Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton
main index © Jeff Matthews entry Jan 2003
by David Taylor
On 11 September 1793, the Agamemnon slipped into the Bay of Naples and spent the night becalmed, allowing Post-Captain Horatio Nelson to watch the glow of a restless Vesuvius and write that "nothing could be finer than the view", whilst waiting for the wind to carry him into port. There an impatient Naples awaited the news of the war against revolutionary France, and King Ferdinand of Naples was so keen to have the despatches which Nelson carried that he had himself rowed out the next morning to meet the ship and hail this tangible proof that the British fleet was at hand.
England's involvement with Naples had come about through a treaty signed between England and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies on 12 July 1793. The terms of the alliance included a promise that the Neapolitan court would provide 6,000 men for service in the war against France. Nelson had been despatched by Lord Hood to organise the transfer of these men to Toulon where the British were blockading the French fleet and were about to occupy the city against the French Republican Army.
Another visitor to the Agamemnon was Sir William Hamilton, British Minister Plenipotentiary in Naples and the man responsible for organizing the important alliance which would offer a safe base for fleet operations in an increasingly hostile Mediterranean. Equally importantly, in view of later developments, Nelson would meet the Minister's second wife, Emma, Lady Hamilton, whose machinations had helped obtain the alliance and who, five years later would involve Nelson in a ménage à trois that would risk his reputation.
The sighting of a French man o' war off Sardinia had Nelson raise anchor and give pursuit after only a few days in Naples; he would not return for five years but had had a glimpse of the Hamilton's saloon society and, as his letters to his wife show, he had taken note of the woman who catalyzed this society.
The woman who had married Sir Hamilton in London two years prior to Nelson's visit had begun life inauspiciously as Emy Lyon, daughter to an illiterate Chesire blacksmith in about 1765. Moving to London at the age of twelve to become a nursery maid, she was noted in the company of a well-known madame, Mrs. Kelly, in 1779. By 1781, she had made the acquaintance of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who installed her as his mistress in a cottage on his estate in Sussex. Emy Lyon was now calling herself Emily Hart and, at sixteen and pregnant, she passed under the protection of Charles Greville (nephew to Sir Hamilton). Among the conditions of Greville's keeping her was that the child (christened Emma ) be given up to care, and that Emily keep a low profile, obey him and better herself. Greville housed her in the Edgeware Road, which was virtually rural in that period, and we find that although he kept Emma discreetly isolated, he was not so jealous of her beauty as to discourage her from sitting for portraits. He commissioned the artist Romney to undertake a series of portraits of Emma in classical poses and it appears that Romney valued his model highly enough to continue sketching and painting even when payment was not forthcoming.
Sir William Hamilton first met Emma during this period (she had changed her name again) and was sufficiently struck by her looks to commission Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint her as a Bacchante.
The means by which Emma was "placed" in the care of Sir William is complex, but, in short, Greville, financially embarrassed and yearning for a profitable marriage which he could only hope to obtain if Sir Hamilton recognised him as his heir, decided that Emma was a liability he could ill afford. Amongst his letters to his uncle which slowly revealed his designs on his estates he also gave not-so-subtle hints that his uncle avail himself of the pleasure of Emma's company, suggesting he keep her safely ensconced until he tired of her, then dismiss her to England. It is difficult to say quite who was doing whom a favour, but disregarding his uncle's reluctance, Greville boldly announced that Emma would leave England on 13 March 1786. He had convinced her that she was only going for a short stay abroad and that he would soon join her in Naples.
welcomed Emma, Sir William quickly disabused her of
Greville's intentions and set her up in an apartment
in his own residence despite Greville's warning that
too much society might undo Emma's pretensions to
having become a lady, causing her to revert to her old
ways. He also organized singing, French and Italian
lessons for the young woman, to which she applied
herself greatly and was soon being complimented on her
Italian and her voice: Sir William, whose wife had
died a few years previously had found a new interest
to add to his passion for antique vases, paintings,
vulcanology and the interminable hunting expeditions
on which attendance on King Ferdinand took him. His
attentions became channeled more and more into
courting the young woman (still despairing over her
treatment by Greville) whose efforts to improve
herself had placed her at the giddily revolving centre
of a circle of opera singers, painters, poets and
diplomats. Her attitudes—classical poses assumed for the
edification and delight of Sir William and a select
circle of friends—were
greatly appreciated. Goethe visited the couple at
their apartment in Palazzo Sessa and wrote that Sir
William had "found (in her) all the antiquities, all
the profiles of Sicilian coins, even the Apollo
Emma was able to develop contacts with the Royal Family of Naples—slowly moving into the confidence of Queen Maria Carolina, who was generally considered to be the true power behind the throne. Nonetheless, neither her status nor influence could be truly established whilst she remained unmarried. Therefore, in 1791, the couple visited England to obtain royal permission. Tacit consent was given and marriage took place on 6 September. Two days later, they were travelling through a turbulent France towards Naples.
