Hamilton, Emma (1765–1815)

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Hamilton, Emma (1765–1815)

Mistress and subsequently wife to the British ambassador to the court of Naples at the close of the 18th century, who became involved in a passionate and scandalous love affair with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the greatest naval leader in British history. Name variations: Emily or Emma Hart; Amy, Emy, Emma, or Emily Lyon. Born Amy Lyon in the spring of 1765 (some sources cite April 26), in the village of Denhall, county of Cheshire, in northwestern England; died in Calais, France, on January 15, 1815; daughter of Henry Lyon (a blacksmith) and Mary Kidd Lyon (a domestic servant); no formal schooling, tutored from 1782 onward in subjects like singing and languages under the auspices of her lovers, Charles Greville and Sir William Hamilton; married Sir William Hamilton, in 1791; had liaison with Lord Horatio Nelson, 1799–1805; children: (father unknown) Emily (b. 1782); (with Nelson) Horatia Nelson (b. 1801); Emma Nelson (died in infancy, 1804).

Started work as domestic servant in Cheshire (1777); moved to London (1778); was mistress of Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh (1781); was mistress of Charles Greville (1782–86); moved to Italy (1786); was mistress of Sir William Hamilton (1786–91); married Hamilton (1791); had first meeting with Nelson (1796); began love affair with Nelson (1799); returnedto England (1800); saw the purchase of Merton (1801); death of Hamilton (1803); death of Nelson (1805); left Merton (1808); imprisoned for debt (1813); fled to France (1814).

As actress and rich man's mistress, Emma Hamilton was a product of the dark side of English society in the second half of the 18th century. She later took on a more public role in the turbulent world of Mediterranean politics and military conflict in the era of Napoleon. Finally, she was the scandalous figure who both humanized the great hero Lord Horatio Nelson and placed his reputation under a cloud.

Her simplicity, her courage and her vital beauty have ensured that with all her faults it is not her enemies but Emma who has been remembered.

—Colin Simpson

Eighteenth-century England displayed a society of sharp contrasts. Its landed gentlemen lived in a world of culture and luxury, supported by inherited wealth of substantial, sometimes vast, proportions. To such individuals, a fleeting relationship with a young servant woman or a professional actress was part of their normal quota of pleasures. To women of modest background, especially those in vulnerable positions such as domestic service, only their wits and their sexual attractiveness provided them with tools to use in their own interest. A particularly lucky or talented female might convert a transitory relationship into a marriage that brought stability and a measure of respectability.

Meanwhile, great changes were at work in the public world. By the close of the century, the vast upheaval of the French Revolution had led to dramatic shifts in the entire political order of Europe. France's mobilized military strength, energized by revolutionary fervor, spread outward into neighboring countries where it often found support in the native population. Old forms of government were threatened and often overturned when the French moved in. At the close of the 1790s and in the first decade of the next century, the most effective military instrument in holding back the spread of French power was the British navy. Its most successful and charismatic leader was the young admiral Horatio Nelson, whose life was intertwined with Emma Hamilton over a dramatic, historically crucial period from 1798 to his death in 1805.

Nelson's future mistress and one of the most famous women in British history was born sometime in the spring of 1765. The date some biographers give, in the absence of more precise information, is April 26, 1765. She was the daughter of Henry Lyon, an illiterate blacksmith. Her mother was Mary Kidd Lyon , a domestic servant who also worked as a dressmaker. Some writers in Victorian England portrayed Henry as the son of a noble who became involved with the young servant girl and married her against his father's wishes. While some biographers like Colin Simpson still take this account seriously, most authorities reject it as a romantic fabrication. Christened Amy Lyon, the infant soon found herself an orphan: her father died only two months after her birth.

Amy grew up with her mother and grandmother in the family's longtime home region of Flintshire in the northeastern corner of Wales. At age 12 or 13, she followed a family tradition and went to work as a maid in the home of a local doctor and landowner. Soon afterward, she and her mother moved to London where the young girl continued to work as a domestic servant.

Over the next few years, Amy Lyon's life took a variety of turns and many of her activities remain uncertain and poorly documented. She remained a domestic servant in a London doctor's home for only a short time, moving on to become a fringe figure in the London theater as a dresser to an actress at the Drury Lane. Using a variety of names such as Emy Lyon and Emy Hart, she became romantically involved with a number of men. One of the uncertain aspects of her life at this time is the question of whether or not she became pregnant and underwent an abortion. For a time, she worked in Dr. James Graham's "Temple of Health." Graham's Temple was a shady theatrical enterprise that mixed demonstrations of popular science, displays of scantily clad young women, and, reportedly, sexual favors for sale.

