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Who Was Lady Hamilton?

Updated on June 17, 2015
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BritFlorida loves to track down historical stories, especially scandals and mysteries from the UK.

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Emma Hamilton: Her fascinating life

Although I'm English, and interested in British history, I really couldn't have told you much about Lady Hamilton. Had I been on a TV quiz show and asked about her, I wouldn't have scored any points.

But I've just read a fascinating book about her and I want to share her story with you.

I knew the name, of course. Was she an actress, or a famous society hostess? I really didn't know. Actually she was both those things but also much, much more.

At one time, she was the most famous woman in England and yet she came from very humble beginnings and her past was - to say the very least - extremely colourful and more than a little scandalous.

How did this girl from an impoverished background become the most famous woman in Britain and the confidante and hostess of European royalty?


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Early life in service

Despite being brought up in an impoverished village, when Emma was approaching her teens she was stronger, healthier and more intelligent than her neighbours.

In the 1770s, the poor were invariably unhealthy and wracked by disease, so it seems likely that Emma was partially supported by her widowed mother's lover.

At the age of twelve, like many girls, she started to work as a servant, at first locally. This was hard, dirty and thankless work. Deciding that she could better herself in the capital, she arrived in London where she was lucky to get a further servant job.

She hated it, but at least she was housed and fed by her employers.But at the tender age of thirteen, and history doesn't record the reason, she was dismissed from her job. In those days, there were very few options for a young girl in London, with no qualifications, experience or a character reference. In fact, usually there was only one option.

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The theatre

Most thirteen year old girls in her position would have had no option except prostitution.

The book I read claims that in the latter part of the eighteenth century, one eighth of all women in London were prostitutes. Emma resisted this and found another servant position, this time in a theatre.

She was still badly paid and not terribly well treated but the job meant that she could avoid the alternative. But that job wasn't to last either. The theatre started to fall into financial difficulties.

In those days, the lowliest servants were the first cost-cutting exercise so Emma found herself alone and homeless again. This time, there were no options.

The prettier prostitutes like Emma worked from taverns, which was marginally safer although the innkeeper would take his cut of her earnings, but Emma had ambitions of becoming an artist's model. She started to model to supplement her other earnings when she was just fourteen.

I highly recommend this book

England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton
England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton

The information above and below is taken from this fascinating book. I've only been able to explain a fraction of the eventful life of Lady Hamilton on this page.Even her very early life was a mystery, as her father died when she was just a baby.The end of her life was a time spent in pain and poverty. Reading about the most famous woman in her time, her highs and lows, is truly fascinating.

 
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The Temple of Health

This is totally bonkers. Whilst Emma was scratching a living by selling her body and modelling for artists, a quack doctor by the name of James Graham was setting up his 'Temple of Health'.

This was, to put it into today's terms, a sex therapy business, but featured many oddities, including a 'magical' Celestial Bed, electric shocks, fireworks and flimsily-clad dancing girls.

He scoured the taverns of London, selecting them from the ladies of the night and selected Emma to be his 'Goddess of Health'. The teenage girls who worked there saw it as a complete joke and so did some newspapers, many employing illustrators to produce drawings of Emma posing on the Celestial Bed.

But the work was hard, the pay was low and Emma was always on the lookout for another job. She was soon approached by a representative from Madam Kelly's - the most glamorous and luxurious brothel in London's Piccadilly. Emma became a high-class, highly sought after, prostitute (although 'courtesan' is a better word).

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The men in her life

Madam Kelly made further money by hiring out her girls on long-term deals. Emma was rented out to be the live-in mistress of a country squire for several months.

Emma became friendly with one of his regular guests, Charles Greville (pictured). But at fifteen, she became pregnant by her employer, who was furious.

After being thrown out, Emma stayed with relatives. Charles Greville though became her protector.He set her up in a small house near his own, as his mistress. Their letters survive and it seems that they were genuinely fond of each other.

Emma's letters in particular are very passionate and loving. Greville had her painted by popular artists. But nothing was straightforward for Emma.Greville's finances weren't good. He was hoping to marry an heiress and realised that his mistress would be a handicap in the goal.

It was a complex plan but he eventually passed his mistress on (just like a library book) to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who was the British envoy in Naples.

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Becoming Lady Hamilton

Emma was tricked when she was sent to Naples. She thought she was going on a vacation and that Greville would be joining her. He didn't.

She was still only twenty one. Hamilton was a widower and he refined Emma, polishing her skills. When she eventually realised that Greville had 'given her away', she became Hamilton's mistress.

He discovered that she was much more than a skilled courtesan. She wasn excellent society hostess, she acted and sang, she was diplomatic, friendly, popular and generous. She became a favourite in the Naples court, becoming the close friend and confidante of Queen Maria Carolina. (Who incidentally, was the sister of Marie Antoinette).

The couple became genuinely fond of each other and despite the age difference - he was thirty four years older than her) - they eventually married. The prostitute from lowly beginnings had become Lady Hamilton.

But Emma was soon to meet the love of her life - a man she would love until his - and her - premature death.

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Horatio Nelson

Lord Nelson was already a hero when Emma met him in Naples. He, like many English visitors, stayed with and was entertained by the Hamiltons. The three grew to be the best of friends but Emma and Nelson were soon deeply in love.

Curiously, Sir William accepted this and remained a firm friend to them both. Lord Nelson divorced his wife. As the affair blossomed, Sir William was often their alibi, providing a sense of decorum.

Sir William, now elderly and ailing, was recalled from his post in Naples and he and Emma moved back to England where Emma continued her affair with Lord Nelson. The lovers had a child, a girl, and again, Sir William provided respectability.

But the public were well aware of the affair and they were the most talked-about celebrities in the country. When Nelson was at sea, he wrote passionate letters to Emma. The couple were both genuinely saddened when Sir William died but two years later, Nelson himself was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. He was forty seven.

Emma, who had been the country's most famous woman, was left alone with their daughter. Left Nelson's country home to upkeep, but with little money with which to do so, she ultimately found herself in a debtors' prison. She died, with only her daughter in attendance, penniless and friendless in Calais ten years after Nelson's death when she was only forty nine years old.

© 2014 Jackie Jackson

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