Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton
First Meeting between Horatio and Emma
Nelson’s affair with Emma Hamilton was the biggest scandal of the age. Their actual liaison lasted only six years, but it transformed their lives, their respective positions in society, and the public's perception of them both.
Horatio Nelson first met Lady Hamilton on 12 September 1793. He was a 35-year-old post captain and she was the 28-year-old wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples. Emma was a great beauty and a celebrated artists’ model, and she was also famous across Europe for performing ‘attitudes’, which were performances in which she moved quickly from one dramatic pose to another.
Mired in retirement in Norfolk for the previous five years, Nelson had hardly seen a woman since he had returned to sea six months before their meeting, and he was impressed by Lady Hamilton. He wrote to his wife Fanny that Emma was a ‘young woman of amiable manners who does honour to the station to which she is raised’.
The second meeting between Nelson and his future mistress was altogether more dramatic. By 1797 the Italian Court, including Emma and her husband, were terrified that Naples would be invaded by French troops. They were hugely relieved in the following year by Nelson’s victory over the French fleet at Aboukir, in the ‘Battle of the Nile’, and they craved the presence of the hero and his fleet in Naples.
When Nelson arrived in September, Emma welcomed him in spectacular fashion and he was immediately captivated by her. Emma’s husband was also fond of Nelson and, bonded in their determination not to allow Naples to capitulate to the French, the three dubbed themselves the 'Tria juncto in uno’. By the end of 1798, a French invasion seemed inevitable and the ‘Tria’, along with the Neapolitan royal family, their courtiers, hundreds of foreign travellers and many Neapolitan aristocrats, fled to Sicily.
Love in the Public Eye
Nelson, Emma and Sir William soon rented a large house in Palermo together, along with Emma’s mother and various English friends. The English press speculated about the close friendship between the 'national hero' - Nelson - and Lady Hamilton. Nelson’s wife begged to be allowed to visit him, but he rebuffed her harshly. Emma had encompassed all his attentions.
Emma had never been unfaithful to Sir William since becoming his mistress in 1787 and his wife in 1791. Nelson, too, had been loyal to his wife, in the way that the period defined male fidelity - he had restricted himself to courtesans. But their marriages had not given them the romance and excitement they craved, and both had fallen out of love with their partners. Nelson and Emma shared an emotional temperament and playful sense of humour, as well as boundless energy, ambition and hunger for fame. Their emotions were intensified by the flight from Naples and the struggle against the French, and they fell profoundly in love. By the beginning of May 1800, Emma was pregnant with Nelson’s child.
Return to England
Concerned that Nelson was falling under Neapolitan influence, the Admiralty recalled him to England in 1800. At the same time, the Foreign Office asked 72-year-old Sir William to retire from his post. The ‘Tria’ and their friends proceeded home through Italy, the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Germany. Every city they stayed in feted them, and Nelson and Emma tasted the celebrity they would experience in London.
The hero and his mistress returned to England in November to public clamour. Fanny Nelson, who had seen her husband for only seven months in the last seven years, had to trail behind the ‘Tria’ as they paraded around London’s parties and attended theatre performances. Mortified, she demanded Nelson give up his mistress. Her ultimatum so infuriated him that he decided to separate from her by moving out of her home and paying her half his income. He never saw her again.
Keeping Up Appearances
Although the newspaper-reading public savoured every detail about Nelson and Lady Hamilton, others condemned their relationship and some friends and colleagues refused to visit them. Most aristocrats and rich men kept mistresses, and many, like the Duke of Wellington, humiliated their wives by flaunting courtesans in public. Nelson, however, was the first high-profile man to actually leave his wife and many were scandalised by his actions.
Afraid of exposure in the press, Nelson destroyed Emma’s letters to him and urged her to do the same with those she had received from him, but she could not bear to do so. She tried to overcome social disapproval by keeping up the appearance of a respectable lifestyle. Continuing to live in the same London house as her husband, she fostered close friendships with Nelson’s siblings and invited Charlotte Nelson, his brother’s teenaged daughter, for a permanent visit.
Nelson eventually returned to sea, leaving Emma eight months pregnant. To avoid prying eyes, he wrote to her pretending his letters were on behalf of a seaman under his command called Thompson, whose pregnant wife was under Emma’s protection. On hearing early in 1801 that Emma had given birth to a girl, and that he was a father for the first time, he wrote deliriously:
I believe poor Mrs Thompson’s friend will go mad with joy. He cries, prays, does nothing but rave about you and her.
Emma named their daughter Horatia. A very rare name for a girl, it advertised that Nelson was her father, and Nelson encouraged Emma to find a property in which they could live with their child. By the following autumn, she had settled upon Merton Place, a ramshackle house in Merton, just outside modern-day Wimbledon. When the war was declared over in March 1802, Nelson returned to enjoy his new home.
Final Years and Aftermath
In the following summer, Emma and Nelson decided to turn Sir William’s trip to check on his Welsh estates into a huge Nelson tour. Cheering crowds lined their way all the way to Wales, and they were celebrated with banquets in numerous towns. Soon after, however, the shaky truce with France was broken and Nelson returned to sea. Emma expected him to be home within six months. In the event, she did not see him for the next two years and three months.
Nelson returned to England in August 1805. After a happy and busy three weeks, he was called out in September to engage the French fleet outside Cadiz, near Cape Trafalgar. Before the battle, he wrote a codicil to his will, leaving Emma and Horatia to the nation and requesting that the government should give Emma the money necessary to ‘maintain her rank in life’.
On the afternoon of 21 October 1805, Nelson was fatally wounded by a single musket ball. As he died, he repeated his plea to the government to care for Emma and Horatia.
Despite Nelson’s words, Emma’s life after Trafalgar was a catalogue of debt and betrayal. The government heaped moneys on Nelson’s family, whilst she and Horatia received nothing. Emma tried to help Nelson’s friends, captains and relations who begged money from her, whilst spending extravagantly to maintain Merton as a monument to her lost lover, and lobbying for an award from the government. By 1812, she was in debt for millions of pounds.
Horatia returned to England and lived with Nelson’s sisters. At 21 she married her neighbour, the Reverend Philip Ward, and died in 1881, the mother of eight and grandmother of many. She never forgot the harsh treatment Emma received from the press. Entirely disavowing her parent’s desire for fame, the daughter of Britain’s two biggest 18th-century celebrities lived out her life as a quiet clergyman’s wife in rural Norfolk.