Nelson's Dying Wish: Save Emma

A wistful-looking Emma poses for a painting
A wistful-looking Emma poses for a painting

by Ray Setterfield

September 10, 1793 — The actual birth date of Lady Emma Hamilton, who was to become Admiral Lord Nelson's famous mistress, is unknown. But there is no mystery about how this daughter of an illiterate blacksmith in a dreary North of England coalmining village became a society favourite and object of desire for aristocratic men.

Originally named Amy (or Emily) Lyon, as a young girl she reportedly sold coal from the roadside before becoming a maid to a doctor at the age of 12. Then her mother took her to London where she worked as a cleaner at the Drury Lane Theatre.

According to Will Meredith, an archivist who has given talks on Lady Hamilton, after Drury Lane she worked as a model and dancer for James Graham, who owned a questionable medical establishment called the Temple of Aesculapius.

"She would pose in this establishment in flimsy garments as Hygieia, goddess of health," says Meredith.

"Emma started meeting aristocratic men who patronised this establishment," he adds. "This was an age when aristocrats having mistresses was accepted. She became the mistress of a succession of aristocratic men, each more prominent and wealthy than the one before."

When she was 15 she was hired by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh to entertain guests at his country estate and did so, it is said, by dancing naked for them on Sir Harry's dining table. She had a child at this time, fathered allegedly by Sir Harry, who was enraged at the development.

Emma then moved in with one of Sir Harry's guests, Charles Greville, who was the nephew of Sir William Hamilton, British envoy to Naples. Greville was captivated by her charisma and beauty and commissioned the artist George Romney to do a series of paintings of her in many guises. The young beauty had by now changed her name to Emma Hart and through Romney's work became well known in society circles.

Greville was in love with Emma but had money problems and needed a rich wife, so she had to go. But how to get rid of her? He decided that his uncle, whose wife had recently died, would be receptive to the idea of taking on an alluring mistress, which indeed he was. Greville told Emma he was sending her on a long holiday to Naples because he had to go away on business.

Emma eventually realised she had been dumped and set up to be Hamilton's mistress. She was furious, but the envoy adored her and won her over. After a while she began a romantic attachment to Sir William and they were married in 1791 even though he was 60 and she was only 26. She became Lady Hamilton – a genuine rags to riches story.

Two years later, as the wife of the British Envoy, Emma welcomed Nelson to Naples – on September 10, 1793 – when he came seeking reinforcements against the French. After he set sail for Sardinia five days later it was clear to those in his circle that he had been smitten.

It was said that Lady Hamilton facilitated Nelson’s victory over the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. She had become a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and used the connection to secure Neapolitan permission for Nelson's fleet to obtain vital stores and water in Sicily.

Alas, Nelson lost an arm in the battle, much to Emma's anguish. She nursed him and the two soon fell in love despite Nelson already having a wife – Fanny. When he and Sir William returned to England after the envoy's retirement, the three of them lived together openly, Hamilton and Nelson still bound in deep mutual friendship. The arrangement shocked some, but was widely accepted.

Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter Horatia in 1801 and two years later Sir William died. Shortly before that Nelson returned to sea, the great naval hero not knowing that there was just one legendary engagement to come.

On October 21, 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar Nelson defeated a joint Franco-Spanish naval force that threatened England – but he was mortally wounded by a French marksman and died three hours after being shot.

On hearing of Nelson’s death, King George III is said to have been reduced to tears saying: “We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased.”

On the very day of his death Nelson had added a codicil to his will asking the nation to provide for Emma and Horatia. But the nation ignored its hero's last wish.

Accustomed to the good life, Emma lived well beyond her means and was eventually sent to prison for debt. After her release she fled to Calais where, poverty-stricken and increasingly dependent on alcohol, she died in 1815 of liver failure. She was 49. A genuine rags to riches to rags story.

Published: April 16, 2018

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