An Interview with Horatio Hornblower
by Dunnage41


On the bicentennial of the birth of Admiral of the Fleet Horatio, Lord Hornblower, KB, on 4 July 1776, our Pamela Martin enjoyed a stroll round the grounds of Smallbridge, Kent, with the current Viscount Richard, 8th Baron Hornblower, the legendary admiralÕs fifth-great-grandson, who inherited the title on the death of his father, the Viscount Horatio, 7th Baron Hornblower, in 1970.


PM: Were you told about your familyÕs history as a child?

LH: Oh yes, certainly. My family have developed the knack of making sure we know who we are, and whose we are, without beating it into the ground, becoming obsessed with it to the exclusion of other interests. But certainly, yes, I was taught fairly early on that my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was the Horatio Hornblower.

PM: Hero of Rosas, hero of Riga, hero of the hurricane.

LH: Right, the hurricane. (Laughs.) A hurricane in the tropics in June is not unheard of, but it is unusual. I remember getting quite a start when I came across a reference to it in my geography as ŅHornblowerÕs Hurricane.Ó

PM: What was the first time you realized how outstanding a figure your ancestor was?

LH: Um. It actually was not here in Kent but in London. I was quite young, five or six, and had been taken to the city for the day, for an outing and to see a Christmas pantomime. We were crossing Riga Square and my nurse pointed at the column Š HornblowerÕs Column, you know Š and said, ŅthatÕs your family. He was your fifth-great-grandfather.Ó I got saucer-eyed and asked, ŅWas he a hero?Ó To my young mind, heroes were figures in adventure books, knights in armour and dragon-slayers and so forth. And my nurse said simply, ŅYes. He was. The world would have been NapoleonÕs if it hadnÕt been for him.Ó Slight exaggeration.

PM: Not much of one!

LH: You know, itÕs not a real surprise that I have an interest in military history and particularly naval history. (Laughs.) IÕve read four or five accounts of what happened on the Russian and Swedish fronts that winter of 1812. And everything that IÕve read does mark it as decisive that Bonaparte was turned back, that he started to retreat in November, and that he sort of stumbled back across that huge swath of land in the teeth of the Northern winter, losing his momentum as well as his men.

But it was the first account that I read, when I was a schoolboy, that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It told of the period just before, when Sweden was hovering on deciding which way to jump. And the book recounted how Š he was Commodore Hornblower then Š how his capture of a French privateer and his persuasion of Sweden turned the tide. So to speak. And you know, in spite of my nurse calling him a hero when I was so young, maybe thatÕs when it really sank in. Reading in a book, written by someone not at all connected to my family, that if it hadnÕt been for Hornblower, things might have come out very differently.

PM: What stories were you told of him as a child?

LH: You know, my family sort of used him as a storehouse for morality teachings, little lessons to suit the occasion. I think he was a sort of unreal figure to me in my childhood the way Father Christmas is, because he was always being spoken of in the context of teaching me things.

PM: For example...

LH: Once in school, I became horribly motion sick on a field trip. I was mortified, and of course all my schoolmates made sport of me. But my father came up to see me that evening and told me not to mind, that Hornblower had been terribly seasick as a brand-new midshipman.

PM: Hornblower, seasick? Not really?

LH: Really. I think perhaps it never entirely left him.

PM: What other examples were you told?

LH: Well, to persevere in spite of circumstances, and IÕd be told how Hornblower was in charge of Lord NelsonÕs funeral barge and it nearly sank but he had to keep the procession going. Or to always do whatÕs right, and IÕd be told how Hornblower risked his life saving Spanish sailors while imprisoned, then demanded to be returned to imprisonment because heÕd given his word to his jailer. Or if I needed urging to be brave, IÕd be told how a sputtering French shell landed on the deck of his ship and he dived for it and put it out with his bare hands. Well Š gloved hands, really. But I think a lot of who he was never got told.

PM: Oh Š are there some secrets to uncover?

LH: No, not secrets. Only that he was always a rather reserved person. Even in his letters to Lady Barbara Wellesley, his wife, you could tell how much he loved her, but you could also sort of tell that there were parts of his life and the business of doing his duty that he never told anyone. That he thought he should just bear by himself, or that maybe he thought a woman didnÕt need to hear. He had a chivalry about him that was very upright and formal.

PM: ItÕs true, a lot of nobles have sort of taken a sort of droit de seigneur with women, but Hornblower men have a reputation for being very steadfast and protective of women. I know that you courted your wife for nearly five years.

LH: That wasnÕt steadfastness. (Laughs.) That was Caroline showing uncommon good sense.

PM: Lady Barbara Wellesley was his second wife, correct? Little is known about his first marriage. Why is that?

