Frances Nisbet married Lord Nelson in 1787. They were married for over ten years before he met and fell in love with Emma Hamilton.
Frances Nisbet (1761-1831) is often overlooked for the part she played in Nelson’s life. Fanny, as he called her, was the daughter of a senior judge on the West Indian island of Nevis. A widow, who lost her first husband after only two years in 1781, Fanny met Nelson when he was visiting the island as commander of the frigate Boreas.
Life in England
They moved to England but life was hard for Fanny who had been used to the warmth and luxuries of West Indian life. It was also apparent that there were to be no children between the couple, which saddened Nelson greatly.
When Nelson returned to sea in 1793, he and Fanny wrote to each other regularly and affectionately. Nelson returned to England in July 1797 but he was a changed man – white haired, haggard, and in pain from the recent loss of lower his right arm following an attack on Santa Cruz, Tenerife. Fanny nursed him devotedly and it was their happiest time together. They bought a home together in Roundwood, outside Ipswich, and Fanny divided her time between there and Bath.
Once recovered, Nelson returned to active service in 1798. He was away for a further three years and in that time won the Battle of the Nile and fell in love with Emma Hamilton. The lovers made no secret of their affair and gossip reached England long before Nelson and the Hamiltons returned in 1800.
Impact of Nelson’s affair
There are varying accounts of what happened next. One account says that Fanny received Nelson coldly and forced him out of their house on to the streets of London, where he ended up at the Hamilton’s house. The other account is that he left her but declared her entirely innocent of all blame in the matter.
Once separated, he treated her generously, allocating her half his income. But when she tried to reconcile with him he treated her cruelly, ordering her last letter to be returned with the blunt response: ‘Opened by mistake by Lord Nelson but not read.’ They never met again.
As Nelson received rewards for his victories, so too did his legal wife. Fanny became Baroness Nelson in 1798 and Vicountess Nelson in 1801. After Nelson’s death she was awarded a generous pension and lived in Exmouth until she died in 1831.
Fanny Nelson was well loved and respected by the people who knew her. She is now increasingly viewed as the victim of Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s love affair.
Find out more and decide for yourself in our major new exhibition about Emma Hamilton, now open at the National Maritime Museum.