The notorious love affair between military hero Horatio Nelson and already married Lady Emma Hamilton was the scandal of the 18th century.
They met for the first time in September of 1793. Horatio Nelson was a 35-year-old captain and Lady Hamilton was the 28-year-old wife of Sir William Hamilton, the 62-year-old British Envoy to Naples. A noted “great beauty” and celebrated artists’ model. Nelson was impressed by Lady Hamilton, writing in a letter to his wife Fanny that she was a “young woman of amiable manners who does honour to the station to which she is raised.”
The future lovers met the second time in 1798, again in Naples, by arrangement. Nelson’s victory over the French fleet in the “Battle of the Nile” was of particular relief to the fearful Italians who feared invasion by French troops. He was considered an immediate hero, the Hamiltons inviting him to dwell with them in Naples and welcoming with a grand ball. Over 1700 people attended and the streets were decorated with the words Viva Nelson on every corner.
Apparently Nelson, Emma and Sir William were very close, dubbing themselves the “Tria juncto in uno” and renting a large house in Palermo together. The English press speculated about the close friendship between national hero Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton, speculation confirmed by early 1800 when she became pregnant. In truth, the reality of their affair and deep love was never a well-kept secret. Nelson refused to allow his wife to visit, eventually severing all ties. They never lived together again, Nelson spending all his time when not at sea with Emma.
What Sir Hamilton thought of the liaison is not certain, however all evidence points to his tolerance, if not actual encouragement. His admiration for Nelson was genuine, the two men sincerely fond of each other, and since his marriage to the much younger Emma was a practical arrangement from the outset, and with his health rapidly failing, most authorities agree that he held no animosity. Indeed, when Sir Hamilton died in 1803, two years after Emma gave birth to Horatia, he left her a sizable annual income.
In 1805 Emma and Nelson spent an idyllic three weeks together in their home outside present day Wimbledon. During this time he wrote a codicil to his will requesting the government bequeath Emma and his daughter the money necessary to “maintain her rank in life.” Alas, after his death that October from a musket ball during the Battle of Trafalgar, the government refused to honor his request. Within a few years she was deeply in debt, escaping to France where she died in 1815 from dysentery. She was 49 years old.
The letter below is the last Lord Nelson wrote, just two days before the battle that claimed his life.
“Lord Nelson’s last letter to Lady Hamilton, 19th Oct 1805. Found on his desk in his cabin on H.M.S. Victory after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.”
“My Dearest beloved Emma the dear friend of my bosom the signal has been made that the Enemys combined fleet are coming out of Port. We have very little Wind so that I have no hopes of seeing them before tomorrow. May the God of Battles crown my Endeavours with success at all events I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia both of whom I love as much as my own life, and as my last writing before the battle will be to you so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the [Battle].”