LH: I donÕt think anyoneÕs trying to hide anything, only that it occurred when he was still pretty young. I mean, he had been married at 28 or so and widowed by 35 and was at sea most of the time because that was still in the thick of the Napoleonic Wars. LetÕs see. His first wife was named ... Maria, I believe, Maria Mason. She bore him three children, but two died in infancy. She actually died in childbirth of their third child, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Richard, who was born in 1811, while Hornblower was escaping from French custody after Rosas Bay.

PM: But wasnÕt there some ... scandal about his marriage to Lady Barbara?

LH: Well ... the timing was considered a bit abrupt in those days. Maybe not so much today.

PM: How did they meet?

LH: They actually met while Hornblower was still married to his first wife. The story has it that she had been traveling when yellow fever broke out and she wanted to get out of ... Panama, maybe, or somewhere in South America. At any rate, she took passage on his ship. But once they returned to England, they went their separate ways. He went off in the Sutherland, to the Battle of Rosas, actually, and she married someone else.

PM: Another naval captain.

LH: Yes, thatÕs right. I think he was also in the Battle of Rosas, but IÕve no idea if he and Hornblower knew each other. He was killed in that battle, though, and HornblowerÕs wife died while he was a fugitive. He captured a British ship back from the French, faced a court-martial for Rosas Bay...

PM: A lot of people forget that.

LH: Yes, thatÕs right. Historians get in a muddle about whether it was HornblowerÕs own decision to take on four French ships of the line or if he was following orders, but in spite of his heroics in escaping French custody and taking a British ship, once he rejoined the Channel fleet, he had to face a court-martial for having hauled down his colours in the Sutherland. He was Ņmost honorably acquitted,Ó and meanwhile, I suppose since she was acquainted with Hornblower, Lady Barbara had taken the baby, Richard, into her care. In those days there were no social agencies per se and no process for dealing with orphans. If a noblewoman wanted to care for this orphan, and there was no family member to step up, then more power to her. So she was there caring for Richard, and when Hornblower was finished with the court martial, and was presented to the King and knighted, he went to see Lady Barbara, to meet his son for the first time. That would have been in the spring of 1811. But they had both been rather recently widowed. They had to wait until at least a year had passed since Lady BarbaraÕs husbandÕs death and HornblowerÕs wifeÕs death. And so they were married in early spring of 1812, and thatÕs when they moved here.

PM: Why here? I mean why Kent?

LH: Lady Barbara was living in London, but IÕm sure the townhouse was the property of her husband. I expect Hornblower wanted a place that was his. And he was originally from Kent. His father had been a country doctor in the village of Worth. Naturally enough, he didnÕt want to live too far from either London or the sea. From what I can tell of the family papers, this place became available at a good price, and it suited him. He wanted a good-size house without too much fuss in its architecture and enough land to please his wife, who was accustomed to having space for gardens and riding and so on.

PM: So they never had any children together.

LH: ThatÕs right. Technically weÕre not blood descendants of the Wellesleys, but we certainly claim that side by marriage.

PM: Though you look more like the Hornblowers.

LH: Nose and all. (Laughs.) ItÕs true, we all do look quite like the portrait.

PM: Which still hangs here in Smallbridge. So many families are having to sell their great old estates or open them to the public round the clock and live in just a small corner of them. How is it that Smallbridge is able to remain a private residence?

LH: A couple of ways. One is the Hornblower Naval History Library and Museum, which we maintain here. ItÕs in part of one wing of Smallbridge. The library is open by appointment to students and historians, and the museum is open to the public for a fee. ItÕs not all of Smallbridge, itÕs one wing of it, but I think people with an interest in that part of history want to see it, to sort of get a sense of Hornblower. WeÕve got a couple of his uniforms, and his sword, and a log book and replicas of his ships and so on, things that give a hint of what it might have been like in those days.

PM: And the home itself?

LH: WeÕre open to the public for a fortnight each in December and Easter. Except for some strictly private family apartments, you can look through more of Smallbridge than is usually open, the house and grounds.

PM: And thereÕs the Smallbridge Horse Show.

LH: Yes, for three days each June. The house and grounds are open for that as well. Another way is that Hornblower, at least in the latter part of his career, was well rewarded for his efforts and invested his funds very wisely.

PM: The latter part?

LH: In his early career, basic Navy pay was all he had, and that wasnÕt a lot for junior officers. There are some hints that there were points in his career when he had to live in garrets and pawn his belongings a time or two before he started getting senior enough to get decent prize money and salary.

PM: We sometimes ask someone weÕre interviewing for their least favourite story Š but Hornblower is one of the very few figures in English history with really no scandal attached to him. Were you ever told of any skeletons?

