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Horatio Hornblower is the fictional protagonist of a series of novels by C. S. Forester, and later the subject of films and television programs.

The original Hornblower tales began with the appearance of a junior Royal Navy Captain on independent duty on a secret mission to Central America, though later stories would fill out his earlier years, starting with an unpromising beginning as a seasick midshipman. As the Napoleonic Wars progress, he gains promotion steadily, despite his initial poverty and lack of influential friends, as a result of his skill and daring. Eventually, after surviving many adventures in a wide variety of locales, he rises to the pinnacle of his profession, promoted to Admiral of the Fleet, knighted as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and named the 1st Baron Hornblower.

Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, "I recommend Forester to everyone literate I know," and Winston Churchill stated, "I find Hornblower admirable."


There are many parallels between Hornblower and real naval officers of the period, including Joseph Needham Tayler, Thomas Cochrane and Horatio Nelson. The name "Horatio" was inspired by the character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and chosen also because of its association with contemporary figures such as Nelson. The name Hornblower was probably derived from the American film producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. with whom C. S. Forester had been working prior to writing the first Hornblower novel.

Forester's original inspiration was an old copy of the Naval Chronicle, which described the effective dates of the Treaty of Ghent. Because of the time required to communicate around the world, it was possible for two countries to still be at war in one part of the world after a peace was obtained months before in another. The burdens that this placed on captains far from home led him to a character struggling with the stresses of a "man alone". At the same time, Forester wrote the body of the works carefully to avoid entanglements with real world history, so Hornblower is always off on another mission when a great naval victory occurs during the Napoleonic Wars.


Hornblower is born in Kent, the son of a doctor. He has no inherited wealth or influential connections who can advance his career. In the first five novels by order of publication, it is implied that Hornblower was born in the early 1780s. However when Forester decided to write about Hornblower's early career in the sixth novel Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, he made his hero about five years older, giving his birthdate as July 4, 1776 (the date of the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence). This adjustment allows Hornblower to begin his career in wartime. He is given a classical education, and by the time he joins the Royal Navy at age seventeen, he is well-versed in Greek and Latin. He is tutored in French by a penniless French émigré and has an aptitude for mathematics, which serves him well as a navigator.


Described as "unhappy and lonely", Hornblower's chief characteristics are not so much his courage and skilled seamanship as his intense reserve, introspection and self-doubt.

Despite numerous personal feats of extraordinary skill and cunning, he belittles his achievements by numerous rationalizations, remembering only his fears. He consistently ignores or is unaware of the admiration with which he is held by his fellow sailors.

He regards himself as cowardly, dishonest, and, at times, disloyal—never crediting his ability to persevere, think rapidly, organize, or cut to the nub of a matter. His sense of duty, hard work, and drive to succeed make these imagined negative characteristics undetectable by everyone but him, and being introspective, he obsesses over petty failures to reinforce his poor self image. His introverted nature continually isolates him from the people around him, including his closest friend, William Bush, and his wives never fully understand him. He is guarded with nearly everyone and reticent to the point of giving offense, unless the matter is the business of discharging his duty as a King's officer, in which case he is clear, decisive, and almost loquacious.

He suffers from chronic seasickness, especially at the start of his voyages. As a midshipman, he was once sick at the sheltered harbor at Spitheadmarker, the embarrassing rumour of which follows him throughout his career. A voracious reader, he can discourse on both contemporary and classical literature. His skill at mathematics makes him both an adept navigator and an extremely talented whist player. He uses his ability at whist to supplement his income during periods of inactivity in the naval service.

He is tone-deaf and finds music an incomprehensible irritant (in a scene in Hotspur he is unable to tell the British national anthem). He is philosophically opposed to flogging and capital punishment, in many cases when called for by the Articles of War, yet as Captain and Lieutenant had to call men to account knowing that such harshness would be the result. Hornblower possesses a hyper-developed sense of duty, yet on occasion he is able to set it aside for his more humane concerns, to the extent that, in Hornblower and the Hotspur, he contrives an escape for his personal steward who would otherwise have been hanged for striking a superior.