A series of romantic liaisons soon pointed her toward Naples and her eventual encounter with Horatio Nelson. In 1781, she had a yearlong affair with a fabulously wealthy country gentleman, Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh. While living at his estate near Portsmouth, she met Charles Greville, a member of Parliament and minor government official. When Featherstonhaugh abruptly threw her out of his home at the close of 1781 because she was pregnant, she turned to Greville for help. One of the unanswered questions about her early life is whether Featherstonhaugh or Greville was the father of her first child, a girl born in 1782 and named Emma. Changing her own name from Amy to the more elegant "Emily" and the still more sophisticated "Emma," Nelson's future

mistress now began a liaison with Greville that lasted until he broke it off in 1786.

Emma's chief asset as she made her way among her aristocratic patrons was her physical beauty: she was a tall young woman with a lovely face, a slim figure, and long auburn hair. While she was Greville's mistress, the artist George Romney painted her more than 20 times. As biographer Jack Russell put it, the infatuated Romney "recorded her as one of the most beautiful creatures of that, or any other, age."

The man who became the dominant influence in the elder Emma's life for most of the next two decades was Greville's uncle, Sir William Hamilton. A former soldier, thought by some to be an illegitimate son of the British royal family, William had entered the diplomatic service in 1764. He never rose beyond his initial post, that of British representative at the court of King Ferdinand of Naples. Because of his first wife Lady Catherine Hamilton's dowry he lived in comfort, becoming a passionate collector of Italian art and immersing himself in scientific observations of the volcano of Mount Vesuvius, just outside Naples. Catherine died in 1782, the year before his first encounter with Emma; he had been in Naples for almost 20 years.

Emma passed only reluctantly from Greville's side to that of William Hamilton. Greville, who saw clearly the advantage of keeping his widowed uncle, from whom he expected a substantial legacy, from remarrying, took the initiative in carrying out the transfer. Emma seemed likely to appeal to William as a mistress; it seemed impossible he would ever marry her, especially since an ambassador's marriage required the approval of the British monarch. Greville shipped Emma, along with her mother, to Naples in the spring of 1786. William's efforts led to her seduction by the close of the year.

The young Englishwoman kept her strong Cheshire accent, but she soon became a sophisticated companion for the elderly ambassador. She learned Italian, improved her natural singing voice with music lessons, and joined William in his enthusiastic study of volcanoes. Emma also became the confidante of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (1752–1814), formerly an Austrian princess and the sister of Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Emma's efforts at attaining respectability ended with success: in September 1791, while on leave in London, William received the consent of King George III and made Emma his legal wife.

By the time of the Hamiltons' marriage, great historical currents were moving Emma toward her first encounter with Horatio Nelson. The French Revolution had begun two years earlier, and the French king Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were already at odds with the government of the new limited monarchy that controlled France. In 1793, the French king and queen were executed by their own people, and France declared war against Britain. The Mediterranean became a war zone.

That September, Captain Nelson, a talented but still relatively obscure British naval officer, visited Naples. His mission was to secure Neapolitan help in defending the French port of Toulon. There, conservative French leaders had allowed the British to occupy the city, but Italian troops were needed urgently to help stop French revolutionary armies from closing in, bent on recapturing Toulon.

The initial meeting between 28-year-old Emma Hamilton and 35-year-old Horatio Nelson, who had been married since 1787, was not a memorable one. Nelson was frantically busy arranging for the transfer of Neapolitan forces to the French coast. He and Emma had little contact; he was far more concerned with her husband, and the elderly ambassador expressed his admiration for the energetic young naval officer. Nelson sailed off, the Neapolitan troops at Toulon suffered heavy losses when the French revolutionary armies retook the city, and Emma had no contact with her future lover for five years.

The lives of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson touched a second time in the midst of a greater European crisis. By the spring of 1798, the brilliant French general Napoleon Bonaparte had conquered northern and central Italy and gathered a massive fleet and army at the port of Toulon. In May, the French forces sailed out into the Mediterranean. The French leader's exact intentions were uncertain, but he posed a threat to British interests and Britain's allies from Italy to Egypt. Nelson had the mission of hunting down the French fleet and opposing Napoleon's next moves.

Hamilton, Catherine (1738–1782)

English harpsichordist and composer. Name variations: Lady Catherine Hamilton. Born Catherine Barlow in 1738 in Wales; died outside Naples of febbre biliare, or bilious fever, on August 25, 1782; buried in Pembrokeshire; married Sir William Hamilton (envoy to Naples), in 1758; no children.

