The relationship between Horatio Nelson and Emma Lady Hamilton is one of history’s most notorious love stories. Over the course of their affair – which began in Naples in 1799, produced a daughter, Horatia, in 1801, and ended with Nelson’s death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 – the couple exchanged hundreds of letters.
Due to repeated and often prolonged spells of separation, one of which stretched to two years, these intimate messages were a vital means of communication between the two lovers. Sadly, Nelson appears to have burned nearly all of his letters from Emma in order to keep them from being discovered on board ship. (Both were married – Emma to Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to Naples, and Nelson to the patient Frances.)
Lady Hamilton, however, kept all the letters she received – for as long as she could. On falling into poverty after Nelson’s death, she gave them as pawns to friends who lent her money. Over the course of the centuries since, the letters have been leaked.
The first selection was published in 1814, when Lady Hamilton was still alive. The damage that its publication inflicted on her reputation hurried her to an early death in 1815, in Calais, where she had fled from her creditors. It had a significant impact on Nelson’s posthumous stature, too. During the course of the 19th century, two more substantial publications of letters followed, one in 1849, hidden in what was termed Memoirs of the Life of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, and one in 1892–93 in a two-volume work that was merely printed for private circulation and thus hardly noticed in public. By the end of the 19th century, as he was reimagined as a figurehead of the naval arms race with Germany, Nelson’s relationship with this great beauty and celebrated artists’ model had been brushed under the carpet.
Over time, most of the letters found their ways into archives – both public and private, scattered from Europe to California. Some of those that Emma gave away as pawns still keep coming up at auction. All those accessible in archives or known from printed sources have recently been published together for the first time in Nelson’s Letters to Lady Hamilton, a book that I have edited for the Navy Records Society.
Nelson’s correspondence with Emma offers historians an unprecedented insight into his experiences as a rising star of the Royal Navy and his opinions on everything from politics and romance to seafaring and celebrity – as the following examples reveal…
Life at sea
Life on board a naval vessel in the early 19th century was far from comfortable and Nelson didn’t fare much better than his crews. Even though he enjoyed the comparative luxury of a spacious cabin, he, too, was affected by illness, harsh weather conditions, food shortages and monotony.
When given command of the British fleet in the Mediterranean in 1803, he had to sail out in a frigate and wrote to Emma after two months at sea. “We are anxious for the Victory’s joining as we are almost eating salt beef.” Half a year later he told her: “Our days pass so much alike that having described one you have them all.”
Bad food and boredom weren’t the only threats to a sailor’s wellbeing. Diseases could sweep through a ship at any time – which is why, in October 1804, Nelson was delighted to report: “My dearest Emma, the dreadful effects of the yellow fever at Gibraltar and many parts of Spain will naturally give you much uneasiness ‘till you hear that thank God we are entirely free from it and in the most perfect health, not one man being ill in the fleet.”
Nelson sounded far less buoyant in August 1801 when confessing: “I am so dreadfully sea sick that I cannot hold up my head.” During another buffeting by high winds that same year, he lamented: “The sea is so very high, that I scarcely expect the possibility of getting a boat with this weather; she would be lost in an instant… in my after-cabin the motion is so great that I cannot sit down. We have only to trust to our cables, for the sea is breaking against the rocks mountains high.”
Nelson’s letters to his lover convey not only the highs and lows of life at sea but also the persistent anxiety that stalked the crew of a great man-of-war. Whether you were a lowly new recruit or a lionised admiral, your life depended on the strength of a ship’s cables.
Perhaps it was Nelson’s admission that he experienced fear – a confession at odds with the carefully crafted image of the naval hero – that made 19th-century authors omit this passage from their publications.
Far away from home, Nelson was often without news from Britain – and Emma – for months on end. In order to stay connected, the lovers had to trust to unreliable means of communication, sometimes via Spain, and even through France, with which Britain was at war at the time.
As Nelson and Emma were rarely alone together (for most of their affair, she lived with her husband, Sir William Hamilton, who appears to have tolerated their relationship), they had to concentrate their erotic life on short and intense moments – and leave much to the imagination. “You may readily imagine what must be my sensations at the idea of sleeping with you, it setts me on fire even the thoughts, much more would the reality,” Nelson wrote to Emma on 1 March 1801. On the same day, he noted in another passionate letter: “Would to God I had dined alone with you. What a des[s]ert we would have had.”
Writing on the Victory in the Mediterranean in October 1804, Nelson was just as affectionate, though a little more restrained. “…my own Emma, you must only fancy all my thoughts and feelings towards you, they are every thing which a fond heart can fancy. I have not a moment; I am writing + signing orders whilst I am writing to my own Emma. My life my soul, God in heaven bless you.”
Along with descriptions of the mundanity of life at sea and heartfelt expressions of affection, Nelson’s letters to Emma also reveal his views on international relations and Europe’s power-holding elite. He readily shared gossip about leading political and public figures but was not prepared to spend too much time pondering what this gossip meant. “Report says, she [the Queen of Naples] and the king are likely at last to have a serious rupture… However, I never trouble myself with these matters, they may settle their own affairs, they are old enough.”
