- A.N. Other
- History - general, Biographies and personal histories
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- September 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Two women influenced the greatest naval hero’s life, the first his wife and, the second his mistress of many years. It was perhaps prophetic that the next generation produced no surviving male heirs as he was succeeded by an illegitimate daughter, with his estate eventually passing to his niece.
The young Horatio
Horatio Nelson was born in Norfolk on 29 September 1758 with both parents coming from ecclesiastical families. He was the sixth of eleven children (three died in infancy), born to the Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine, nee Suckling. Horatio was named after his godparent, cousin and benefactor Horace Walpole, a prominent politician and son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Horatio was a fair haired and blue eyed child of slight build and often in poor health; he was never robust and later suffered from recurring bouts of malaria. As Catherine died when Horatio was only nine years old he was taken into the care of his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling who was responsible for the youngster’s education and helped establish his early naval career.
Young naval officers often passed some time ashore seeking the pleasure of female companionship and Horatio’s first recorded encounter was with Mary Simpson, the beautiful daughter of a merchant, whom he met in Quebec in 1781. She deeply touched his inexperienced heart. Two years later he met Elizabeth Andrews, the daughter of a clergyman with at living at St Omer near Calais, and was again smitten, but his proposal was rejected. He later became attached to Mary Moutray of Antigua but this came to nothing. While the young Horatio was a hopeless romantic who placed women on pedestals, he had at least some experience of the ways of the opposite sex before meeting his future wife.
Lady Frances Nelson
Frances Herbert Woolward was born in May 1761 to wealthy parents residing in the West Indian island of Nevis, where her father served as a judge. There were similarities in the upbringing of both Horatio and Frances, as when young she was orphaned and went to live with her uncle who was President of the Council of Nevis. In June 1779 she married a much older local doctor, Josiah Nisbet, but he died two years later leaving her with an infant son also named Josiah.
While serving on the West Indian Station the youthful Captain Horatio Nelson fell in love with the attractive young widow, who could be regarded as a suitable match, as she was expected to inherit some of her uncle’s considerable fortune. With limited suitors on her island home Frances needed a protector for her child and a chance to escape into wider society. Horatio and Frances (Fanny) were married on Nevis on 11 March 1787, when she was 26 and he two years her senior. Prince William Henry (then aged 22) gave the bride away; the Prince unexpectedly succeeded to the throne as King William IV when his two elder brothers died without legitimate issue, and he was known as the Sailor King.
Frances was a devoted and good wife, but possibly too conventional and a little dull, and when she had established a home in England, helped care for her elderly father-in-law. Frances was never to have any more children which must have been a disappointment and placed great strain on the marriage. Her son eventually followed his stepfather into the Navy. Young Josiah, forever headstrong and outspoken, possibly spoilt by his mother, was increasingly resentful of his stepfather’s treatment of his mother. He was not himself a success and retired early as a Captain to a happier family life in France where he prospered in business.
Nelson was promoted Post-Captain when not yet 21. He did however contract malaria which was to recur throughout his career, and this, together with his battle wounds, needed much time for recuperation. His marriage coincided with the end of the American War of Independence, when Nelson found himself with many others on half-pay, with no immediate prospects. In 1788 Horatio and Fanny settled to domesticity at his childhood home at Burnham Thorpe and he was to remain here for five years. In some respects this period of carefree living in the countryside under the watchful eye of Fanny was the best in his life as he fully regained his health. With threats from Revolutionary France, in January 1793 he was recalled to command the 64-gun ship HMS Agamemnon. It was in this ship that in September he called at Naples and met personalities which were to have an increasing influence on his future life, namely the local monarch King Ferdinand VI and Queen Maria Carolina, the British ambassador Sir William Hamilton and his wife Lady Emma Hamilton.
While in the Mediterranean in July 1794 at Calvi in Corsica, Nelson was to lose the sight in his right eye from shrapnel and in July 1797, when at Teneriffe, he led an ill fated night assault from small boats where he was to lose his right arm. In this, as a Commodore, he should have showed better judgement and not have been in the thick of an attack which resulted in several hundred casualties. To those who knew him well Nelson was beginning to display characteristics of being prepared to take aggressive risks in order to obtain victory and prize money, even going to the extent of ignoring orders. In this he won the admiration of his juniors but the dislike of his seniors.
In February 1797 as a Commodore under the command of Admiral Sir John Jervis, (later Earl St Vincent) Nelson was involved in his first great naval victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. On his return to England in September 1797 he was given a hero’s welcome, promoted Rear Admiral and gain a knighthood.
