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Emma Hamilton: Consort to Lord Horatio Nelson

Emma Hamilton

Emma Hamilton: Consort to Lord Horatio Nelson

Emma Hamilton (Lady Hamilton) (April 26, 1765 – January 16, 1815) is best remembered as the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

Born “Emily Lyon” in 1765 at Swan Cottage, Ness, she was the daughter of a Wirral blacksmith who died soon after her birth. By all accounts she was an exceptionally beautiful woman. In her teens she was sent to London to work as a nursery-maid but her looks quickly won her fame and she became a celebrated model for fashionable painters most notably, George Romney who painted numerous portraits of her. Emily “Hart” became mistress to Sir Harry Featherstonhough and later, Charles Greville, and was seduced by a naval officer whose child she bore. She also found employment as an Attendant at the “Temple of Health”, a suspect medical establishment.

As far as she could, Emily entered into stable relationships and remained faithful to her lovers although she accepted that she could not expect them to marry her. Charles Greville was a nephew of Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples, a wealthy widower, scholar and antiquarist. Greville asked his uncle to take Emma because Greville needed to find a suitable wife. Already aged sixty Sir William did not really want to take on a mistress or a wife in her twenties but after much correspondence and eventual acquiescence he agreed that “Emma”, as she now was, should join him in Naples where she arrived early in 1786.

Emma did not know of the agreement between Greville and Sir William believing that she was there “on holiday” and she was devastated when the reality of the situation slowly dawned upon her. But, Sir William seems to have acted with great kindness and patience and eventually he and Emma formed a genuinely loving relationship which resulted in their marriage in London in the autumn of 1791.

Sir William was a realist. Emma was a beautiful, vivacious and intelligent woman (she spoke fluent French and Italian) and became a close friend and confidante of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples the sister of Marie Antoinette. He knew very well that his tenure on her affections would, sooner or later, be terminated either by his death or by a younger and more suitable partner..

Nelson was accepted tactfully by the ageing ambassador and he did nothing to interfere in what was obviously becoming a very intense love affair. Nelson was vain and Emma played up to it. They were lovers from 1799 until Nelson’s death by which time they were virtually living as husband and wife and making only token efforts to conceal it. His marriage to Frances had been a failure, it was over by 1801, and his letters reveal increasing frustration and exasperation with her. He finally “dismissed” her (her own word) in 1801 in a very explicit and bluntly worded letter. Horatia had been born to Emma a few weeks earlier.

Lady Emma Hamilton died in 1815 in Calais, aged fifty, penniless ten years after her beloved Nelson. Had it not been for the generosity of some of Nelson’s friends she would have died in a debtor’s prison. What would the great admiral have thought? It was entirely her own fault. Sir William had provided for her and so had Nelson and she could have lived comfortably though modestly if she had moderated her extravagant life style. It is interesting to note that Horatia took much pride in knowing that she was the daughter of Lord Nelson but she refused to acknowledge that Emma was her mother even though Emma had brought her up from birth.

Although she was told many times that Emma may have been her mother, she refused to believe this. This may have been Emma’s doing because she never revealed Horatia’s mother’s name only saying that she “was too great to be mentioned”. Nelson’s own letters however reveal the truth – even if they are cryptic.

Emma’s Life in Bath

It is often suggested that Nelson’s great love was in Bath when he was convalescing at 2 Pierrepont Street. That was in 1781 and Emma Lyon, as she was then, is said to have been a maidservant in the Linley household at 1 Pierrepont Place, just across the street. It is a nice story, but the evidence for it is threadbare, as it is for the claim that she stayed in Bath in 1798; in that year, as Lady Hamilton, she was busy entertaining Nelson in Naples, after his great victory in the battle of the Nile, and there are no indications that she visited England.

It seems likely, however, that she came to Bath after Nelson’s death. Three or four years after Trafalgar, she is said to have lived for a time at 6 Edward Street. She had squandered most of the generous legacies left her by Nelson and Sir William Hamilton, and was rapidly approaching penury. Later she spent thirteen months in a debtors’ prison before her untimely death.

Emma’s Legacy

Regardless of how and why Emma died in obscurity, the Nelson Society could not allow her memory to fade and her last resting place go unmarked and some six years ago moves were made that resulted in the erection of a monument which suitably commemorates the life of a remarkable woman.”If you seek his monument” is a chapter from The Nelson Companion* in which Flora Fraser writes:

New monuments continue to rise. Emma Hamilton is now remembered in the Parc Richelieu in Calais, close to where she was buried in 1815. The Mayor of Calais and Mrs. Anna Tribe, descendant of Nelson and Emma, assisted the donor Mrs. Jean Kislak at an inauguration ceremony on St. Georges Day, 1994. The story of how Jean Kislak from Miami came to honour Nelson’s ‘bequest to the nation’ in the late twentieth century is rich in international adventure, comedy and co-operation. Another key player in the story was The 1805 Club, which provided the sandstone ball from the Wirral, Emma’s birthplace, that tops the elegant obelisk of Calais stone. The Club has promised to add this new monument to the extensive list of Nelson monuments, and the graves of those associated with him, which it watches over and tends.

