Political Agent: Emma Hamilton’s many identities

Political Agent is the eighth post in our series exploring the many fascinating identities Emma Hamilton held throughout her life. It explores Emma's extraordinary political influence during her time in Naples.

By Ellen Weineck, Curatorial Assistant

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Image of painting of ships 1787
Arrival of their Sicilian Majesties at Naples, 1787, by Dominic Serres. This grand setting gives us a glimpse into the world that Emma became part of

'Soft power'

Emma’s time in Naples coincided with the turbulent years of the French Revolutionary War, when the city became strategically important to Britain. As wife of the British Envoy, Lady Hamilton was naturally caught up in the region’s politics. Yet she went far beyond what was expected of her. She became a significant political actor in her own right and she intended her actions to promote British interests.  Politics has traditionally been viewed as a masculine field, and so her achievements have been overlooked. However, Emma created her own form of soft power, using her intelligence and charm to great effect. She took seriously the need to help her country in its struggle against France, writing persuasive letters and giving information to diplomats. She took on the role of mediator between the British government and the Neapolitan royal family.

Emma and Maria Carolina

Image of Miniature of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily, c. 1780-90, unknown artist
Miniature of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily, c. 1780-90, unknown artist

Emma took advantage of the more permissive attitudes of the Neapolitan court, where she came to be on intimate terms with the Queen. Maria Carolina was a highly intelligent woman who wielded great power.  She had her own tactical reasons for drawing Emma close to her, and hoped Emma could help secure British protection for Naples as French armies threatened Italy.  An Anglo-Neapolitan treaty was signed in July 1793, and Emma worked hard to reassure British officials that the Neapolitans would do their bit. Emma also hoped to gain by securing the approbation of a powerful friend and to enjoy the limelight her position provided. Yet the two were genuinely fond of each other. When Sir William fell ill in 1794 the Queen wrote to Emma, addressing her informally: ‘I would fain keep you company, my friendship might comfort you.’ She respected Emma as she had been wise enough to reject her husband, King Ferdinand’s advances. Emma’s natural warmth and eagerness to please also cemented the friendship. This relationship gave her the opportunity to play a decisive role in matters of national importance.  

One example of this is the pressure she was able to exert over Maria Carolina to help the starving Maltese in 1799. Napoleon’s forces had looted the island and British ships attempted to deliver food supplies. However, Ferdinand refused them access as he was concerned with rising food prices in Sicily. Whilst Nelson was unable to convince him to reconsider, Emma made use of her bond with the Queen to move her to action. She had the Queen send food and give £10,000 to the Governor of Malta, for which she was rewarded with the Maltese Cross.  

Emma and the Navy

Image of portrait of Emma Hamilton by Johann Heinrich Schmidt
This painting, by Johann Heinrich Schmidt, shows Emma proudly displaying her Maltese Cross. The portrait was created as part of a pair of Emma and Nelson

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It is believed that Emma’s influence helped to have British ships resupplied before the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Nelson had attempted to re-provision his fleet at Syracuse in Sicily. He was refused entry by the governor, as it was against the terms of the treaty between Naples and France. Nelson asked Sir William for help, though Flora Fraser argues that it was Emma who advanced his cause. She persuaded Maria Carolina to have her husband provide the fleet with the necessary document. Once again, Emma’s intervention proved crucial. After the victorious battle, an exhausted Nelson came to Naples where Emma cared for him and took charge of celebrations. She paraded around dressed ‘alla Nelson,’ with anchor earrings and embroidered headbands, fashions that caught on amongst ladies at court and back in England. Emma’s critics have argued that her frivolous femininity undermined Nelson’s serious achievement. On the contrary, it could be argued that her spirited patriotism and deliberate use of fashion promoted British success abroad. She was able to champion the British navy to the Neapolitans.

Image of gold anchor and chain belonging to Emma Hamilton
Emma wore jewellery such as this gold anchor and chain, as a statement of support for Nelson and the British navy

Image of the arrival of Vanguard with Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson at Naples September 1798
The arrival of Vanguard with Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson at Naples September 1798, c. 1800, attributed to Giacomo Guardi. Nelson was met with jubilant crowds after his success at The Nile.

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Emma was given further chance to prove her worth to the royal family at the end of 1798, when they were forced to evacuate from Naples to Sicily as the French closed in. It was a very stormy crossing and many of the group were distressed, including Sir William. Yet Emma remained calm and soothed everyone’s nerves. She cared for the sick and oversaw provisions. This show of strength left a lasting impression, not least on Nelson.     

Subverting gender roles

Emma’s position in the wake of the Neapolitan rebellion proved highly controversial. Just a few weeks after the royal family had fled, Naples was declared a republic. Those with republican sympathies joined forces with the invading French. Others had no choice but to become part of the new regime. King Ferdinand sent an army under the command of Cardinal Ruffo to crush the uprising and by June he had succeeded. Ruffo signed a treaty with the rebels, allowing them to go unharmed. However, with Nelson’s involvement many were arrested and imprisoned, and almost one hundred were later executed on instruction from the King and Queen. Maria Carolina in particular was keen on severe justice, her anti-French stance having reached its peak after the execution of her sister, Marie Antoinette, in 1793. Emma steadfastly supported the Queen, even condemning the scientist Domenico Cirillo, who had been close to the royal party and to Sir William. Emma was widely disapproved of in Britain, where she was perceived to have encouraged the killings. Emma did perhaps view this episode in black and white terms; an enemy of the queen was an enemy of hers. She had written to Nelson in 1798 outlining Naples’ position in the war and stating, ‘The Jacobins…I know they all deserved to be hanged long ago’. Both she and Nelson believed that Europe was menaced by radicalism. But, perhaps more significantly, Emma was seen to have acted against the norms expected of her sex, and was punished for this transgression.

Nevertheless, the government in London wanted to distance themselves from this episode of violent retribution, and this is one of the reasons why Emma never received financial recompense for her many political services. In 1800, Sir William was removed from his post and sent home in some disgrace. Nelson was also recalled by the Admiralty, who had become critical of Maria Carolina’s and Emma’s influence over him.   

Lady Hamilton had been a key player at the Neapolitan court, where she had been constantly petitioned for favours. Some even believed her power outdid that of her husband, who appeared to be losing his sway over Ferdinand. One visitor remarked, ‘the little consequence he retained as ambassador was derived from his wife’s intrigues’.  William may have been jealous that his wife outshone him and this may explain his failure to mention any of her deeds in his letters back to the Foreign Office. Unlike other women of her time, Emma was never happy to confine herself to the private sphere. She drew on her allure and persuasive appeal, proving that power need not be masculine. We should credit her for making a meaningful difference in her own right.