Horatio Hornblower, Royal Navy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Horatio Hornblower, Royal Navy

1 Conversation

The life and career of the fictional naval officer Horatio Hornblower have been chronicled in a series of novels and stories written by CS Forester. The story that eventually evolves is that of a small boy1 with no friends or connections who rises to Lord Admiral of the Navy.

The story was first published as a trilogy of novels in 1937, Beat to Quarters2, Ship of the Line and Flying Colours. The story from these three books was told in the 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower RN starring Gregory Peck in the title role.

A series of eight made-for-TV films was produced between 1998 and 2003. Although presenting several episodes of the early career of Hornblower from the books, many details were altered to combine story lines that were intended to be separate events.

The series of novels is presented here in chronological order, from young boy to old man. This is not the order in which they were written, and an observant reader will find several inconsistencies in minor details presented in the earlier books from those developed in later, more detailed writings of the events. At the conclusion of each book there is a brief summary of the outcome. The details will be omitted so as not to spoil the enjoyment for the reader, but a brief mention of the outcome has to be revealed as this is an introduction to the story in the next novel.

Mister Midshipman Hornblower

At the age of 17, Horatio Hornblower is assigned to the 74-gun ship of the line Justinian, lying at anchor in the harbour of Spithead, a gathering place for navy ships in the eastern Solent3. After exhausting days of travel from his home in Kent, and being thrust among the strange sights, smells and motion of a warship at anchor, young Horatio finds his stomach beginning to rebel. One of the other midshipmen in the compartment recognizes the symptoms and gives Horatio the nickname 'The Midshipman who was sea-sick in Spithead!' Self-conscious and insecure, Hornblower will be haunted by these words for a long time.

As if life could not get any worse, after a few days aboard the ship the senior midshipman returns, having once more been passed over for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant. A cruel man, he tries to suppress his own shortcomings by oppressing those under his control. While the ship tries to complete her crew there are many idle hours to fill, opportunities for mischief abound.

Hornblower manages to be transferred to a smart frigate on active duty and while patrolling the Bay of Biscay hunting prize ships, learns many of the skills that will help him in his career.

As this book reaches its conclusion we find Hornblower a prisoner of war in Spain. He uses the opportunity to become fluent in the local dialect. Hornblower's promotion to the rank of Lieutenant is confirmed, giving him additional rights and privileges. When a merchant ship is forced onto a nearby reef, Hornblower organizes a rescue team and saves several men of the doomed ship's crew. The waves crashing on shore make any return impossible. Hornblower, his Spanish crew and the few rescued men are picked up by a British frigate cruising just off-shore. His own ship is only a few miles away, but he has given his word as a gentleman to return to his prison.

Hornblower's Temptation

This is a short story where Hornblower faces the 'Irish Problem' for the first time. As the most junior Lieutenant aboard the ship of the line Renown, he is given the task of preventing an Irish renegade from giving a speech to the crew, which included many Irish sailors, before his execution scheduled for the next morning. Hornblower decided he would simply ask the condemned man not to address the crew. To his surprise McCool agrees if Hornblower will only promise to send his sea chest and a note about his last thoughts to his poor widow. After the execution Hornblower finds the secret of the chest and is faced with a dilemma.

Lieutenant Hornblower

The Renown is ordered to the West Indies under the command of Captain Sawyer. For the first time we meet Lieutenant William Bush, one of the more senior officers. He and Hornblower become close friends and will serve together on many other adventures. As the ship crosses the Atlantic, the captain convinces himself that his officers are all disloyal and are plotting to ruin his reputation. While conducting a midnight search of the ship hoping to catch the mutinous lieutenants in the act of conspiring against him, the captain falls down an open hatch and is severely injured. The helpless captain is found by Lieutenant Hornblower and wild rumours began to circulate about how the captain had fallen through the hatch.

After much success in their mission, Hornblower is appointed Acting Commander (the rank between Lieutenant and Post Captain) and is given the additional pay due his assumed rank.

