This is NOT the St. Valentine’s Day You’re Thinking Of…

Before a specific Valentine’s Day during the Napoleonic Wars, the location was already well-known.

North shore of Cape St. Vincent as seen from the lighthouse

The clear waters of the St. Vincent coast and cliffs

Not only had Sir Francis Drake conducted some of his pirating in the area, but those in Neolithic, ancient Greek, and ancient Roman times called it sacred. The Greeks erected a temple to Heracles. The Romans called it Promontorium Sacrum (The Holy Promontory). The name supposedly comes from that of a martyred Iberian deacon from the fourth century, Vincent, whose grave was protected by ravens. When the body was exhumed and transported to Portugal, ravens still accompanied it. Or so the legend goes.  (

What is definite is that on Valentine’s Day or February 14th in the year 1797, the British fleet under the command of Admiral John Jervis

       Sir John Jervis

defeated the ships of the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent off the coast of Portugal. The British had fifteen ships of the line, five frigates, one sloop and one cutter. Among the ships involved were the Victory (on which Nelson would command and die during the Battle of Trafalgar over eight years later), and the Captain, a third-rate, seventy-four gun vessel under the command of then Commodore Horatio Nelson and Captain Ralph Willett Miller.

          Commodore Horatio Nelson

Nelson actually arrived in the frigate Minerve and joined the British on February 13th, after having sailed unobserved thru the Spanish fleet and seeing them on the move. Advising Admiral Jervis that the Spanish were en-route, he moved his commodore’s pendant to the H.M.S. Captain.

The battle began around 11:30 AM on the fourteenth. When it concluded later that day with one thousand Spanish, three hundred British dead, and the capture of four Spanish ships, the so-called Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in the twentieth century pales in comparison. But it proved a decisive naval battle for the British due to not only Jarvis’ aggressive push (similar to what Nelson did later at Trafalgar), but Nelson’s own initiative, described here at the websites British Battles and The Battle of Cape St. Vincent, Chasing Nelson and The Battle of Cape St. Vincent, and with a few notations by this author.

“Each of the two Spanish divisions turned to the North, apparently to sail down the flanks of the British Fleet and escape….Immediately the difficulty became apparent to Nelson at the rear of the line: The British ships would be forced to pursue the Spanish, their admiral now aware that the British Fleet was significantly stronger than he had expected, even though his force was double its strength. It was unlikely that the pursuit could produce the decisive battle Jervis looked for.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797 by Robert Cleveley

Plan of the fleet deployment during the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797 by Alfred Thayer Mahan

“Nelson acted in the ruthlessly aggressive and decisive manner that was his unique hallmark. Disobeying the admiral’s order to sail in line ahead conforming to Victory (italics mine), Nelson turned the 74 gun Captain hard to port and cutting back through the British line between Diadem and Excellent sailed straight for the van of the Spanish division, attacking the 130 gun Santissima Trinidad, the largest ship afloat.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent_Nelson in HMS Captain engages the Spanish line_picture by Richard Beechey.


Commodore Nelson’s Flagship HMS Captain engages the Spanish Flagship Santissima Trinidad at the beginning of the Battle of Cape St Vincent

“The Spanish flagship joined by San Josef, 112 guns, Salvador del Mundo, 112 guns, San Nicolas, 80 guns and San Isidoro, 74 guns, engaged Captain.

Battle of Cape St. Vincent Map – the situation around 2 PM

Culloden, leading the British Fleet in pursuit of the Spanish, rushed to Nelson’s assistance, as did the last ship in the line, Excellent, the three British ships battling with the van of the Spanish division until the remaining British ships came up and the engagement became general.

Blenheim, 90 guns, joined the action between the three British ships and their Spanish adversaries, accompanied by Diadem, while Excellent engaged Salvador del Mundo and San Isidoro, causing each of these ships to cease action and haul down their colours.” [Then Captain Cuthbert] “Collingwood on Excellent pushed on without securing the two ships to assist the hard pressed Captain

“Nelson saw his further opportunity. Although the Spanish broadside had completely dismasted Captain, Nelson…put the ship alongside the damaged San Nicolas and himself led a strong boarding party onto the Spanish ship. Among the boarders were soldiers from the 69th Regiment and several ‘Old Agamemnons’.”

The crew of His Majesty’s Ship Captain led by Commodore Nelson boarding the Spanish ship San Nicolas at the Battle of Cape St Vincent

“‘Westminster Abbey or victory,’ is what Nelson cried out as they boarded. Having used a similar battle cry at the Nile, it is believed to show his desire to die a glorious death in battle if necessary.  (

“The captain of San Nicolas was in the act of surrender to Nelson after a vigorous struggle when the crew of San Josef in the towering ship alongside opened fire on the deck. Calling for reinforcements from Captain, Nelson boarded the second Spanish ship and took her, receiving the surrender from the captain, the admiral being a casualty….”

Nelson boarding San Josef at the battle of Cape St Vincent

Yes, you read that right. Nelson boarded another ship, and reading this account is too sweet: “Ever the opportunist, Nelson leapt (literally) at the chance to take another prize, in an action that was as daring and courageous as it was unique and unprecedented.

“He ordered some of his marines to fire their muskets into the San José’s stern, hailed Miller, still aboard the Captain, and ordered him to send reinforcements onto the San Nicolas to keep her under control, and he placed sentries to keep the officers locked down.  Then, Berry boosting him onto the main chains, he leapt over the side of the San José and onto the deck.  Almost as soon as he landed, the Spanish captain leaned over the quarterdeck rail and called out the surrender of the ship.” (


And that is what is called the ‘Nelson Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates,’ in which one captures one ship by crossing from another!

“Nelson went on board Victory to report to Jervis who hugged and thanked him for the brilliant exercise of initiative that had led to such a success.” (

While Jervis was made Earl St. Vincent by George III and other admirals received peerages and baronets, Nelson asked that he not be given one  since he didn’t have the funds to maintain a title. However he was knighted, made a Companion of the Bath, and of course his fame continued. And not long after the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue.

Collingwood and Nelson were great friends. When the former died of cancer nearly five years after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, he was buried next to Nelson at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  


My utmost thanks and appreciation to the following sources:

British Battles:

Chasing Nelson:

A History of Cape St. Vincent:

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