It’s often said that well-behaved women don’t make history, and Emma, Lady Hamilton, certainly is an example of what it takes to make the history books. She wasn’t marked for fame at an early age, but that didn’t stop her from putting several marks on European culture, society, and history. Charming royalty and commoners alike, Emma climbed the social ladder, only to tragically fall from grace.
First off, Emma wasn’t her real name. It was Amy Lyon, and her date of birth was April 26, 1765. Her parents were Henry Lyon, a blacksmith, and Mary Kidd. Her life began with an utter tragedy. Emma lost her dad when she just was a baby. After, her mother and grandmother raised her in Wales. At some point, she adopted the name Emma Hart.
By the age of 12, she was working as an under-nursemaid for a family called the Linleys in London. After a few years, she left—and her next stop raised eyebrows.
When Emma left the Linleys, she went from traditional to utterly scandalous. At the age of 16, she moved into the home of a woman named Mrs. Kelly, "a procurer and abbess of a [bawdy house]". It was a nice way of saying this Mrs. Kelly was a "madam". There is no evidence that Emma turned tricks for a living or did anything that risqué.
Still, her choice to live so openly with a madam was questionable at best. As shady as her living accommodations were, Emma’s next gig turned things up a notch.
If people thought living in a night house was bad—well, her next employer took it up a notch. After all, many considered him a con artist. Emma became a model and dancer at the so-called Temple of Health and Hymen, run by a "doctor" named James Graham. Graham lectured about reproduction at this "temple". He also rented out his Great Celestial State Bed for £50 a night and promoted its ability to help with the conception of perfect babies!
Again, no one knows what exactly Emma did here…but her next job led to a string of rich, influential lovers.
Emma left the Temple for greener pastures at a cottage. For a few months, Emma hosted and entertained members of a hunting party at an estate owned by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh in the English countryside. So, how good was Emma as a hostess? Well, there is an interesting story about how she allegedly danced in her birthday suit on Fetherstonhaugh’s dining table for the guests.
The service she provided must have been great, because she certainly got Fetherstonhaugh’s attention.
Emma got a job promotion of sorts. During the hunting party’s festivities, she caught Fetherstonhaugh’s interest, and the two became lovers. And then, sometime between June and July 1781, she became pregnant with his child. She gave birth to a girl named Emma Carew, but this happy event wasn’t enough to save their relationship.
Fetherstonhaugh eventually lost interest and preferred to spend time drinking and hunting with his buddies rather than with her. But not all was lost for Emma.
As they say, when one door closes, another opens. And that’s exactly what happened for Emma. While Fetherstonhaugh was living it up with his friends, Emma developed a friendship with the Honorable Charles Francis Greville. Enamored by her beauty, Greville caught feelings for her—but he gave her a heartbreaking ultimatum.
He agreed to take her as his mistress as long as she sent her child away. So, Emma shipped baby Emma off to her great-grandmother in Wales and said sayonara to her baby daddy before going off with Greville.
When Emma lived with Greville, she underwent a transformation, kinda like Eliza Doolittle did in My Fair Lady. She took Greville’s suggestion of going by the name of "Mrs. Emma Hart". She also changed the way she dressed by adopting a modest fashion sense and dropped her partying ways. Under Greville’s instructions, she took on a more sophisticated way of speaking.
After some time, Greville introduced his friends to the new and improved Emma—Mrs. Emma Hart, that is. As altruistic as Greville’s intentions may have seemed, the truth was that Emma’s makeover was part of his dark plan.
It seems that Greville was looking to turn Emma into his cash cow. He capitalized on her beauty by arranging for her to pose for the painter, George Romney. Romney was looking for a model, and Greville jumped on the chance to make money from the sales proceeds of his artwork. From there, a working relationship between Emma and Romney began.
During their appointments, he made sketches of Emma with and without her clothes before using them in his paintings. And the partnership turned out to be mutually beneficial for both parties…
Emma gained fame through her modeling work for Romney. Romney’s popular portraits of her and her beauty helped her become well-known in high society. But it wasn’t just her looks that were getting attention. Emma became known for her brains and her gift of the gab as much as her beauty thanks to her ability to adjust to her new social circle.
Her newfound popularity also led to other artists using her as a model. Sadly, despite all this success, it didn’t earn her Greville’s full respect.
Greville was losing interest—and soon enough, the dark truth came out. It turns out that Emma wasn’t enough of a goldmine for Greville. The tables had turned, and he was the one who needed a sugar mama to boost his coffers. He conveniently found one in a young heiress named Henrietta Willougby. Of course, Emma, being Greville’s sidepiece, was in the way of him marrying Henrietta.
It didn’t help that Greville didn’t like the fact that everyone only thought of him as Emma’s lover. So, he sneakily came up with a plan to get rid of her.
Greville devised a devious scheme to give Emma the boot. He convinced his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples, to accept her as a mistress so he would be free to marry Willougby! He also told Hamilton that he would take Emma back to England after the wedding. The plan also favored Hamilton. Greville marrying Willougby meant that Hamilton wouldn’t have the indignity of having a poor relative (for real).
