Kate Williams - seven stories of Emma Hamilton

Ahead of her lecture on 2 March, historian Kate Williams takes us on a whistlestop tour of Emma Hamilton's extraordinary life. 

Humble beginnings

Emma was born into poverty in 1765 and fought her way up from a maid - even possibly working in James Graham's Temple of Health, modelling the strange Celestial Bed. As a teenager, she became a kept mistress to Charles Greville, a minor aristocrat. When he wearied of her, he decided to send her off to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton in Naples as a mistress.
Emma Hamilton as the goddess of health
Possibly Emma Hamilton as the Goddess of Health

The French connection

On her return from marrying Sir William Hamilton in London in 1791, she stopped in France and met with Marie Antoinette in the Tuileries. She was one of the last people to see the tragic Queen before she attempted to escape and was then placed under severe restraint. Unfortunately for us, Emma has left little description of what was said! 

Celebrity romance

When Emma first met Nelson in 1793, the meeting made little impact on her. After he had won the cataclysmic Battle of the Nile in 1798, she wrote him a wildly inviting letter 'I fainted when I heard the joyful news and fell on my side, but well of that..... I walk and tread in the air with pride, feeling I was born in the same land with the victor Nelson … Come to Naples soon!' No diplomat's wife would have written thus. Nelson sped to her side. 
Oil on Canvas of Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson (1758-1805) by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott

A friend fit for a Queen

Emma is often dismissed - but she was determined, intelligent, hard working and ambitious. She became right-hand woman to Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, the essential ruler of Naples although her husband was King.

The lady with attitudes

A 'how to' guide was published of her famous Attitudes - so that ladies could stage their own demonstrations after dinner for their husbands and friends. 
Emma Hamitlon's Attitudes at the National Maritime Museum
Sketch of Emma Hamilton performing her 'Attitudes'

Money owed

After Nelson's death, the state gave hundreds of thousands to his brother, money to his sisters and estranged wife, Fanny. Emma received nothing - she was later arrested for debt and had to flee to Calais, full of English debtors. She had to flee on a little boat because she would have been arrested on the public boat over.

A new direction

Emma and Nelson's daughter had been an 'it' girl, part of high society, mixing with the Prince of Wales and the highest society. After witnessing Emma's awful death in 1815 in poverty, Horatia returned to England. After a few years living with Nelson's sisters, she engaged in the ultimate rebellion. She became a Victorian vicar's wife. 
Portrait of Horatia Nelson after treatment
Portrait of Horatia Nelson, daughter of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson