I first came across Emma Hamilton (c.1765-1815) at Kiplin Hall where there was a beautiful portrait of her in one of the rooms upstairs. I volunteered as a steward, so as I read up on all the collection items I found out she was the famous mistress of British naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805).
Both Horatio and Emma were married when they fell in love in Naples in around 1798/99, having already become acquainted in 1793. Horatio was married to Fanny Nelson, who was residing in London, and Emma was married to Sir William Hamilton. Horatio and Emma were smitten, as this early letter in their relationship shows:
“Separate from all I hold dear in this world what is the use of living if indeed such an existence can be called so, nothing could alleviate such a separation but the call of our Country but loitering time away with nonsense is too much. No separation not time my only beloved Emma can alter my love and affection for you, it is founded on the truest principles of honour, and it only remains for us to regret which I do with the bitterest anguish that there are any obstacles to our being united in the closest ties of this world’s rigid rules, as we are in those of real love. Continue only to love your faithful Nelson as he loves his Emma. You are my guide I submit to you, let me find all my fond heart hopes and wishes with the risk of my life. I have been faithful to my word never to partake of any amusement: or to sleep on shore”
The strong devotion Nelson displays in this letter towards Emma never waned, and they were together until Nelson’s tragic death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Their affair was not a discreet one, and it soon became common knowledge and gossip. Nelson even referred to Emma in letter’s home to his wife Fanny who he, unsurprisingly, became estranged. Emma’s husband, however, who was much older than her didn’t seem to mind his wife’s affair. They seemed to end up in a sort of ménage à trois situation, and after travelling to England in 1800 Nelson left his wife and moved in with the Hamiltons. A contemporary observer around this time noted “she [Emma] leads him about like a keeper with a bear. … It is plain that Lord Nelson thinks of nothing but Lady Hamilton”.
Emma was lively figure and known for what she referred to as her “giddy ways”. Her life before Nelson was certainly an eventful one, as she had a few different relationships which resulted in her illegitimate daughter before her marriage. She inspired painters, and there are many surviving paintings of her by famous artists like George Romney. Her time with Nelson was a happy time in her life, and they had a daughter Horatia together in 1801. They were separated for long periods of time when Nelson was at sea, and sent each other hundreds of letters as it was the only means of (albeit unreliable) communication. Nelson’s letters are passionate, writing things like “your own faithful Nelson who lives only for his Emma”. Alas for historians of this period, Nelson burned the majority of his letters from Emma so her responses will remain forever unknown. Despite her lack of letters, we know she loved him based on other evidence. After his death his last letters were given to her and she wrote on them “Oh miserable, wretched Emma. Oh glorious and happy Nelson”.
Although Nelson had provided for her in his will, his wishes were not met. Many regarded Emma as an embarrassing, scandalous stain on Nelson’s reputation. Those of his family who had flocked to her during Nelson’s life now rejected her and flocked back to his wife Fanny who was respected as Nelson’s widow. Emma’s husband Lord Hamilton had died in 1803, and despite the provisions of his will to keep her provided for she fell into debt and developed a dependency on alcohol. During her descent into poverty, she pawned her letters from Nelson to friends for money, and naturally many of these letters leaked into the press. Some of these were published just before Emma died in 1815, causing more scandal to be attached to her name.
It is clear that Nelson and Emma really loved each other, and had he survived Trafalgar who knows what might have been for the couple.
What do you think of Nelson and Emma? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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*There are similarities in Emma’s story to her contemporary Dorothy Jordan mistress of William IV who you can find out more about here.
Written in History: Letters that Changed the World by Simon Sebag-Montefiore
ODNB: Nelson, Horatio, Viscount Nelson by N. A. M. Rodger
ODNB: Hamilton [née Lyon], Emma, Lady Hamilton by Tom Pocock
ODNB: Nelson [née Woolward], Frances Herbert [Fanny], Viscountess Nelson by J. K. Laughton, revised by Tom Pocock
ODNB: Hamilton, Sir William by Geoffrey V. Morson
BBC History Magazine ‘Nelson in his own words’ by Marianne Czisnik 2020
History Today ‘Emma, Lady Hamilton dies in Calais’ by Richard Cavendish: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/emma-lady-hamilton-dies-calais
Wikipedia: Emma Hamilton, George Romney