Trafalgar

Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle Book Cover
UK hardcover

Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle Book Cover for USA
US hardcover

Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle Book Cover for USA
US paperback

Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle by Roy Adkins was originally published in hardcover in the UK by Little, Brown and is now available in paperback (Abacus) and as an e-book. In the US, it was originally published in hardcover by Viking Penguin under the title of Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle that Changed the World and is now published in paperback by Penguin, as well as being available as an e-book. A large-print edition (also called Nelson’s Trafalgar) was published by Thorndike in the US and by Windsor and Paragon in the UK. It has been compared favourably with Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad:

‘at least the equal of Stalingrad in blood, pace and telling detail, but it also boasts a welcome twist to the genre with a lacing of black humour’ (Independent on Sunday)

‘Should have the same sort of mass market appeal as Stalingrad’ (Publishing News)

‘Narratively compelling, factually forensic and as visceral as Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad’ (Evening Herald)

The Battle of Trafalgar took place on 21 October 1805, when the Royal Navy under Horatio Nelson defeated a larger Combined Fleet from the French and Spanish Navies under the French admiral, Villeneuve, off Cape Trafalgar. Situated on Spain’s south-west Atlantic coast, Cape Trafalgar is part of a stretch of the Spanish coastline that is notoriously windy: just to the south is the Costa de la Luz, now greatly favoured by windsurfers. On the day of the battle, the winds were fairly light, but there was an ominous sea swell.

Cape Trafalgar
Looking to Cape Trafalgar and the Atlantic

In bed with David Mitchell on the Peep Show (series 7 episode 5)
In bed with David Mitchell on the Peep Show (series 7 episode 5)


The pub sign Trafalgar Maid at Chatham in Kent, commemorating one of the women who served as a powder monkey during the battle.

The Combined French and Spanish Fleet had been blockaded by the British in Cadiz harbour, but the warships at long last managed to break out, led by the French admiral, Villeneuve. In the ships of the French, Spanish and British, there were thousands of sailors, but in addition there were many women and children who often served as powder monkeys during battles, bringing gunpowder cartridges from the magazines to the guns. One of those women who served at Trafalgar came from Chatham in Kent, and she is commemorated by the Trafalgar Maid pub.

Lord Admiral Nelson
Lord Admiral Nelson

Roy at Cape Trafalgar
Roy at Cape Trafalgar on a windy summer day

The ensuing battle was the last major battle between wooden sailing ships, and was notable for the unusual British strategy of forming two columns, one led by Nelson in the Victory and one led by Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign. These two columns smashed through the French and Spanish line of ships, but this was a very risky operation, as the British were fired on long before they could return fire. For Nelson it proved fatal: he was shot by a sharpshooter on board the French ship Redoutable.

An old map of the Spanish coastline
An old map of the Spanish coastline from Cadiz to Cape Trafalgar

Nelson died towards the end of the battle, knowing that it was a victory for Britain. No British ships were lost, but many of the French and Spanish ships surrendered, and one blew up and sank. Several others escaped. This was not the end of the struggle, though, as a terrible storm led to many more fatalities. Once the weather subsided, many of the ships headed for Gibraltar for repairs, including the Victory with the body of Nelson on board. In Gibraltar, it is widely believed that his body was taken on shore at Rosia Bay and kept in the house that once belonged to Lord St Vincent, while major repairs were undertaken, but others dispute this.


The sign at Rosia Bay, Gibraltar, commemorating the arrival of the Victory after the Battle of Trafalgar

The house of Lord St Vincent
The house of Lord St Vincent at Rosia Bay in Gibraltar, where one story relates that Nelson’s body was kept while repairs were carried out to the Victory

Nelson’s body was taken to England for burial, but most of the dead sailors were unceremoniously tipped overboard during the heat of the battle. Many of those who were wounded were taken to the Naval Hospital at Gibraltar, where some died of their injuries. These men were buried at Gibraltar, and the Trafalgar Cemetery has two such known burials. One is that of Marine Captain Thomas Norman of the Mars warship. Also in the cemetery is a memorial to the battle.


