The Extraordinary Life Of Emma Hamilton

Emma as Circe, by George Romney, 1782
Public Domain

Emma Hamilton, born Amy Lyon on April 26, 1765 in a small town near Manchester, England. She was the daughter of James and Mary Lyon, a blacksmith who moved to London in the early years of her life. She went on to live an extraordinary life and has become the stuff of legend, with her most notable achievement being one she never actually did—saving the life of Lord Horatio Nelson from the Battle of Trafalgar by taking off his coat and wrapping it around his fatally injured body so that he would survive long enough to be brought back to England.

Amy helped her family by looking after her younger siblings. As she grew up, Amy became known for her beauty and eventually married the local doctor. But he died just six months later and Amy was left with his debts and three children. She lost everything when the debtors came knocking at the door so she decided to head off to London, taking only a few items of clothing with her.

While in London, she met and fell in love with a naval officer called John Haldane. They soon got married, but their happy life together didn’t last long, as John tragically died of yellow fever less than two years later.

Amy had no choice but to go back to being an unpaid servant for wealthy families who would take pity on her situation. Eventually, Amy started attracting attention again and attracted the interest of Charles Greville who asked her to become his mistress. Though it wasn’t what Amy wanted, she agreed as this meant that she could get away from the lower classes who were now making fun of her poverty-stricken circumstances.

One day, while accompanying one of Greville’s friends to Naples, Italy, where they were discussing art, they bumped into Admiral Nelson. Nelson was fascinated by Amy’s intelligence and spoke with her all evening before asking if she wanted to travel abroad as his personal assistant and companion. Amy accepted even though it meant leaving behind her stepson James whom she loved dearly. However, Nelson promised that he would do anything to make sure that James was well taken care of in England while they were away.

In 1790, she traveled to France where she became a mistress to the Duke of Clarence, who was soon to be William IV. This affair and her association with the royal court brought her a lot of fame. The King made her an honorary lady-in-waiting in 1791 and all eyes were on her, making her the most talked about woman in Paris. She was one of the people responsible for introducing fashion trends into France. Her fashionable clothes are credited for influencing the French court.

In 1807, after returning to England when her relationship with William ended, she had another affair with Charles Greville—this time it lasted 6 years before it came to an end due to his death in 1824. However he left behind £5,000 so that she could buy food and lodging during her old age. This was a considerable amount considering that at the time wages were around £1 per day or less than £3 per week. He also ensured that she received a pension as well as other payments so long as his family remained wealthy because he knew what kind of monetary benefits such had done him.

In 1810, she married John Thomas Campbell, Baronet and they had four children together. Their two daughters died early in their lives, while their two sons survived and went on to have their own families. Campbell died in 1832 leaving Hamilton widowed once more.

Emma had been a mistress for some time when she became involved with Lord Nelson. Nelson was a British naval officer, and the two were acquainted in 1793 at Naples.

The affair began after Nelson lost his first wife, Fanny Nisbet, in 1794. Nelson and Emma both shared an interest in art and culture and they fell passionately in love with one another. The two were married on March 11, 1801 on board HMS Victory. In that same year, Nelson won a great victory at the Battle of Copenhagen; this achievement secured his fame as one of Britain’s greatest admirals.

In December 1805, Lord Horatio Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar and Emma retired to live in Florence with her son by Nelson. Emma survived him by 27 years and is buried next to him in the crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

In 1791, Emma was widowed and left with two small children and a mountain of debt. Defying social convention, she moved in with Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, an aging Irish baronet who had been her late husband’s patron and friend. She quickly earned a reputation as one of the most beautiful women in London society, but she was also resented for her closeness to the Baronet.

In 1794, Fetherstonhaugh died after drinking from a cup that was laced with poison, which was intended for his son-in-law. His will left his fortune to his natural grandson, whom he had never met.

The young man was not old enough to inherit, so he could be declared legally capable. The court appointed an overseer until he came of age—and this overseer happened to be Mr. Drew, who had once pursued Emma when she lived at Merton Place.

Furious that someone else would control her inheritance, Emma launched a campaign against Mr. Drew, accusing him of fraudulently manipulating the boy into signing over control of his money. The courts ruled in favor of Mr. Drew, declaring him trustee for the boy. Emma once more found herself penniless, but now there was nothing she could do about it.

In 1791, she married the English sea-captain John Clotworthy and was legally known as Emma Clotworthy. Two years later, her husband died of yellow fever and left her penniless once again. She was forced to sell off all her jewellery, clothes, furniture and books.

In 1793 she returned to England with the help of friends. She had been sent a letter by Lord Nelson while he was stationed in Italy on his way back home, asking for a meeting before he would return to England. He had told her that they would have to keep their meetings secret, so no one in London could find out about them.

They met several times but never got close. When the war ended, Nelson set sail again, telling Emma not to try and contact him again since it was too dangerous for both of them. After their last meeting he left her with a miniature portrait of himself, which she wore around her neck at all times, until she died January 15, 1815, age 49, when the ship on which she traveling upon, and she was buried in Calais.

This article was inspired by a blog post by Luisa Zambrotta, titled Lady Hamilton’s Youth (Part 1).

Emma, Lady Hamilton (Wikipedia) | Celebrating Waddesdon Women | Emma Lady Hamilton: Original Sources And Documents | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22

One Comment

  • luisa zambrotta

    Very complete and interesting, Congratulations
    (PS my article will be divided into various parts also because, having to write it in English which is not my mother tongue, it takes me some time)

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