The now celebrated family first rented property in fashionable Bath and then moved to London where Nelson sought medical attention for his amputated arm. Here he was awarded the Freedom of the City and an annual pension of £1,000. Believing the Navy might have little further use for a one-armed admiral, Nelson bought ‘Round Wood Farm’ near Ipswich where he intended to retire. However, as his health began to recover and, despite some misgivings in senior quarters, in March 1798 he was again at sea with his own squadron in search of the French, but under the watchful eye and overall command of St Vincent.
Fanny set about improving their new home. She dutifully wrote to her husband weekly whilst he was absent but was to progressively receive less in return. Nelson finally came home from the Mediterranean in November 1800 after an absence of two and a half years. He insisted on meeting his wife at a London hotel where they had luncheon with the Hamiltons, after which Nelson left to call upon the First Sea Lord, Earl Spencer. That evening Fanny joined her husband for dinner at Spencer House but it was much later before the two were to be alone together. Nelson did everything possible to avoid his wife and spent Christmas with the Hamiltons.
By January 1801 a separation was inevitable and ‘Round Wood’ was sold, with Fanny living in a rented house in Dover Street London. Fanny received an annual allowance of £2,000 (representing about half Nelson’s income), in addition an annuity of £200 was purchased from her uncle’s inheritance. Fanny later took a house in Brighton but seems to have spent most of her time in Bath. In April 1802 Nelson’s father Edmund died at Bath with Fanny by his side; although the Admiral was in England he did not attend the funeral. Fanny remained in Bath until the time of Nelson’s death when with financial independence she purchased a property overlooking the sea at Exmouth in Devon.
Lady Emma Hamilton
The lively and irrepressible Emma Hamilton was to have by far the greatest influence on Nelson’s life and the Nelson legend is incomplete without mention of her, as they became soul-mates. Emma Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith, was born in North Wales on 26 April 1765 but a year later her father died and she was then cared for by her mother and maternal grandmother. When aged 13 Emma entered service; here her classical features and rich auburn hair and grey eyes so captivated her new master that she was chosen to sit for portraits. Later Emma’s mother managed to gain employment in London as a housekeeper and took her daughter with her. In keeping with their new status both women assumed new names; the mother became Mrs Gadogan and the daughter Emma Hart. Being part of a sophisticated household did wonders for Emma’s education and she quickly assimilated the ways of her employers and the affectation of polite speech. She also learned how to please men and became mistress to a number of prominent men about town, including 32 year old Charles Francis Greville, second son of the Earl of Warwick. When Greville became tired of Emma he packed mother and daughter off for an extended holiday with his uncle Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Court of the King of the Two Sicilies and Naples.
Emma arrived in Naples on 26 April 1786, her twenty-first birthday. Her Pygmalion charms soon captivated the kindly and scholarly Sir William. A wealthy collector of antiquities and prominent vulcanologist, he set about educating his delightful new pupil. After several years of courtship and intimacy the aging and widowed diplomat married Emma on 6 September 1791 when he was 60 and she 26. The new Lady Hamilton caused a sensation and scandalised society with her scantily clad artistic poses of classical figures for great artists of the day. Somewhat unexpectedly, Emma had also developed a close friendship and confidence with the aristocratic and haughty Habsburg, Queen Maria Carolina, who was the elder daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Her more famous younger sister was Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. In many respects it was Queen Maria Carolina who ran the affairs of state while her husband sought pleasures elsewhere. Emma definitely had an ear to the highest levels of European political intrigues and was involved in some espionage on behalf of the British government. Stories circulated, probably untrue, at the time of an improper relationship between the masculine like Maria and very feminine Emma.
The first meeting between our two main characters on 11 September 1793 was inconsequential but the ambassador is said to have remarked to his wife before introducing her to Captain Nelson that ‘he had an interesting surprise for her, a somewhat ugly young man who might one day astonish the world’. In a passing reference in a letter to Fanny, Nelson writes: ‘She is a young woman of amiable manners and does honour to the station to which she is raised’.
