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Nelson's sensational mistress: how Emma Hamilton took Europe by storm

Besmirched as a social climber and sexual manipulator who bagged the nation's beloved naval hero, Horatio Nelson, history has been unkind to Emma, Lady Hamilton. But shouldn't we admire a woman who, from impoverished obscurity, propelled herself to the top of society? Quintin Colville investigates...

A portrait of Lady Emma Hamilton
Published: September 2, 2021 at 9:15 am
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Temptress, seductress, fallen woman, mistress of Horatio Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero. During her life and since her death, descriptions of Emma Hamilton have tended to be variations on an old and predictable theme.


It is, of course, a common fate for women in the public eye to be reduced to the sum of their actual or imagined sexual history. However, the gap between salacious stereotype and reality is unusually pronounced for Emma, whose life story is surely one of the most remarkable and varied of the 18th century.

Propelled by performative talent, artistic creativity, beauty and a fierce desire to improve herself, she rose from obscurity to European fame while still in her twenties. Yet, and in spite of some powerful revisionist biographies, we are obliged to peer through a blizzard of moralising criticism to discern her achievements.

Accounting for this profound disconnect is far from straightforward. Few historical figures are so richly supplied as Emma with distorting mirrors created by artists, gossips, biographers, historians and, on occasion, Emma herself.

Her gender, humble background, ambitions, connections and public reputation ensured that many axes would be ground and wielded. Rather than examining them in turn, we can instead explore Emma’s astonishing and ultimately tragic journey from her birth in the village of Ness, Cheshire in 1765, to her death in self-imposed exile in Calais half a century later.

In search of a protector

The daughter of a blacksmith, Henry Lyon, Emma’s earliest years can only be uncovered through fragmentary evidence. Even after arriving in London at around the age of 12, she is slow to emerge from the shadows in which most labouring lives from this period remain shrouded. As with so many, she found work as a domestic servant. Ambitious from the start, though, she was soon drawn to Covent Garden, where high culture and fashionable celebrity met grimier realities. This area was, of course, the centre of London’s sex trade. In the absence of definitive details, lurid and not always reliable accounts have circulated ever since about her activities there, in the process shoring up a distorted impression of her identity and motivations.

What we know for certain is that she became the lover of a young nobleman, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, but was rejected by him when, aged 16, she became pregnant with his child. Her only chance lay in finding another ‘protector’, and she wrote a desperate, pleading letter to one of Fetherstonhaugh’s friends, Charles Greville.

Knowing that her fate lay in his power, he set out the terms on which she would become his mistress: “If you mean to have my protection I must first know from you that you are clear of every connexion, & that you will never take them again without my consent. I shall then be free to dry up the tears of my lovely Emily… but remember I never will… continue my connexion one moment after my confidence is again betray’d.”

Greville provided for the child, but made clear that it could not remain under the same roof as its mother. Thus presented by Greville with the challenge of mastering a placid and respectable identity, Emma responded with a thoroughgoing performance of virtue, in her words turning “the wild unthinking Emma” into “a grave thoughtful phylosopher”.

Impressed, and keen to profit culturally from his beautiful lover, Greville introduced her to the great portraitist, George Romney. What could have been a brief engagement for a busy artist turned instead into a long-
standing creative collaboration. With her innate theatricality and striking good looks, Emma became Romney’s obsession. Over hundreds of sittings he completed more than 70 canvases.

Emma’s importance for Romney operated on many levels. His typical clients were members of the British elite: powerful and influential figures, who were attracted by his status as a fashionable artist but nonetheless expected to be represented in conventional terms. As an obscure provincial girl, Emma as a sitter could be the subject for unfettered inspiration and experimentation.

Anonymity, however, was only the start. Emma was a natural and uninhibited performer with a gift for capturing dramatic expressions and personas. Through this powerful combination of qualities, Emma allowed Romney to reach towards his own artistic ambitions and fascinations, while simultaneously stocking her own repertoire of classical, mythological and historical allusions. It is surely this catalysing quality that made her so enduringly absorbing to him. Certainly she had soon graduated from model to muse.

Greville, however, longed for a wealthy wife, and the conspicuously attractive and increasingly famous Emma became a considerable hindrance. A solution to his difficulties came in the form of his uncle: Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples. Unknown to Emma, Greville convinced Hamilton to take her on as his own mistress – passed from nephew to uncle like the paintings and sculptures that both men collected so avidly. Emma was sent to Naples in 1786, fully expecting Greville (who she genuinely loved) to join her.

When the truth became clear, she was crushed. Emma sent Greville a torrent of letters full of anger and humiliation, but no reply was forthcoming: “If you knew what pain I feil in reading those lines when you advise me to Whore nothing can express my rage, I am all madness, Greville… to advise me to go to bed with him, Sr Wm [Sir William]. Oh, that’s worst of all… I would murder you & myself boath.”

Emma nonetheless threw herself into Neapolitan life with her typical thirst for education and improvement. Packed with all the accessories of a cultivated mind and connoisseur, Sir William Hamilton’s palazzo was the ideal context. Within a year she was fluent in Italian and French, and had both engaged with Hamilton’s passion for art and classical antiquities and demonstrated considerable talent as a singer.

Fame in Naples

But Emma was no mere pupil. With great rapidity, and Hamilton’s willing assistance, she exploited her sophisticated surroundings to perfect an innovative type of performance art known as the Attitudes. These were fluid tableaux vivants in which Emma brought the paintings and sculptures that enraptured Grand Tourists in Naples dramatically to life before their eyes.

