Sometimes, something about a story can capture your imagination and stay in the back of your mind for weeks. This is exactly what happened when I visited the ‘Nelson and Norfolk’ exhibition at Norwich Castle in October last year, and first learned the sad story of Lady Emma Hamilton.
As Horatio Nelson’s long term mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton featured heavily in the exhibition. She came from humble beginnings in a working class family, and skyrocketed her way to the highest circles of Neopolitan society (where she would eventually meet Horatio Nelson). Her rise to fame and fortune is nothing short of captivating, but – as I discovered at the exhibition – so too was her tragic decline into poverty and obscurity following Nelson’s death in 1805.
Emma Hamilton (or Amy Lyon, as was her birth name) was born on 26th April 1765. We know very little about her early life, although we do know that her father was a blacksmith and she was brought up in Wales by her grandmother. After that, she is reported to have been in London at the age of 12, working as an under-nursemaid, leaving at the age of 16 to live at the house of ‘Mrs Kelly’ – a ‘procurer and abbess of a brothel’. Next, Emma worked as an attendant in a centre run by ‘sexologist’ James Graham. Here, couples could pay £50 for a night in his electro-magnetic musical Grand State Celestial Bed, where ‘perfect babies could be created’!
From there, Emma went to live in a cottage in Sussex, owned by Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, where she is rumoured to have performed for his friends by dancing naked on the dining table. While she was here, she also fell pregnant, apparently with Sir Harry’s child, and gave birth to a little girl, also called Emma.
It is also during this time that Emma met the Hon. Charles Greville, who was impressed with her great beauty and vivacity. Leaving the Sussex cottage, Emma, her mother and her baby went to live with him. Through Greville, Emma became the muse of the most fashionable painter of the day, George Romney, who painted a series of portraits of her. However, Greville was growing tired of Emma. He had met a wealthy heiress and had decided that Emma had to leave – her baby had already been sent back to Wales. In a plan not revealed to Emma herself, Greville sent her and her mother to live with his Uncle – Sir William Hamilton – in Naples.
Sir William was in his sixties, working as the British envoy on Naples and had been taken with Emma when they had met in 1783 (when she would have been 18). Greville refused to answer Emma’s letters after she arrived in Naples, and so she now became Sir William’s mistress.
Here in Naples, she performed for high-society visitors, and was famed for performing her ‘attitudes’ – a series of poses from literature and classical art. William Hamilton and Emma married in 1791, when he was 61 and she 26, and the blacksmith’s daughter became society hostess and friend to many influential people. It was here, in 1793, that Emma Hamilton met Horatio Nelson, who was himself already a bit of a celebrity after a series of naval triumphs. Following their first meeting, the pair kept in close and affectionate contact.
"The two fell profoundly in love. Nelson was married – as was Emma – but such a scandalous situation didn’t put a stop to their romance"
In September 1798, Nelson returned to Naples victorious from the Battle of the Nile, but unwell. Emma nursed him back to health in her home, and the two fell profoundly in love. Nelson was married – as was Emma – but such a scandalous situation didn’t put a stop to their romance. For Sir William’s part, he was an old man by now, and was fond of both Emma and Nelson. In fact, the friendship between the three was so great that they called themselves ‘tria juncta in uno’ – three joined in one. Nelson’s wife Fanny, however, was mortified, having only seen her husband for seven months in the space of seven years. In 1800 when the ‘tria’ came to England, Fanny demanded Nelson give up his mistress Emma, but to no avail: Nelson separated with Fanny and never saw her again. In 1801, Emma gave birth to Nelson’s daughter, Horatia.
Emma and Nelson shared a sense of fun, and neither shied away from fame. But away from the tabloids and gossip of the nation, the two had a deep-seated affection for one another. Norwich Castle holds a locket in its collection, which is recorded as ‘Commemorative locket, Battle of the Nile, Naples’. Its disarranged contents contain two locks of hair, with a Brittania with shield and trident, anchor and fine gold chain. It is suspected that these locks of hair belong to Emma and Nelson, and in fact an identical one was found a few years ago in a cupboard in Porstmouth. How did it end up there? Well, that brings us to the sad ending of this love story.
Emma, Nelson and Sir William had been living together in London for a happy 18 months, when Sir William died in 1803. Now – although they were hardly ever alone – Nelson and Emma’s relationship evolved into something more like an unofficial marriage. In August to September 1805, when Nelson was on a brief respite from being at sea, the pair visited the parish church and – although it wasn’t a wedding ceremony – exchanged rings and received private communion. Nelson amended his will to implore the government to take care of Emma and Horatia, and he sailed from England for what was to be the last time.
"In the months that followed, many of Nelson’s family and friends deserted her. She wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral, and no support was forthcoming for her and Horatia"
Nelson was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar, and died below the deck of HMS Victory on the 21st of October 1805. Emma was absolutely devastated, and in the months that followed, many of Nelson’s family and friends deserted her. She wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral, and no support was forthcoming for her and Horatia. Her debts mounted, her drinking addiction worsened, and Emma was forced to sell the house she shared with Nelson, and paid off tradespeople with possessions and items of value (which is possibly how Nelson’s locket ended up in a cupboard). Accompanied by Horatia, Emma was arrested and sent to debtor’s prison.
In 1814, the situation worsened when private letters between Nelson and Emma were published, and public speculation about their relationship began all over again. Emma and Horatia fled to Calais where she died penniless in 1815. Horatia moved back to Norfolk, and lived out her life away from the public eye. She never accepted that Emma was her mother.
The great love of one of England’s most celebrated and heroic figures was let down by the people who were supposed to protect her, and allowed to slip into obscurity. Having spent her life passed from one man to another, it is Emma’s vulnerability that makes this story so very sad. Who could have ever guessed the tragic end to one of England’s most remarkable, sensational love stories?
This post is written with thanks to Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.
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