Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson is arguably the most celebrated and recognized member of The Order of Saint Joachim. The portrait at the right depicts Nelson wearing his four orders of knighthood, with the breast cross of The Order of Saint Joachim beneath his other orders.
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 book, "The Memoirs of The Life of Vice-Admiral Viscount Nelson" by Thomas Pettigrew (London: 1849). Reproduced are letters to Nelson from Henry Addington, King George's First Lord of the Treasury, stating that His Majesty 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's own words belie the comment of some critics and later biographers, that he did not hold his admission to The Order of Saint Joachim in high regard:
"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 Napoleon. His father, Graf Karl II Gustav Reinhard Waldemar, the fourth Grand Master of the Order, had seen his lands confiscated by Napoleon in 1793 during his 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. This point was not lost on Nelson, who mentioned it in his correspondence with The Order.
Lord Nelson was proposed for the Cross of a Knight Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim by Sir Levett Hanson (1754-1814), who was a schoolfellow of Nelson's at North Walsham Academy. 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 Knight Vice-Chancellor of The Order of St. Joachim. Hanson published a volume in 1802, An Accurate Historical Account of all the Orders of Knighthood at present existing in Europe, which was dedicated to Lord Nelson.
A receipt by Lord Nelson for The Order of St. Joachim still exists and is dated June 9th 1802. 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 registered in the 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 his insignia from The Order of Saint Joachim.
In the 1830s a member of the English College of Arms attacked the Order of Saint Joachim in a book documenting an acrimonious legal battle with Samuel Egerton Brydges' (1762-1837) claim to the hereditary title of Baron Chandos of Sudeley. George Beltz, as Lancaster King of Arms, used every opportunity to discredit Brydges' campaign to have his title recognized, including ultimately writing the book in 1834 after Brydges' death when his descendants continued to make trouble. Brydges also happened to be a member of The Order of Saint Joachim, and in his enthusiasm to smear Brydges, Beltz also took aim at The Order of Saint Joachim. Even though his own English College of Arms had already deemed The Order of Saint Joachim a legitimate Order in 1802 (and subsequently re-approved its acceptance by several other prominent Englishmen), Beltz chose to sidestep that fact. Instead he maligned the Order in an appendix to his work on the Chandos Peerage Case through innuendo unsupported by evidence. The problem was then how to explain that the English College of Arms had given The Order of Saint Joachim its seal of approval in 1802 to Nelson (and to others) if it was indeed a "bogus" order. One explanation often floated is that Nelson was somehow "tricked" into accepting it, or that he had been blinded by his own supposed vanity. Given what we know of the vetting process and Nelson's own letters, this is clearly not the case. Another explanation offered is that Nelson was such a hero that no one - not even the King of England and his College of Arms - could refuse allowing him the honour. That of course does not explain how others who followed and were of far lesser stature were also granted permission by the English College of Arms. The English College of Arms had an awkward moment when during the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar they described Nelson's decorations including - apparently relying on Beltz's poison pen article - his "bogus" Order of Saint Joachim. When asked how it could be bogus when the English College of Arms had itself confirmed its validity in 1802 after a thorough investigation, it had no answer.
Nelson's original insignia of a Knight Grand Commander of The Order of Saint Joachim was stolen together with most of his other medals and decorations from the Painted Hall in Greenwich Hospital in 1900, and have never been recovered. Some examples of Nelson's insignia survive. At left 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. Fortunately, shortly prior to being stolen, all of Nelson's medals and awards were photographed. Reproduced below is the photograph taken in the late 1800s of Nelson's awards.
The cross below marked "1" is Nelson's Grand Cross, worn suspended from a broad dark green silk cordon or sash. A smaller version was worn at the neck by all members of who had attained the rank of knight and above. This is the actual Grand Cross presented to Nelson by Grand Chapter. The white Maltese cross is suspended from a knightly helm device and shows a presumably green cross in the centre. This is actually the reverse of the cross, which was apparently removed and reattached backwards in error. The breast cross below marked "2" is the breast insignia worn by Knights Commander and Knights Grand Cross of the Order. Nelson may also have been presented with the smaller neck cross of a Knight.
Nelson had commissioned for daily wear several wire embroidered or "tinsel" versions of the breast cross. An original can can be seen on the Trafalgar Coat shown above or viewed in more detail here.
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 he was approved to wear it by the British Crown in 1802 until his death three years later. There are many contemporary paintings and drawings of him from this period wearing the insignia of the Order. 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. You can see the National Maritime Museum's photographs of the actual uniform and breast cross by clicking here.
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. In the bottom right corner the hatchment displays Nelson's white 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.