Lady Catherine Hamilton was highly esteemed in her own time for her proficiency on the pianoforte and the harpsichord, but only one of her works as a composer, a minuet in C major, is extant. She was born in Wales in 1738. By her 20th birthday, she was a rich woman, who owned estates in Pembrokeshire and other areas in Wales. Though Sir William Hamilton, envoy to Naples, married her for her wealth, she soon became, he told others, his "bosom friend and companion." His love was returned. Said her niece Mary Hamilton : "She had no object in life but him & only regretted dying because she left him behind." Catherine disliked Neapolitan court life, preferring to give concerts, "at which all the best musicians, herself included, performed," writes Flora Fraser . Catherine had a deep understanding of music and even played before a young Mozart.


Fraser, Flora. Emma: Lady Hamilton. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Naples, facing French forces only 60 miles away, clung to a status of political neutrality. Nonetheless, in an episode that remains a source of controversy, Emma may have played a key role in setting the stage for British success: some historians believe she interceded decisively with Queen Maria Carolina to provide crucial supplies in Sicily for Nelson's vessels.

In September 1798, Nelson returned to Naples as a conquering hero after destroying the French fleet at Aboukir Bay near the Egyptian port of Alexandria. In the dramatic aftermath of this triumph at the Battle of the Nile, he and Emma Hamilton began their close personal relationship. Emma nursed Nelson's battle wounds and wrote cheerful letters to his wife Frances about his health.

When French forces advanced against Naples in December 1798, Emma and William Hamilton, along with the monarchs of Naples and the royal court, made a dramatic escape on Nelson's battle fleet to Sicily. The voyage was marked by a terrifying storm during which the youngest son of the Neapolitan monarchs suddenly died. Emma was the hero of the hour, comforting the Neapolitan rulers in the midst of the chaos and family tragedy.

In Sicily during the first months of 1799, Hamilton and Nelson began their love affair. At this time, as wife of the British ambassador, Emma played a political role as well. With her fluent Italian, she served as Nelson's interpreter and wrote propaganda leaflets to bolster support for King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina from their subjects under French occupation in Naples. She also became pregnant for the first time with Nelson's child but ended the pregnancy with an abortion.

By the close of 1799, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina were back in Naples largely as a result of the military support they had received from the British. In the ensuing bloodbath, in which the Neapolitan monarchs struck at their subjects who had supported the French invasion, Emma tried with some success to shield several of the targets of royal vengeance. Meanwhile, she was becoming an object of hostility in her own country. Some senior naval officers held her responsible for keeping Nelson at port in Naples when he was obligated to join in British efforts to take the island of Minorca in the western Mediterranean. As rumors of Nelson's liaison with Hamilton reached home, satirical pamphlets and cartoons made her the object of public ridicule.

In November 1800, after a trip by land from Italy through central Europe to Hamburg and then by sea to Great Yarmouth, Emma, her husband, and Lord Nelson returned to England. Hamilton was again pregnant with Nelson's child, and the impact of their virtually open relationship now struck Nelson's public. After being presented to King George III at St. James's Palace, Nelson found the monarch willing to give him only a few brief words and a nod, a seemingly deliberate public rebuff to Britain's heroic young fighting admiral. Meanwhile, Hamilton was the target of jibes in the press which exaggerated her age, called attention to her swelling figure, and reminded readers of her May–December marriage with William Hamilton. One newspaper article noted that after William's 38 years in Italy, she was "the chief curiosity" with which he had returned to his country.

On January 12, 1801, Nelson broke off relations with his wife Frances. At the close of the month, Emma presented him with his only surviving child, a daughter whom she named Horatia. Nelson and Hamilton maintained the fiction that they had adopted the girl. In the last years of Emma's life, she would tell Horatia that she was Nelson's daughter. But Emma would hold back the information that Horatia was her daughter. It was not until Horatia Nelson-Ward was an adult, with a family of her own, that she learned all the facts about her parentage.

Nelson, Frances Herbert (1761–1831)

Viscountess Nelson. Name variations: Frances Nisbet. Born Frances Woodward in 1761; died in 1831; married Josiah Nisbet (died); married Lord Horatio Nelson, on March 12, 1787 (separated 1801).

Fanny Nisbet was a widow, living at Nevis in the West Indies, when she met Lord Horatio Nelson in 1784. Three years later, they were married there, then returned to England that summer to live at Burnham Thorpe. Fanny was said to be a "good and faithful wife" but "unappreciative" of her unpredictable husband. While Nelson was intermittently away at sea, Fanny corresponded affectionately with him, until she learned of his liaison with Lady Emma Hamilton in 1798. When Lord Nelson eventually returned to England in 1800, he brought the Hamiltons with him, causing a breach in the Nelson marriage. In London and elsewhere, the affair was the topic of conversation and speculation on every side. After many quarrels with her husband, Fanny Nelson could no longer endure the humiliation of the estranged wife and finally separated in 1801. At the time of his death, Nelson left her £1,200 per annum.