Her poses and elegant use of costume and shawls became the must-see spectacle of the day, winning the admiration of an elite audience all too ready to criticise a girl of Emma’s humble origins. The Attitudes were a tour de force and a creative summit. To some extent, they paralleled Emma’s work as Romney’s model. But she was now both the artist and the artwork, and a degree of power and authorial control came with that territory.

Emma’s life in Naples was a procession of achievements. Following unpromising beginnings, a relationship blossomed with Sir William, and in 1791 she made the extraordinary social leap of marrying him, taking the title Lady Hamilton. As an envoy’s wife, she now had access to the Neapolitan court, where she became the confidante of Queen Maria Carolina. The girl from Ness had come a long way indeed, and was soon steeped in the machinations against Revolutionary France that so preoccupied the queen, whose sister – Marie Antoinette – was executed by the regime in 1793.

Lover to Nelson

It was from Emma’s position as a privileged insider that she encountered the naval hero Horatio Nelson. Following his victory at the battle of the Nile in 1798 she helped to organise lavish celebrations in his honour in Naples. In December of that year, with French troops approaching, she assisted Nelson in evacuating the royal family from the city, and returned to Naples with him and Sir William the following year to advance the queen’s desire to suppress anti-monarchist elements. It was in these highly charged circumstances that their romantic involvement began – a love affair marked by mutual admiration.

From her arrival in Naples in 1786, Emma had successfully cultivated a reputation for constancy and virtue. Although the British grandees who visited Sir William’s palazzo never accepted her on equal terms, she had gained, in his words, their “thorough approbation”. Emma’s love for Nelson came at the price of this fragile and hard-won respectability.

Sir William maintained a philosophical friendship with them both, but damaging scandal grew as they travelled back to Britain together through Trieste, Vienna and Hamburg. Emma was still at the height of her fame, but she would never again experience the triumphs and security of her Neapolitan life. In England, her position among the beau monde was always more precarious, and Maria Carolina’s warm hospitality found no parallel in the resolutely hostile court of George III and Queen Charlotte.

 Although she endeavoured to conceal the fact, Emma was also now pregnant, giving birth to her daughter with Nelson in January 1801. Once again, Emma’s experience of motherhood was fraught with difficulty. Horatia, as she was named, was presented to the world as Nelson’s ward, and it is possible that Emma died without telling Horatia that she was her mother. In order to maintain social propriety, Emma was reluctant to bring Horatia to Merton Place, the country house she chose for Nelson and which they shared during his brief periods ashore. Indeed, the redesigned grounds, elegant interiors and hectic sociability of Merton – largely the result of Emma’s tenacious energy – could never conceal the deep fractures caused by their adultery.

Descent into debt

Still greater challenges were to come. Emma and Nelson’s plans for a future together ended when he was killed at the battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Emma had lost her great love. With Sir William also dead, she no longer had a male protector, leaving her socially and financially vulnerable. With an annuity from Sir William and the legacy of Merton from Nelson, Emma’s life did not collapse immediately, and her name continues to appear in the society pages in connection with powerful figures such as William Beckford and the Duke of Queensbury.

A life of quiet and retired comfort was within her grasp, but Emma’s ambitions were altogether different and drove her into rash spending in order to maintain a social profile she could no longer realise. She was committed to King’s Bench Prison in 1813 for debt. Following her release in summer 1814, she and Horatia travelled to Calais, where her health finally gave way. She died there in cheap rooms in January 1815.

How, then, has this technicolour firework of a life so often been reduced to the label of ‘mistress’? The answer lies, in part, with Nelson’s posthumous reputation. In 1931, the Royal Navy’s professional journal, The Naval Review, published the following chilly notice about a new biography of Nelson by George Edinger and EJC Neep. “There is no doubt in this book much that is true,” noted the reviewer, “especially regarding the sordid story of Emma Hamilton, but it would be far, far better if it had never been written. One is inclined to suspect, or at least to hope, that the writers are of foreign nationality.”

As the great emblem of Victorian and Edwardian heroic masculinity, Nelson had to be absolved of human frailty, and the myth of Emma as the temptress and sexual sorceress who prized him from duty was thus mobilised. The reality of a relationship in which she celebrated his heroism and fired his ambition while he, in turn, admired her strength and achievements was obscured.

However, there is a broader history at work. Women who lived in the public eye during the 18th century were usually censured. The world of the theatre is relevant here. Although Emma never worked as an actress, her modelling for Romney, her singing and her Attitudes certainly identified her as a performer who moved beyond private ‘accomplishment’. Crucially, the association of the public performer with sexual availability and prostitution was entrenched and, in Emma’s case, intensified by her early years in Covent Garden. Unsympathetic observers would have concluded that Emma’s ‘ruin’ in girlhood and her love of ‘immodest’ display as an adult reflected a continuity of moral failure.

It is a considerable historical irony that a woman with such a strong claim to so many different and complex identities is routinely associated with one that is simplistic, disempowering and inappropriate. Emma was a model, a muse, a trailblazing artist, a populariser of female fashions, a singer offered contracts by prestigious opera houses, a politician and a patriot. Surely the time has long passed for viewing her as either a passive beauty or an active nuisance.

Quintin Colville is curator of naval history at the National Maritime Museum in London and the author (with Kate Williams) of Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity (Thames and Hudson, 2016)


This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine


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