A Regency Love Affair: Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson, Pt. 2

Pastel of Emma wearing her Maltese Cross award, 1800. Nelson owned this portrait, said to be his favorite of her.

Emma and Lord Nelson – first impressions

Emma Hamilton first met Lord Nelson in 1793 in Naples, where her husband, Sir William Hamilton, was stationed as an ambassador to the court of Ferdinand and Maria Carolina. However, Emma and Nelson’s love affair didn’t heat up until after they met again in 1798.

Frances Nelson, circa 1800

It’s hard to picture how Nelson must have appeared to Emma when she first saw him.

At just 5 feet 4 inches tall, Nelson was not a large man. He was frail with a slight frame. In addition, he was often sick due to bouts of dysentery and malaria, souvenirs of his tropical voyages to places like Calcutta, Madras and Ceylon.

Even more importantly, he was married, with a wife (Frances “Fanny” Nisbet) back in England.

By the time Emma met him again in 1798, Nelson had lost most of his teeth in battle and had been blinded in his right eye from a spray of gravel during the Battle of Calvi in Corsica in 1794.

Losing sight in one eye wasn’t his only serious injury. He also lost his right arm (amputated without anesthetic!) due to injuries sustained during the Battle of Santa Cruz in Tenerife in 1797.

Nelson suffered from coughing spells and a head wound that left him with a scar and blinding headaches. Ironically, the naval hero also endured terrible sea-sickness all his life.

However, none these disabilities kept him from going back to the sea again and again to take command and fight Napoleon, ultimately destroying the French emperor’s naval forces by burning and sinking his ships.

1798 portrait of Nelson in his rear-admiral’s undress uniform. Note the empty sleeve pinned to his chest.

As far as Emma was concerned, none of Nelson’s physical drawbacks lessened his appeal. Nelson was famous, a celebrity, and he must have possessed great personal magnetism because Emma fell passionately in love with him. And he, for his part, was utterly captivated by her voluptuous beauty, sensuality, and kind nature.

Emma proved to be an asset to Nelson militarily, too. She helped him win his victory over the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Reportedly, Emma got permission from the government in Naples for Nelson to obtain supplies and water in Sicily for his fleet before the battle.

Birth of Horatia

By 1799 Emma had gone from a good friend to Nelson to becoming his mistress. And by 1800, Emma was pregnant with Nelson’s child.

Emma, Nelson, and Sir William returned to London, where Emma gave birth to Horatia on January 29, 1801, at the Hamilton home in Piccadilly, London.

While Horatia was being born, Nelson was in Torbay preparing to sail into battle for the Battle of Copenhagen. When he got the news of his daughter’s birth, he was overjoyed.

To avoid more scandal, Horatia’s birth was largely kept under wraps. Nelson and Emma took the role of godparents at the child’s baptism, and later they officially adopted the “orphan.”

A ménage a trois

When Nelson returned to Britain after the battle, he and Emma lived together with Sir William at Merton Place, the Hamilton home in Surrey, in a scandalous ménage a trois. Emma’s mother was also part of the household. Emma became pregnant by Nelson again, but this child, another daughter, died soon after birth.

How much of the love affair between Nelson and his wife Hamilton knew about and tolerated is uncertain. During his life, he acted as though Lord Nelson was merely a good friend of the family, and never showed any animosity to him or treated him as a rival. And for her part, Emma seemed devoted to her husband, treating him with love and affection.

Horatia Ward, daughter of Emma and Lord Nelson

Perhaps Hamilton’s age and ill health had something to do with his attitude. He died in Emma’s arms at the age of 72 in April of 1803. His death left Emma free to remarry.

However, Emma couldn’t marry her lover unless Nelson could get a divorce from his wife, but that was never going to happen. Fanny was adamantly opposed to giving her unfaithful husband a divorce.

Fanny refused to reconsider her decision on a divorce, even though Nelson never lived with her again after she demanded, in 1800, that he choose between her and Emma.

His actual response to his wife’s ultimatum, sent via letter, was: “I love you sincerely but I cannot forget my obligations to Lady Hamilton or speak of her otherwise than with affection and admiration.”

That exchange was the unofficial end of Nelson’s marriage to Fanny. Except, of course, for the pension Fanny received years later as Nelson’s widow, and the tributes she got following her husband’s death in battle.


