Lord Nelson‘s great love was Emma, a lady who had a quite remarkable past.
Her real name was Amy Lyon, but she preferred to be known as Emma Hart. She was a daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith and was brought up in Wales by her grandmother.
Not much is known about her early life except that she was in London when she was 12, working as an under-nursemaid in the house of a composer called Thomas Linley. She was about 16 when she left the Linley household and went to live at the house of a Mrs Kelly, who was a ‘procurer and abbess of a brothel’.
When next heard of she was an attendant in the Temple of Health and Hymen run by James Graham. He gave lectures on procreation and charged £50 a night for couples to enjoy his Great Celestial State Bed – on which ‘perfect babies could be created’!
She moved on from the Temple of Health and Hymen to a cottage near Uppark in Sussex. The cottage was owned by Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, and it was here she is said to have danced naked on the dining table for the entertainment of his friends. It was rumoured that she had a child at this time, fathered by Sir Harry. The child was named Emma Carew.
During her stay at Uppark she met the Hon. Charles Greville nephew of Sir William Hamilton. Greville was very impressed by her beauty, and had great hopes of making a lot of money out of a series of paintings of her that he had commissioned from George Romney the artist.
Emma lived with Greville and her mother and daughter Emma Carew, but the child Emma was eventually sent to live with her grandmother in Wales, where she remained for the rest of her life.
Greville began to tire of Emma and when he met a wealthy heiress, the Hon Henrietta Willougby, he decided that Emma must go! He hit on a clever plan. He would write to his uncle Sir William Hamilton who was the British envoy on Naples, and ask him to look after Emma for a while.
Sir William was 62 years old, distinguished looking and an expert vulcanologist and collector of fine art. Sir William had met Emma in 1783 and found her very attractive. In his letter to his uncle, Greville said that “Emma was the only woman he had slept with without offending his senses, and a cleaner, sweeter bed-fellow did not exist”. Sir William was tempted, and Emma, with her mother, agreed to go to Naples for just 6 months until Greville came to collect them.
Poor Emma! She soon found out that Greville had abandoned her, as he never answered her letters after she arrived in Naples. Sir William however, became enamoured of her and delighted in showing his guests her considerable talents. These were her ‘attitudes’. They were performed before enraptured audiences. Goethe who saw one of her performances wrote, “The performance is like nothing you have ever seen before. With a few scarves and shawls she expressed a variety of wonderful transformations. One pose after another without a break”.
As Emma realised that Greville would not be coming for her, she gradually accepted the attentions of Sir William. In 1791 Emma and Sir William returned to England and were married on 6th September at St. Georges, Hanover Square, London. Emma and Sir William became close friends of the Royal Family of Naples when they returned, and it was in this year that Emma met Nelson for the first time.
By now Emma had become quite ‘plump’ and had lost her superb figure, but she still remained a great beauty. When Nelson returned to Naples after the battle of the Nile, Emma gave a huge party for him. The streets were decorated with the words Viva Nelson on every street corner!
At their next meeting in 1798, she arranged a great Ball in his honour, at which there were 1,740 people! Nelson was now absolutely besotted with Emma. He found her voluptuousness and aura of sexuality quite overwhelming. He wrote to his wife that Lady Hamilton was a woman of remarkable talents!
Emma did have a lot of attractive points; she had a good nature, great charm and sexuality, but also a very quick temper. She was kind, and in spite of her loud, rather coarse voice, most people were bowled over when meeting her for the first time.
By 1801 Nelson and Emma were madly in love and that year their child, Horatia was born. Nelson was delighted and finally decided to leave his wife and live with Emma.
Sir William became ill and died in 1803 leaving Emma an annuity of £800. In 1805 the great love of her life, Nelson, was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. She was inconsolable, as she was not allowed to attend Nelson’s funeral.
She was now without any ‘protectors’ and her looks began to fade. At age 46, a contemporary report said she looked like an old woman with grey hair, and had become very fat. Things went from bad to worse and she was arrested for debt and imprisoned. After her release she fled to Calais with Horatia, where she died in 1815. She was buried in the churchyard of St. Pierre’s in Calais.
So ended the life of one of the world’s great beauties. Who would have thought when she was born, the daughter of a blacksmith that her name would go down in history as the woman who captured the heart of England’s great naval hero, Nelson?
Emma, Lady Hamilton 1765 – 1815