Battle of Copenhagen, 2 April 1801

Battle of Copenhagen, 2 April 1801

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Battle of Copenhagen 1801

Free Ships vs BlockageArmed NeutralityExpedition Planned and AimsJourney to CopenhagenBattle plansThe FleetsThe BattleThe Blind EyeAftermath at CopenhagenThe Wider Results

Free Ships vs Blockage

One of the great controversies of naval warfare has always been over the right of neutral trading nations during times of war. The British position had always been that denying their enemies their trade was a legitimate part of warfare. As a naval power, blockade was a key part of the British planning for any war.

In contrast, most neutral powers held to the theory of free ships and free trade – neutral ships should be allowed to continue as normal, protected by their flag, or if needed, by their fleet.

The situation was made more complicated by the accepted trading patterns of the period – genuinely free trade was rare during peacetime. Legal opinion tended to divide trade during warfare into two categories – trade that was allowed during peacetime and trade that was not. Most countries restricted trade with their colonies to their own ships – French colonies, French ships – but during wartime were willing to allow neutral ships to take on some of the risk of trade. Britain, as the power most likely to be blockading trade, was not willing to allow this trade.

Another problem was the definition of contraband. By the time of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Britain operated a wide definition of contraband goods that included just about anything that could be of help to the enemy. Neutral trading nations, including the Baltic nations soon to be involved in the armed neutrality, tended towards a narrower definition, which excluded the majority of naval stores.

Some countries tended to adapt whatever attitude suited their alliances at the time. The United States has been particularly prone to switching her position on this issue depending on her involvement in the war in question, supporting free trade while neutral, and the right to blockade once involved in any war. At this time, the American position was strongly pro-free trade, a major contribution to the outbreak of war in 1812.

Britain insisted on the right to ‘visit and search’ ships at sea. This right was an absolutely essential part of any policy of naval blockade, but it was also the main cause of friction between Britain and the neutral powers. There was a widespread legal consensus around Europe in favour of this right, supported by French, Spanish, Swiss and Swedish legal opinion (amongst others).

That did not mean that it was unopposed. A common counter argument was that if ships were in convoy, then a statement by the commander of the naval escort that the convoy contained no contraband goods should be enough. This principle was unacceptable to the British, who could point out that no convoy commander could be entirely sure what was being carried by the ships was protecting, but who also felt that it was an unacceptable principle. Even if the convoy commander was being honest, there was no consensus on the nature of contraband.

A series of incidents involving Swedish and Danish ships brought this issue to the fore. In January 1798 a Swedish convoy, escorted by a single frigate, was searched in the Channel. The frigate offered some resistance – token and as a matter of honour according to the frigate’s commander. However, when the convoy was searched a variety of naval stores were found (including tar, pitch and hemp). This was clearly contraband by British standards, but despite this the Swedes still maintained that the convoy should not have been searched.

The next two major incidents involved Danish ships. At the end of December 1799 a Danish merchantman was seized off Gibraltar, despite some opposition from a Danish frigate. The most dramatic incident came in July 1800. An attempt was made to search a Danish convoy off Ostend. The commander of the escorting frigate refused to give permission, and then fired on the British ships when they continued with the searches. This was more than a token resistance – there were casualties on both sides – and the entire convoy was seized. In the aftermath, the British government attempted to maintain her crucial legal claims while also keeping on good terms with Denmark. The British needed naval supplies from the Baltic, and preferred to stay on amicable terms with Denmark and Sweden (At this time, Norway was part of Denmark). This effort soon ended in failure.

Armed Neutrality

In December 1800, Russia, Denmark, Prussia and Sweden formed the ‘Armed Neutrality’. In effect, this was an alliance aimed at defending their right to trade with the French, although it was framed in broader terms. The prime mover of the Armed Neutrality was Tsar Paul of Russia. In the aftermath of the battle of the Nile, he had joined the coalition being formed against France. One of his main aims was to gain control of Malta, to give Russia a base in the Mediterranean. However, Malta had been captured by Napoleon on his way to Egypt. A British force had settled down to besiege Malta, and after a lengthy siege the French surrendered in September 1800. It was already clear that Britain had no intention of handing Malta over to the Russians, and Tsar Paul had already started to move against British interests.

On 27 August he issued a call for the formation of an Armed Neutrality. Soon afterwards he showed just how neutral that would be by ordering an embargo on all British ships. Sweden’s king, Gustavus IV Adolphus, had recently come of age. He was strongly pro-Russian, and one of his first moves was to visit St. Petersburg. While there, the ‘Armed Neutrality’ was formed.

It had five objectives.

  1. Every neutral to be free to navigate from port to port and on the coasts of nations at war.
  2. Goods belonging to subjects of belligerent powers, with the exception of contraband, to be free on neutral vessels.
  3. Blockade, to be recognised, must be exercised by a close watch.
  4. Neutrals only to be arrested ‘for just cause and in view of evident facts’
  5. The declaration of officers commanding armed vessels accompanying a convoy that the cargoes do not include contraband shall suffice to prevent any visit of inspection.

This was entirely unacceptable to Britain, where it was seen as a hostile move, in effect adding the Baltic navies to the French cause. Russia had little or no maritime trade, and so her claims to be defending neutral trade were particularly unconvincing.

Napoleon certainly saw it in a similar way. He announced that he regarded France and Russia to be at peace, and ordered the end of all attacks on Russian ships. He may have had in mind the previous ‘Armed Neutrality’, formed in 1780, during the American War of Independence. At that time, the Royal Navy was too stretched to take any action, and the armed neutrality achieved its aims, severely weakening Britain’s position in the war. This time was to be different.

Expedition Planned and Aims

A small fleet had been sent to Copenhagen in 1800 after the seizure of the convoy off Ostend. After the formation of the Armed Neutrality, a stronger fleet was assembled. This fleet was to proceed to the Baltic, and disrupt the Armed Neutrality by force. It had enough ships of the line to fight a full fleet action with any one of the Baltic fleets, and enough smaller ships to attack a city. It also carried a full infantry regiment (the 49th), two rifle companies from the 95th regiment and some artillery.

Command of the fleet was given to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, mostly on the grounds of seniority. Third in command was Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves. However, the star of the expedition, and the main reason for its enduring fame, was the second in command. Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Nile and of Cape St. Vincent, and the navy’s most brilliant tactician, was in England, and out of favour. He had returned from Naples with Lady Emma Hamilton in tow (or possibly the other way round!). Their affair was already well known before they returned to England, and Nelson’s conduct was felt to be totally inappropriate. The Admiralty felt that Nelson needed to sent back to sea as quickly as possible, and the Baltic expedition was to hand. Thus, at the start of 1801, Nelson joined Sir Hyde Parker’s fleet as second in command.

The expedition had three enemies to deal with. Simply because of their position at the entrance to the Baltic, the Danes would have to be dealt with first, probably at Copenhagen. Once the Danes were neutralised, the fleet was to enter the Baltic, where its main objective would be to defeat the Russians, seen as the prime movers of the Armed Neutrality. The Swedish fleet would be dealt with if it tried to intervene, but was not a prime target.