Early career

Hornblower's early exploits are many and varied. Joining the Royal Navy as a midshipman, he fends off fire ships which interrupt his first (disastrous) examination for promotion to lieutenant. Still only an acting lieutenant, he is given command of the sloop Le Rêve, which blunders into a Spanish fleet in the fog, resulting in Hornblower's capture and imprisonment in Ferrolmarker. He is finally confirmed as a commissioned lieutenant while still a prisoner of war, a state he will endure again later in his career at the end of Ship of the Line and detailed in Flying Colours—along with his daring escape from the heart of France, which earns him a sentence of death from a trial held in absentia from Napoleon—and a rather flattering reward offer for his capture. In the first captivity, his self-sacrificing, difficult and daring rescue of surviving sailors from a shipwreck hanging on a harbour entrance and rocky breakwater under extremely hazardous storm conditions, and his honourable adherence to the parole he had given, is rewarded by his Spanish captors by his release. His captivity leaves him with a fluent knowledge of Spanish, which proves highly useful in several further adventures.

As a junior lieutenant, he serves under Captain Sawyer, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia on a trip to the Caribbeanmarker, during which he begins his long friendship with William Bush. Returning to England, Hornblower is demobilised after the peace of Amiens, causing him great financial distress — he resorts to making a living as a professional gambler, playing whist with admirals and other senior figures for a modest income.

In 1803, he is reactivated and confirmed as commander of HMS Hotspur when hostilities resume against Napoleon. After gruelling service during the blockade of Brestmarker, he finally is promoted to captain and recalled to England. Once there, he meets the secretary of the Admiralty and post rank is conferred immediately when Hornblower agrees to take part in a clandestine operation that eventually leads to the resounding British victory at the Battle of Trafalgarmarker that costs Nelson his life.

Hornblower then organises Nelson's funeral procession along the River Thames and has to deal with the near-sinking of the barge conveying the hero's coffin. Later, he secretly recovers sunken gold and silver from a sunken ship on the bottom of Marmorice Bay within the Ottoman Empire with the aid of pearl divers from Ceylonmarker, narrowly escaping a Turkish warship at the end. Upon unloading the treasure and refitting, his ship, HMS Atropos, is taken away from him to be given to the King of the Two Sicilies for diplomatic reasons. On his return to England, he finds his two young children dying of smallpox.

He later (in the time line, but presented in first novel written) makes a long, difficult voyage in command of the frigate HMS Lydia, round the Hornmarker to the Pacific, where he supports a madman, El Supremo, in his rebellion against the Spanish. He captures the Natividad, a much more powerful Spanish ship (Bush refers to it as a "ship of the line", but Hornblower believes this is stretching a point) but then has to reluctantly cede it to El Supremo to placate him. When he finds that the Spanish have switched sides in the interim, he is forced to find and sink the ship he had captured—adding injury to insult, as he'd given up a fortune in prize money to maintain an uneasy alliance with the insane revolutionary. On his return voyage, he and his well-connected passenger, Lady Barbara Wellesley, the fictional younger sister of Arthur Wellesley (later to become the Duke of Wellington) become dangerously attracted to each other, resulting in a kiss that is interrupted by Lady Barbara's maid Hebe—when she is sent away, Hornblower is reluctant to re-enter the moment, and perceiving herself rejected, Barbara's temper flares. She leaves the Lydia two days later, and Hornblower fears the worst for his career having offended the daughter of an earl and sister of a marquis.

Later career

After these exploits, he is given command of HMS Sutherland, a seventy four gun ship of the line. While waiting at his Mediterranean rendezvous point for the rest of his squadron—and its commander—to arrive, he carries out a series of raids against the French along the south coast of Spain. He learns that a French squadron of four ships of the line is loose, having slipped the blockade. He decides that his duty requires that he fight at one-to-four odds to prevent them from entering a well-protected harbour. In the process, his ship is crippled and, with two-thirds of the crew incapacitated, he surrenders to the French.

He is sent with his coxswain, Brown, and his injured first lieutenant, Bush, to Paris for a show trial and execution. During the journey, Hornblower and his companions escape, and after a winter sojourn at the chateau of the Comte de Graçay, navigate down the Loire rivermarker to the coastal city of Nantesmarker. There, he recaptures a Royal Navy cutter, the Witch of Endor, mans the vessel with a gang of slave labourers and escapes to the Channel Fleet.

