This is a copy of the Sermon given in Madron Church for the Trafalgar service.

On 21 October, 1805 news of the battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death was first brought ashore by Penzance fishermen who met the boat (HMS Pickle) bringing the news home. The people of Penzance went up to the church to give thanks for the battle and to mourn Nelson. Since 1946 there has been an annual commemoration with personnel from RNAS Culdrose.

Luke 18: 1-8

It is a great pleasure and honour to be with you today to preach on this significant occasion. Little did I know that when I did a primary school project on Nelson more years ago than I care to remember that I would be speaking about him and about his famous victory at Trafalgar on such an occasion as this, in this church that has such a significant place in the story. I always thought knowing that it was HMS Pickle that brought the news home both of the victory and of Nelson’s death was the answer to a classic pub quiz question. But I confess I didn’t know about Lieutenant Lapenotière (whose names betrays his Huguenot origins) or the fact that he passed the news on to Penzance fishermen who brought the news into port. And how significant I think it was that the instinct of all concerned was to come here, to Madron Church, to give thanks for the victory and to mourn Nelson’s loss. And we today follow in their footsteps as many generations before us have done.

But what does any of that have to do with the reading we heard from the gospel of St. Luke with the story of the grumpy judge? The links are perhaps not obvious, but a key concept in this story is perhaps that of vindication. ‘Give me justice against my adversary!’ cries the widow and that is indeed what she gets.

It’s a story about vindication – and it’s a story about prayer. It’s Jesus teaching us to keep going in prayer and to have the faith to do so. His point of course is not that God is like this grumpy judge. Quite the opposite in fact. Jesus’ point is that if even a rotten judge like this can be persuaded to do the right thing by someone who pesters him day and night until it happens then of course God, who is justice and fairness in person, and who cares passionately about people, will vindicate them and will see that justice is done for them.

We’ll come back to prayer later, but let’s stick with the idea of vindication for the moment, with the idea of being proved right. What do we find in the story of Trafalgar about vindication, about being proved right, on a purely human level?

Trafalgar was a supreme vindication of Nelson’s tactics certainly. His plan to cross the ‘T’ of the line of the combined French and Spanish fleets was audacious, was risky – and supremely successful. It was a crushing victory that left Britain as the supreme global naval for at least a hundred years.

Trafalgar was a supreme vindication of Nelson’s tactics. It was also a great vindication of his leadership. He didn’t employ what many would have done – a simple command and control approach to leadership, telling his captains simply what he wanted them to do. Far from it. There’s a famous print of him at a table covered in charts with his captains gathered all around him while he tells them what his plan is. He took them into his confidence and told them what the grand plan was – but then trusted them each to play their part in as they thought best. It was a great vote of confidence in them – and was wholly vindicated. And there are vital lessons in leadership in that still for us today.

Trafalgar was a supreme vindication of Nelson’s tactics and leadership – and it was also a supreme vindication of his training. His gunners were simply devastating in their effect because they were so well drilled into a single unit. Even today when pulling sheets on an old sailing vessel (the ones with block and tackle, not fancy winches) people cry ‘Two, six!’ as they pull. Why? Because they were the numbers of the members of the gun crews whose job is was to run out the guns after loading in double quick time.

There was so much in the battle that vindicated Nelson; that proved his choices right. But was the battle itself justified, with its great loss of life? Perhaps it’s difficult at this distance to say one way or another. It was an epic battle of huge destruction. But its aim was to prevent an invasion of these islands and to restrain an aggressive enemy bent on continental domination. Were it not for Trafalgar he might have succeeded. But not only did Trafalgar frustrate Napoleon’s plans for invasion, it also meant that the Royal Navy could continually supply Wellington and his forces in the Peninsular War: a war which so significantly sapped Napoleon’s resources – the ‘Spanish ulcer’ he called it – that it led ultimately to Waterloo, 10 years after Trafalgar. So I certainly think you can argue fairly that the decision to fight that day in 1805 was vindicated.

But was Britain vindicated in terms of what we did with the victory? Trafalgar gave Britain unprecedented control of the seas for a century – but how well did we use that? Well we used that for good and ill, I suggest, in the establishing of an Empire. But if the jury is out on that then let me point out something else the Royal Navy did that was unquestionably beneficial. Two years after Trafalgar, Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807. Indeed you can argue that abolition would never have come about without Trafalgar, because Britain now felt safe enough in her colonies and her command of the oceans to take that vital step. And having abolished that terrible trade the Royal Navy then set up patrols along the West African coast to frustrate other countries’ slave trading. One of my heroes, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, was rescued from a Portuguese slaver by the Royal Navy, and instead of becoming a nameless slave in Brazil living a very short life, thanks to the Royal Navy he became the first black African Bishop in the Church of England. And none of that would have happened without Trafalgar.

So yes, Trafalgar vindicates Nelson as a leader; and Trafalgar in itself in turn is vindicated at least in part by its outcomes.

But to come back to the parable – and remembering that it is fundamentally about prayer – I think we can argue that Trafalgar was also a vindication of people’s prayers. What part did prayer play in Trafalgar, you might ask? Quite a lot I suggest. It’s difficult for us in a secular age to think ourselves into an age that was as you might put it ‘thick’ with faith and belief. There would have been a huge number of people praying for the fleet at Trafalgar, not least those whose loved ones were in it.

This parable of Jesus is about a God who hears and answers our prayers when we cry to him, as many would have been doing in October 1805. But this story isn’t just a story about a God who hears and who answers prayer, and who vindicates those who cry to him. It’s also a challenge to have faith and to pray: Jesus’ final words in the story are these: ‘However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’

And if he were to appear before us now, would he find us as people of faith, entrusting our lives to God, seeking his help, and seeking to serve him and others? When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? And would he find faith in us? What is the state of our faith? How much do we trust the God who is not a grumpy judge but who loves us and only wants the best for us?

Nelson was a genius in some ways, but deeply flawed in others. His treatment of his wife, Fanny, was nothing but shabby and unkind, brilliant leader though he was. But he was a son of the Vicarage and a man of faith.

On the morning of 21st October 1805, with the combined fleets of France and Spain in sight, Nelson composed this prayer which we will shortly use:

May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country
And for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and
Glorious victory: and may no misconduct, in any one,
Tarnish it: and may humanity after victory be the predominant
Feature in the British fleet.

For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me
And may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully.
To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend
Amen. Amen. Amen.

There are some things about Nelson in which we should not follow him. Others, such as his leadership and trust of others in which we should. And we should follow him in faith above all. I find it hard to read that prayer and not conclude that, Nelson’s death notwithstanding, it was answered. God heard and answered his prayer. His faith and trust were vindicated. And the best tribute we can pay him is to follow him in faith and to pray as he prayed:

For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me
And may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully.
To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend
Amen. Amen. Amen.

To which I can only add, my own, ‘Amen’.



Photo By William Heysham Overend –, Public Domain,