As dawn broke over Aboukir Bay on the northern coast of Egypt, it revealed a sea strewn with dead bodies and wreckage from the French and British ships which had been engaged in deadly exchanges of fire throughout the night.
On HMS Vanguard, Admiral Horatio Nelson, 29, had himself been injured, struck on the head by a piece of glowing metal which slashed through his hat and scalp.
He had feared he might die but victory was his on that August morning in 1798. Only four of the enemy’s 17 vessels had escaped capture or destruction and he would soon be rewarded in spectacular fashion.
In routing the French fleet during the Battle of the Nile, as it became known, he was protecting British interests, threatened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt which lay on the trade routes to India.
But he had also earned the gratitude of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire which had spread from modern-day Turkey into much of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, including Egypt.
He bestowed on Nelson the Chelengk, the Ottoman Empire’s highest military decoration. Traditionally pinned to a turban, but attached by Nelson to the cockade of his hat, it would become one of the most famous, and yet ill-fated, jewels in British history.
Usually a chelengk was unadorned by gemstones but, it was whispered in diplomatic circles, this particular badge of honour had been personally plucked by the sultan from one of his own turbans and modified in recognition of Nelson’s achievement.
A glittering mass of more than 300 white diamonds, it was the size of a child’s hand but with 13 fingers, one for each of the French ships taken during the action. And its centrepiece was a rotating clockwork star which threw candlelight around a room.
For years we have only been able to imagine what this treasure looks like because shortly after World War II it was stolen from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich by a cat burglar.
Since then it has been presumed lost for ever, its glory visible only in portraits of Nelson and on his statue in Trafalgar Square. But fortunately the jewel formed part of the heraldic crest adopted by Nelson when he was appointed to the peerage, and a long-lost drawing of the original was recently found at the College of Arms, the national authority on such matters.
Following this discovery, London jewellers Symbolic & Chase financed a replica which has just gone on show at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, and will be exhibited in London this week.
Made with real diamonds, and its own clockwork mechanism, it’s a faithful reproduction of an object which seems to have brought ill-fortune to just about everybody who came into possession of it.
As I explain in my new book about the Chelengk’s extraordinary story, it has even been blamed for Nelson’s untimely death and he would perhaps have thought twice about accepting it had he been able to foresee the grisly end of the man who awarded it to him.
In 1808, Sultan Selim III would become the victim of a coup staged by a cousin. This usurper sent ‘two black eunuchs and eight trusty Moors’ armed with daggers and garrotting wire into the harem at the royal palace in Constantinople, now Istanbul.
Selim’s screaming concubines threw themselves between him and his assassins, but were dragged off and he was quickly cut down before his body was dragged outside and displayed as a warning to anyone who dared challenge the new sultan.
But all that was far in the future when, in December 1798, four months after his victory at Aboukir, Nelson was presented with his precious gift.
He was in Italy, helping protect Naples from attack by French forces while conducting an affair with the wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy there.
A blacksmith’s daughter from Cheshire, former artist’s model and exotic dancer Emma Hamilton was a famous beauty whose appeal remained undimmed, even though she was then 33 and growing plump on wine.
Seven years Nelson’s junior, she did things in bed which, he exclaimed in a love letter, ‘no woman but yourself ever did’ and Fanny, his wife of ten years, stood little chance of winning him back.
It was Emma who had first heard rumours of the Sultan’s lavish award for Nelson. He was then in Malta, fighting another campaign against the French, and she wrote to him that he was to receive ‘a feather for your hat of dymonds large and most magnificent’.
There was also talk of a pelice, a scarlet robe of honour made of the softest sable fur, and Emma burst with sensual anticipation at the thought of it on her naked skin.
‘How I shall look at it, smell it, taste it and touch it, put the pelice over my own shoulders, look in the glass and say . . . God bless the old Turk.’
The Sultan’s gifts were everything Emma hoped they would be and she took to wearing Nelson’s hat with its Chelengk in public, in bold defiance of propriety and naval etiquette.
Nelson was no less enamoured of his honours, missing no opportunity to show off the Chelengk and other medals awarded for his success at Aboukir and elsewhere.