Following Sir William’s death, Emma and Nelson stayed together in England, maintaining separate residences for propriety’s sake. That arrangement lasted until Nelson returned to sea once more in 1805 to fight his old foe, Napoleon, for the last time at Trafalgar.

That glorious victory was the last for Nelson, who died a hero. He was shot through his spine while standing on the quarterdeck of his ship, the HMS Victory, during the battle. As he lay dying below decks, among Nelson’s last words was a plea “to take care of poor Lady Hamilton,” a request that went unheeded.

Not a rich man himself, Nelson had actually left instructions for the government to provide for Emma and Horatia, but the government didn’t follow his wishes. Instead, the grateful nation showered money and titles on Nelson’s family, particularly his brother.

Lord Nelson’s magnificent state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1806

Nelson’s funeral

The nation mourned Nelson’s death and he was given a grand state funeral, an honor previously restricted to members of the royal family. Royalty, minsters, peers of the realm and at least 10,000 soldiers accompanied his coffin in its procession from the Admiralty to St. Paul’s cathedral on January 9, 1806.

Seven thousand people were at Nelson’s funeral service, including seamen and marines from the HMS Victory, seven royal dukes, 16 earls, 32 admirals and over 100 captains.

And yet, Emma, the love of Nelson’s life, was denied permission to attend, much less sing at his funeral as he had requested.

Emma’s life after Nelson

After Nelson died, Emma’s life spiraled downward. Sir William had left her a modest pension, but she soon exhausted it through gambling and extravagant spending. She even lost Merton Place, because she couldn’t afford to maintain it.

In the years following Nelson’s death, she repeatedly asked the government for money but was ignored. She successfully petitioned others for financial relief but was never able to hold on to the small sums she sometimes received.

While Nelson was alive, apparently neither she, Sir William nor Nelson saw anything wrong with their unconventional living arrangement. But the rest of England didn’t agree, and society judged her harshly for it when the men involved were gone.

As she aged Emma’s charms faded; she grew quite stout and began to drink heavily to the detriment of her health. Unable to pay her debts, she was arrested and went to King’s Bench Prison, keeping her daughter Horatia beside her in the vain hope that the child would give her some leverage with her creditors.

King’s Bench Prison in London, engraving by Thomas Rowlandson, 1809

The end of Emma

On a temporary reprieve from prison in April of 2014, Emma managed somehow to get passage across the English Channel to Calais, with 13-year-old Horatia in tow. She eventually went from a hotel lodging to a squalid single room where Horatia had to tend to her bodily needs, nursing her mother and pawning their meager belongings for money to survive.

Emma finally died, of liver failure and in dire poverty, at age 49 in Calais on January 15, 1815.

There was no money for a funeral, no money to honor Emma’s wish to be buried in England. It was thanks to the charity of an Irish officer on half-pay that she had any services at all.

But on the day Emma was laid to rest, the master and captain of every English ship in the port of Calais put on his best clothes and went into town to follow her coffin to her grave. They did it as a final act of loyalty to Nelson who had been so steadfast and sincere in his love for his mistress.

Following Emma’s death, Horatia went back to England, traveling in disguise as a boy to escape Emma’s creditors. She was taken in by one of Nelson’s sisters, and eventually married a clergyman, Philip Ward.

Horatia got to enjoy the happy family life that eluded Emma; she bore Ward 10 children and lived to be eighty. However, although she was proud that Nelson was her father, she never publicly admitted that Emma was her mother. That could be because she never got over her miserable experiences in debtor’s prison and later in Calais with Emma.

So this is a good month to remember “poor Lady Hamilton,” a woman who, like Shakespeare’s Othello said of himself, “loved not wisely but too well.”

Admiral Nelson and Emma Hamilton in Naples, as imagined by an unknown German painter in the early 19th century


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.
  • “Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served . . . ”  National Archives, UK government
  • “Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s State Funeral,” The History Press, copyright 2024.
  •  “Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805, Vice Admiral of the White,”  Royal Museums Greenwich
  • “Admiral Lord Nelson,” by Ben Johnson, Historic-UK.com
  • “Emma’s end: death, exile and defiance,” Royal Museums Greenwich

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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