Journey to Copenhagen

When Nelson joined the fleet in early 1801, he found rather less action that he would have expected or liked. Admiral Parker had little recent experience of action, and had spent most of his career in hotter climes. He was in no hurry to enter the Baltic in winter. He was said to be waiting until after a ball that his new young wife was eager to attend, and it took all of Nelson’s efforts to get Parker to leave.

Initial relations between Nelson and Parker were distant. They had served together before, so were not strangers. However, Parker found himself in an awkward situation. He was twenty years older than Nelson, and his senior officer, but it must have been clear to him that Nelson would probably dominate the expedition.

The fleet sailed on 12 March. Nelson still had no idea what Parker’s plans were. The gap between them appears to have been closed by a turbot! Parker was known for his love of good food, and so when one of Nelson’s officers caught the fish, it was immediately requisitioned and sent over to Parker. The fishy gift appears to have done its job. On 14 March, Nelson received a note outlining Parker’s plans. Ten days later he was willing to send Parker a memorandum expressing his views on how the campaign should be conducted. Unsurprisingly, he favoured bold action.

Four days later, the fleet reached the Naze (off the southern tip of Norway). The next two days saw severe gales, so on 21 March Parker anchored outside the Sound (the stretch of water between Sweden and the Danish island of Zealand, partly so that his fleet could come back together and partly to decide what to do next.

Map of the approaches to Copenhagen

Parker had to choose between sailing through the Sound or the Belt (the sea separating the island of Zealand from the Danish mainland). The Sound was the quickest route, and the safest water, but was guarded by a Danish fortress at Helsingor (Hamlet’s Ellsinore), and a Swedish fortress at Helsingborg. Once past that barrier, the fleet would be within 20 miles of Copenhagen. In contrast, the Belt was relatively unguarded, but was more dangerous water, especially for larger ships. It was also the longer route, involving a voyage of at least 200 miles.

Parker’s first choice was the Belt, but after sailing some way along the coast of Zealand he decided to consult one of his captains, who was familiar with the Baltic and with Nelson. Captain Murrey recommended the Sound, while Nelson’s response was ‘I don’t care a damn by which passage we go, so that we go fight them!’.

Nelson’s thinking at this point can be seen in his decision to transfer his flag from the 98 gun St. George to the 74 gun Elephant on 29 March. While Parker was still worrying about how to reach Copenhagen, Nelson was already planning his attack.

Parker now decided to use the Sound, but first he approached the Governor of Kronborg Castle (Helsingor) to see if he could be persuaded not to fire. The Governor’s response was that he had orders to fire on the British fleet if it attempted to pass into the Sound. Despite this, at 6 a.m. on 30 March, the fleet weighed anchor and sailed into the Sound.

An hour later, they came under fire from Kronborg Castle. However, the Swedish guns on the opposite shore remained silent, allowing the British ships to sail out of range of the Danish guns. The only British casualties came when a gun exploded while being fired.

Four hours after weighing anchor, the British fleet anchored in two lines between the islands of Van (Hveen) and Amager, in the heart of the Sound. Once there, Parker decided to reconnoitre the defences of Copenhagen. In the frigate Amazon, Parker, Nelson, Rear-Admiral Graves (the third in command) and the Captain of the Fleet (Captain Domett, effectively Parker’s deputy), looked over the Danish defences.

That evening Parker held a council of war on his flagship. Nelson was never a fan of councils of war on the grounds that they inevitably led to inaction. As he expected, several other officers suggesting delay, pointing out all sorts of potential problems, from the strength of the Danish defences to the potential threat from the Russian fleet.

It took all of Nelson’s enthusiasm to overcome this mood, but overcome it he did. Eventually he offered to attack Copenhagen with ten ships of the line and the smaller ships. Much to his credit, Parker accepted this offer and gave Nelson twelve ships of the line and complete control over the attack.

Battle plans

The Danish plan was simple. Their fleet was moored along the shore at Copenhagen, turning their ships of the line into gun batteries. It was generally accepted that the increased stability of a land based gun battery gave it a massive advantage against naval guns. The Danish fleet was supported by the Trekroner gun battery (The Three Crowns, so named after the union of Denmark, Norway and Sweden). This was a gun battery built on piles driven into the foreshore. Finally, there were a series of fixed gun batteries built on land. The Danes were fighting from a very strong position. British fleets fighting on the defensive had resisted strong attacks from weaker positions.

The British plan was much more risky. The heavier ships in the British fleet were too large to take part in any attack against the Danish position. Nelson requested a squadron made up of 74-gun ships and below. These ships could operate in shallower water than the three-deckers, important in the unknown shallows that defended the Danish position.

Map of the area around Copenhagen in 1801

At 7 in the morning on 1 April, Nelson scouted out the Outer Channel for a second time. Having done this, he paid Parker a final visit, and then at half past two, taking advantage of a short-lived northerly breeze, Nelson’s squadron sailed down the Outer Channel, and anchored south of Copenhagen, two miles from the Danish fleet.

Once there, the detailed planning began. Captain Hardy was sent out in a small boat to take soundings in the King’s Channel. Under cover of darkness he was able to get remarkably close to the Danish line and take accurate readings of the approaches that the British were going to have to use. His soundings suggested that the water was deepest nearer the shore. Unfortunately, this information appears not to have been used on some of the ships, as will be seen below.

Meanwhile, Nelson was dictating a detailed plan of action. His actions before the battle of Copenhagen disprove the idea that Nelson always charged recklessly into battle. Copenhagen gave him the chance to study an enemy position in detail and come up with a detailed plan to defeat them. He continued to dictate this plan until the early hours of the morning, not stopping until one in the morning, at which point his clerks began to copy the orders.

Nelson’s plan involved all of the ships under his command. Seven of the frigates, commanded by Captain Riou of the Amazon were to attack the ships at the northern end of the Danish line and in the harbour mouth. Captain Rose of the Jamaica, with six gun-brigs, was to take up position at the southern end of the Danish line, and rake it (fire along the line). The bomb ships were to position themselves outside the main British line, and cast their shells over the top of the British ships. The British troops were to capture the Trekroner batteries, once they had been silenced.

The British ships of the line were to follow a complex plan. Each of the British ship had precise instructions. The intention was to attack the southern end of the Danish line first, as it was the hardest part of the line to reinforce. The rest of the fleet was to pass to the starboard of the first ships, and attack the northern end of the line. This was to take two of the British ships too close to the Middle Ground shoals, taking them out of the battle.

The Fleets

The Danish defence forces can not be called a fleet. The line of ships moored along the shore contained seven ships of the line, each with the masts and riggings removed to make them less vulnerable. They were supported by eleven floating gun batteries. These included some ‘hulks’ – obsolete ships of the line that could still carry a strong battery of guns, transport ships and old east Indiamen. Some of the eleven were tiny – the Elven was a 6-gunned Sloop, and none carried more than 24 guns.

Another force of ships of the line and frigates was moored in the entrance to Copenhagen Harbour, to block any British move against the harbour. In the even, the wind meant that while Parker’s division of the fleet was unable to take part in the battle, this Danish reserve was also unable to intervene (Click here for a full list of the Danish ships).

