The story of Emma Hamilton is one of female power and achievement in a man’s world, against all odds.
Emma Hamilton was one of the most famous international celebrities of her time and her life is the ultimate costume drama. Now largely remembered as the woman who captured the heart of the nation’s hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, Emma was an extraordinary woman in her own right.
Emma's early history is shrouded in mystery – much of it of her own making. She always celebrated 26 April as her birthday but the year is given variously as 1763 and 1765. She was the daughter of a blacksmith, Henry Lyon, and his wife Mary, from the village of Nesse in the Wirral, Cheshire. At an early age Emma moved to London to work, where her striking beauty and innocence attracted a succession of unprincipled men who used her and then passed her on.
In 1782, she became the mistress of Charles Greville, an earl's son and MP, who gave her a home in Paddington Green where he visited her over the next four years. It was during this period that she met the artist George Romney, who captured her voluptuous beauty and girlish innocence in a series of paintings.
Becoming a Lady
Then, in 1786, Greville wished to marry, so he sent Emma with her mother to Naples to visit his uncle Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador. Hamilton was a widower and it is clear that the two men had decided that Emma should become Hamilton's mistress. At first she was distraught, writing anguished letters to Greville whom she genuinely loved, but Hamilton gradually won her over. They eventually married in 1791.
Marriage gave the new Lady Hamilton a place at the Neapolitan court, and she quickly developed a close friendship with the Queen of Naples and Sicily, Maria Carolina. Emma’s beauty was much admired and she became an accomplished singer. Under Hamilton's guidance, she developed a striking series of poses, based on scenes from classical vases, which she then put together into special solo performances known as 'attitudes'.
By the mid-1790s she had became a celebrity. Rising above the squalid exploitation of her early years, she won a position in Neopolitan society and a reputation based on her own artistic and social talents.
Nelson first met Emma Hamilton in 1793, when as captain of HMS Agamemnon he was sent to Naples by the Mediterranean commander-in-chief, Lord Hood, to persuade the King of Naples to send troops to hold the French port of Toulon, which had been surrendered to the British by French monarchists. He and Emma obviously liked each other as he wrote to his wife: ‘She is a young woman of amiable manners and who does honour to the station to which she has been raised.’
Emma and Nelson kept in touch afterwards, especially during the Nile campaign in 1798, when the British attempted to intercept Napoleon's landing in Egypt. When he realised the influence Emma had with the Queen of Naples, Nelson wrote to her of his progress chasing the French fleet and his urgent need for supplies. Emma became personally involved in the tension preceding the Battle of the Nile and the celebrations following it.
When Nelson arrived in Naples after the battle, he was a sick man. Emma and Sir William took him into their home at the Palazzo Sessa where she and her mother nursed him back to health. Nelson and Emma very quickly became close and confidential friends.
This bond was further strengthened in December 1798, when they worked together in the secret and often dangerous operation to evacuate the King and Queen of Naples to Palermo, when Naples fell to the French army and a republic was established. Emma made most of the arrangements with the court, and when the ships were hit by a violent storm, she rose to the occasion, helping the terrified royal passengers.
Her courage struck a chord in Nelson’s heart and they became inseparable. For perhaps the first time in his naval career, Nelson began to put his personal life before his duty. This marked the beginning of Nelson and Emma’s passionate affair that scandalised the high society of the day.