When at last he returns to England, Hornblower learns that peace has been declared and all promotions suspended. His own pay has been stopped until he has made up the funds given to him in anticipation of his new rank. He is forced to support himself as a professional gambler, playing cards against the wealthy. Fortunately he is skilled at the games and many of those in power at the Admiralty learn his story and become supportive of him.

Hornblower and the Hotspur

This novel opens with the recently promoted Commander Hornblower's marriage to Maria, a rather dowdy girl who adores him and he feels somehow compelled to please her. Rumours abound that the war with Napoleon's France is about to resume. Hornblower is given special permission from the Admiral commanding his fleet to spend the night ashore with his bride, but is warned that he must sail soon after.

Hotspur is soon dispatched to observe the ships at anchor at the French port of Brest and contact the local fishermen to obtain information about local affairs.

At last war is declared and the fleet arrives off-shore. Hornblower and the Hotspur remain as the forward observers among the rocks and shoals just beyond the range of the enemy's shore batteries. Lieutenant Bush is his first officer, but Hornblower must remain distant to maintain discipline. The fleet are resupplied by small supply ships so they can remain on station for months, if not years before returning to their home port.

When the Admiral commanding the fleet is retired he is given the privilege of promoting one man from each rank of the junior officers. Hornblower is his choice for the most coveted rank of Post Captain. Only death or a court martial can preventing him from reaching the rank of Admiral at some point in the distant future.

Hornblower During the Crisis

This is the novel that the author was working on when he passed away. He was at best maybe a quarter of the way through. Rather than allowing someone else to complete the story, Forester's original words, followed by a summary of his notes, were published. Written at a time when James Bond was becoming a household name, this might have become the most popular Forester novel had it been completed.

With his promotion, Hornblower is forced to give up his command of the Hotspur, a new commander is appointed and Hornblower is obliged to seek passage back to England on an awkward, privately-owned vessel designed to carry water to the fleet. Unable to depart for several days, he is joined by the officers and some of the crew from Hotspur which has struck a rock in the outer harbour and been lost.

Due to her poor sailing abilities, the awkward vessel is overtaken by a small French ship. With many of his former crew at hand Hornblower devises a plan. They surprise the French boarding party and returning in their own boat they capture the French ship. With the surprise attack many of the ship's papers are captured, including a sealed envelope from the Emperor Napoleon, weighted with lead so it would quickly sink if thrown overboard.

With the remaining text and notes we learn that Hornblower is asked to return to the Spanish coast where he had been held prisoner. There he will deliver a false order to the French Admiral ordering him to take his fleet to sea instead of spending the upcoming winter in port. This will lead to the major British victory at Trafalgar.

The short stories Hornblower's Temptation and The Last Encounter are also included in this volume.

Hornblower and the Atropos

This novel opens with Hornblower, his pregnant wife Maria and their young son travelling across England to London by canal boat. The news is filled with reports of the Trafalgar battle and the death of Admiral Nelson.

After assuming command of the Atropos Hornblower is ordered to remain at anchor in the London Pool and take command of the water procession of the funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson. We are shown all the tedious details of this undertaking. It would have been a disaster if England's greatest naval hero had sunk beneath the waves of the Thames in full view of the King.

He is then ordered to sail for Turkey with a group of Ceylonese pearl divers and their arrogant master who is an expert at underwater salvage. His task is to recover the fortune in gold and silver that was lost when a transport capsized in a Turkish bay while carrying the army's payroll.

While re-fitting in Sicily the King notices the Atropos and decides that he would like to have such a ship. In an effort to appease one of his last allies in the Mediterranean, the Admiral agrees and Hornblower again loses his ship. He is promised command of the next available frigate as compensation.

Beat to Quarters

This is the first book published, followed by the next two listed. They form a trilogy and were the basis of the Gregory Peck film.

After sailing halfway around the world without any contact, Hornblower brings his frigate, the Lydia, into an isolated cove on the west coast of Central America where a revolution against the Spanish government is being formed. When Hornblower meets the leader of the revolution, he determines that the man has become insane; he has adopted the name 'El Supremo' (literally 'The Almighty').

