IF THERE was one person you didn’t want to upset in the early 19th century it was Admiral Lord Nelson, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar.
But churchwardens at Portsmouth Cathedral feared they had done just that when word reached them that Nelson was affronted by their failure to ring the cathedral bells to herald his return to the city.
Thankfully, Nelson himself cleared the misunderstanding up by putting pen to paper to put the clergymen’s minds at ease.
In his letter, he explained that he would not have expected the bells to peal to welcome him – especially if doing so would interrupt a church service.
Now, more than 200 years later, the letter has been unearthed and given back to Portsmouth Cathedral.
In the 1801 note, Nelson says: ‘I am sure I should have felt the greatest distress if Divine Service had been interrupted to pay any attention to any mortal, and in no case had I a right to expect Ringing of Bells at Portsmouth on my arrival, not being a Freeman of that Borough.’
The letter has been given to the cathedral by The Reverend Canon Michael Grylls, who discovered it among papers belonging to his ancestors, the Bedford family.
Maria Bedford was his great-grandmother and her grandfather, John Bedford, served at Trafalgar. According to family legend he was one of Nelson’s pallbearers.
Mr Grylls presented the letter to the current churchwardens and the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Rev David Brindley.
Mr Brindley said: ‘This is another fascinating artefact to add to our collection of objects that reveal the maritime connections we have as the Cathedral of the Sea.
‘We’re extremely grateful to Canon Michael for donating it to our archive.
‘We have no idea of the circumstances surrounding the letter and why the churchwardens of the day did not ring the bells in recognition of Nelson coming to the city.
‘Even so it gives us an interesting glimpse into the history of our city.
‘Our intention is to put it on display with other artefacts for this year’s Heritage Open Days so more people can come and see it.’
The letter casts light on an interesting and unusual story about one of Britain’s most famous heroic figures and his connection to Portsmouth.
Sue Ward, one of the two current churchwardens, said of the letter, ‘It’s great because it’s very personal and it casts a human light on Nelson.
‘We tend to think of him as someone who was really proud of his own achievements but this is so humbling.
‘It shows that he did not really expect people to make a big fuss of him and makes him much more attractive.
‘I’m also relieved that churchwardens no longer bear responsibility for bell ringing.’