The British fleet was a strong one (click here for a full list of the British ships). The ships of the line included two three-deckers (Parker’s flagship HMS London and Nelson’s HMS St. George). There were eleven 74-gun ships, five 64s one 54 and a 50, as well as seven frigates. Aware of the potential need to operate in shallow waters or bombard land targets, the fleet contained an unusually large number of smaller ships – sloops, cutters and schooners, as well as a force of bomb ships in case there was a need to bombard a city. This was a very capable fleet, stronger than Nelson’s fleet at the Nile, although his plan at Copenhagen did not involve the three deckers. While this only eliminated two ships from the fleet, one of them was his own flagship, the St. George.

Nelson’s squadron, used in the attack on the Danish line, consisted of twelve ships of the line (seven 74s, three 64s, one 54 and a 50). He also had the fleet’s frigates, gunboats and bomb ships. The rest of the fleet remained with Admiral Parker. His role was to block in the Danish ships still in Copenhagen harbour, and if possible to attack the Trekroner batteries at the northern end of the Danish defences. On the day, the wind prevented him from doing this.

The Battle

On the morning of the 2 April, the wind was from the correct direction for Nelson’s plan to be carried out. By eight in the morning, the captains of the British ships had their orders. At half past nine the fleet was ordered to weigh anchor.

Detailed map showing the position of the ships.

At the head of the British line was the Edgar. She sailed past the first four Danish ships, exchanging fire, before taking up her position against the fifth Danish ship, the Jylland, a two-decked ship of the line. Second was the Ardent, who passed by the Edgar and took up position against the sixth and seventh Danish ships (a frigate and a floating battery). The Glatton, commanded by the infamous captain Bligh, took up position against the Danish flagship Dannebrog (later to be replaced by Nelson’s flagship the Elephant. The rest of the British fleet was intended to take up station in a similar way.

Three of the British ships did not make it into the action. The Agamemnon had anchored too far east, found herself unable to sail around the shoal and took no part in the battle. Both the Bellona and the Russell ran aground on the Middle Ground, although the distances involved were so short that they were both able to play a limited role in the fighting.

Nelson was able to readjust his line to compensate, but the loss of three ships of the line meant that the head of the line, opposed to the Trekroner Fort, was much weaker than intended. The British line was fully in place by 11.30, when the Defiance took up position against the Trekroner. Captain Riou’s frigates also ended up fighting the Trekroner.

The fighting at Copenhagen was of a very high level of intensity. Many of the Danes were inexperienced, but they were fighting close to land, to defend their capital, and with the Crown Prince (the effective ruler of Denmark) watching from the shore. The Danes were easily able to reinforce the ships, even replacing the captain of one ship mid-battle.

The Blind Eye

After three hours of intense fighting, Parker began to worry. His squadron was still slowly edging towards the fighting, but was still some way away from being able play an active part in the battle. From his distance, the Danish fire appeared to be undimmed. Three British ships of the line were grounded, and the frigates were under fire from the Trekroner. Parker was beginning to consider giving the signal to discontinue the action. Captain Otway, Parker’s flag-captain, managed to persuade Parker to let him row to the Elephant to give Nelson verbal orders, giving him permission to withdraw if he felt the need, but before Otway could reach Nelson, Parker gave the order anyway.

Parker did not expect Nelson to automatically obey the order. Eyewitnesses report that he said ‘If he is in a condition to continue the action successfully, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat and no blame can be imputed to him’. This shows a good understanding of Nelson’s character, but not the steady nerve needed to command in battle. While Nelson could be relied on to act as Parker intended, there was always the risk that his captains would see the order and obey it. This is what happened to Captain Riou and his frigates.

Located at the northern end of the line, they could see Parker’s signal rather more easily than any signals flying on Nelson’s ship. Riou had little choice but to obey, but as his ship was turning to leave the battle, he was cut in two by enemy fire.

It was at this point that the famous incident of the blind eye occurred. Nelson had obviously been expecting some sort of signal from Parker, as he had ordered his officers to concentrate their attention on the Danish flagship, not the British one, but eventually he had to acknowledge Parker’s order to withdraw.

Our best eyewitness for the events on the Elephant is Colonel William Stewart, the commander of the infantry. Once he had admitted to having seen Parker’s signal, he ordered the signal to be acknowledged, but not repeated, meaning that his own squadron was expected to keep obeying Nelson’s own order to stay in close action.

After a couple of minutes, he turned to Foley, his flag captain, and said ‘You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes’. He then put his telescope to his blind eye, and said ‘I really do not see the Signal!’

This was typical of Nelson. Only a commander with his enormous self confidence would have been willing to ignore a direct order from his commander in chief. His characteristics were well known in the fleet, and Parker was well aware that he could trust his subordinate not to obey the order to discontinue.

What Parker could not see was that the Danish fire had already started to slacken. The men to reinforce the Danish ships had to be taken from the shore batteries, weakening their fire. The ships themselves were increasingly crippled. The first break in the Danish line came at about 2 pm, when the Nyborg, 4th in the Danish line, attempted to make a dash for the harbour, taking the 12th in line Aggershuus in tow. Both ships quickly sank. A third ship, the frigate Hjaelperen managed to escape. By half past two, most Danish fire had ended.

This was not quite the end of the battle. The Trekroner battery was still firing, while the inexperienced crews of several Danish ships kept on firing after their officers had signalled their surrender. If the battle had been against the French, Nelson would have had no qualms about continuing until the enemy was utterly destroyed, but he had no such personal grudge against the Danes.

Accordingly, as the Danish fire slackened Nelson sent a letter to Crown Prince Frederik, offering a truce (Nelson's first letter to the Crown Prince). This note has sometimes been taken as a sign of Nelson’s weakness, but his motivation appears to have been largely humanitarian. Many of the Danish ships had actually surrendered, but there was still sporadic firing, making it too risky for the British to take their prizes. If there had been no truce, Nelson would probably have sent in the fire ships and burnt out the Danish ships.

Fortunately, it did not come to that. The Crown Prince sent back a letter asking what the intention behind Nelson’s letter had been. This letter was sent back under a flag of truce, at about three in the afternoon. When this flag reached the battle, all firing stopped. Nelson replied with a second letter (Nelson's second letter to the Crown Prince), where he offered to all the Danes to remove their wounded, while the British would take off the unwounded prisoners, and then seize or burn the surrendered ships. In the event, only one Danish ship was seized (the Holsteen).

The events of the day did not end with the fighting. The Danish flagship Dannebrog had been reducing to a burning wreck in the fighting. At about half past four she exploding, killing over 250 men. In all the Danes probably suffered 790 killed and 910 wounded, compared to 253 killed and 688 wounded. Copenhagen was one of the bloodiest naval battles of the entire revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Most of the British ships had sustained serious damage during the battle. The danger that Parker’s order to quit the battle would have exposed them to was demonstrated as they moved away from the Danish shore. The Monarch ran onto a shoal and had to be pushed over it by the Ganges. Both the Elephant and the Defiance ran aground, and could not be pulled free until nightfall. How the already badly damaged British ships would have coped if the Trekroner guns were still firing can only be imagined.

