'Emma Hamilton' exhibition curator Quintin Colville takes a fresh look at Emma and Lord Nelson's love affair.

Emma, Lady Hamilton and Horatio Nelson met initially and briefly at Naples in 1793, but it was from 1798 that their paths were consistently intertwined, and from 1799 that their romantic relationship is understood to have begun.

Both were married – she to Sir William Hamilton and he to Frances Nelson (née Nisbet) – and their adulterous and therefore scandalous liaison was viewed from the outset by many of Nelson’s acquaintances as hazardous to his status and career. To be sure, extramarital affairs were commonplace among naval officers of the day, nor was this Nelson’s first ‘dalliance’. However, there was a world of difference between private indulgence and public knowledge.

In the case of Emma, Nelson had visibly associated himself with a woman whose combination of high profile and humble origins had already long exposed her to scrutiny and critique. Furthermore, she entered his life at precisely the moment when Nelson’s spectacular victory at the Battle of the Nile guaranteed enormous public interest in his activities. The sense, particularly evident among higher social echelons, that their relationship besmirched propriety left its mark on Emma. 

The worst damage, though, was mercifully posthumous.

Gold 'fede' or betrothal ring, one of a pair exchanged by Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton
One of a pair of rings exchanged by Emma and Nelson. He considered Emma his wife in all but name. The rings were an informal pledge of their commitment and Nelson was wearing this one at Trafalgar (Nelson-Ward Collection)

Nelson’s immortal memory

As Britain reached the high watermark of its imperial might in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, historians strove to uncover the sequence of steps that had led, apparently inexorably, to national greatness.

Articulated most clearly by an American naval officer, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the keys to British exceptionalism were located in the concept of sea power, and in the pantheon of Royal Naval commanders who had wrested control of the seas from other hands. In this company no star shone more brightly than Nelson’s, whose triumphant demise at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 propelled him at the time to the stature of a national deity. As a result, for many Nelson came to crystallize and epitomize a powerfully influential national myth.

The weight of retrospective expectation that then bore down on Nelson’s memory had immediate and later consequences for Emma’s reputation.

Nelson’s Trafalgar coat
The uniform coat that Nelson was wearing when mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar (Greenwich Hospital Collection)

Myth and reputation

In order to fit the template of Victorian exemplar, Nelson’s character was refashioned to conceal or erase qualities – for example, emotional expressiveness and illicit passion – deemed inconsistent with this public-facing role. By these means, Nelson was also groomed to fulfil a function instructing future generations and maintaining British pre-eminence.

Whereas his late-Georgian brother officers might have deplored his love affair as misguided and foolish, a century later it posed a direct threat to the codified ideal of heroic masculinity for which he was now the figurehead. Much was at stake, and this menace also became more relevant following the publication in 1893 of Alfred Morrison’s collection of Nelson’s correspondence with Emma, which made the intimacy and sincerity of his attachment to her undeniable.

Nelson's pigtail
One of Nelson’s last requests after being mortally wounded during the battle was, ‘Pray let my dear Lady Hamilton have my hair’. It was removed after he died and delivered to Emma (Greenwich Hospital Collection)

A sincere and mutual regard

Attempting to understand Emma and Nelson’s relationship was often far less of a priority than condemning it. Nonetheless, their connection was marked by sincerity and mutual regard. Rather than exerting patriarchal control, Nelson celebrated Emma’s spirited engagement with public affairs, such as the evacuation of the Neapolitan royal family to Palermo in 1798.

Witnessing the pair on their journey back to England in 1800, Melesina Trench observed that ‘Lady Hamilton takes possession of him, and he is a willing captive, the most submissive and devoted I have ever seen’, and yet the sting of such opinions does not seem to have reached or vexed him. At the same time, Emma was never guilty of stifling his ambition. ‘So far from numbing Nelson, she nerved him’, wrote Walter Sichel in his remarkable biography of her, published in 1905.

The reality of their relationship, however, was that Nelson was away on duty for most of their six years together. The quiet, domestic life they both craved almost as much as fame was a dream kept alive through letters.

A verse written by Emma conveying her love for Nelson (Phillipps-Croker Collection)
A verse written by Emma conveying her love for Nelson (Phillipps-Croker Collection)
‘I think I have not lost my heart,
Since I with truth can swear,
At every moment of my life,
I feel my Nelson there!…
 
Then do not rob me of my heart,
Unless you first forsake it;
And then so wretched it would be,
Despair alone will take it.'
 
Emma Hamilton to Horatio Nelson

Quintin Colville is the National Maritime Museum's Curator of Naval History, and Exhibition Curator of Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, open at the Museum until 17 April.

Seduction Late: Valentine's event

Join us for our Seduction Late event - delve into Emma’s opulent world and celebrate Valentine’s Day in style with the Georgian Dining Academy. Be inspired by heartfelt love letters from Lord Nelson to Emma, learn a traditional courting dance, or make a fabulous mask to beguile a stranger.

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