Hornblower faces a mandatory court-martial for the loss of the Sutherland, but is "most honourably acquitted." A national hero in the eyes of the public, he is awarded a knighthood and made a Colonel of Marines. When he arrives home, he discovers that his first wife Maria had died in childbirth and that his infant son has been adopted and cared for by Lady Barbara. As she has been widowed by the death of her husband, Hornblower's former commander, Admiral Leighton, they are free (after a decent interval) to marry. Barbara is more beautiful, cleverer and far richer than the poor Maria (whom Hornblower had more pitied than loved). Thereafter, he lives (uncomfortably) as a country squire in Kent.

Freedom from this purgatory comes when he is promoted to commodore and sent on a mission to the Baltic Seamarker, where he must be a diplomat as much as an officer. He foils an assassination attempt on the Russianmarker Czar and is influential in the ruler's decision to resist the French invasion of his vast country. He provides invaluable assistance in the defence of Rigamarker against the French army, where he meets Carl von Clausewitz.

He returns ill with typhus to England, yet soon after his recovery goes off to deal with mutineers off the coast of France. After taking the mutinous ship by trickery, he sets up the return of the Bourbons to France, and is created a peer as Baron Hornblower, of Smallbridge in the County of Kent.

When Napoleon returns from exile at the start of the Hundred Days, Hornblower is staying at the estate of the Comte de Graçay. He leads a Royalist Guerrilla movement; after capture by the French, he is about to be shot under an earlier warrant for his execution when he is saved by news of Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloomarker.

After several years ashore, he is promoted to Rear Admiral and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the West Indies. He foils an attempt by veterans of Napoleon's Imperial Guard to free Napoleon from his captivity on Saint Helena, captures a slave ship, and encounters Simón Bolívar's army. He retires to Kent and eventually becomes Admiral of the Fleet.

His final, improbable achievement occurs at his home, when he assists a seemingly mad man claiming to be Napoleon to travel to France. That person turns out to be Napoleon III, the nephew of Hornblower's great nemesis and the future president (and later emperor in his own right) of France. For his assistance, Lord Hornblower is created a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. At the end of his long and heroic career, he is wealthy, famous, and contented; a loving and indulgent husband and father; and finally free of the insecurities and self-loathing that had driven him throughout his life.

Forester provides two different brief summaries of Hornblower's career. The first was in the first chapter of The Happy Return, which was the first Hornblower novel written. The second occurs mid-way through The Commodore, when Czar Alexander asks him to describe his career. The two accounts are incompatible. The first account would have made Hornblower about five years older than the second. The second account is more nearly compatible with the rest of Hornblower's career, but it omits the time he spent as a commander in Hornblower and the Hotspur. There are other discrepancies as well; in one account of his defeat of a Spanish frigate in the Mediterranean, he distinguished himself as lieutenant and in another he is a post-captain with less than three years seniority. It appears that these discrepancies arose as the series matured and accounts needed to be modified to coincide with his age and career.


C. Northcote Parkinson, more famous for his invention of Parkinson's Law, has written a 'biography' of Hornblower, detailing his career as well as personal information. The biography sheds light upon what really happened to Captain Sawyer on H.M.S. Renown (including a confession that Hornblower pushed Captain Sawyer down the hatchway), as well as subsequent careers of Lord Hornblower's descendants, ending with the present Lord Hornblower's emigration to Apartheid South Africa in the late 1960s. According to Parkinson, Hornblower in later life became a director of P&O, Governor General of Malta (1829-1831), Commander in Chief at Chatham (1832-1835) a Viscount (in 1850) and an Admiral of the Fleet, dying aged 80 on 12th Jan 1858.

The Hornblower novels

The novels, in the order they were written:
  1. The Happy Return (1937, called Beat to Quarters in the U.S.)
  2. A Ship of the Line (1938, called simply Ship of the Line in the U.S.)
  3. Flying Colours (1938, spelled Flying Colors in some U.S. editions)
  4. The Commodore (1945, called Commodore Hornblower in the U.S.)
  5. Lord Hornblower (1946)
  6. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950)
  7. Lieutenant Hornblower (1952)
  8. Hornblower and the Atropos (1953)
  9. Hornblower in the West Indies (1958, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies in some U.S. editions)
  10. Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962)
  11. Hornblower and the Crisis (1967, unfinished novel and short stories, Hornblower During the Crisis in some U.S. editions)