In the summer of 1798, five years after their first brief encounter, the (now Rear Admiral) Sir Horatio Nelson returned to the Bay of Naples. Nelson’s attempts to gain provisions, additional men and more small ships to act as scouts to extend his search area were first rejected, but with Emma’s assistance the opposition of the royal household was overcome. With replenishments completed Nelson was eventually able to find the French fleet in August 1798 and achieve a great victory at the Battle of the Nile. The return to Naples was of great rejoicing where Nelson heard of his elevation to the peerage as Baron Nelson of the Nile. The one-eyed, one-armed celebrity was by now thin and fragile and beginning to resemble the appearance of an overly decorated scarecrow. He needed rest and recuperation and what better nurse could be found than the ever attentive Emma Hamilton; so it was that the Admiral moved ashore into the ambassadorial residence. Horatio wrote to Fanny: ‘I hope one day to have the pleasure of introducing you to Lady Hamilton. She is one of the best women in the world’. While Emma was casting her spell over her captive admiral, his stepson Joshua, who was serving as a midshipman in the flagship, demonstrated an active dislike of Lady Hamilton. At this stage Emma was 33 years of age and good living had not benefitted her once shapely appearance.
Sir William and Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson became an inseparable trio calling themselves tria juncta in uno. Nelson and his squadron became unofficially embroiled in Italian politics. Resulting from an internal revolution Nelson took the royal family and the ambassador’s family under his care and removed them to the safety of Palermo. Nelson later returned to Naples seeking retribution and laying the way open for the royal family’s return. In recognition of his contribution King Ferdinand conferred upon the Admiral the title Duke of Bronte together with considerable Sicilian estates of 25,000 hectares which was home to 9,000 people. Sadly these decaying estates produced little income and also came with expenses. For her part Emma received many valuable jewels. Nelson was in no hurry to return to active duty and was so distracted that he allowed the remaining French ships to sail past him in their escape from Egypt. The new commander in the Mediterranean, Lord Keith, was displeased describing Nelson as: …cutting the most absurd figure possible for folly and vanity. Keith ordered Nelson back to sea to blockade Malta which had been occupied and garrisoned by French troops en route to Egypt. Unable to completely detach himself, Nelson took Emma with him in HMS Foudroyant and she was aboard when sailing too close they came under attack from a shore battery. It was during this time that his illegitimate daughter Horatia was conceived. The blockade was however successful with the surrender of the French garrison.
On return to Italy they were in for a shock as both the Admiralty and Foreign Office had had enough of the undisciplined intrigues of the tria juncta in uno with Sir William and Lord Nelson both being recalled to London. In an astonishing lack of common sense and decorum, instead of proceeding directly by ship the trio decided to travel together overland; with Napoleon at large their safety was not guaranteed. They spent time partying in Vienna before arriving in London in bleak November with Sir William’s career at an end and that of the Hero of the Nile in jeopardy. To remove him from an unhappy domestic and social scene Nelson was promoted Vice Admiral and returned to sea. On 28 January 1801 Emma produced a daughter Horatia with the news reaching her father when off Torbay. To avoid further scandal the baby was baptised Horatia Nelson Thompson, Nelson’s friend Vice Admiral Sir Charles Thompson was nominated as father, with Emma and Horatio as godparents. At a later stage when the young girl was said to be orphaned she was adopted by Nelson.
There is an unsustained story that Emma gave birth to twin girls, Horatia and another infant who was taken away at birth and placed in the St Pancras Foundling Home. It is possibly of note that Nelson’s mother was also a twin. In 1801 a child from this Home was christened Emma Hamilton. An Australian family now claims descent from this dubious lineage.
Nelson was again to find fame and glory but at a higher cost in casualties against the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen where he famously put his telescope to his blind eye, failing to see the signal to retire issued by the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. On 1 July 1801 Nelson stepped ashore in England, again to a hero’s welcome, and now elevated to a Viscountcy. After the death of Sir William Nelson dreamt of retirement on his Italian estate of Bronte with Emma and Horatia. In the interim however a house close to town was required for them. Emma found and, with Nelson’s purse, bought a small farm, ‘Merton Place’, close to Wimbledon and only an hour from the Admiralty. Sir William accepted these arrangements and agreed to share in the expenses of the new establishment. With the Peace of Amiens signed in March 1802 Nelson was all but put out to pasture at ‘Paradise Merton’. When Sir William died in April 1803 this had unforeseen consequences as Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton could no longer decently reside under the same roof. Nelson’s financial burdens were worrying in now maintaining three households, one for his wife another for his mistress and a third for himself; this was exacerbated by Emma’s extravagant lifestyle. The peace did not last long and in May 1803 Nelson sailed for the Mediterranean in his flagship HMS Victory. A short return the next year was time enough for Emma to again fall pregnant but the baby died shortly after birth and was never to see its father.
