Hilboro Church

Hilborough Church , 
on the Nelson trail

From EDP, 19 September 2005

The Rev David Hanwell at All Saints' Church, Hilborough. In front of him is the memorial to Edmund Nelson, who was a rector in the parish and Lord Nelson¡¯s grandfather.
The Rev David Hanwell at All Saint's Church, Hilborough. In front of him is the memorial to Edmund Nelson, who was a rector in the parish and Lord Nelson's grandfather.

In the Nelson story, an isolated church in the heart of Norfolk has become something of a forgotten location.
 Set in beautiful parkland and surrounded by trees, the flint-knapped All Saints' Church at Hilborough, near Swaffham, is a splendid 13th-century structure. Yet it is also an integral part of Horatio Nelson's development and upbringing and perhaps more of his immediate relatives are buried within its walls and churchyard than anywhere else.

There is, however, a determination to put the church at Hilborough back on the Nelson map as the bi-centenary of his death at the Battle of Trafalgar approaches on October 21 and the vicar, the Rev David Hanwell, is hoping to attract a new flock of visitors to the church to see a unique collection of Nelson family graves and the platform from which a representative of Nelson's family spread the gospel to villagers for more than a century.
 Significantly, Nelson's grandfather and father, both named Edmund, were rectors at the church, which still has a beautiful tiled floor and the 15th-century pews that Nelson would have sat on.

Mr Hanwell said: "Had his father not moved to Burnham Thorpe as rector, the focus of attention this year may have been here at Hilborough rather than Burnham. "We do not have Nelson himself, but we do have his grandparents and relatives, and it is clear that his background is here. "While there is no suggestion that Nelson spent a great deal of time here, there is the suggestion that he would have visited his grandmother and the church. "What we also have to remember is that when we look at our national heroes, we forget that they just did not appear on the scene and do what they did. "They had a 'before' and sometimes an 'afterwards'."

Within the church is the grave of Nelson's grandfather, who died on October 19, 1747 - 11 years before Nelson was born ( ID 2010 ) . His grandmother Mary, however, lived until she was 91, dying on July 4, 1789, at the rectory. - It remains unclear where the rectory stood but it is believed to have been north of the church.

Buried with Nelson's grandparents are the two older brothers he never knew. Both died in infancy at Hilborough in 1750 and 1751 and were named Horatio and Edmund. Nelson's sister Alice, who died in 1823 aged 93, is buried with her husband Robert Rolfe, who was rector of the church from 1756-1785. and Nelson's aunt Mary is also buried in All Saints', now isolated from the village, which relocated after the Black Death plague of the mid-14th century.

Mr Hanwell said: "The church is unspoilt, and while it has not got the kudos that Burnham Thorpe has, Nelson's father and grandfather were rectors here and for a whole century the patronage of the church was in Nelson's family."

Nelson never forgot his Hilborough connections and when he was titled after his victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, he became Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Hilborough, before later becoming Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe. He was also a great contemporary of the Duke of Wellington, who at one stage lived at Hilborough Hall across the fields from the church.

After Nelson's death, his brother William, who had also been rector at Hilborough, was created the first earl Nelson in 1805 and presented a magnificent chalice to the church bearing the Trafalgar arms.  - It was in use until May 1960 but was stolen when the large chest containing the church treasures was taken. While the chest was recovered, the chalice was missing but was later discovered in undergrowth in January 1970 by forestry workers and returned. It is now put away for safekeeping.
Mr Hanwell said: "One of the problems we face is that this church is part of the national heritage, but we have had difficulty getting funding for our events, which is very disappointing. "But, hopefully, we will get a lot of people come to the exhibitions."

A faded fragment of the flag flown on HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 is expected to fetch up to £150,000 at auction in London. The ensign, shot through with holes sustained in the battle, was later placed on Nelson's coffin at his state funeral in St Paul's Cathedral.