Aftermath at Copenhagen

Having understandably left the conduct of the battle to Nelson, Parker was now equally willing to let him handle the diplomacy. The morning after the battle, Nelson was sent into Copenhagen to meet Crown Prince Fredrick. Fredrick had been acting as his father’s regent for some years, and was to succeed him as Fredrick VI in 1808.

There are conflicting accounts of Nelson’s reception in Copenhagen. All agree that crowds gathered to watch Nelson on his way to the palace. He was offered a carriage, but chose to walk through the crowds. Danish accounts suggest that he was watched in silent respect. British accounts suggest cheering crowds calling out ‘Viva Nelson’. Neither account is likely to be entirely true. Nelson had become a hero across Europe after the Nile, and so some popular acclaim was likely. Merchants involved in the British trade were unlikely to have supported the armed neutrality. On the other hand, the British fleet had been threatening to bombard the city on the previous day, and the Danish wounded must have been on many minds.

The negotiations with Crown Prince did not go well. Nelson did not believe that there was much hope of a peaceful resolution to the trade issues. The Danes denied that their actions were aimed against Britain, and refused to budge on their claim to free trade.

Leaving the main issue unresolved, the negotiations now moved on to an armistice. The British aim was to get a long enough armistice to give them time to deal with the Russians, seen as the main enemy. Eventually, on 9 April a 14 week armistice was agreed.

The armistice allowed the British free access to Copenhagen. The Danes left the Armed Neutrality for the duration of the armistice. In return, Copenhagen was not attacked and the Danish prisoners were returned on parole. Parker was free to move into the Baltic to confront the main enemy.

The Wider Results

After recovering at Copenhagen, the British fleet moved on into the Baltic. There, they discovered that events in Russian had already given them the results they had been sent to achieve. On 24 March, Tsar Paul had been assassinated, and replaced by his son Alexander. The new Tsar began his reign by pulling back from many of his father’s policies, amongst them armed neutrality (later in the wars, Alexander was to be both enthusiastic ally and implacable enemy of Napoleon).

News of the new Russian ruler and his attitudes spread slowly. By 23 April, the Russian minister at Copenhagen was certain that the new Tsar would not risk war with Britain, but Nelson for one was not convinced. The British fleet had spent most of the time since the battle anchored just south of Copenhagen, much to Nelson’s annoyance. Parker was unwilling to risk the voyage to Russia while the Swedish fleet threatened his rear, and had remained inactive.

On 5 May, orders for his replacement reached the fleet. Parker was recalled, and Nelson given command of the fleet. Amongst his orders was a command not to let the Swedish and Russian fleets combine. The Swedish fleet had taken shelter in Karlskrona, on the south coast of Sweden. Nelson sent the commander of the Swedish fleet in which he stated he had ‘no orders to abstain from hostilities, should I meet the Swedish fleet at sea’ – in other words he would attack on sight. The Swedish fleet decided to remain firmly in port.

Having detached six ships of the line to watch Karlskrona, Nelson took the remaining eleven to Reval (modern Tallinn), where he hoped to find a Russian fleet. When he arrived on 14 May, he discovered that the fleet had escaped up the Gulf of Finland to the strongly defended Russian naval base at Kronstad, near St. He also discovered that negotiations to end the Armed Neutrality were underway. In order to avoid damaging the negotiations, Nelson withdrew from Reval on 17 May. Two days later, the Russian and Swedish trade embargoes were withdrawn. A month later Nelson was replaced as commander in chief, largely on grounds of genuine ill health.

The long term results of the battle of Copenhagen were unsatisfactory. Even before Nelson was replaced, the Danes were trading with the French. The British seizure of the Danish West Indies had helped stir up anti-British feeling. The main issue of free ships vs. the right of blockade had not been decided. Another British expedition had to be send to Copenhagen in 1807 to prevent the French gaining control of the Danish navy. Nelson’s hardest fought victory was also probably the least influential.

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Nelson's first letter to the Crown Prince
Nelson's second letter to the Crown Prince

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Rickard, J (5 February 2006) Battle of Copenhagen


In late 1800 and early 1801, diplomatic negotiations produced the League of Armed Neutrality. Led by Russia, the League also included Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia all of which called for the ability to trade freely with France. Wishing to maintain their blockade of the French coast and concerned about losing access to Scandinavian timber and naval stores, Britain immediately began preparing to take action. In the spring of 1801, a fleet was formed at Great Yarmouth under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with the purpose of breaking up the alliance before the Baltic Sea thawed and released the Russian fleet.

Included in Parker's fleet as second-in-command was Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, then out of favor due to his activities with Emma Hamilton. Recently married to a young wife, the 64-year old Parker dithered in port and was only coaxed to sea by a personal note from First Lord of the Admiralty Lord St. Vincent. Departing port on March 12, 1801, the fleet reached the Skaw a week later. Met there by diplomat Nicholas Vansittart, Parker and Nelson learned that the Danes had refused a British ultimatum demanding they leave the League.

Battle of Copenhagen

Date of the Battle of Copenhagen: 2 nd April 1801.

Place of the Battle of Copenhagen: the coast of Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark.

Combatants at the Battle of Copenhagen: A British Fleet against the Danish Fleet.

Commanders at the Battle of Copenhagen: Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and Vice Admiral Lord Nelson against the Danish Crown Prince.

Winner of the Battle of Copenhagen: The British Fleet.

The Fleets at the Battle of Copenhagen:

Danish Crown Prince Frederick: Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

The British Fleet: Nelson’s Division, His Majesty’s Ships Elephant (Nelson’s Flagship: Captain Foley, 74 guns), Russell (Captain Cumming, 74 guns), Bellona (Captain Thompson, 74 guns), Edgar (Captain Murray, 74 guns), Ganges (Captain Freemantle, 74 guns), Monarch (Captain Moss, 74 guns), Defiance (Rear Admiral Graves’ Flagship: Captain Retalick, 74 guns), Polyphemus (Captain Lawford, 64 guns), Ardent (Captain Bertie, 64 guns), Agamemnon (Captain Fancourt, 64 guns), Glatton (Captain William Bligh, 54 guns), Isis (Captain Walker, 50 guns), Frigates, La Desiree (Captain Inman, 40 guns), Amazon (Captain Riou , 38 guns), Blanche (Captain Hammond, 36 guns), Alcimene (Captain Sutton, 32 guns), Sloops: Arrow (Commander Bolton, 30 guns), Dart (Commander Devonshire, 30 guns), Zephyr (Lieutenant Upton, 14 guns), Otter (Lieutenant McKinlay, 14 guns).

Parker’s Division: His Majesty’s Ships London (Flagship, Captain Domett, 98 guns), St George (Captain Hardy, 98 guns), Warrior (Captain Tyler, 74 guns), Defence (Captain Paulet, 74 guns), Saturn (Captain Lambert, 74 guns), Ramillies (Captain Dixon, 74 guns), Raisonable (Captain Dilkes, 64 guns), Veteran (Captain Dickson, 64 guns).

In addition the Trekroner Fortress and numerous batteries along the coast.

Captain Riou’s ship HMS Amazon: Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

Ships and Armaments at the Battle of Copenhagen:

Life on a sailing warship of the 18 th and 19 th Century, particularly the large ships of the line, was crowded and hard. Discipline was enforced with extreme violence, small infractions punished with public lashings. The food, far from good, deteriorated as ships spent time at sea. Drinking water was in short supply and usually brackish. Shortage of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables meant that scurvy quickly set in. The great weight of guns and equipment and the necessity to climb rigging in adverse weather conditions frequently caused serious injury.

Warships carried their main armament in broadside batteries along the sides. Ships were classified according to the number of guns carried, or the number of decks carrying batteries. The size of gun on the line of battle ships was up to 24 pounder, firing heavy iron balls or chain and link shot designed to wreck rigging. The first discharge, loaded before action began, was always the most effective.

HMS Elephant Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

Ships manoeuvred to deliver broadsides in the most destructive manner the greatest effect being achieved by firing into an enemy’s stern or bow, so that the shot travelled the length of the ship, wreaking havoc and destruction.

The Danish ships at the Battle of Copenhagen were moored to the jetties. The British ships anchored alongside the moored Danish Fleet and the firing was broadside to broadside at a range of a few yards.

Ships carried a variety of smaller weapons on the top deck and in the rigging, from swivel guns firing grape shot or canister (bags of musket balls) to hand held muskets and pistols, each crew seeking to annihilate the enemy officers and sailors on deck.

Wounds in Eighteenth Century naval fighting were terrible. Cannon balls ripped off limbs or, striking wooden decks and bulwarks or guns and metalwork, drove splinter fragments across the ship causing horrific wounds. Falling masts and rigging inflicted severe crush injuries. Sailors stationed aloft fell into the sea from collapsing masts and rigging to be drowned. Heavy losses were caused when a ship finally sank.

Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by C.A. Lorentzen

Ships’ crews of all nations were tough and disciplined. The British, with continual blockade service against France and Spain, were particularly well drilled.

British captains were responsible for recruiting their ship’s crew. Men were taken wherever they could be found, largely by the press gang. All nationalities served on British ships, although several ships permitted Danish crewmen to transfer rather than serve against their own countrymen. Loyalty for a crew lay primarily with their ship. Once the heat of battle subsided there was little animosity against the enemy. Great efforts were made by British crews to rescue the sailors of foundering Danish ships at the end of the Battle of Copenhagen.

Map of the the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: map by John Fawkes

Captain Riou who led the attack on the Trekroner Fortress and was killed at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

Account of the Battle of Copenhagen:
In early 1801, Britain faced a coalition of northern European states, masterminded by France, combined in hostile neutrality against Britain, the Northern Confederation. Those states were Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia. The British Admiralty ordered Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with a British fleet to the Baltic, with Admiral Lord Nelson as his second in command, to break up the confederation.

On 18 th March 1801, the British Fleet anchored in the Kattegat, the entrance to the Baltic from the North Sea, and British diplomats set off for Copenhagen.

It was Nelson’s plan that the British Fleet should attack the Russian squadron wintering in the port of Revel, the Russian navy being the strongest and the dominant naval force in the Baltic.

There was a lack of trust between Parker and Nelson Parker keeping Nelson at arm’s length, while the British diplomats negotiated with the Danes to obtain their withdrawal from the coalition.

The negotiations with the Danes exasperated Nelson, a man of action, who wanted to attack the Danes and destroy their fleet, before moving on to Revel and the Russian ships. Nelson’s flagship HMS St George had been cleared for action for a week.

On 23 rd March 1801, Parker called a council of war at which the British diplomats revealed that the Danish Crown Prince and his government, actively hostile to Britain, were not prepared to withdraw Denmark from the coalition and that the defences of Copenhagen were being strengthened.

Nelson urged that the Danish Fleet be attacked without delay, saying: “Let it be by the Sound, by the Belt, or anyhow, only lose not an hour.

On 26 th March 1801, the British Fleet moved towards the Sound, the gateway to the Baltic, and the great Danish fortress of Kronenburg. Preparing for the battle, Nelson moved his flag to the smaller ship Elephant, 74 guns, whose captain, Foley, had led the attack at the Battle of the Nile.

On 30 th March 1801, the wind was fair for the British advance on Copenhagen and the British Fleet passed the Sound, keeping to the Swedish side.

Admiral Nelson forcing the Passage of the Sound before the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by Robert Dodd

In the event, the Swedes held their fire, while the Danes at Cronenburg fired without effect, the range being too great. The British Fleet anchored five miles below Copenhagen, allowing the senior officers to reconnoitre the city’s defences in the lugger Skylark. During this reconnaissance, key buoys, removed by the Danes, were replaced by pilots and sailing masters in the British service.

Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

Under the British plan the commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, would advance from the north with the largest British ships, thereby forestalling any relieving attack by the Swedish Fleet or a Russian squadron. Nelson would take his division into the channel outside Copenhagen Harbour, and, sailing northwards up the channel, attack the Danish warships moored along the bank, until he reached the largest ships moored by the powerful Danish fortress of Trekroner, at the entrance to Copenhagen Harbour.

Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by Adelsteen Normann

Admiral Sir Hyde Parker generously left the planning to Nelson, even offering him two more ships of the line for his squadron than Nelson had requested.

On 1 st April 1801, Nelson carried out his final reconnaissance on the frigate Amazon. The captain of Amazon, Captain Riou, impressed him most favourably and Nelson resolved to give him a leading role in the attack.

On the night of 1 st April 1801, Nelson drafted his final plans and briefed his officers, while Captain Hardy ventured right up to the Danish ships in a long boat and took soundings the pilots placing the last of the buoys.

Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by Nicholas Pocock

Nelson’s plan was simple: his ships in line ahead would sail into the inner channel, Royal Passage, each ship anchoring in its appointed place and attacking its assigned Danish rival. Captain Riou in HMS Amazon was to lead a squadron of smaller ships and attack the Trekroner Fortress, which was to be stormed by marines and soldiers at a suitable moment, after it had been reduced by bombardment.

HMS Edgar: Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by W.T. Baldwin

At 8am on 2 nd April 1801, the assault began, with His Majesty’s Ship Edgar (Captain Murray, 74 guns) leading the division from its anchorage and tacking from the Outer Deep into the Royal Passage. Immediately, disaster struck Nelson’s division as HMS Agamemnon (Captain Fancourt, 64 guns), Nelson’s old ship, unable to weather the turn into the channel, ran aground on the shoal known as the Middle Ground. Polyphemus (Captain Lawford, 64 guns), taking over Agamemnon’s lead role, made the U turn into the Royal Passage and came under heavy fire from the Danish ship Provesteen (Captain Lassen, 56 guns).

The following ships, Isis (Captain Walker, 50 guns), Glatton (Captain William Bligh, 54 guns) and Ardent (Captain Bertie, 64 guns), made the turn and, anchoring, engaged the Danish vessels they had been allocated.