After saying farewell to five year old Horatia and her mother, Nelson left for his final voyage on a fateful Friday 13th of September 1805. Off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, a day forever to be remembered in naval history, victory, glory and immortality were to come. Brave Emma, good Emma. If there were more Emmas there would be more Nelsons: these extraordinary compliments were amongst the last words spoken by Nelson, and in the battered flagship Emma looked down from her portrait in the now empty great cabin. Only hours before the battle Nelson must have feared for Emma’s future, possibly without him, and he put his thoughts into writing, noting the services to the Crown which had been dependent upon the patronage of Lady Hamilton. Nelson concludes: Could I have rewarded these services, I would not now call upon my Country; but as that has not been in my power, I leave Emma Lady Hamilton, therefore, a Legacy to my King and Country, that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her Rank in Life. I also leave to the beneficence of my Country my adopted daughter, Horatia Nelson Thompson; and I desire she will use in future the name of Nelson only. These are the only favours I ask of my King and Country at this moment when I am going to fight their Battle. May God bless my King and Country, and all those who I hold dear. My Relations it is needless to mention: they will of course be amply provided for.
The moral dilemma of the nation funding the lifestyle of Nelson’s mistress was not be countenanced. But as an expression of national thanksgiving the Admiral’s nearest male relative, his clergyman brother Dr William Nelson, was created Earl Nelson of Trafalgar and provided with £90,000 to purchase an estate, plus £10,000 to furnish it and a grant of £5,000 a year. The nation also paid for a lavish funeral and burial of Lord Nelson at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Emma, now cast adrift, was incapable of managing her affairs. She had been left money by Sir William and Lord Nelson together with ‘Merton Place’ and its contents. With careful management she and Horatia should have been in comfortable circumstances. Emma’s lifestyle continued unabated with expenditure greatly outstripping income until in December 1812 she was arrested for debt. In practice this meant that Emma and Horatia were on bail, living in lodgings near the debtor’s prison. After selling what remained of Nelson memorabilia in July 1813 she quietly slipped down the Thames to a life of exile in France. Here she quickly weakened and died in Calais in January 1815 aged 50. Horatia, after seeking help from the British Consul in arranging her mother’s funeral, returned to England disguised as a boy in order to escape her mother’s French creditors. She went to live with an aunt and when aged 21 married a neighbour, the Reverend Philip Ward, thereby continuing the Nelson line of Norfolk clergy.
Josiah Nisbet served as a midshipman with his stepfather and was a lieutenant at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Josiah is credited with helping save Nelson’s life when his arm was shattered on the disastrous raid at Teneriffe. Through his stepfather’s patronage he gained quick promotion to post-captain but his command of a frigate was unsuccessful and his drunken conduct unbecoming. Remonstrating with Nelson regarding his affair with Lady Hamilton, his valuable patronage was forever lost. He was posted out of his ship and never received another appointment. With little alternative he resigned his commission but proved a better businessman than a naval officer, making a fortune on the Paris stock exchange. After her husband’s death Fanny also moved to Paris to live with her son and his family. Josiah died of pleurisy when aged 50. Fanny returned to England but died a year later in May 1831, aged 70. Both mother and son are buried together at Exmouth.
The 1st Earl Nelson (William Nelson, brother of the Admiral) had two children, a son Horatio and daughter Charlotte, with their uncle taking a keen interest in their upbringing. The younger Horatio attended Eton and Cambridge, when on vacation from university in 1814 he contracted typhoid and died. The only surviving child and heiress, Lady Charlotte Mary Nelson, married Lord Bridport (from the famous naval family of Hood). Unlike English titles which pass through the male line the Italian Dukedom of Bronte was permitted to continue through the female line and the present Lord Bridport is also Duke of Bronte.
With absentee landlords it is doubtful if the Bronte estate brought much benefit to the family which was dispersed over the years, with the last vestige transferred to the local council in 1981. Australian interest might be gained from the Sydney suburb of Bronte which is named after Bronte House (in honour of the admiral). The house, now owned by Waverley Council, still stands.
The Final Curtain
Lord Horatio Nelson was a gifted admiral and inspirational leader who won great victories for his nation. He displayed human weaknesses, needing praise and encouragement which he received from Emma but in this he was morally flawed and Fanny suffered. The two ladies, Lady Emma Hamilton and Lady Frances Nelson, should be remembered as they also contributed to the immortal memory.