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
"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
"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
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
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
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.