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Peeping John

Jacqui Livesey unmasks the cleric who revealed Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton’s most intimate secrets.

For almost two hundred years, the identity of the author of Lady Hamilton’s first biography has remained a mystery. Published soon after her death in 1815, the infamous book revealed the true nature of the relationship between the celebrated beauty Emma Hamilton and the hero, Admiral Lord Nelson.

Not only did the Memoirs of Lady Hamilton detail the ‘habitual adultery’ that had taken place between Emma and Nelson under her husband’s roof, the writer also revealed the sordid circumstances surrounding the secret birth of the lovers’ two illegitimate children. The impact was horrendous. It was a devastating blow to Nelson’s memory, and apparent confirmation that Lady Hamilton was an ambitious, low-born whore, a woman willing to prostitute herself in Nelson’s embrace to secure a stronger grip on the coat tails of his fame.

Page after page describes the path to perdition, as Emma, Nelson and Lady Nelson engage in foul-mouthed shouting matches and physical abuse, where in November 1800 the pregnant Emma grabs Nelson’s wife and swings her round the room. Meanwhile, Nelson plots to abandon his wife and insinuate himself into Sir William’s household to cuckold his friend and wallow in sin with Emma, and the lovers’ new-born child is spirited out of the house and into the hands of a back-street nurse.

Countless biographies and articles have speculated since on who produced this devastating volume and why. But it is only in 2008, the 250th anniversary of Nelson’s birth, that a name, a face and a motive have emerged. The anonymous Memoirs remains one of the rarest and most sought-after books in the Nelson canon. Original copies fetch hundreds of pounds, yet because of the hostility oozing from the pages much of the narrative has been qualified as too knowledgeable to be discounted, but too biased to be believable.

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