Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson is arguably the most celebrated and recognized member of The Order of Saint Joachim.
On the 14th of September, 1801, the General Chapter of The Order of Saint Joachim unanimously voted to confer on Lord Nelson the rank and title of Knight Grand Commander of the Order of Saint Joachim in recognition of his victory over Napoleon’s troops at the Battle of the Nile. He was informed of the award by letter dated the 29th of September, 1801, which was his birthday.
Copies of Nelson’s own correspondence with The Order of Saint Joachim were reproduced in “The Memoirs of The Life of Vice-Admiral Viscount Nelson” by Thomas Pettigrew (London: 1849). The letters to Nelson from Henry Addington, King George’s First Lord of the Treasury, stated that King George III was personally consulted about Nelson accepting the Grand Cross of The Order of Saint Joachim, and gave his “gracious and entire acquiescence.” Pettigrew also reproduces Nelson’s own letters to the Order of Saint Joachim, conveying his deep gratitude on February 22, 1802:
“I have, now, therefore, only to assure the Noble Order, that I am deeply impressed with the great honour conferred upon me, and that it shall be the study of my life to endeavour, by future actions, to merit the continuance of their good opinion.”
Nelson wrote to the Grand Master expressing his pleasure at being admitted to The Order of Saint Joachim:
“I have deferred replying to the polite letter of April 3rd, which your Highness [Grand Master Count Ferdinand Karl III of Leiningen-Westerburg] did me the honour of writing, until I received the Insignia of the Order, which I did on the 5th of June, and which I have now the honour of wearing. I can only say, that I will endeavour by my future conduct to merit the esteem of your Highness, and to do no discredit to the illustrious Order, which I have now the honour of belonging to.” (Letter of June 9, 1802)
The Order of Saint Joachim wanted to recognize Nelson as a particularly effective foe of Napoleon as the sovereign Count of Leiningen, the then Grand Master of the Order, had personally suffered at the hands of France. His father, Graf Karl II Gustav Reinhard Waldemar, the fourth Grand Master of the Order, had seen his lands confiscated by invading French armies in 1793 during its war on the German states. Graf Karl II taken prisoner by the French in 1793 and died in captivity in St. Germain in 1798. His son, Count Ferdinand Karl III, became the next ruler of Leiningen and the Order’s fifth Grand Master. The award to Nelson can be seen as a mark of personal appreciation by Graf Ferdinand Karl III for the defeats he handed a common and very personal foe.
Lord Nelson was proposed for the Cross of a Knight Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim by our Vice Grand Chancellor, Sir Levett Hanson (1754-1814), who was a schoolfellow of Nelson at Paston Grammar School, North Walsham. Hanson himself was a colourful character. He travelled extensively on the continent, attended at foreign courts, and held important positions in the various orders of knighthood which flourished on the continent at that time. In 1800 he was Vice Grand Chancellor of The Order of Saint Joachim. Hanson’s book, published in 1802, An Accurate Historical Account of all the Orders of Knighthood at present existing in Europe, was dedicated to Lord Nelson.
The King’s warrant permitting Lord Nelson to accept and wear the insignia of The Order of Saint Joachim is dated 15th July, 1802, and is registered in the English College of Arms. Under the British system of recognition of foreign orders, without the English College of Arms’ approval, as a serving officer Nelson would not have been able to accept and wear the insignia of The Order of Saint Joachim.
Relatively few contemporary portraits depict Nelson wearing the breast star of the Order of Saint Joachim, as he spent considerable time at sea between its award and his death at Trafalgar in 1805, however after its award Nelson hastened to commission an update to his coat of arms registered with the English College of Arms. The below example was produced for him in 1804 by George Naylor, Herald of the Order of the Bath, English College of Arms. His Order of Saint Joachim is pendant on the right from a green ribbon. Nelson also commissioned a set of silver and dinnerware with his new arms, although it is doubtful he lived long enough to use them.
Nelson’s original insignia of a Knight Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim were stolen together with most of his other medals and decorations from the Painted Hall in Greenwich Hospital in 1900, and have never been recovered. Fortunately they were photographed shortly before they were stolen.
The cross below (top left corner) is Nelson’s Grand Cross of the Order, worn suspended from a broad dark green silk cordon or sash. This is the actual Grand Cross presented to Nelson by Grand Chapter in 1802. The white Maltese cross is suspended from a knightly helm device with a green cross in the centre. This is actually the reverse of the cross, which was apparently removed and reattached backwards by someone in error. The breast cross (top right) in silver with enamelled centre is the insignia worn by Knights Commander and Knights Grand Cross of the Order.
Some examples of Nelson’s original insignia survive. Below is his famous “Trafalgar Coat”, which he was wearing when mortally wounded on the deck of the Victory at Trafalgar, on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Nelson had commissioned several wire embroidered or “tinsel” versions of the breast cross for daily wear. In addition to the one on the Trafalgar Coat, the National Maritime Museum has several original loose examples in its collection.
Lord Nelson proudly wore the embroidered version of the eight-pointed star of a Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim on his Admiral’s jacket from the time the British Crown approved its wear in 1802 until his death three years later. The uniform jacket he was wearing at Trafalgar has been preserved and is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, with the embroidered version of his Cross of a Knight Grand Commander on the left breast.
The insignia of The Order of Saint Joachim can also be seen on Nelson’s funeral hatchment, displayed at his parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Merton, near the end of the north aisle. A funeral hatchment is a black-bordered diamond-shaped panel bearing the arms or commemorating the significant achievements of a person who has recently died. They were generally displayed in the deceased’s church or at the entrance to their home on the front of the Manor House during the mourning period. The bottom right corner the hatchment displays Nelson’s breast cross of The Order of Saint Joachim suspended from a green ribbon.
In the famous painting The Death of Nelson by Benjamin West, Nelson lays mortally wounded on the deck of the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Under his left elbow and below his other orders is shown the Cross of a Knight Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim.
Lord Nelson’s status a Knight Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim is mentioned in many contemporary tributes, including being depicted on his casket and inscribed with his other honours.
The Order of Saint Joachim continues to honour Nelson with Commanderies holding annual traditional Trafalgar Night dinners, visits to significant locations in his career and life, and even private visits to his flagship, HMS Victory, still a serving ship of the line, in Portsmouth.