Gravestone of Marine Captain Thomas Norman who died of his wounds at Gibraltar after the Battle of Trafalgar


The memorial to the Battle of Trafalgar in the Trafalgar Cemetery at Gibraltar

The outcome of the battle was decisive, an overwhelming victory for the British. It put paid to Napoleon’s ambitions to invade England and destroyed his naval power. The day of the battle, 21 October, later became known as Trafalgar Day, and the 200th anniversary of the actual battle fell in 2005.

Roy Adkins signing books at Hatchards, Piccadilly.
Roy Adkins signing books at Hatchards, Piccadilly, with Michael Wood of the history department

The re-enactment of dispatches from Trafalgar passing through Exeter on their way to London.
The re-enactment of dispatches from Trafalgar passing through Exeter on their way to London.

Available Rights

World English language rights as well as Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Japanese rights are no longer available. The Spanish version of the book is published by Planeta as Trafalgar: Biografa de una batalla, the Portuguese version is published by Aletheia as Trafalgar: a biografia de uma batalha, the Swedish version (hardback and paperback) is published by Wahlstrom & Widstrand as Trafalgar: Biografi ver ett sjslag, and in Japan it is published by Hara Shobo in two volumes.

Swedish Cover.
Swedish jacket

Spanish Cover.
Spanish jacket

Japanese Cover.
Japanese

Japanese Cover.
Japanese

Portuguese Cover.
Portuguese Jacket

Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle Book Cover
Large-print jacket

Some Reviews

‘This illustrious introduction to the Battle of Trafalgar is one of the best in generations for the nonseafaring reader curious about the nautical epic, and it also handsomely rewards those whose study of the battle goes back a generation or two … fully worthy of its subject’ (Publishers Weekly starred review)

‘With a compelling mixture of historical narrative and quoted first-person accounts … and with just the right amount of technical information, Adkins has produced the book against which all Trafalgar books will be measured’ (David Lee Poremba, Library Journal, starred review)

‘Roy Adkins is masterful in explaining why Nelson’s men were so much more efficient … Adkins has written a compelling account’ (Bernard Cornwell, Mail on Sunday)

‘Roy Adkins’ new account of how the threat [of invasion of Britain] was averted is sold as the latest in the line of gory narratives ruled by Antony Beevor’s work. The blazing Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle is at least the equal of Stalingrad in blood, pace and telling detail, but it also boasts a welcome twist to the genre with a lacing of black humour’ (Nicholas Fearn, Independent on Sunday)

‘Nelson’s Trafalgar is filled with hugely satisfying material detail gracefully introduced into the narrative as informative gussets. Those who share my appetite for particulars will delight in this book … This is a fine book’ (Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe)

‘A fine piece of narrative history … The book is scholarly, but also includes vivid details about life on board … whether they be stomach-churning accounts of below-decks surgery during sea battles, or equally stomach-churning descriptions of the weevils that lived in the ship’s biscuits’ (The Bookseller)

‘Should have the same sort of mass market appeal as Stalingrad’ (Publishing News)

‘A thoroughgoing study of the most famous sea battle of the Napoleonic era … A boon for buffs of the Napoleonic Wars’ (Kirkus)

‘Roy Adkins’s Trafalgar is not just another bit of anniversary opportunism. Adkins is an archaeologist, and … his book is as much social history as it is military. Indeed, his painstaking digging, sifting, arranging and questioning take him everywhere in Nelson’s fleet … His account of the battle is a gripping album of snapshots from the quarterdecks and gun decks of the ships themselves … Adkins’s description of the tension during the approach, as well as the nature of the fight itself, is first-rate. The maps and diagrams are admirable, and the illustrations well chosen. His account of the aftermath, both the immediate and the longer-term, are quite fascinating, and filled with glimpses of the humanity of the men who fought so coolly yet ferociously at Trafalgar. Truly, it is a most eclectic but engaging book’ (Allan Mallinson, The Spectator)