Emma’s life is the subject of the 1941 film That Hamilton Woman, which stars Vivian Leigh as Emma Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Lord Horatio Nelson.

Written by Robert Walker and reprinted with permission from The Nelson Society. Excerpts and sources include They Came to Bath, and Beloved Emma, By Flora Fraser, published by George Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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Horatio Nelson: Britain’s most glorious Admiral

“And who is Admiral Croft?” was Sir Walter’s cold suspicious inquiry.

Mr Shepherd answered for his being of a gentleman’s family, and mentioned a place; and Anne, after the little pause which followed, added –“He is a rear admiral of the white.He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since; he was stationed there, I believe, several years.”

Horatio Nelson was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England to the Reverend Edmund Nelson and Catherine Nelson. (His mother was a grandniece of Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford.) His mother died when Nelson was nine. He learnt to sail on Barton Broad on the Norfolk Broads, and by the time he was twelve, he had enrolled in the Royal Navy. His naval career began on January 1, 1771, when he reported to the warship Raissonable as an ordinary seaman and coxswain. The vessel was commanded by Nelson’s maternal uncle and, shortly after reporting aboard, Nelson was appointed a midshipman and began officer training.

In 1777 he was a lieutenant, assigned to the West Indies, during which time he saw action on the British side of the American Revolutionary War. By the time he was 20, in June 1779, he made captain; the frigate Hitchenbroke was his first command.

In 1781 he was involved in an action against the Spanish fortress of San Juan in Nicaragua. A success, the efforts involved still damaged Nelson’s health to the extent that he returned to England for more than a year. He eventually returned to active duty and was assigned to the Albemarle, in which he continued his efforts against the American rebels until the official end of the war in 1783.


In 1784, Nelson was given command of the 28-gun Boreas, and assigned to enforce the Navigation Act in the vicinity of Antigua. This was during the denouement of the American Revolutionary War, and enforcement of the act was problematic—now-foreign American vessels were no longer allowed to trade with British colonies in the Caribbean Sea, an unpopular rule with both the colonies and the Americans. After seizing four American vessels off Nevis, Nelson was sued by the captains of the ships for illegal seizure. As they were supported by the merchants of Nevis, Nelson was in peril of imprisonment and had to remain sequestered on Boreas for eight months. It took that long for the courts to deny the captains their claims, but in the interim Nelson met Fanny Nesbit, a widow native to Nevis, whom he would marry on March 11, 1787 at the end of his tour of duty in the Caribbean.

Nelson lacked a commission starting in 1789, and lived on half pay for several years. But as the French Revolution began to export itself outside of France’s borders, he was recalled to service. Given the 64-gun Agamemnon in 1793, he soon started a long series of battles and engagements that would seal his place in history.

He was first assigned to the Mediterranean, based out of the Kingdom of Naples. In 1794 he was shot in the face during a joint operation at Calvi, Corsica, which cost him the sight in his right eye—his left eye suffered from the additional burden, and Nelson was slowly going blind up until his death; he would often wear a patch over his good eye to protect it.

In 1796, the command-in-chief of the fleet in the Mediterranean passed to Sir John Jervis, who tapped Nelson to be his commodore—the captain of Jervis’ flagship, HMS Captain.


The year 1797 was a full year for Nelson. On February 14, he was largely responsible for the British victory at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. In the aftermath, Nelson was knighted a member of the Order of the Bath (hence the postnominal initials “K.B.”). In April of the same year he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue, the ninth highest rank in the Royal Navy. Later in the year, during an unsuccessful expedition to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife, he was shot in the right elbow with a musketball. This success was his unique defeat. He lost the lower half of his arm, and was unfit for duty until mid-December.

The next year, Nelson was once again responsible for a great victory over the French. The Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Abukir Bay) took place on August 1, 1798, and as a result, Napoleon’s ambition to take the war to the British in India came to an end. The forces Napoleon had brought to Egypt were stranded, and Napoleon himself had to be smuggled back to France. For this spectacular victory, Nelson was granted the title of Baron Nelson (Nelson felt cheated that he was not awarded a greater title; Sir John Jervis had been made Earl St Vincent for his part in that battle, but the British Government insisted that an officer not commander-in-chief could not be raised to any peerage higher than a barony).

Not content to rest on his laurels, he then rescued the Neapolitan royal family from a French invasion in December. During this time, he fell in love with Emma Hamilton—the young wife of the elderly British ambassador to Naples. She became his mistress, returning to England to live openly with him, and eventually they had a daughter, Horatia. Some have suggested that a head wound he received at Abukir Bay was partially responsible for that conduct, and for the way he conducted the Neapolitan campaign—due simultaneously to his English hatred of Jacobins and his status as a Neapolitan royalist (he had been made Duke of Bronte in Sicily by the King of Naples in 1799)—now considered something of a disgrace to his name.

