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Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson.

Updated on November 20, 2012

Life before Nelson.

Emma Hamilton is notorious for being the mistress of Lord Nelson. History recounts how Nelson stole her from Lord William Hamilton, and the pair of them shocked society with their affair, which was carried out in public in contravention of all the moral rules society imposed on behaviour in that time. After Nelsons death at Trafalgar in 1805, Emma faded from society and died penniless in 1815 aged 50.However the young Emma had a lively and colourful life before she met Nelson.

Emma was born in 1765 at Ness Cheshire, England and originally named Amy, or some records say it was Emy, but after a time the name Emma was settled on. Her father, Henry Lyon, a blacksmith, died around the time of her birth, either two months before or a month after, again records differ. Either way Emma and her mother were left without a male head of the family, with all the financial ramifications that brought upon them.

Emma owed much to her Mother, Mary Lyon, who was by all accounts a woman of strong and ambitious character. After the death of her husband, Mary took Emma and moved back to her family home in Flintshire. When Emma was around twelve years of age she became employed as an under nurse maid to a local surgeon. Then in 1778 Mary took her daughter to London where Emma again was employed a nurse maid to the children of a doctor: and then later as a house maid to a theatrical impresario: Thomas Linley. It is possible that during her time with Linley, Emma began to show theatrical ambitions as a singer and possibly an actress; however tragedy struck the Linley family with death of both their children, and Emma is reported to have left their household and drifted into the more salubrious areas of London life.

London life.

There is no tangible evidence of Emma ever having been a prostitute as some accounts would have us believe, but she was for a time employed in a bogus temple of health dressed as scantily dressed attendant to a certain Dr James Graham. She also lived for a while with a Mrs Kelly, who reputedly ran a high class brothel in Arlington Street, London. Whatever the truth is behind these scurrilous stories, her exposure to the seedier side of London life no doubt helped form the good humoured, guilt free amorality that formed her character.

The many portraits we have of Emma show her as vivacious and beautiful young girl. She had a heart shaped face with wide set eyes and a straight nose. And it was just this beauty that attracted the attention of a young aristocrat: Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh.

Harry Fetherstonehaugh

Fetherstonehaugh had a mansion in Sussex, where his mother also lived.So the young Emma was housed in a near by cottage and became Sir Harrys mistress at the tender age of sixteen. It was during her time at with Fetherstonehaugh that Emma indulged in the fast life of English aristocracy. There were tales of wild parties and a reference to her of dancing naked on a table. However,Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh was tiring of his young mistress and was looking around for somebody to take her off his hands.

Charles Greville.

That somebody was the Hon Charles Greville. Charles Greville had been attracted to Emma and gladly took her as his mistress along with a house in Paddington. He paid all her living expenses on the one condition that she remained faithful to him.

Emma, as always, made the best of the situation. Her formidable mother Mary moved into the modest little home and assumed the name of Mrs Cadogan: Emma took the name of Hart as her surname. Through Greville, Emma was introduced to many artists, among them George Romney, who painted many portraits of her in classical poses.

Greville was genuinely fond of Emma and considered her an excellent hostess and mistress. However severe financial difficulties caught up with and he felt the need to marry a rich heiress.

As luck would have it Goreville’s uncle Sir William Hamilton was visiting London from Naples, where he had been the ambassador to the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. After much negotiation it was agreed that Sir William would take Emma and her mother under his protection and return with them to Italy, where he was to take up a post as ambassador to Naples. Initially Emma believed this protection was for a holiday only. But when she discovered that she had been abandoned by Greville, and was not expected to return to London she became distraught, she had been in love with Greville and felt hurt and broken. However after a few months life in Naples, and the flattering attentions of Sir William began to appear attractive to her.

Sir William Hamilton.

William Hamilton was a childless widower and a charming, kind considerate man, and was immediately attracted to the Young Emma Hart he met at his nephew’s home. When it was suggested to him that he take Emma and her mother to Italy with him, he needed little persuasion, although he did agree to make Greville his heir. Emma, at first inconsolable over Charles Goreville’s discarding of her, soon became enamoured with the attentions of Sir William.Emma began to appreciate Sir Williams love of antiques and works of art.She was provided with a singing teacher, who trained her voice to standard where she was able to give performances. She also learned Italian and French. Eventually Emma became Sir Williams mistress in 1786, and in a visit to London five years later they became man and wife. She was 26, he was 60.