‘This book is not for the squeamish. The battle scenes are vividly described as are the harsh conditions of the daily lives of the sailors. Naval warfare was brutal and storms at sea were brutal. The author has researched deeply, quoting frequently and effectively from letters written home by ordinary sailors and their captains, who wrote with a clarity and sincerity that will amuse and charm the reader’ (Charles Stephen, Lincoln Journal Star)

‘An excellent book; its virtue is in the detail that makes up the bigger picture. The book vividly commemorates the 200th anniversary of the great sea battle that effectively wrecked Napoleon’s efforts to destroy Britain’s maritime supremacy … Adkins’ gripping narrative is as multi-layered as the decks of the ship. The narrative style is economical, authoritative in the matter of military hardware, unflinching in the description of carnage and realistic in the account of the hurricane … Adkins is to be praised for the humanity of his story: he cares about his characters’ (Iain Finlayson, Saga magazine)

‘Excellent … Adkins is at his best on the nuances of seamanship and the minutiae of life within the wooden walls’ (Frank McLynn, The Independent)

‘Roy Adkins is as clear as can be in Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle … well written and makes good use of first-hand accounts’ (Tom Pocock, Literary Review)

‘It is so jam-packed with facts, figures and minute details – on everything from amputations without anaesthetic to the workings of a musket flintlock and below-deck toilet facilities, or lack of same – that this reader got the impression that the author must live and breathe naval history from dawn till dusk’ (David O’Donoghue, Sunday Business Post)

‘a clear narrative of the battle, which uses the testimonies of eyewitnesses to good effect, alternating them with details of naval life in Nelson’s time’ (T J Binyon, Evening Standard)

‘A lively and engrossing narration of one of the most important battles of Pitt’s lifetime and British history’ (Recommended by William Hague in his book William Pitt the Younger)

‘Some books feel right, just as soon as you pick them up. This is one of them … A debt is owed to the author, who has surely given us one of the most readable versions of events at Trafalgar … Highly recommended’ (Sea Breezes, The International Magazine of Ships and the Sea)

‘The author is best when dealing with the battle … By his skilful use of details and his mastery of available printed sources Mr Adkins brings this great naval battle to life … The author is also good at discussing what happened to the dramatis personae of the battle after that fateful day, including seamen as well as officers’ (Contemporary Review)

‘Narratively compelling, factually forensic and as visceral as Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad’ (George Byrne, Evening Herald)

‘Fantastic, thrilling, memorable … the finest of reads’ (Sport Lads Mag)

‘Roy Adkins’ more scholarly approach is to sift through the mass of often contradictory documentary evidence to produce a narrative that is both convincing and evocative’ (David Lea from the London Review Bookshop in The Bookseller)

‘a clear and accessible account … it gives rare prominence to the view from the Lower Deck and life onboard … Adkins also explains in depth the significance of the storm which immediately followed the battle and raged for seven days’ (Navy News)

‘In this highly readable account of one of the most famous battles in history, Adkins succeeds in placing the battle in its historical context while also providing insights into the personal stories of those who took part … Using a wide range of sources, Adkins has written a gripping account that explains the details of tactics and gunnery as well as providing an excellent overall picture’ (Good Book Guide)

‘Adkins is informative on contemporary medicine and life in Nelson’s navy’ (Sunday Times)

‘An eye-opening and detailed account of one of Britain’s most famous battles’ (Your Family Tree)

‘Well researched and should be of interest to anyone unfamiliar with Trafalgar, its causes and consequences … The author gives a very rounded view of life at sea at the time of the battle’ (Family History Monthly)

‘A vivid picture of the events that day is clearly drawn, together with descriptions of the storm after the battle which wrecked more ships than cannon shot did’ (Family Tree Magazine)

‘An amazing account of that battle … A vivid picture of life at sea’ (Anglian Evergreen)

‘This is a must read as we head towards the bicentenary … If you are only going to read one book about the events of 1805 that altered the course of European history, this is the one’ (Dominique Searle, Gibraltar Chronicle)