Attempting to pass these ships, Bellona (Captain Thompson, 74 guns) grounded on the Middle Ground shoal, as did the following Russell (Captain Cumming, 74 guns). Stuck fast, these ships fired on the Danes as best they could, but several of the guns on Bellona burst, killing their crews, due to the age or the miscasting of the barrels, or overcharging in an effort to achieve greater range.

Nelson’s British Fleet sails up the Royal Channel to attack the Danish Fleet and the Trekroner Citadel (The three British ships aground to the right are Bellona, Russell and Agamemnon): Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by John Thomas Serres

The grounding of Agamemnon, Bellona and Russell caused the Trekroner Fortress to be left unmarked, requiring Riou to carry out the bombardment with his squadron of smaller vessels, the billowing smoke concealing his ships and protecting them initially from excessive damage.

Nelson, in Elephant (Captain Foley, 74 guns), took the anchorage allocated to Bellona, with Ganges (Captain Freemantle, 74 guns) and Monarch (Captain Moss, 74 guns) anchoring immediately in front of Elephant. With the line in place, the battle fell to a slogging gunnery match between the British ships and the Danish ships and batteries, floating and land, which lasted some two hours.

Lieutenant Willemoes of the Royal Danish Navy fights his ship Gerner Radeau during the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by Christian Mølsted

To the north, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, the British commander-in-chief, witnessed with increasing anxiety the heavy bombardment, as the large ships of the line in his squadron beat slowly down the channel, the wind fair for Nelson but contrary for them. Seeing the intensity of the battle, Parker concluded that he should give Nelson the opportunity to break off the action, and hoisted the signal to disengage, giving the battle its most famed episode.

Admiral Lord Nelson puts the telescope to his blind eye at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

Nelson’s signal officer, seeing the flagship’s message, queried whether the commander-in-chief’s signal should be repeated to the other ships, to which Nelson directed that only an acknowledgement was to be flown, while signal 16, the order for close action, be maintained.

No ship in Nelson’s division acted on Parker’s signal, except Captain Riou’s squadron, attacking the Trekroner Fortress. Riou, expecting that Nelson would call off the assault, turned his ship to begin the withdrawal. The Danes redoubled their fire, causing significant damage and casualties on Riou’s ships, with one shot cutting down a party of marines and the next killing Riou himself.

Nelson turned to Colonel Stewart, commanding the contingent of soldiers carried in the fleet, and said ‘Do you know what’s shown on board of the commander in chief? Number 39, to leave off action! Leave off action! Now damn me if I do.’ Turning next to his flag captain, Nelson said ‘You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes.’ Nelson then raised his telescope to his blind eye and said ‘I really do not see the signal.’

By 2pm on 2 nd April 1801, much of the Danish line ceased firing, with ships adrift and on fire, several having surrendered, their captains now on board Elephant.

Captain Thesiger Royal Navy goes ashore with Nelson’s letter to the Danish Crown Prince Frederick at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by C.A. Lorentzen

Captain Thesiger, a British officer with extensive experience of the Baltic Sea from service in the Russian navy, went ashore with correspondence from Nelson to the Danish Crown Prince, inviting an armistice. During the negotiations, only the batteries on Amag Island, at the southern end of the Danish line, the Trekoner Fortress and a few ships continued to fire.

A senior Danish officer, Adjutant General Lindholm, went on board Elephant to negotiate, directing the Trekoner Fortress to stop firing on his way. The British ships also ceased fire and the battle effectively ended.

Danish floating battery and ship of the line under fire at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

Defiance (Rear Admiral Graves’ Flagship: Captain Retalick, 74 guns) and Elephant went aground and the Danish Flagship, Dannebroge (Captains Fischer and Braun, 80 guns), grounded and blew up, with substantial casualties.

The next morning, 3 rd April 1801, Nelson went aboard the Danish ship Syaelland, anchored under the guns of the Trekoner Fortress, and took the surrender of her captain Stein Bille, who refused to strike to any officer other than Nelson himself.

British destroying Danish ships under repair after the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

British gunboats took the Danish vessel in tow to add to the clutch of Danish ships that had been taken in the battle. 19 Danish vessels were sunk, burnt or captured.

Just before the Battle of Copenhagen, on 24 th March 1801, the Tsar of Russia, Paul I, was murdered by members of the St Petersburg court, and replaced by his anti-French son, Alexander I. The effect of the Battle of Copenhagen and the Tsar’s murder was to bring about the collapse of the Northern Confederation.

Casualties at the Battle of Copenhagen:
British casualties were 253 men killed and 688 men wounded. No British ship was lost. The Danes lost 790 men killed, 900 men wounded and 2,000 made prisoner.

Destruction of the Danish Fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by Thomas Whitcombe

Admiral Nelson writing the letter to the Danish Crown Prince at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by Thomas Davidson

Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Copenhagen:

The letter Admiral Lord Nelson sent to the Crown Prince of Denmark at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

  • The letter Nelson sent to the Crown Prince by Captain Thesiger stated: Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when no longer resisting but if the firing is continued on the part of Denmark Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire all the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of sparing the Brave Danes who have defended them. Dated on board his Britannick Majesty’s ship Elephant Copenhagen Roads April 2 nd 1801 Nelson &BrontéVice Admiral under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. (Nelson’s signature referred to the title of Duke of Bronté (Duca di Bronté), conferred on him by the King of Sicily after the Battle of the Nile).
  • Nelson considered the Battle of Copenhagen to be his hardest fought fleet action. Although hampered by many of their ships being unprepared for service, the Danes fought fiercely and, at times, with desperation in defence of their capital city, relays of army and civilian reinforcements replacing the losses in the batteries.
  • The battle sealed Nelson’s reputation as Britain’s foremost naval leader. Soon afterwards, Sir Hyde Parker was recalled and Nelson left in command of the operations in the Baltic.
  • The incident with the signal became an important part of the Nelson legend.
  • The attack on Copenhagen, considered essential by the British to prevent the Danish Fleet from acting in the French interests, caused great resentment against Britain in Denmark. On Nelson’s return to England and appearance at court, King George III did not mention the battle.

Captain Bligh being cast adrift after the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789: Bligh commanded HMS Gratton at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

Dinner in the wardroom of HMS Elephant the night before the Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars: picture by Thomas Davidson

Naval General Service medal 1793-1840 with Copenhagen clasp and badge of the 95th Rifles: Battle of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801 in the Napoleonic Wars

References for the Battle of Copenhagen:

Life of Nelson by Robert Southey

British Battles on Land and Sea edited by Sir Evelyn Wood

The previous battle of the Napoleonic Wars is the Battle of Alexandria

The next battle of the Napoleonic Wars is the Battle of Trafalgar


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By the time the news of Nelson's great victory at the Nile had reached England, his reputation as a strategist had already been made. An even greater triumph would follow at Trafalgar whilst in between was another, somewhat overshadowed, victory know to history as the battle of Copenhagen.