In chronological order (including short stories):
  1. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950)
  2. "Hornblower and the Widow McCool" (1967, short story, a.k.a. "Hornblower's Temptation")
  3. Lieutenant Hornblower (1952)
  4. Hornblower and the Hotspur (1962)
  5. Hornblower and the Crisis (1967, unfinished novel and short stories, a.k.a. Hornblower During the Crisis)
  6. Hornblower and the Atropos (1953)
  7. The Happy Return (1937, a.k.a. Beat to Quarters)
  8. A Ship of the Line (1938)
  9. Flying Colours (1938)
  10. The Commodore (1945, a.k.a. Commodore Hornblower)
  11. Lord Hornblower (1946)
  12. Hornblower in the West Indies (1958, a.k.a. Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies)
  13. "The Last Encounter" (1967, short story)

Omnibus releases

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, and Hornblower and the Hotspur were compiled in one book, variously titled Hornblower's Early Years, Horatio Hornblower Goes to Sea, or The Young Hornblower. Hornblower and the Atropos was replaced by Hornblower and the Hotspur in later UK editions of The Young Hornblower.

Hornblower and the Atropos, The Happy Return, and A Ship of the Line were compiled into one omnibus edition, called Captain Hornblower.

In the U.S., Beat to Quarters, A Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours were compiled into one book, called Captain Horatio Hornblower.

Flying Colours, The Commodore, Lord Hornblower, and Hornblower in the West Indies were presented as a third omnibus edition called Admiral Hornblower to fill out the series.

Commodore Hornblower, Lord Hornblower, and Hornblower in the West Indies were also compiled into one book, called The Indomitable Hornblower.

The Hornblower short stories

Three short stories by C. S. Forester about Hornblower were published in 1940 and 1941. The stories are:

  • "Hornblower's Charitable Offering" (a.k.a. "The Bad Samaritan"), published in Argosy, May 1941, and was originally intended as a chapter for A Ship of the Line (Captain Hornblower encounters marooned prisoners of war).
  • "Hornblower and His Majesty", in Collier's, March 1940, and in Argosy, March 1941.
  • "The Hand of Destiny", in Collier's, November 1940 (Lieutenant Hornblower negotiates a mutiny).

Another short story "The Point And The Edge" is included as an outline only in Forester's The Hornblower Companion (1964).

Two final stories "Hornblower and the Widow McCool" (a.k.a. "Hornblower's Temptation") (1967) and "The Last Encounter" (1967), are often included with the unfinished novel Hornblower and the Crisis.

Historical figures portrayed in the books

Royal Navy figures

Other historical figures

Hornblower's ships

Name of Ship Rate of Ship Hornblower's Rank Book
HMS Justinian 3rd rate 74 gun ship-of-the-line Midshipman Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
HMS Indefatigable 5th rate 44 gun heavy frigate Midshipman, later acting Lieutenant Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
Marie Galante Captured Merchant Brig Midshipamn Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
HM transport Caroline Transport Brig Acting Lieutenant Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
La Reve 2-gun Sloop Acting Lieutenant Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
HMS Marguerite 5th rate 36-gun Frigate 1st Lieutenant The Hand of Destiny
HMS Renown 3rd rate 74-gun ship-of-the-line Lieutenant Lieutnenat Hornblower
HMS Retribution 18-gun Sloop-of-war Acting-Commander Lietutenant Hornblower
HMS Hotspur 20-gun Sloop-of-war Commander Hornblower and the Hotspur
HMS Atropos 6th rate 22-gun post ship Junior Post-Captain Hornblower and the Atropos
HMS Lydia 5th rate 36-gun Frigate Senior Post-Captain The Happy Return/Beat to Quarters
HMS Natividad 4th rate 50-gun Ship-of-the-Line Post-Captain The Happy Return/Beat to Quarters
HMS Sutherland 3rd rate 74-gun Ship-of-the-Line Post-Captain A Ship of the Line
Witch of Endor 10-gun Cutter Post-Captain Flying Colors
Augusta 6-gun yacht Post-Captain Hornblower and his Majesty
HMS Nonsuch 3rd rate 74-gun Ship-of-the-Line Commodore of the First class The Commodore and Lord Hornblower
Lotus and Raven Sloops Commodore The Commodore
Clam Cutter Commodore The Commodore
Harvey and Moth Bomb-ketches Commodore The Commodore
Porta Coeli 18-gun Brig Post-Captain Lord Hornblower
Flame 18-gun Brig Post-Captain Lord Hornblower
HMS Camilla 5th rate 36-gun Frigate Post-Captain Lord Hornblower
Crab 2-gun Schooner Post-Captain The Commodore and Hornblower in the West Indies
HMS Phoebe 5th rate 36-gun Frigate Admiral, Commander-in-Chief Hornblower in the West Indies
HMS Clorinda 5th rate 36-gun Frigate Admiral and Commander-in-Chief Hornblower in the Wesst Indies
HMS Roebuck 5th rate 36-gun Frigate Admiral and Commander-in-Chief Hornblower in the Wesst Indies