‘Adkins captures the din, confusion and sheer carnage of the battle … Adkins’s more matter-of-fact account [than ‘Seize the Fire’] comes closer to the mark’ (Arthur Herman, The Wall Street Journal)

‘A vivid history of Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar’ (Devon Life)

‘It is hard not to be stirred by the drama of this encounter’ (Paul Lay, BBC History Magazine)

‘a detailed and fast-paced narrative … Adkins gets closer to the conflict, detailing the remarkable stories of those who did not leave as great a mark on history, and credits his readers with an interest which expands beyond the blood and noise of the battle … He devotes the same fast-paced style to the massive storm … This is not dry history, but a lively read, and an essential one if you want to be ahead of the game as next year’s Trafalgar anniversary celebrations get under way’ (Manx Independent)

‘This is a wonderfully vivid history of Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar, from both sides of the conflict, due to the number of eyewitness accounts used. Adkins concentrates not on the great man himself, but the other components like the women’ (Kentish Gazette)

‘The book brings out many facets of the time … and delivers them in a sensitive yet matter of fact way that only serves to emphasise their uniqueness’ (Newark Advertiser)

‘vividly portrays life at sea at the time of the battle and is jam-packed with accounts written by those who fought in the engagement and survived the disastrous storm that followed’ (Colin Bradley, Western Morning News)

‘A fascinating and highly detailed insight into a piece of history which was to change the face of Europe, bringing it all vividly alive in personal terms yet retaining a scholarly eye on the historical facts. This is a book which will appeal to a much wider audience than merely naval historians’ (Devon Today)

‘Roy embraces the battle, its prelude and its aftermath, in a narrative that is at once scholarly and breathtakingly exciting’ (Slough Express)

‘Roy Adkins acts as biographer to the battle … His portrait of the battle moves away from the ships, tactics and manoeuvres and concentrates on the human side of the great clash of fleets’ (Mark Nicholls, Eastern Daily Press)

‘Roy Adkins’ masterful account … has opted for more of a social history of the to-do at sea rather than the usual militaristic account of who did what and why’ (Torquay Herald Express)

‘Celebrating its bicentenary, this book offers a brilliant fresh approach, which will be hard to beat’ (Western Mail)

‘Trafalgar offers a fresh dimension to the historical treatment of primary sources: it merges historical facts about the battle with rich eyewitness material from many of the men who were there’ (Sophie Lang, Overseas [Royal Overseas League Magazine])

‘L’auteur fair revivre dans un remarquable ouvrage de quinze chapitres, bien documenté à partir des archives britanniques et françaises, l’historique des événements, les différentes phases de la bataille, en particulier à partir des témoignages empruntés dans les mémoires ou correspondances des acteurs français ou anglais … La mort de Nelson et les lendemains de la victoire sont longuement évoqués. L’ouvrage est agrémenté de nombreuses illustrations ainsi que de schémas et plans pour la compréhension des différentes phases de la bataille’ (Alain Chappet, Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien)

‘eminently readable’ (Pepe Rosado, MedLife [a British Airways flight magazine])

‘Adkins makes sure to offer a balanced biography of this groundbreaking battle and its consequences. He recounts in detail the build-up to the action against the French and Spanish fleets with a lively commentary and quotes from sailors and historical figures, giving a vivid taste of what life was like for those aboard the ships. Adkins keeps the readers’ interest through his liberal use of eyewitness accounts, diagrams and pictures that keep the drama fresh and alive … A must-read for naval fans’ (Spanish Magazine)

‘It is little details like this [how cannon-balls kill and maim] that make this book so fascinating. With the 200th anniversary coming up … there are bound to be plenty of books on the subject, but few will be as thrilling as this one’ (Everything Spain)

‘packs a cornucopia of period detail, on naval life, seamanship and medicine, to satisfy the appetite of enthusiasts’ (Spain)

‘The perfect gift for anyone interested in ships, warfare or British history in general’ (Ottakars Christmas Books catalogue)