With Nelson as second-in-command to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, a fleet was sent to the Baltic early in 1801 following Denmark's decision to join the 'Armed Neutrality' against British interests. Parker's orders were to capture or destroy the Danish fleet lying off Copenhagen and he conveyed his outline strategy to Nelson well in advance. Nelson, however, had his own more radical ideas for the assault and, on the evening of 1 s t April 1801, entertained his officers to discuss the plan he had formulated with his flag-captain Thomas Foley. Nelson had christened Foley and those other veterans of the Nile his 'Band of Brothers' and their personal loyalty to him was unflinching. Together they agreed what had to be done to secure victory and battle was joined the next morning shortly before 10 o'clock.

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This naval battle was oneof a series that was fought during the wars against France between 1793 and 1805, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar. Britain did not have a presence in the Baltic Sea under normal circumstances but in 1800, Czar Paul resurrected the League of Armed Neutrality. This comprised Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Prussia joining against Britain because of her "stop and search" tactics, intended to prevent trade with France. Czar Paul detained British merchant ships in Russian ports the British decided that an attack on Denmark would break up the League. Denmark was closer to Britain and therefore the most vulnerable to attack. It was decided that a fleet should sail for the Baltic under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Lord Nelson as second-in-command.

The expedition sailed from Yarmouth on 12 March, having embarked the 49th Regiment, two companies of riflemen and a detachment of artillery under Colonel Stewart. The Hon Nicholas Vansittart went ahead of the fleet in an attempt to persuade the Danes to adopt a friendlier policy towards Britain. The fleet approached the Cattegat dropping anchor to see what diplomacy could achieve. It is possible that the Danes would have seen reason if the envoy had appeared with the fleet behind him. Instead, the fleet was out of sight. If Copenhagen was to be attacked the approach could be made in more than one way. A Council of War was held which Nelson ended by saying 'I don't care a damn which passage we go, so that we fight them.' He was anxious to end the affair before the Russians could arrive. At a further Council of War on the 31 March he offered to annihilate the Danes with ten sail of the line. After some further hesitation Sir Hyde accepted Nelson's offer but gave him two 50-gun ships as well together with some frigates and other vessels, including bomb ketches and fireships, numbering twenty-four vessels in all. Sir Hyde Parker retained eight ships as a reserve, apparently to guard against the possible appearance of the Russians or Swedes.

The harbour, arsenal and docks of Copenhagen lay in the city of Copenhagen itself, the entrance being guarded by the formidable Trekroner Battery. There were other batteries lining the shore to the southward and the Danish fleet was drawn up in shoal water covering the city front. It comprised a number of two-decked men-of-war interspersed with rafts and other improvised batteries. While they remained intact the bomb-vessels were effectively kept out of range. As at the Nile, Nelson was faced with an enemy fleet at anchor but this time he was outnumbered. Also, the Danes would stand their ground they could be reinforced from the shore, more men rowing off to replace the casualties. However, the enemy fleet was at anchor, which made it possible for the attacking fleet to concentrate on a part of the enemy's line, leaving some of his ships without an opponent. Nelson decided to sail past Copenhagen by the Holland Deep and then attack from the south, engaging the weaker end of the Danish line. His squadron was in position by 1 April and the battle took place on the following day. Ironically, Tsar Paul had been assassinated on 25 March his successor Alexander I adopted a different foreign policy and the Northern Alliance began to disintegrate before the battle took place.

On 2 April the British squadron moved into the attack. There was immediate disaster, the Bellona and Russell running aground and the Agamemnon failing to gain her proper position in the line. Nelson took the remaining ships into battle and was soon engaged with the Danish ships and floating batteries. After three hours of cannonade on either side the battle was still undecided. Seeing this and finding that ships he sent to reinforce Nelson were making slow progress against the wind, Sir Hyde Parker signalled "discontinue the action" to the fleet as a whole. Each ship was obliged to obey the signal without waiting for the signal to be repeated from Nelson's flagship, the Elephant. For the ships to have obeyed the signal would have been virtual suicide: placed opposite their opponents, they could not withdraw until the enemy's fire had been silenced. Withdrawal would have meant ceasing fire and sending the men to make sail, presenting each ship's stern to the enemy's guns and to a raking fire which would have redoubled when the Danes saw the British retreat. It would have involved appalling casualties and damage and would have allowed the Danes to claim a victory. It would have destroyed British prestige in northern Europe. It is said that at this point of the battle, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye, saying 'I really do not see the signal!' He kept his own signal flying for closer action and the ships of the line all obeyed him and ignored the Commander-in-Chief. It was 12.30 p.m. when Nelson decided to ignore the signal, and the cannonade continued for another hour or so. By then it was apparent that the British had won the battle as more and more of the Danish ships ceased fire or surrendered. By about 2 pm, the bombardment slackened and Nelson sent in a flag of truce, suggesting that hostilities should cease. In no other way could be save the lives of many Danes on board the floating batteries. Firing died away and at 3.15 pm, Nelson's flagship hoisted a flag of truce. The battle was over.

There is no known account of how Sir Hyde Parker received Lord Nelson after the battle. He could have demanded a court-martial on Nelson for having disobeyed an order. Parker may have been aware that his own contribution to the victory had been negative and potentially disastrous. His authority, such as it was, was weakened from the moment he began to lead from the rear. However, the example made of the Danes, who had suffered very heavy casualties, was not lost on other potential antagonists.

Negotiations proceeded at Copenhagen and the truce turned into an armistice. News of the Tsar's death was officially confirmed and it was rumoured that the new Tsar would be willing to release all British ships that had been detained. Soon afterwards orders arrived from the Board of Admiralty ordering Sir Hyde Parker to hand over his command to Lord Nelson and return to England. Once ashore, he was to stay there. Sir Hyde Parker was never employed again. Nelson was now Commander-in-Chief in the Baltic. Once contact had been made with Alexander I, Nelson was assured that the embargo on British merchantmen would be lifted and that friendly relations would be resumed between Russia and Britain.

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The battle

A disagreement between Parker and Nelson saw Nelson's proposal for a pre-emptive show of force overruled and the demands made by a single frigate. The Danish-Norwegians refused to negotiate. The Danish-Norwegians had prepared for the attack and placed a line of defensive blocking ships along the western side of the harbour.

The Copenhagen roads were both treacherous and well-defended. With 12 ships with the shallowest draft, Nelson picked a way through the shoals and commenced action the morning immediately after negotiations had broken down.

For over four hours, the battle was a close run affair with 4 British vessels (Elephant, Defiance, Russel and Bellona) stuck on sandbars. At one point three hours into the battle, Parker signalled to Nelson to disengage, but Nelson was determined to win and ignored the signal. It was on this occasion that Nelson is said to have put his telescope to his blind eye, and maintained he could not read the signal.

Eventually, following extensive shelling of the harbour and nearby buildings, Nelson offered surrender terms to which the Danish-Norwegians agreed. British casualties were about 350 killed, 850 wounded.

Battle of Copenhagen 1801: Danish Medals

Bataillen d.2 April 1801, paa Kiobenhavns Reed [Battle of 2nd April 1801 in Copenhagen Roads]. © National Maritime Museum Collections (PAH7975).

