It was in 1801 that Admiral Nelson received the freedom of the city. Nelson was already a hero when earlier in the year, he led the Royal Navy to a victory over the French Navy at the Battle of the Nile. Upon his return to England he was feted by the populace and treated much as a super star is treated today.
Journeying to visit his friend Lord St. Vincent at Torbay, the troops of Sir Stafford Northcote were sent to meet Nelson and offer him the privilege of the Freedom of the City of Exeter.
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post at the time reported the encounter and proceedings:
"EXETER, Jan. 21st, 1801. On Thursday last Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, arrived in this city on his road to Lord St. Vincent, at Tor-Abbey near Torbay. Intimation having been previously received of his Lordship's expected visit, he was met about two miles from this city by Sir Stafford Northcote's troops of 1st Devon Volunteer Cavalry, who escorted his Lordship to the Hotel, amidst the loud plaudits of an immense concourse of the inhabitants. As soon as he had arrived, a deputation from the Right Worshipful the Mayor and Chamber waited upon his Lordship, requesting they might have permission to present him with the Freedom of this City, to which his lordship having assented, he was conducted to the Guildhall, where being received by the Right Worshipful the Mayor, and our worthy Recorder, Charles Fanshawe, Esq. The latter addressed him in the following words:- "Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson "I have the honour of addressing your Lordship on behalf of the Mayor and Chamber of the antient (sic.), loyal, and respectable City of Exeter, on your arrival here, amidst the grateful acclamations of the inhabitants. During this war, which was undertaken for the defence of the best and dearest interests of society, the Commanders of the British Navy have achieved such brilliant exploits as are unparalleled in the annals of fame; these exploits have been particularly graced by this circumstance, that in the day of triumph the glory has been ascribed to God, whose providence has led our fleets to victory. National gratitude has recorded on the journals of Parliament these signal services, among which your Lordship's stand eminently distinguished. I am proud of the honour of acquainting your Lordship, with the request of the Mayor and Chamber of this City, that you will be please to allow them to add your illustrious name to the number of their Fellow-Citizens, in testimony of their grateful respect for your Lordship, and of their attachment to their King, and Country."
"His Lordship then returned his particular thanks for the honor (sic.) done to him, he said, "that whatever merit may have been attributed to him in the action of the Nile, it was only for having executed the orders entrusted to him:- that those orders came to him from his Commander in chief, who had received them from the Lords of the Admiralty - they were very concise - it was to take, burn, sink, and destroy the French fleet wherever he should meet them, and he had only been the instrument employed to execute this service. - He assured those around him, from his own knowledge, that to this war, however burdensome it may have been considered, we now owe the blessings we have experienced, in the enjoyment of our liberties, laws, and religion; and that although we might one day hope to be at peace with France, we must ever be at war with French principles."
"His Lordship then returned to the Hotel, where he received visits from most of the respectable inhabitants. A grand dinner was prepared by the Right Worshipful Mayor and Chamber, for his Lordship's entertainment, but his engagements at Tor-Abbey would not enable him to accept the invitation. About one o'clock at noon his Lordship sat (sic.) off on his journey, apparently much pleased with the attentions he had received in this city. During the short period in which his Lordship remained in Exeter, the cathedral and parochial bells were rung, whilst a large concourse of the inhabitants testified by repeated huzzas the pleasure they experienced in beholding a character so eminent as the Hero of the Nile!"
A sword was presented to Nelson at the Guildhall, where he was to be entertained with dinner. However, as the Flying Post reported, Nelson insisted in returning to the Royal Clarence Hotel (known only as the Hotel then), where he was staying, to address the gathered newspaper correspondents. Nelson had a reputation for vanity and enjoyed talking of his exploits, so a press conference would have been more important than the Mayor's invitation to dinner. After speaking to the newspaper correspondents, he dined at the Hotel before continuing his journey to Torbay.
Sources - Trewmans Exeter Flying Post from 1801 and others.
In August 2005, the journey of Lt Lapenotiere through Exeter in 1805, with the news of the victory at Trafalgar, and Nelson's death was re-enacted The Lord Mayor reads the text of the original message, with an actor to the left, playing Lt Lapenotiere.
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