from on board the HMS Victory: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’
The five-hour battle was intense and much of it took place up close. The British destroyed around 20 of the enemy ships, and Villeneuve was captured. Although no British ships were destroyed, 1,500 men were wounded or killed, including Admiral Nelson himself. Shot by a French sniper, Nelson died on board the Victory shortly after being told that the British had won. His last words were reportedly: ‘Thank God I have done my duty.’
The Battle of Trafalgar ended Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain and established Britain’s naval supremacy for over a century. Admiral Nelson was given a state funeral and is widely regarded as the greatest naval hero in British history.
Trafalgar Day is commemorated on 21 October in a number of ways throughout the UK and overseas. A ceremony of remembrance and thanksgiving is traditionally held on board HMS Victory, which is now docked in Portsmouth, and a wreath is laid on the plaque commemorating the spot where Admiral Nelson fell.
In London, the Sea Cadet Corps hold a large-scale parade on Trafalgar Square on the Sunday closest to 21 October. Meanwhile, in Birmingham’s Bullring a ceremony takes place at the statue of Lord Nelson involving a parade and the laying of wreaths. In Edinburgh, Nelson’s famous flag signal is flown from his monument on Calton Hill.
Trafalgar Day is also commemorated in more far-flung locations, including the town of Trafalgar in Victoria, Australia, where an annual festival and ball take place. Events also take place in Gibraltar and the city of Nelson in New Zealand, which was named after the famed Admiral.
Trafalgar Night dinners are held on Royal Naval vessels as well as in organisations linked to the Navy in mess halls and ward rooms throughout the country and overseas. Various traditions are upheld during the meal including toasts to the monarch and to Admiral Nelson, which are made with port.
This year, as we commemorate 217 years since the Battle of Trafalgar, many people across the world will be raising a toast to Admiral Horatio Nelson and his final, greatest victory.