Emma had now become an accomplished hostess and was comfortable in Neapolitan society, and became very useful to her husbands in dealing with the intrigues of the Naples court. She was admired for her beauty and her singing voice. However her past life began to catch up with her and scurrilous rumours began to circulate society. None of the stories were proven, but the biggest scandal was yet to come.

Horatio Nelson.

Emma and Nelson first met in 1793, when he visited Naples on a diplomatic mission. Although there was some mutual attraction, Nelson soon left Naples once his mission was completed.When he returned to Naples five years later he was a national hero. He had saved the Kingdoms of the two Sicilies at the battle of Abu Qir Bay, and the Neapolitans gave him a tumultuous welcome.
In 1798 Emma was thirty three years old, and despite still possessing a beautiful face, gained an alarming amount of weight, causing one diplomat to claim she was the fattest woman he had ever seen. This did not stop Nelson falling for her, and by 1800 their affair was common knowledge among the society of the day.

In November of 1800 Emma, Nelson and Sir William arrived in London, where Nelson ended his marriage to his wife Fanny Nesbitt.Once he had left Fanny he moved in with Sir William and Lady Hamilton in a house in Picaddilly,London.In January 1801 Emma gave birth to twin girls, one who may have been still born and did not survive. The surviving daughter, named Horatia given the surname Thompson, as this was a name Nelson had used in his early letters to Emma.

Nelson purchased a country house, Merton Place, near Wimbledon where Emma entertained lavishly as hostess. Sir William Hamilton, who had tolerated his wife’s affair with Nelson, did finally admonish her in a letter in 1802. He died in the spring of 1803.Some accounts claim he died in Emma’s arm, with Nelson at the bedside.


Nelson departed Merton place and Emma on the 13th of September 1805: and was killed at Trafalgar five weeks later. After his death Emma went into decline and began drinking heavily. She was not at this time penniless, as Nelson had left her the house in Wimbledon. She had also received a legacy from the estate of Sir William. Although not a fortune it was enough to keep her modestly comfortable, but she was unable to give up her extravagant tastes: and by 1813 she owed several thousand pounds and was arrested and imprisoned for debt. She was released and allowed to live with her daughter Horatia, who was now thirteen. In the summer of 1814 both Emma and Horatia moved to France to evade Emma’s creditors. Here she continued to drink heavily and sank into terminal decline. She died in Calais on January 15th 1815 aged Fifty.

Unkind History.

The remaining years of the nineteenth century were unkind to Emma Hamilton’s memory. If she wasn’t almost brushed out from Nelsons story, she was pictured as a baleful influence on a hero who could do no wrong in the nation’s eyes. However it must recognised that Nelson was no saint. Emma Hamilton was not the first women he betrayed his wife Fanny with. And the way he coldly cut his devoted wife from his life after their parting, does not reflect kindly on Nelson. There is an incident, rarely reported, that illustrates another side to Emma’s character.

After revolution broke out in Italy in 1798.The job of rescuing the royal family and the Hamiltons fell to Nelson. The ship they were escaping on ran into a particularly vicious storm. While all the refugees aboard began panicking and fearing for their lives. Emma nursed a young Neapolitan prince who had fallen gravely ill. She tended him through all through the night while the storm raged around her. The young boy died in her arms.

Emma.A life force.

The twentieth century was kinder to Emma, and raised her to a level that perhaps she did not merit. But whatever impression go her come down through the ages, it cannot be denied that her love for Nelson was genuine and passionate, and was reciprocated. She was a woman with a strong and colourful character: a life force.

The children.

While researching this article I found some conflicting accounts regarding the children of Emma and Nelson. One biography states that a Horatia was indeed one of twins, but Emma felts she could not cope with two and one of the twins was sent to a foundling home.Nelson was told that it was still born. The same biography claims that a third child, a girl, was born in 1803, but died soon after birth. They named her little Emma. The biography also claims that Emma gave birth to a girl in 1782, and names Sir Harry Fetherstonehaugh as the father. This child, it claims, was also called little Emma. Whatever the truth about these infants, it is known that the surviving child, Horatia, distanced herself from her mother due to the adverse accounts of her life.Horatia married a Norfolk clergy man and raised a large family with him. She died aged eighty.


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    • paulreynolds profile image

      Paul Reynolds 

      4 years ago from Stockport, United Kningdom

      wonderfully written... loved the hub and thanks for the work you put in to produce it as you have. There should be a smile for a job well done!

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 

      6 years ago from Canada

      I love their story. I have the DVD "That Hamilton Woman", which was apparently Sir Winston Churchill's favorite movie. Sharing and voted up.


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