In 1799, he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Red, the seventh highest rank in the Royal Navy. He was then assigned to the Foudroyant. In July, he aided with the reconquest of Naples, and was made Duke of Bronte by the Neapolitan king. His personal problems, and upper-level disappointment at his professional conduct caused him to be rotated back to England, but public knowledge of his affection for Lady Hamilton eventually induced the Admiralty to send him back to sea if only to get him away from her.

On January 1, 1801, he was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue (the sixth highest rank). Within a few months he was involved in the Battle of Copenhagen (April 2, 1801), which nullified the fleet of the Danes, in order to break up the armed neutrality of Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The action was considered somewhat underhanded by some, and in fact Nelson had been ordered to cease the battle by his commander Sir Hyde Parker. In a famous incident, however, he claimed he could not see the signal flags conveying the order, pointedly raising his telescope to his blind eye. His action was approved in retrospect, and in May he became commander-in-chief in the Baltic Sea, and was awarded the title of Viscount Nelson by the British crown.

Napoleon was amassing forces to invade England, however, and Nelson was soon placed in charge of defending the English Channel to prevent this. However, on October 22 an armistice was signed between the British and the French, and Nelson—in poor health again—retired to England where he stayed with his friends, Sir William and Lady Hamilton.


The Peace of Amiens was not to last long though, and Nelson soon returned to duty. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean, and assigned to the HMS Victory in May 1803. He joined the blockade of Toulon, France, and would not again set foot on dry land for more than two years. Nelson was promoted to Vice Admiral of the White (the fifth highest rank) while he was still at sea, on 23 April 1804. The French fleet slipped out of Toulon in early 1805 and headed for the West Indies. A stern chase failed to turn them up and Nelson’s health forced him to retire to Merton in England.

Within two months his ease ended. On September 13, 1805 he was called upon to oppose the French and Spanish fleets, which had managed to join up and take refuge in the harbour of Cádiz, Spain.

On October 21, 1805, Nelson engaged in his final battle, the Battle of Trafalgar. Napoleon Bonaparte had been massing forces once again for the invasion of the British Isles. On the 19th, the French and Spanish fleet left Cádiz, intent on clearing the Channel for this purpose. Nelson, with twenty-seven ships, engaged the thirty-three opposing ships.

His last dispatch, written on the 21st, read:
At daylight saw the Enemy’s Combined Fleet from East to E.S.E.; bore away; made the signal for Order of Sailing, and to Prepare for Battle; the Enemy with their heads to the Southward: at seven the Enemy wearing in succession. May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may his blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen.

As the two fleets moved towards engagement, he then ran up a thirty-one flag signal to the rest of the fleet which spelled out the famous phrase “England expects that every man will do his duty”.

After crippling the French flagship Beaucentaure, the Victory moved on to the Redoutable. The two ships entangled each other, at which point snipers in the rigging of the Redoutable were able to pour fire down onto the deck of the Victory. Nelson was one of those hit: a bullet entered his shoulder, pierced his lung, and came to rest at the base of his spine. Nelson retained consciousness for some time, but died soon after the battle was concluded with a British victory. The Victory was then towed to Gibraltar, with Nelson’s body on board preserved in a barrel of brandy. Upon his body’s arrival in London, Nelson was given a state funeral and entombment in St. Paul’s Cathedral. According to urban legend, the rum used to preserve his body was illicitly half drunk by the time it reached London. This may be related to the nickname given to Naval rum rations later, “Nelson’s Blood”, a possibly deliberate echo of the Communion ritual.


Nelson was noted for his considerable ability to inspire and bring out the best in his men, to the point that it gained a name: “The Nelson Touch”. Famous even while alive, after his death he was lionized like almost no other military figure in British history (his only peers are the Duke of Marlborough and Nelson’s contemporary, the Duke of Wellington). The monumental Nelson’s Column and the surrounding Trafalgar Square are notable locations in London to this day, and Nelson was buried in St. Pauls Cathedral. In Scotland, Nelson’s monument was constructed atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh. There is also a Nelson Memorial, Swarland. However the monument to Nelson in Dublin was destroyed by an IRA bomb (see Nelson’s Pillar). The Victory is in existence, and is in fact still kept on active commission in honour of Nelson—it is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord; she can be found in Number 2 Dry Dock of the Portsmouth Naval Base, in Portsmouth, England.

Nelson had no legitimate children; his illegitimate daughter by Lady Hamilton, Horatia, subsequently married the Rev. Philip Ward and died in 1881. The Viscountcy and Barony of Nelson became extinct upon his death. However, he had been granted a second barony (the Barony of Nelson of the Nile and of Hillborough) in 1801. By a special remainder, Lord Nelson’s brother William inherited the latter barony. William was also created Earl Nelson in recognition of his brother’s services.

A lock of Nelson’s hair was given to Imperial Japanese Navy from Royal Navy after Russo-Japanese war commemorating the victory at Battle of Tsushima. It is still on display at Kyouiku Sankoukan, a public museum maintained by Japan Self-Defence Forces.

Nelson’s exploits provided inspiration for those of the fictional characters Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower and Honor Harrington.

From Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.