On 31 July 1801, The King of Denmark, Christian 7th, approved a proposal from the Danish Admiralty for the issue of a decoration to be awarded to deserving participants in the Battle [3] . The Admiralty’s recommendations stipulated that all officers who had been present at the battle – and for whom no criticism of conduct was received, would be awarded a gold medal. Furthermore, a silver medal was to be awarded to only those who had particularly distinguished themselves, these being other-ranks and volunteers. In addition the silver medal recipients would receive an annual pension of 15 Rigsdaler. The award criteria were not particularly democratic by today’s standards, but even within the officer’s ranks the awards were selective. Only regular officers were awarded a medal with “Right to Wear”, the reserve officers were not given that privilege. The medals were awarded at a ceremony, on the anniversary of the battle in April 1802.

This example awarded to a volunteer (No Right to Wear):
(Touch image to toggle obverse/reverse)

1800), Capt. Lorenz Fjelderup Lassen (1756-1839) of Prøvesteen, the southern most vessel of the Danish defense line, first ship in action. The gold medal has been added to the painting at a later date, which was a common practice for the period. Fredriksborgmuseet, Denmark.

The gold medal with suspension (Right to Wear) to Lieut. Hoppe who was part of the regular Danish Navy. Image courtesy of Spink, London.

This silver medal with suspension (Right to Wear) was issued to the Norwegian Able Seaman, Dan Andersen. The medal is impressed: (MATR: DAN: ANDERSEN AF CHRISTIANS: DIST: N-82). Image courtesy of Morton & Eden, London.

Over the years, there seems to have been some confusion about the number of medals issued. This has been researched and corrected by Lars Stevnsborg, a Danish authority on the subject. The final distribution of medals is summarized in the table below (

anno 1828), with permission from reference [3] . Between 1802-1828, several medals were forfeited and reissued to deserving candidates who would have been overlooked, likewise several medals were downgraded from “Right to Wear” to “No Right to Wear”. One Naval Cadet (Midshipman), who did not pass his examination for Lieutenant, had the misfortune of seeing his gold medal with “Right to Wear” removed of suspension and ribbon. Other examples are late claims, and a case of a reserve officer, who had not returned from a journey to the West Indies, his gold medal was converted to a “Right to Wear” medal and reissued as a replacement to a naval officer who’s medal was stolen.

Navy Army Other Total Righ to wear
Officers 52 27 - 79 Yes
Reserve Officers340-34No
NCO and Ratings7536-111Yes

The losses on both sides were heavy, the Danes lost 367 killed and 635 wounded, out of which

100 died of their wounds. The British lost 254 killed and 689 wounded. In a future blog, I will write about the British medal (the NGS medal with clasp Copenhagen 1801 ) issued for the battle.

The Battle of Copenhagen

Richard Cavendish marks the anniversary of an important Scandinavian battle, which took place on April 2nd, 1801.

The most famous act of insubordination in the annals of the Royal Navy occurred when Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, second-in-command of the British fleet at Copenhagen in the 74-gun battleship Elephant, put his spyglass to his blind eye and said to Elephant’s captain, the future Admiral Sir Thomas Foley, ‘I really do not see the signal.’ The signal was from his commanding admiral, Sir Hyde Parker, ordering him to disengage and Nelson, who thought Parker out of touch, had no intention whatever of obeying it.

Britain and Denmark were not formally at war, but the British fleet had sailed to deter the Danes and Swedes from allying themselves with the French. The ships reached the northern point of Jutland in whirling snow on March 18th and moved on down the Kattegat. Several days passed while an ultimatum was sent to Copenhagen and rejected. Then Nelson’s bold plan of attack was accepted and with a fair wind on the 30th the whole fleet of fifty-two ships, their towering white sails gleaming in the sun, passed through the narrow gap between Sweden and Denmark, to a harmless cannonade from batteries at Elsinore on the Danish bank. They anchored some five miles from Copenhagen and Parker, Nelson and other senior officers took a schooner to survey the city’s defences. The harbour was protected by shoals, by seventy or more heavy guns in the Trekroner fort and by the cannon of nineteen dismasted warships moored in a line a mile-and-a-half long. Nelson decided to attack from the weakest, south-eastern end of the Danish defences and spent hours in small boats planning exactly how buoys should be placed to guide his squadron through a narrow and dificult channel for the attack. After a conference in Parker’s flagship, the London, on the 31st, the buoying work was completed and on April 1st Nelson in infectiously high spirits entertained his captains to dinner in Elephant.

Next morning the wind was fair, but several ships’ pilots – ‘with no other thought than to keep the ship clear of danger and their own silly heads clear of shot’, Nelson commented – flatly refused to lead the way along the channel because it was too dangerous. Eventually a veteran of the Nile, the master of the Bellona, volunteered for the task and at 9.30 the squadron set off – twelve ships of the line plus frigates and bomb-ketches. They were roughly handled by the Danish guns and three grounded on the shoals, but after a masterly display of cool seamanship the rest anchored in line and brought their broadsides to bear. They blazed away at the moored Danish ships with clinical precision, each firing a broadside every forty seconds at a range of 200 yards. The Danes replied with vigour and tenacity. Smoke billowed round the two lines of ships while the guns thundered and crowds of Copenhagen citizens watched from rooftops and church towers

About 1.30 in the afternoon, when a cannon ball struck splinters off Elephant’s mainmast, Nelson remarked that it was warm work, but he would not be elsewhere for thousands of pounds. It was at this point that he declined to see Parker’s signal, saying, ‘You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes’, and archly putting his glass up to his right eye. Parker, in fact, had expected Nelson to ignore the order if he judged it right to continue the action.

By about 3pm the Danes were almost overwhelmed. The carnage in their ships was dreadful, with many of them on fire, and the Danish flagship blew up. Some struck their colours and the arrival on the scene of the two leading ships of Parker’s division caused more to surrender. Nelson offered a truce, which the Danish commander accepted, and the action was over by 4pm. The British losses in killed and wounded were about 1,000 and the Danish casualties were thought to be twice as heavy. Next day, which was Good Friday, Nelson went ashore to be received at a state dinner by Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark. There was some apprehension about how the people of Copenhagen would treat him, but he was greeted with what one of his party described as ‘an admixture of admiration, curiosity and displeasure’. At the dinner he told his hosts that the French would not have lasted for one hour at the most, where the Danes had resisted bravely for four. He made an excellent impression and an armistice was signed on the 9th.

Copenhagen, battle of

Copenhagen, battle of, 1801. This encounter with the Danish fleet was fought on 2 April in the narrow 3-mile-long King's Channel, of varying depth, which bounded the eastern defences of the Danish capital. These consisted of the formidable Trekronor fort, flanked to the north by 5 moored warships and to the south by a redoubtable line of 7 unmasted warships and 10 floating batteries, all moored, heavily gunned and manned. The British under Sir Hyde Parker with Nelson as his second had 15 ships supported by a variety of assault craft and 600 soldiers. Following a daring navigation aided by a southerly wind the British attacked in line and broke the Danish defence, Danes and British each sustaining over 1,000 men killed. Nelson ‘turned his blind eye’ to Parker's premature signal to withdraw. The victory was as much a blow at Russia, leading the offensive ‘Northern League’, Nelson showing all his chivalry in subsequent armistice negotiations with the Danes.

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