Hornblower insists that his ship be re-supplied before he delivers the weapons and ammunition to the revolution. While the Lydia is filling her holds with the food and water that will allow her to return to sea, a Spanish ship, almost twice her size, arrives at the cove. Hornblower moves his ship behind an island, out of sight, and waits for the Spanish to settle down for the night. The Natividad has not been within a thousand miles of an enemy warship for over 20 years. A midnight attack from the Lydia's crew in the ship's boats easily overwhelms the unsuspecting enemy. When El Supremo demands the captured ship for his revolution Hornblower reluctantly agrees, first securing the Spanish officers on his own ship to prevent them from being tortured or killed by his mad ally.

His covert mission accomplished, Hornblower sails south to Panama to harass the Spanish. He is met by a Spanish lugger flying a white flag of truce. The first person to come aboard is an English noblewoman and her servant. She is the fictional sister of the Duke of Wellington, Lady Barbara Wellesley. She explains that the packet ship they had been sailing in had been captured by the Spanish. There is an outbreak of yellow fever in the city and she demands passage for herself and her servant aboard the Lydia. Her presence is further explained by the Spanish officer who follows her. After Napoleon placed his brother on the throne of Spain, the colonies in the new world revolted and formed an alliance with Britain. It is clear that Hornblower must seek out the Natividad and destroy her. This time there can be no surprise.

Affection between Hornblower and Lady Barbara is inevitable on the long voyage home. However, Hornblower reminds himself of his duty as captain of his ship and the loyalty he owes his wife at home. When he suddenly becomes formal and distant, Barbara becomes confused and hurt.

Ship of the Line

Soon after his arrival home, Hornblower and his crew are transferred to the 74-gun ship of the line Sutherland. Hornblower is troubled when he reads that Lady Barbara has married Admiral Sir Percy Leighton. When his ship is assigned to Leighton's squadron, he wonders if his former passenger had recommended him for the appointment.

The ships sail separately to the Mediterranean, with a pre-arranged rendezvous point. While waiting for the Admiral's arrival, the captains decide to draw lots and allow one of the ships to leave and attack the enemy. Hornblower is selected. In a few short days the Sutherland arrives and attacks several points along the coast. She captures several ships earning Hornblower a considerable sum of prize money. At one point Hornblower orders a French flag to be constructed to allow them to approach the enemy under false colours. This was an accepted ruse at the time, the only requirement being that the proper flag be hoisted before opening fire.

When the Admiral arrives, the squadron continues to harass the enemy along the Spanish and French coasts. Eventually the French send their own squadron of four ships of the line to fight the three British ships. The Sutherland is sailing alone when she sights a British frigate on the horizon. She signals that she has the French squadron in sight. Hornblower approaches. When his own lookouts sight the enemy's sails, he orders the frigate to find the rest of the squadron and return with them. For several days he follows the French ships until at last the frigate is sighted again on the horizon. Believing the squadron is near, and seeing a protected harbour is also near, he sets all sail and closes with the enemy against impossible odds. He manages to cripple all four ships before the Sutherland is reduced to a mastless hulk. Lieutenant Bush is lying on the deck with his foot shot away when Hornblower is forced to surrender.

Flying Colours

Once again Hornblower is a prisoner of war in Spain. This does not promise to be a long sentence as he and Bush, his first Lieutenant, are to be taken to Paris, tried for war crimes and executed. Accompanied by Seaman Brown their coxswain, they travel by coach into France, local doctors being brought in each evening to treat Bush's wound. Their escape and travels through France make an exciting story. Eventually they reach the British fleet that is still blockading the coast.

Hornblower learns that his wife Maria has died in childbirth while he was away. Admiral Leighton was killed in the battle that followed the loss of the Sutherland. He also receives a note from Lady Barbara telling him that she is caring for his newborn son. Before he can visit them, he is sent to London to meet the Prince Regent who grants him a knighthood.

Commodore Hornblower

Hornblower and Barbara are married. Just as they are settling in on the country estate that he has purchased with part of his prize money, orders arrive from the Admiralty. Although promotion to the rank of Admiral is strictly limited by the order of seniority of the captain's list, Hornblower is granted the title of Commodore, and is to command a squadron. He is given a ship of the line, the Nonsuch as his flagship. When asked whom he would like as captain, Hornblower requests Bush who had been promoted after their escape from France. They are assigned to the Baltic with the primary goal of preventing the Russians from joining Napoleon.