Hornblower in other media

Screen adaptations

Literary appearances

  • Hornblower makes an appearance in the Jay Worrall Napoleonic naval war novel, Sails on the Horizon.
  • In the fictional setting of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hornblower is the equivalent of Lord Nelson, with The Black Dossier depicting Hornblower's Columnmarker as one of London's most popular landmarks.
  • A biography of Hornblower, called The True Story of Horatio Hornblower ISBN 0750934395 was published in 1970 by C. Northcote Parkinson which gives various scholarly "corrections" to the stories told by Hornblower's creator.
  • In Ellis K. Meacham's The East Indiaman, the protagonist, an East India Company Naval Service captain going to his ship, sees "a tall figure, in a uniform trimmed with gold lace," boarding a Royal Navy sloop, and his boatman tells him that the sloop is "Atropos, twenty-two."
  • In Dudley Pope's Ramage, Hornblower is mentioned in passing as a former shipmate of the title character, Lord Ramage, when both were midshipmen.
  • Sten Nadolny's novel The Discovery of Slowness, contains allusions to the Hornblower cycle. For instance, the Lydia is written among other vessels in a sailor's bar in plymouth. Lieutenant Gerard who appears in The Happy Return and A Ship of the Line is mentioned several times.

Influence on other fiction

Napoleonic War series

  • The popular Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell were inspired by C. S. Forester's Hornblower series.
  • Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels are also inspired by Hornblower, and retell some of the same episodes of naval history.
  • Douglas Reeman's Richard Bolitho series was inspired by Hornblower and was described in publicity as 'the best of Hornblower's successors'.
  • Dudley Pope was encouraged by C. S. Forester to create his Lord Ramage series of novels set around the same period.

Science fiction series

Other references

  • Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N. is a short story parody written by the science fiction author Harry Harrison. While Hornblower is tone-deaf, Harpplayer is one of the rare people who are completely colour-blind, with the result that he cannot recognize a little green man as an alien from outer space. Harpplayer reflects on the "imaginary colors" that other people claim to see, and refers to the alien as "Mr. Greene".
  • The British comedy film Carry On Jack featured a character named Midshipman Poopdecker, played by Bernard Cribbins, who was intended as a parody of Hornblower.


  1. Winston Churchill The Grand Alliance p382. He relates that "this caused perturbation in Middle East Headquarters, where they imagined that 'Hornblower' was the code word for some special operation of which they had not been told."
  2. Trust for Devizes newsletter
  3. C. S. Forester, The Hornblower Companion, NY, 1964, p. 87.
  4. C. S. Forester, The Hornblower Companion, Michael Joseph Ltd (London), 1964, pp. 81,82
  5. C. Northcote Parkinson in his "biography" called The True Story of Horatio Hornblower gives slight scholarly corrections to various aspects of Hornblower's life as narrated by his creator. For example, Parkinson says his father was an apothecary rather than a physician.
  6. Parkinson dryly notes that "there was practically no precedent for such an honour to be accorded to any seaman under the rank of Rear Admiral" and suggests that it was due to the influence of the Wellesley family (op cit p 193)
  7. The True Story of Horatio Hornblower by C. Northcote Parkinson Michael Joseph 1970
  8. Meacham, Ellis K, The East Indiaman, New York: Little, Brown & Co, 1968, p.19.
  9. Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe's Story, 2007, p.11
  11. Rambles: C.S. Forester, Hornblower & the "Hotspur"

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