Emma was now officially able to increase her sphere of influence in a kingdom which was beginning to feel the pressure created by the declaration of the French Republic on 20 September 1792 and its explicit threat to invade Naples.
The execution of the French nobility (1793) gave opportunity to the Hamiltons to turn Queen Carolina towards a protective alliance with England. The signing of this treaty was a feather in their cap and, as we have seen, was to draw Nelson into Emma's sphere.
After Nelson's departure in pursuit of the French, the Hamiltons continued to live, socialize, supervise excavations at Pompeii (Sir Hamilton was always ready to add to his collection of vases!) and keep an ear to the intrigues of a court where Ferdinand was secretly parleying with the French with a view to forming a peace treaty which was eventually made despite the Anglo-Neapolitan Alliance and his Queen's opposition. This left the English fleet without a Mediterranean base.
Not until 1797 did Neapolitans throw away all pretence of peace with France, and Queen Carolina begged the return of the English fleet that might help turn the French army that had advanced as far as Rome.
A fleet was hurriedly assembled and command given to Nelson, who quickly gave chase to the French fleet. The pursuit was long and it was not until the night of 1 August 1798 that the fleets fought off the coast of Alexandria with the English winning a resounding victory in what is now known as the Battle of the Nile.
On 22 September a victorious Vanguard brought a wounded and exhausted Nelson to a hero's welcome in Naples. He passed his fortieth birthday being nursed to health by Lady Hamilton. Meanwhile, the Neapolitan army undertook to march against Rome. The attack was immediately successful but the expected help from the Austrians did not materialize and the French army quickly re-organized to push the Neapolitans back to Caserta after just one week of occupation. Under the threat of invasion the decision was taken to evacuate the royal family to Palermo and Nelson offered the services of the two English ships which lay at anchor in the bay. The evacuation was complicated by the huge amounts of baggage and the degree of secrecy under which the operation had to be carried out for fear that the passionately devoted and patriotic population might prevent their king from leaving. Lady Hamilton's role was to organize the packaging and stowing of the Royal Family's valuables and possessions. Sir William was taken up with the packing of his vases. Everything had to be done with an air of "normality".
The Vanguard finally set sail on 23 December
1798, angering Naples and a disgruntled Admiral Caracciolo who had
expected to take charge of operations.
Neither the royal family nor the English trio were happy in Palermo, although some consolation was to be had in knowing that the French had met fierce, if brief resistance in taking Naples—from the very populace they were liberating! Nevertheless, the Parthenopean Republic was declared on 29 January 1799, but was to prove short-lived as Ferdinand despatched Cardinal Ruffo to raise a popular army against the French; by February Ruffo was marching on Naples with 17,000 Calabrians. News of this cheered the refugees in Palermo (Sir William was disconsolate at news of the loss in shipwreck of his collection of vases) and the English decided to recapture Ischia and Procida.
Nelson, during this period, was actively
discouraging his wife from joining him; he told her
she would be sent back if she came, as the situation
was unstable. It is difficult to say whether she knew
of her husband's growing affection for Emma, but
Nelson's reference to Emma in letters must have
aroused her suspicions.
[Southey's Life of Nelson
has a passage about the execution of Admiral
Caracciolo that you may read by clicking here.]
By 2 August Naples was deemed secure and the Hamiltons took a parting look back at the city which had been their home, at the volcano over which Sir William had scrambled, and at the narrow roads and tall palazzi where post-republic recriminations and executions had swept away most of their circle and domestic bliss.
The trio now had to face some recriminations
of their own: Lord and Lady Elgin met them in Palermo
and the latter stated that Nelson had become
vainglorious and was completely dominated by Emma.
Lord Elgin was unimpressed by Sir Hamilton's role in
Palermo, feeling that his command of office had been
enfeebled by contact with the licentious and often
frivolous court on which he attended; did he know of
the motto in Sir William's study in Naples which read,
"La mia patria è dove mi trovo bene"?