When the French invade Russia in 1812, Napoleon leads the main force against Moscow. Another part of the army heads north to attack the Tzar in St Petersburg. The attack is halted at the town of Riga. Hornblower becomes involved in the siege, offering covering fire from his ships and aiding in the movement of the troops. When the Grand Army begins its disastrous retreat from Moscow, the troops at Riga also withdraw.

Lord Hornblower

Hornblower is given the task of recovering a small brig whose crew have mutinied. The Flame is lying just off-shore from the French port of Le Havre. The crew tells Hornblower that they will take their brig into port and surrender to the French if they are threatened. Hornblower tricks the French into believing that the mutiny is a sham, cutting off their plan of retreat. While restoring order to the rebel brig, Hornblower learns that many in control of the city are tired of life under Napoleon and are ready to welcome back the Bourbon King from exile. Hornblower secures a foothold in France and is granted peerage as a reward.

After Napoleon is sent to the island of Elba, Hornblower decides to visit the family that had aided his escape many years before. When Napoleon escapes and reforms his army, Hornblower becomes involved in the Hundred Days War. Can he hold out until his brother-in-law organizes his troops at Waterloo?

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies

The world is at peace, except for a fanatical group of the old guard who have conceived a plan to rescue Napoleon from his prison on Saint Helena, Spanish slave ships, small bands of renegade pirates and the inevitable hurricane or two. While the large fleet of ships of the line that his predecessors had commanded have been reduced to a pair of frigates and a dozen or so smaller vessels, there is still much to accomplish.

The Last Encounter

As an elderly retired gentleman living on his country estate, Hornblower is surprised by the arrival of a stranger at his door. The combined limited English of the visitor and the lack of interest of the elderly resident results in a message that the stranger, who claims to be Napoleon, must arrive at Southampton in time to catch the packet for Cherbourg, France. The survival of the nation depends upon it!

Considering the visitor to be a mad man, Hornblower decided to indulge his guest's strange request. It had been several months since the horses and coachman had been properly exercised. As a ship's captain Hornblower is a firm believer in drill and practice.

When an order of nobility in France 'for invaluable aid' signed by the Foreign Minister is delivered, Hornblower becomes convinced that the new president will follow the old pattern and end by calling himself Napoleon III.

The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower

When this book, written by C Northcote Parkinson, was published in 1970 it raised many questions in the minds of loyal readers. It contains not only a detailed account of the story, but also contains 'letters' and 'paintings' that give further insight to the events. The whole is presented as a reference book about a real person. There is even a 'confession' published in the appendix where Hornblower confesses that he did indeed push the captain down the hatch in Lieutenant Hornblower. Although convincing, it is clear from Forester's own writing that our hero is quite fictional.


These books are well written and give an interesting view of the sailing warships of the early 19th Century. While they can be read and enjoyed by children as young as 10 or 12 years old, they are not childish and may be enjoyed by adults as well.

Several adventure stories have been inspired by the Hornblower series. One of the most famous series is the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell, also produced as a series of television specials. Another interesting example is the science fiction series Honor Harrington by David Weber.

Order of Publication

As mentioned previously these books were not published in chronological order. This is a list of the actual date of release.

  1. Beat to Quarters or The Happy Return - 1937
  2. Ship of the Line - 1938
  3. Flying Colours - 1938
  4. Commodore Hornblower - 1945
  5. Lord Hornblower - 1946
  6. Mr Midshipman Hornblower - 1950
  7. Lieutenant Hornblower - 1952
  8. Hornblower and the Atropos - 1953
  9. Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies - 1958
  10. Hornblower and the Hotspur - 1962
  11. Hornblower during the Crisis - 1966

Another book, The Hornblower Companion, was published in 1964. While this is not a part of the series, Forester explains how he came to write about Hornblower and gives his own opinions about the development of several of the characters.

1Although the story opens with Horatio in his late teens, we learn of his early childhood by several recollections scattered throughout the series.2Titled The Happy Return in the UK.3The body of water that separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more