William Pitt the Younger, two-time prime minister, played a huge role in marshalling Britain’s war effort against Napoleon’s France. When Pitt resigned in 1801, Nelson wrote to Emma: “I am sorry Mr Pitt is out. I think him the greatest minister this country ever had, and the honestest man.” Unfortunately, Nelson does not elaborate on his reasons for this assessment. His matter-of-fact writing style resembled more the entries into a logbook than a fully developed political tract.
Nelson could, however, be crystal clear in his political observations. Following the battle of Copenhagen [for more on this scroll down], he observed: “I look upon the Northern league to be like a tree, of which [Tsar] Paul was the Trunck [sic] + Sweden + Denmark the Branches, If I can get at the Trunk and hew it down, the branches fall of course, but I may lop the branches + yet not be able to fell the tree.”
Another of Nelson’s political desires – the “hope that by the destruction of Buonaparte that wars with all nations will cease” – was just as difficult to achieve. After Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, Britain had to bear a strenuous war effort for nearly 10 more years before enjoying the Pax Britannica that reigned for much of the 19th century.
Nelson wrote the above words to Emma on 23 March 1801, less than 10 days before the battle of Copenhagen, a critical clash in the War of the Second Coalition, which saw Britain scrambling to prevent the powerful Danish fleet allying with the Russian and Swedish fleets in support of the French.
By the time of the battle, Nelson had gained the reputation of an audacious risk-taker – the kind of admiral who’d always favour aggression over caution – thanks to his spectacular victory over the French at the battle of the Nile in 1798. But, by 1800, his affair with Emma had become so notorious that the Admiralty did not judge Nelson fit for anything but fighting. As such, he had not been entrusted with the command of a fleet, but rather placed under a senior admiral, Sir Hyde Parker, who began negotiations with the Danes before entering the Baltic.
Nelson’s letters to Emma from this time bear testimony to his impatience to advance into the Baltic and his desire to frighten the Danes into siding with Britain. By contrast, Sir Hyde hesitated until the ice started melting in the Baltic, enabling the Russian and Swedish fleets to join their Danish ally. Pressed for action, Hyde sent Nelson to fight at Copenhagen.
As the battle ran its course, it sounded and looked so dreadful from a distance that Sir Hyde signalled retreat, which Nelson ignored. Famously putting the telescope to his blind eye, he declared: “I really do not see the signal.” Notwithstanding this determination to go on the attack, Nelson started negotiating with the “Danes, the brothers of Englishmen”, rather than fighting to the bitter end.
When he learned that this act of mercy was being criticised back home, he justified his actions to Emma: “The cause that I felt… [was] humanity … when my flag of truce went on shore, the crown batteries, and the batteries on Amack and in the dock yard were firing at us, one half their shot necessarily striking the [Danish] ships who had surrendered and our fire did the same and worse… + it was a massacre, this caused my note… I felt when the Danes became my prisoners, I became their protector.”
The image of Lady Hamilton rowing her naval hero to shore was never directly caricatured – as Nelson imagines it might be, in his words above – but it easily could have been. As a highly visible public figure, fame was something that he had to grapple with during his career, and he was conscious of how he and Emma appeared to the public. On their joint return from the Mediterranean in November 1800, in the company of Lady Hamilton’s husband, the couple had been subject to quite outspoken ridicule, fanned by a voracious press. Being portrayed in caricature, however, was regarded at the time as a marker of status.
But Nelson did not always enjoy the spotlight. At times he was plagued by his celebrity, as in August 1801, when, as he tells Emma, he was in English waters, protecting Britain from a potential French invasion. “I have given directions to captain Gore (or rather requested) not to let any body come into the ship but who had business with me… Fifty boats are rowing, I am told, about her this moment to have a look at the one armed man.”
The past and future
Of all the passages in Nelson’s letters to Emma, perhaps the most poignant are those in which he imagines their future life together – a future that was dashed by his death at Trafalgar. The notoriety of the couple’s affair meant that, while Nelson was feted by the general public on returning to Britain, the reception he received from the establishment was often more restrained. Aware of his fragile social standing, in a letter from 1801 he wrote: “We will eat plain but will have good wine, good fires + a hearty welcome for our friends, but none of the great shall enter our peaceful abode, I hate them all”.
Nelson’s letters also provided him with a platform from which he could reminisce about the past and pay his respects to those most responsible for his life’s achievements. On 11 June 1801, he observed: “This day 22 syears I was made a Post Captain by Sir Peter Parker, as good a man as ever lived if you meet him again say that I shall drink his health in a bumper this day for I do not forget that I owe my present exalted rank to his partiality, although I feel if I had even been in an humbler sphere that Nelson would have been Nelson still.”
Dr Marianne Czisnik is a historian and lawyer who has published widely on Admiral Nelson. She is editor of Nelson’s Letters to Lady Hamilton, a compilation of 400 letters penned by the naval hero to his lover, which was published by the Navy Record Society in July 2020