Whilst the Hamiltons settled uncertainly into life in the capitol, Nelson continued his meteoric career, becoming Vice Admiral of the Blue in 1801. Emma was left to cover up her pregnancy and the parentage of the daughter born to her in Piccadily. Nelson indulged in some correspondence from his station on the Channel which ill-disguised his parental concern for Horatia; the naval censors would hardly have missed this. He also made some indiscreet amendments to his will. Despite Nelson being occasionally out of favour in this period he would eventually found himself an unassailable reputation on the shoals off Cadiz. Emma could hope to win no such public glory and it is possible that the compromising correspondence of this period along with Nelson's neglect of his wife in favour of Emma, and the latter's previous entanglement of Nelson in the sticky web of the Mediterranean could explain the Establishment's treatment of Emma after the deaths of both her lover and her husband.
Nelson, doting on his daughter from a distance, attempted to set up home by buying a farm near what is now Charing Cross. Here and in Piccadily, Emma was to hold what court she could manage after accepting that she no longer moved in royal and decision-making circles. The Admiral's money was now keeping the trio solvent as Emma sold off what valuables they had managed to salvage from Naples. From correspondence, it appears that Nelson, had to apply some pressure to make Emma keep personal possession of Horatia. He made what he could of a home life during the one-year respite given by the Peace of Amiens. Emma gave birth to a second child to Nelson but the child died soon after birth.
The death of Sir William left Emma relatively poor --Greville, as had long been planned, being the prime beneficiary. Friends of Emma began the battle to obtain a pension for her (it was not automatic) on the grounds that she had played an important diplomatic role while in Naples. Meanwhile, she was becoming dependent on Nelson, who appears despite his growing preoccupation with the threat of invasion from across the Channel, to have continued in his insistence that Horatia live with Emma and not under the care of one Mrs Gibson.
On 20 August 1805, Nelson was able to obtain
leave to return to his farm, Merton. He expressed the
hope that he could spend some months there. Lord
Minton gives us a description of a contented "family
man" sitting at the head of a table of relatives, his
reputation restored, and seemingly caring little for
those who condemned his relationship with Emma. But
the call of Bonaparte and his Grande Armée amassing at
Boulogne, awaiting a momentary lapse by the watchful
Channel fleet, whisked him away after only 24 days at
Merton. Emma wrote: "I am broken hearted...But what
can I do? His powerful arm is of so much consequence
to his Country!"
The Death of Nelson (by Benj. West, 1806)
It was to be Nelson's last leave. He was given command of the fleet under the flagship Victory which sailed to meet the combined Franco-Spanish fleets off Cadiz. Nelson's death from a marksman's bullet during the decisive victory won by the English fleet on the Trafalgar shoals was a blow both to his men and his country. Flag Captain Hardy, upon descending into the Admiral's quarters after the battle, found an unsealed letter to Emma on the desk, stressing his love for her and their daughter. The discreet officer ensured that the letter was delivered to the distraught woman ,who had taken to her bed in inconsolable grief. The loss of Nelson, despite his modified will, marked the beginning of Emma, Lady Hamilton's decline. She had not made public her maternal claims on Horatia, and although she now kept the girl with her constantly—perhaps so as not to lose her claim on the will— Nelson's codicil was ignored and his wealth went to his recognized relatives.
With the passing of the years, those who were in a position to support Emma's claims both to a pension and the will retired or were removed from public life, thereby weakening any hopes which she maintained.
She would outlive Nelson by ten years, but despite trying to keep up appearances she was continually dependent on financial support from friends and, anyway, was unable to give up completely the luxuries to which she had become accustomed. She was even forced to resort to allowing the publication of Nelson's correspondence to support her claims; more harm than good probably resulted from this act.
Bereft of property to sell, she was twice committed to debtor's prison, although she was allowed to live Within the Rules, which meant having to take up residence within a two-and-a-half mile radius of the prison. This was less stigmatizing than might be imagined, and even here Emma managed to entertain visitors, safe in the knowledge that other creditors could not make claims whilst she was technically in prison. On her second committal, all her possessions were sold off and in 1814 Emma and Horatia left England and creditors to take up residence in Calais with fifty borrowed pounds to see them through. Emma was by now suffering from what she termed 'jaundice' but which may have been a cirrhosised liver brought on by recourse to alcohol. Her only help in these later stages of illness came from the attendant Horatia, who, having been convinced that Emma was not her mother, nevertheless stood by her 'guardian' until she died on 15 January 1815. Horatia went on to live a full life—she had nine children—but refused all her life to recognize Emma as her natural mother.
Emma's grave vanished during rebuilding; even
the street and house where she died disappeared during
twentieth century bombardments of Calais. Only one
paper gave her a full obituary—Napoleon's
escape from Elba was the news of the day. It was a
humble, sad end for a woman who once charmed a lively
court and courted England's greatest military hero.