There was much comment on his bizarre appearance as he stooped beneath the weight of the jewels he wore wherever he went, with one diplomat’s wife declaring ‘there never was a man so vainglorious’.
For all Nelson’s love of the Chelengk, things began to go wrong for him almost from the moment he acquired it.
Although the Battle of the Nile established him as a national hero, he found himself humiliated by King George III upon his return to England in November 1800.
In part this was because he made the mistake of wearing the Chelengk on his hat at court, giving it far more prominence than the Order of the Bath previously presented to him by the monarch and now pinned to his coat.
Flaunting foreign decorations in this way was not wise and it was still less sensible of Emma Hamilton to have been seen sporting Nelson’s hat, complete with Chelengk, as she so often had.
With the dawn of the 19th century, attitudes against sexual impropriety were hardening, hastened by the embarrassing behaviour of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, and his legion of mistresses.
When Nelson arrived at court, the king made a curt inquiry after his health before turning his back to talk ‘in great good humour’ with an army officer.
This royal snub was public and painful but did not stop Nelson’s affair with Emma and, by the time their illegitimate daughter Horatia was born in February 1801, he and his wife had separated.
The resulting alimony payments helped drive him into debt, as did Emma’s lavish spending. When he asked her to find them a house near London for around £3,000 (£500,000 today) she came up with Merton Place, a mansion in 50 acres of Surrey countryside and costing three times as much.
Drawing on loans from friends and taking a mortgage, Nelson considered selling the Chelengk to cover the rest of the cost.
‘Jewels give not money or drink,’ he once said, but sentiment prevailed and the Chelengk remained in safekeeping at a jeweller’s near Covent Garden.
In September 1805 he visited the shop with John Lee, a former midshipman aboard HMS Swiftsure during the Battle of the Nile.
Lee later described how they had to fight their way through the crowds which gathered wherever Nelson went and pressed their faces against the shop window as he handled the Chelengk for what was probably the last time.
Less than a month later he met his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, wearing his ‘undress’ uniform with embroidered copies of his medals on his coat and a silver wire replica of the Chelengk on his hat.
It was commonly believed, even by his own family, that the sharpshooter who killed him had been attracted by this ‘brilliancy of his dress’. Whether or not vanity contributed to the great sea-lord’s death, there is no question that those who inherited the Chelengk could hardly consider it lucky.
Its next owner was Nelson’s brother William, a clergyman who had two children, Horace and Charlotte, with his wife Sarah. In 1808, just two years after the Chelengk came into his possession, they lost their son Horace, 19, to typhus.
William longed for another son and heir but although he remarried following Sarah’s death in 1828 he had had no children by the time he died six years later after being knocked down by a carriage in Salisbury.
A quirk in inheritance law meant the Chelengk went to his daughter Charlotte, 47, embroiling her in many years of unhappy legal dispute with the family of Nelson’s sister Susannah.
That was resolved in Charlotte’s favour but in the years after her death in 1873, her son General Alexander Hood, Viscount Bridport, faced financial ruin after entrusting money to a fraudulent investment scheme.
In 1895 he was forced to sell the Chelengk in an auction described by son Alec as ‘the great grief of my father’s life’.
It was bought by Constance Eyre Matcham, the wife of Nelson’s great-great-nephew George Eyre Matcham, a banker.
But the financial depression of the Twenties hit the Eyre Matchams and in 1929 the Chelengk was again for sale.
Heiress Lady Sarita Barclay, widow of African explorer Herbert Ward, bought it and presented it to the nation in memory of her husband.
Seven years later it became a star exhibit at the new National Maritime Museum and might have found its final resting place, but career criminal George Chatham broke into the museum in the summer of 1951 and stole it.
Museum trustee the Duke of Edinburgh told me that, even 65 years later, he can still vividly remember the shock of its loss — one of the last people alive to be able to recall its disappearance.
George Chatham confessed in 1994 claiming to have sold it to a ‘fence’ for ‘a few thousand’, shortly before dying penniless and alone.
Nobody knows where it is now but that needn’t be the end of its story.
Valued at £250,000, the replica will be auctioned in London next year, with some proceeds going to fund the conservation of HMS Victory.
I would urge you to go and marvel at Nelson’s lost jewel.