The admiral soon left for the Baltic, where he added to his reputation as his country's greatest naval hero with a victory over the Danes at Copenhagen in April. When he returned to England, he asked Hamilton to find him a country house. The farm house at Merton in Surrey that she discovered and Nelson purchased was the scene of the two interludes of happiness they were able to enjoy.

Peace with France, signed at Amiens in March 1802, brought Emma and her lover together at Merton for nearly a year. Accompanying them was Emma's husband, William Hamilton, now past 70 and retired from the diplomatic service. William had been present throughout the relationship between Emma and Nelson. Long reconciled to the possibility that his wife might take up with a lover younger than he, William had not been surprised when Nelson and Emma had begun their affair in Sicily. He had accompanied them in the long journey across Europe and now seemed more or less content to spend his last years in the shadow of their love affair. When he died at Merton in the spring of 1803, his will contained a specific statement of his regard for Nelson.

The final phase of Hamilton's love affair with Nelson began when Britain renewed its war with Napoleon in May 1803. The young admiral left to take command of British forces in the Mediterranean. For the next two years, he never touched shore, and the two could contact each other only by letter. Tragedy struck in early 1804 when Emma gave birth to a daughter who soon died from smallpox. Hamilton found herself increasingly plagued by financial problems; Nelson's income had to support his estranged wife Frances as well Emma. Moreover, at his request, Emma was expanding and developing the property at Merton where they hoped to live out their lives. Her debts were manageable mainly because her creditors understood that Nelson was the real debtor. So long as he was at sea, it was pointless and possibly even unpatriotic to press for payment.

Nelson chased the French fleet from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and back. A combined fleet of these French vessels and their Spanish allies was now reportedly hiding in the Spanish port of Cadiz. Nelson had to wait until his navy had been refitted before he could sail southward to engage them. While he tarried at home, Emma Hamilton spent her last moments

with her lover in late August 1805. Three weeks later, he left her for the last time.

Emma Hamilton learned of Nelson's death on November 6, more than two weeks after he fell at the head of his victorious fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21. The first sign of momentous news came when she and Sarah Nelson , Nelson's sister, heard celebration guns being fired off in London. In short order, a representative of the British Admiralty arrived. When Emma asked him for her latest letters from the admiral, his silence made Nelson's death clear to her. She fainted from shock.

Shortly before the start of the battle, as his forces awaited the French and Spanish off the Spanish coast, Nelson had added a codicil to his will. His original will gave Emma the estate at Merton, a modest yearly allowance, and £4,000 in trust for Horatia's education. In the codicil, Nelson went much further to secure his family's future. He named Emma "a Legacy to my King and Country," and he asked the government to provide her with funds appropriate to "her Rank in Life." He justified his request in part by citing her help in supplying his fleet in 1798 prior to the Battle of the Nile. In thinly disguised acknowledgement of his role as Horatia's father, he asked that she, "my adopted daughter," also receive financial aid, and he expressed his hope she would henceforth use the name "Horatia Nelson."

The last decade of Emma Hamilton's life was marked by a descent into poverty and illness. Her effort to keep possession of Merton, despite its heavy costs, proved a severe burden. While her generosity to Nelson's servants, members of his family and her own, and numerous old sailors who visited her for help, put her deeply in debt. After she was forced to sell Merton in 1809, she was already weakened by illness and lacked the energy to pursue her right to the yearly sums she was entitled to from the estates of William Hamilton and Nelson. Sinking into poverty, hounded by her creditors, and finally arrested for debt in 1813, she used her meager resources to provide Horatia with a first-class education.

Emma Hamilton died in Calais on January 15, 1815. Friends had arranged her release from confinement and provided her and Horatia with the funds to escape to France. The woman who had stood beside Britain's legendary naval leader died in the same country whose ambitions Nelson had effectively stymied. The graveyard in which she was buried was relocated in the course of the 19th century, and the spot where her remains now rest is unknown.


Fraser, Flora. Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

Russell, Jack. Nelson and the Hamiltons. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1969.

Simpson, Colin. Emma: The Life of Lady Hamilton. London: Bodley Head, 1983.

suggested reading:

Hibbert, Christopher. Nelson: A Personal History. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Lofts, Nora. Emma Hamilton. NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978.

Pocock, Tom. Nelson and his World. NY: Viking Press, 1968.

Rattigan, Terence. A Bequest to the Nation. Chicago, IL: The Dramatic Publishing, 1971.

Sontag, Susan. The Volcano Lover: A Romance. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992.

related media:

That Hamilton Woman, film with Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, directed by Alexander Korda, 1941.

The Nelson Affair (titled in England Bequest to the Nation), film with Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson , directed by James Clellan Jones, 1973.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Hamilton, Emma (1765–1815)

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