LH: Not skeletons exactly, but you know, toward the end of his life, after much persuasion from his wife, Hornblower did write a sort of truncated version of his memoirs. It was only ever bound and circulated within the family, partly because, frankly, he wrote mostly reports to his superiors and thatÕs about what the thing reads like. But itÕs interesting, in most of the ships he served in he devotes some detail to his service. But thereÕs one ship, the Renown, that he served in as a junior lieutenant, and the account of his time there is very very brief. (Reading from paper.) ŅJoined Renown, Captain Sawyer, from Indefatigable, Captain Pellew. First Lieutenant Buckland, made Acting Captain after Captain Sawyer incapacitated in fall. Captain Sawyer was killed in action when Spaniards boarded ship in Samana Bay in battle which also wounded 2nd Lieutenant Bush and mortally wounded 4th Lieutenant Kennedy, both valiant officers.Ó ThatÕs all he has to say about Renown, which is virtually nothing. After that the next item reads, ŅJoined Retribution, formerly Gaditana, as commander.Ó And then he goes on from there.

PM: Interesting that he mentions the lieutenants.

LH: Well, we do know that heÕd served with Kennedy aboard both Justinian and Indefatigable, so we know that heÕd known him for quite some time. I expect they were named here because it meant that the captain and two of the four lieutenants were either wounded or killed in this particular battle.

PM: But you know, I donÕt really see a scandal.

LH: You sound disappointed. (Laughs.) I suppose there isnÕt one, really, only that in all his writings, his time on the Renown gets so very little mention. One always wonders. And again, he was so reserved, or could be so reserved, that one almost suspects something that he didnÕt tell.

PM: WhatÕs your favourite story about your famous and heroic ancestor?

LH: You know, itÕs actually one from later in his career, when he was a rear admiral and the wars were over and he was serving as Commander in Chief in Jamaica. We know about this only because he wrote it up in his memoirs. IÕve never read anything about this in the history books, so thereÕs no knowing whether it actually happened. Only itÕs so very un-self-serving that it seems to me most unlikely that he would have invented it.

PM: Sounds fascinating. What was it?

LH: Some five or six years after Waterloo, apparently, there were efforts by some of BonaparteÕs Old Guard to liberate him from Elba and storm the coast of France, to whip up a new conquering army. Hornblower wrote that they figured out the plot very nearly too late and had to chase the ship well into open waters from the Port of New Orleans, where theyÕd been, and that when they finally caught up, he told a lie.

PM: He lied?

LH: Not just that Š he pledged his word as a gentleman of honour. That was back when it meant a good deal to do that, it was considered as binding as a proper contract. ItÕs my favourite story because in his papers itÕs one of the very few times he gives a glimpse into how complicated and difficult some of his decisions must have been.

PM: What was the lie he told?

LH: He caught up with the Frenchman in charge, and told him that heÕd been informed of the death of Napoleon.

PM: But you said five or six years after Waterloo Š by then Napoleon had died.

LH: Apparently, heÕd literally just died but the news hadnÕt caught up to Hornblower yet, so Hornblower pledged his solemn word believing it was a lie. ThereÕs an entry here that gives a hint of what he must be going through. (Reading from paper.) ŅSucceeded in stopping Cambronne and troopsÕ plans. I chose to pledge my word of honour as a gentleman on a known untruth to do so. I could see no other way to persuade Cambronne. To-morrow I shall return to station and submit my resignation. Another commander-in-chief will be appointed, and my flag will be hauled down. I must see that this is done promptly, as I ought to give no further orders to gentlemen.Ó

PM: Sounds as if that hit him really hard.

LH: Yes, exactly. Four times in three sentences he frames what he sees as the end of his career.

PM: And an ignominious end at that.

LH: Yes, very much so. But Š apparently when he called on the governor, he was told that Bonaparte was dead, that heÕd died several days previously. That meant that what heÕd told the Frenchman ... um, Cambronne ... was true. And itÕs interesting. In those few sentences I read out, you can almost feel the agony, the wrench, of what he believed that he absolutely had to do. I think he felt he was sacrificing his honour, his good name, his familyÕs reputation, for the good of world peace. HeÕd weighed them in the balance and decided that the latter was more important.

PM: What, then, is his next entry? Does he say anything about learning about BonaparteÕs death?

LH: Only from a military standpoint. Not a word about the relief he must have been feeling at knowing that as far as history was concerned he hadnÕt broken his word of honour. (Reading from paper.) ŅThe governor has informed me of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. As overbearing and heartless as his actions were, I must acknowledge the worthiness of him as a military adversary, even as I thank God for the sake of the world that he will plunder no more.Ó And then he goes on to other matters.

PM: But nothing about being vindicated.

LH: Not a word. Just, you know, on to the next thing at hand.

PM: Fascinating. Lord Hornblower then, from Lord Hornblower now. Thank you very much.

LH: Thank you.