Emma, Lady Hamilton dies in Calais

The mistress of Lord Nelson died on January 15th, 1815. 

Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton by George Romney, c.1782-84
Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton by George Romney, c.1782-84

It was a wretched end to a vivid life. Emma Lyon was born in 1765 in the Wirral area south of Birkenhead. Her father, a blacksmith, died when she was a baby and she was brought up by her mother at Hawarden in the county of Flint (in North Wales). How much education she managed to get is uncertain and her spelling was never up to much, but she grew up to be ravishingly good looking and it was this combined with her vivacious personality and carefree attitude to sex that saw her soar like a rocket from the working-class earth into the sky of celebrity. 

In her teens Emma worked as a maid for families in Hawarden and later in London. There is no reliable evidence that she was ever exactly a prostitute, but what she called her ‘giddy ways’ attracted the attention of rich young aristocrats. She was said to have showed off by dancing naked on their dining- room tables and in 1782, when she was going on 17, she bore a daughter to one of them. She then moved in with a friend of his, Charles Francis Greville, who installed her in his London home and provided her with music and drawing lessons. Through him she met the artist George Romney, who was to paint many enchanting portraits of her (as would Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence).

Greville unloaded Emma on his elderly widower uncle, Sir William Hamilton, in return for Hamilton making Greville his heir. Hamilton was ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and in 1786 Emma arrived in Naples for what she thought was a holiday with him. When she discovered the truth she was furious, but Hamilton adored her and won her over. Some English women sneered at her plebeian accent, but she and Hamilton moved in the highest Neapolitan society and she grew very close to Queen Maria Carolina. Hamilton was master of ceremonies for her admired ‘Attitudes’, when she posed in sometimes flimsy costumes as figures from Graeco-Roman mythology. When he married her in 1791 he was 60 and she was 26.

It was in Naples two years later that Emma first met Horatio Nelson, who was then the captain of HMS Agamemnon. He and the Hamiltons became close friends and Nelson fell utterly in love with her. When the three of them returned to England together a contemporary remarked that she led Nelson about like a keeper with a bear. He left his wife and he and the Hamiltons, describing themselves as ‘three joined in one’, lived together in a house in Piccadilly. She bore Nelson a daughter, Horatia, in January 1801. 

The three-in-one moved into Merton Place, a house near Wandsworth. They rebuilt it on a grand scale and Emma turned it into a temple of Nelson worship. His fame and the admiration in which he was held in the navy and in the nation at large rose to Mount Everest proportions. Emma basked in it and his death in action at Trafalgar in 1805 was a catastrophe. When the news was brought to her at Merton Place, she wrote some days later that she ‘screamed and fell back’ and could not speak for about ten hours. She did not know how she was to bear her future existence. At the end of November she wrote: ‘Life to me is not worth having. I lived for him. His glory I gloried in ... But I cannot go on. My heart and head are gone.’

The government, which lavished money and honours on Nelson’s family, ignored Emma. Hamilton had left her money when he died in 1803, as did Nelson, who also left her Merton Place, but his brother William, now an earl, avoided handing over all the money and by now Emma, accustomed to a life of champagne-swilling luxury, was addicted to alcohol. She had to sell Merton Place and in 1813 she was arrested for debt and sent to prison in Southwark, though she was allowed to live in rooms nearby with young Horatia. 

Friends eventually raised money that let Emma sneak away across the Channel to Calais with Horatia in July 1814. They lived in cramped, dismal lodgings and, according to Horatia, Emma spent her days lying in bed, drinking. It was probably cirrhosis of the liver that carried her off early the following year at the age of 49. She was buried in the graveyard of the church of St Pierre and it is said that her funeral was attended out of respect for Nelson by the captains of every English ship in Calais harbour. In 1994 a memorial to her was unveiled in what is now the Parc Richelieu in Calais. 

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