A Regency Love Affair: Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson, Pt. 1

Emma before she became Lady Hamilton, painted by George Romney in 1785

This month marks the 209th anniversary of the death of Emma Hamilton. She was best known during the Regency as Emma Hamilton, wife of Sir William Hamilton and the mistress of naval hero Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. Theirs was a passionate affair, and this is the story of two intertwined lives, one of which ended in glory and the other in obscurity.

I’ll bet you can guess who got the glory and who didn’t.

Now, I find Emma fascinating for a number of reasons. She was a bright spark of a girl, born in poverty but soon able to use her good looks and vivacious personality to get ahead in life.

She was fortunate to find a kind man to marry her and a great man to love her. But she was unable to secure the affection of her children, and by the end of her life she lost everything, perhaps because she never developed the strength of mind and character that’s so often needed to deal with life’s trials and tribulations.

See what you think. Here are some biographical facts about Emma.

Emma’s early years

Emma Hamilton was born as Amy (some sources say Emily) Lyon in 1765 in a Cheshire country village in 1765. Her father, Henry Lyon, was an illiterate blacksmith who died when she was only 2 months old. His daughter was raised by her mother and grandmother in Wales. Later, Amy Lyon changed her name to Emma Hart.

Her mother also changed her name from Mary Kidd to Mrs. Cadogan, and Mrs. Cadogan spent the rest of her life (she died on another January day in 1810) by Emma’s side, apparently exerting a good influence that was sorely missed after she was gone.

Emma’s mother and grandmother struggled to make ends meet, and Mary went to London in 1777, leaving 12-year-old Emma behind. The girl got a job working as a maid for a surgeon in Chester. But she soon followed her mother  to London.

In London Emma found work as a maid and nursemaid in people’s homes.  She also worked as a maid to actresses at the Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden. But as Emma blossomed in her teens, her beauty became abundantly apparent. With her lithe figure, masses of red-gold hair and large blue-gray eyes, she attracted a lot of attention. She also possessed natural talents in singing and dancing.

It wasn’t long before Emma went from working as a maid to being a model and dancer at the risqué “Temple of Health and Hymen” at the Adelphi, run by James Graham, a fake Scottish doctor. This was her introduction into the shady world of London’s demi-monde.

By the age of 15, Emma had found a protector, Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh, who made her his mistress and used her as a hostess to entertain his male friends at his country estate, Uppark.

Emma and Charles Greville

About this time 16-year-old Emma became pregnant, and a furious Sir Henry turned her out. There’s some dispute among her biographers whether Sir Henry was the father, or the father was one of his guests, the Hon. Charles Francis Greville, younger son of the Earl of Warwick.

Charles Francis Greville

In any case, it was Greville that a frantic Emma appealed to for help and Greville who took her in, arranging support for her child.

Greville agreed to take Emma as his mistress providing that her child, a girl, was fostered by someone else. Though Emma was allowed some contact with her daughter the child was raised by others, and later in life Emma refused to even acknowledge the girl as hers.

It was also Greville who introduced Emma to his friend, the painter George Romney. The beautiful young woman soon became Romney’s muse, and he made about 30-50 portraits of her (some clothed, some nude) when she was in her late teens and 20s.

Emma meets Sir William Hamilton

It seems that the ebullient Emma believed herself madly in love with the much older and more serious Greville, and he took care of her for a time. But when Greville got the opportunity to marry a rich young woman, he handed his mistress off to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who was in Naples serving as a British ambassador to the court of Ferdinand and Maria Carolina.

Hamilton was in his mid-50s and a widower when he met Emma, who was half his age. He was lonely, and he needed a hostess for his salon in Naples. Greville assured his uncle that the arrangement was only temporary; he promised that once he was safely married to the 18-year-old heiress he was courting he would send for Emma.

Greville didn’t tell Emma about his plans, or that she was going to Naples to become his uncle’s mistress. She thought she was going to Italy for a holiday with her mother, who was recovering from a stroke.

Sir William Hamilton, painted by George Romney in 1783-84

Emma arrived in Naples on her 21st birthday on April 26, 1786. After six months of begging Greville to come and get her, she finally understood she had been cast off. That realization must have been devastating.

At first, Emma’s relationship with Hamilton was platonic. However, the British diplomat gradually became enamored of the young woman, and they began an affair.

Then Hamilton went a step further and sought and received special permission from King George III to marry his mistress. (Because Sir William held a public position, he needed the king’s authorization to marry.)

That permission was grudgingly granted, and William and Emma returned to London and married on September 6, 1791, in St. Marylebone Parish Church, when the diplomat was 60 and his young wife was only 26.

Despite the wedding, George III still disapproved of the new Lady Hamilton, and Emma was never received at court in England. At that time, once a woman’s reputation was lost she never really recovered it, even with the mantle of respectability that matrimony might bestow.

Emma’s “Attitudes”

While in Naples, Emma quickly became noted throughout Europe for her “attitudes” a performing art she helped popularize. In these “attitudes” Emma combined her skills in modeling, acting, and dance to portray classical sculptures and  paintings for British visitors.

Attitudes were a popular parlor game, much like charades, at the end of the 18th century, with girls striking poses and their audience guessing who they were trying to be. Of Emma, it was said that with nothing but a shawl and a couple of scarves she could convincingly portray any number of classical figures from Greek myths.

With her poses and props, Emma inspired many artists in England and Europe to try and capture her essence in their work. And of course, satirists followed suit.  Here’s a portrait of Emma painted in Naples in 1792 by French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun:

“Lady Hamilton as the Persian Sibyl”

And here’s a caricature of Emma performing one of her attitudes, created by Thomas Rowlandson in the mid-1810s:

However, Emma did more than entertain others in Naples as Sir William’s hostess and later, his wife. She became the friend and confidante of Maria Carolina, the Queen of Naples and Sicily. Maria Carolina was also the sister of Marie Antoinette.

Emma bravely helped Maria Carolina and her children escape the French mob that threatened to overrun Naples while the French Revolution raged in France. Emma was also awarded the Cross of Malta medal for her work in getting supplies to that island while the French occupied it in 1798.

Emma meets Lord Nelson

Though uneducated, Emma seems to have been remarkably intelligent, witty, and resourceful, a friend to crowned heads and consort to famous men. And in the late 18th and early 19th century, few men were more famous than Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, (who was also 1st Viscount Nelson and 1st Duke of Bronte). Nelson was a celebrated war hero, the victor of many naval battles in the decades-long fight against Napoleon.

Nelson met Emma and her husband in Naples in 1793, while Sir William was stationed there. But their affair didn’t start until five years later, when Emma and Lord Nelson’s paths crossed again.

Following Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile in August of 1798, Sir William graciously invited the Vice-Admiral to stay with him and Emma at their villa in Naples. Nelson needed a place to stay while his ships were being refitted and supplies obtained. I’m sure the naval hero also needed some rest and relaxation following the fight.

Sir William’s invitation was the beginning of a romantic, and scandalous, love affair between the beautiful Emma and the brave Horatio. By the end of 1799 Nelson and Emma were lovers, and in 1800 Sir William, Emma and Nelson returned to England together. By then, Emma was pregnant with the Vice-Admiral’s child.

Next time: A tragic end for Emma


Sources used for this post include:

  • Emma Hamilton, by Norah Lofts, published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. New York, 1978
  • Entry for “Lady Hamilton” in Britannica.com, copyright 2024 Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
  • “Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson,” Royal Museums Greenwich
  • “Emma, Lady Hamilton,” by Ben Johnson, Historic UK

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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