The Life of Lady Emma Hamilton, the Mistress of Lord Nelson
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The Life of Lady Emma Hamilton, the Mistress of Lord Nelson

Emma Hamilton became the talk of England when she became the mistress of Lord Horatio Nelson, one of England's most famous heroes. Nelson was honoured when he died for king and country at the Battle of Trafalgar, Emma was ignored and died in poverty.

She was the daughter of a blacksmith, born 26 April 1765 baptised as Amy Lyon in Ness, Cheshire, England. Her father, Henry, died when she was two months old so she was brought up by her mother. When she grew up she changed her name to Emma Hart and it was by this name that society knew her. But history knows her by her married name Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson.

By the time she was twelve Emma was in domestic service, working as a maid in the home of a surgeon in Chester. Afterwards she worked for a family living in Blackfriars in London. While in that establishment she became friends with another maid, Jane, who had ambitions for greater things. Jane Powell wanted to become an actress and encouraged Emma to get involved. Emma was inspired by the theatre and found a job working as a maid to a number of actresses.

The theatre may have inspired her but the wages of a maid did not, so Emma moved on to new fields, this time as a model and dancer working for a so-called ‘doctor at his ‘Temple of Health’. By this time she had developed into a beautiful fifteen year old with an outstandingly good figure.

Some accounts say that she moved into a brothel and worked as a prostitute, others simply move on to her relationship with Sir Harry Featherstone while still a teenager.

Sir Harry was a wealthy playboy who took Emma as his mistress. She lived in a cottage in the grounds of his mansion Uppark in Sussex and reputedly entertained Sir Harry’s friends by dancing naked on the table. In later life Sir Harry would marry beneath his station to a dairy maid, but he lost interest in Emma, being more interested in drinking and hunting at that stage in his life,than in his teenage mistress.

When Emma became pregnant, ( about 1781) he reportedly took her to London where she bore a child, Emma Carew. A married couple related to Emma raised the child.

Sir Harry had a nephew, the Honourable Charles Francis Greville a Member of Parliament, second son to the Earl of Warwick and sixteen years older than Emma. They became romantically involved and she became his mistress. It was Greville who persuaded her to change her name to Emma Hart and introduced her to a famous painter of that period, George Romney. Greville wanted him to paint her portrait. He did more than that recognising in Emma’s looks and figure his ideal ‘Muse’. It was the beginning of a whole series of paintings which made Emma famous.

 Emma painted by George Romney

So Emma entered into Society, enabled by her natural beauty, and her ability to adapt to a life quite different from the one she had been borne into. She was described as a charming young woman, witty and intelligent. However in spite of these recorded natural advantages Emma was unlucky in love. In need of money Greville looked around for a solution, which he found in a rich 18year old heiress in 1783. So a wife was in favour and the mistress was out.

A resourceful man, Greville sent her to his uncle Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy in Naples, recommending her as a mistress and hostess. He was 62 years old at the time. Emma and her mother went to Naples thinking that they were taking a holiday while Greville was involved with his business, not knowing that the business involved courtship and marriage to his heiress.

Emma eventually realised that Greville had deserted her, settled down to life in Naples and eventually married Sir William in 1791 and gained the title of Lady Hamilton. She seemed to have found security at last and was popular in Naples and became close friends with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples.

The Hamiltons met Lord Nelson in Naples and an unconventional relationship developed between the three of them in 1797. In 1799 all three returned together to England and set up house. In 1801 Emma gave birth to a girl and named her Horatia. Society was scandalised seeing their great hero living openly with his mistress and her husband. They loved and tolerated him, but Emma was despised. Sir William died in 1803.

They had a few short years together before the fateful Battle of Trafalgar when the only true love of her life was killed in action. The grieving Emma was not allowed by the State to attend Nelson’s funeral, nor did they honour Nelson request to the government to look after the woman he loved.

Both Sir William and Lord Nelson had provided for Emma in their wills, a substantial amount , which should have kept her comfortable for the rest of her life. But Emma had grown used to spending money and gambling. She got into debt, was arrested and spent time in prison. She took Horatia to Calais when she was freed and it was there she died in poverty in 1815. Without the two men who loved her by her side she had turned into a fat old lady by the time she was 50, her looks gone, her wonderful auburn hair grey. A tragedy for a woman who had travelled so far so fast only to die alone in a foreign country.

Nelson and Emma’s daughter Horatia had a happier life than her mother and a more gentle one than her father. Nelson left his daughter a legacy of £4,000. She inherited her mother’s lively nature and her father’s independent mind. When her mother died in Calais Horatia and the British Consul arranged her mother’s funeral and she returned to England secretly on her 14th birthday. Nelson’s brother-in-law met her in Dover. She was close to her father’s family, especially to Nelson’s sisters.

When she was 21 Horatia married an Anglican clergyman, Philip Ward. They were described as an ‘intelligent and handsome couple.’ They had seven sons and three girls. Three of their sons went into Military Service -William a major in the Indian Army, Philip a Lieutenant in the Indian Infantry and Marmaduke a surgeon in the Royal Navy. His grandfather would have been delighted with that. Horatia Ward lived to a good old age, dying in March 1881 aged 80 years.

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Comments (10)

well written and informative.thanks foe posting.voted up

Interesting piece of history.

She was an interesting lady to research - not sure if she was more sinned against than sinning however...

What a great piece of history.

It is so interesting to read about the life of ladies in history. I'm telling you, I'm a great fan of period drama. Great one!

I appreciate your comments and sharing your love of history.

An impressive slice of history... I love the portrait, she was indeed a natural beauty and you can see why Nelson was taken with her!

History involves a story. You relay this so well with lots of information for total enjoyment.

Thank you An and Roberta. I think the secret of writing an article is to choose something you really enjoy writing about. It might limit the readership but it is a pleasure to do the research and write it up.

Fascinating Marion, Admiral Lord Nelson is one of my favourite historical figures, but, I guess this is pretty common, I knew, or know, very little about Lady Hamilton. Thank you for writing this, it has prompted me to round off my knowledge about the Admiral by reading more about the Lady. Voted up!