‘This highly accessible history of the Battle of Trafalgar vividly brings to life the events leading up to and preceding the famous encounter … Superbly researched and wonderfully gripping’ (Cat Burton-Cartledge, Waterstone’s Gift Guide Christmas)

‘This is an amazing account of that battle – a blow by blow look at how it was won. A vivid picture of life at sea, detailing the deprivations suffered by those fighting under Nelson; their extraordinary courage and endurance; and the brutality of the battle’ (Anglian Evergreen)

These are some reviews sent to us by readers, to give a flavour of their opinions:

‘This is an outstanding book, and I praise you for the excellent work. The accessibility combined with presentation of facts is wonderful. The mix of quotes and narratives was well done’ (DAT, Arkansas)

‘I have almost finished reading “Nelson’s Trafalgar” and I must say it is a splendid read … Your references to letters and comments of survivors add much to the story telling. I am going to get something else that you have written’ (LG, Waynesboro, USA)

‘Before reading your book I had just finished reading “1776” by David McCullough and “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hacket Fischer … However, I found your book filled with the same type of detail but much more readable … I look forward to your next book and will be watching for it in the bookstores’ (JS from USA)

‘It is truly a fantastic work. I have always had an interest in military history so I have read many books on the subject. Trafalgar has to be one of the top 10 of all the works I have read’ (NVG from USA)

‘It is so refreshing to read a historian who knows how to write a good story. It is very dramatic, and I much appreciate the details on all matters pertaining to one of the most important events in history … Anyway, just thought you might appreciate knowing someone is thoroughly delighted by your book, and I am sure there are many others’ (GC, Seattle)

‘Just a quick note to say GREAT job on Nelson’s Trafalgar … Scholarly writing that is approachable for the non-professional historian is difficult to do well, but you’ve done it very, very well’ (SC, Missouri)

‘I am about half way through “Nelson’s Trafalgar” and am blown away by it. Really love it’ (JS from USA)

‘I very rarely feel sufficiently moved after reading a book to contact the author, but I’ve just finished reading Trafalgar and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it – it’s the first non-fiction history book I’ve read which gripped me like a novel. I not only feel that I’ve now got a proper understanding of the battle (in all its horrible glory), I also understand for the first time the historical, political and social context for the battle. The facts and asides in the book resulted in many “well I never” moments – or stronger–- and made the book an absolutely fascinating, shocking and poignant read’ (GW, Kent)

‘I have been obsessed with Nelson for some 50 years, and, although I have just about everything ever written on the subject, I have never seen Trafalgar handled as competently and with such readability’ (KG, Arkansas)

‘Excellent read … very exciting and interesting’ (RK, USA)

‘I was mesmerised by the book which, in the same way as Radio 4’s “This Sceptr’d Isle”, brought the whole incident to life’ (CW, Burgundy)

‘I just purchased and am reading “Nelson’s Trafalgar”. What a terrific book!!!! Now I’m ordering other books you’ve written. Many thanks for writing about such a complicated and difficult to understand subject and making it easy for your readers. Excellent!’ (MW, US)

‘Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your book about the Battle of Trafalgar. You explained the nautical points so well. Many authors of the Age of Sail don’t do this. I am not a sailor! … Congratulations! I’ll definitely keep your name in mind for any books I see of yours that interest me’ (JM, USA)

‘I have read your book, Nelson’s Trafalgar, and loved it. The way that you use the excerpts from original manuscripts really adds a great deal to the book … I will be looking forward to Jack Tar’ (KG, from USA)

‘Excellent! Reads very much like an historical novel rather than a detailed historical account. Very enjoyable and informative’ (MHL from Kansas, USA)

‘I just finished reading your book “Trafalgar” and want to let you know how much I enjoyed it’ (RL from USA)

‘I just finished Nelson’s Trafalgar. Wow! I loved every page. A really great work … I thank you for the care in your craft’ (MC, USA)

‘I thoroughly enjoyed the book. You went off into so many tangents, and I enjoyed them all’ (GR, Lake St Louis, US)