Plus, Hamilton was fully aware of Emma’s popularity and decided she was worthy of being his arm candy and hostess of his home in Naples. So, both men settled on their deal, and off Emma went to Naples. The only problem? She was in the dark.
Poor Emma! She thought she was only going on a long vacation to Naples. But after living there for six months, with Greville ignoring her letters, it finally dawned on her that Greville had dumped her. Like many women would have been, Emma was angry at first—but then, thanks to her new fabulous life in Naples, she quickly got over it. It also helped that things were surprisingly getting hot and heavy with Sir William.
Emma and Sir William fell in love. Although they had an age gap of 34 years between them, their short-term arrangement blossomed into a long-term relationship. Emma eventually moved in with Sir William. Although she couldn’t appear in court because she wasn’t legally married to Sir William, she went to other social events with him.
After several years together, Emma became Lady Hamilton when she married Sir William on September 6, 1791. For Emma, things were just getting started.
During her time in Naples, Emma gained a few friends in high places. Queen Maria Carolina, the wife of King Ferdinand I of Naples, was one of them. Looking to build an alliance with Great Britain, the queen made the first move and invited Emma, who was now the British Ambassadress, to meet her. The two women became fast friends—but there was one quality in particular that the queen liked.
Emma had loose lips when it came to British intelligence secrets, and the queen took full advantage. But Lady Hamilton’s mouth had other beneficial uses, too.
As Emma made waves in royal circles, she also became known for her singing abilities. It turns out that Lady Hamilton was a great singer! When she visited the royal family, Emma often sang with the king. She also sang for guests at her home. As a testament to her talent, the Royal Opera in Madrid tried to hire her for a season, which would have seen her vie with their star singer for top billing.
Emma rejected the offer—and instead, chose to display her artistic talent in another way.
Emma turned to her interest in classical antiquities and art and modeling experience to develop a new art form. She called it "Attitudes". It mixed themes of Greco-Roman mythology with elements of posture, dance, and acting, particularly mime. In her performances, Emma posed still as though she was a sculpture or in a painting, changing positions from time to time.
In a nod to her modeling days, Emma used classical gestures and draping as an essential part of her act. Soon enough, Emma’s "Attitudes" gained a lot of attention.
Emma’s performances drew positive reactions, especially from the arts circle. Inspired by her, Ida Brun, a Danish performance artist, became a famous practitioner of the art. Bertel Thorvaldsen, a famous sculptor, was a fan of Emma’s work. The famous German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, praised her by writing, "The performance is like nothing you have ever seen before. With a few scarves and shawls, she expressed a variety of wonderful transformations". And Emma’s influence didn’t stop there.
Often, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. With the success of her act, Emma became a major trendsetter. Her show influenced dance trends. Women drew inspiration from her costumes. They wore dresses that reflected the Grecian aesthetic and drapery seen in her costumes. Apart from Ida Brun, other female artists also embraced the art of "attitudes".
Emma was the toast of polite society—a great feat for the daughter of an ordinary blacksmith. She took the continent by storm—but she was also in for a big surprise.
In 1793, Emma met Horatio Nelson, the man history would forever associate her with. The future British naval hero stopped at Naples in September of that year to prepare for battle with the French. As the wife of the British Ambassador, it was Emma’s duty to provide him with assistance. Although Nelson was only there for a mere five days, it wasn’t a surprise that he developed feelings for the beauty. And, as fate would have it, it wasn’t the last time the two would meet.
In September of 1798, Nelson returned to Naples as a hero. Unfortunately, the conflict took a brutal toll on Nelson. He lost an arm and some of his teeth in the Battle of the Nile. He also suffered from coughs. Emma took it upon herself to help Nelson get his health back. She also threw a huge party for Nelson’s 40th birthday. Soon, the two got closer.
Emma acted as his secretary, translator, and political aide. It didn’t take long for sparks to fly. It was the start of a long famous love affair—but, of course, there was a catch.
Normally, husbands don’t take it well when they find out their wives are cheating on them. But Sir William's reaction was shocking for the time. Strangely enough, Emma’s husband was okay with the affair. Sir William didn’t seem to mind it at all, and he didn’t show any signs of jealousy or resentment. In fact, Nelson and Sir William showed mutual respect towards each other!
Despite the cordial relations between the three of them—they couldn’t keep the affair under wraps for long.
Emma and Nelson didn’t do a good job of hiding their relationship. Within two months of the start of their affair, the English press caught wind of it and just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to report it. The affair made headlines, and Great Britain became fascinated with it. The salacious details of the love triangle had tongues wagging across the country.
Thanks to the gossip columns, Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson became household names in their native country. The affair had the power to destroy their lives—but that wasn’t the only thing they had to worry about.
Remember Emma’s strong friendship with Queen Maria Carolina? Maria Carolina was also the sister of the infamous Marie Antoinette, the tragic French queen who lost her head to the guillotine in the Revolution. Emma gave political guidance to Maria Carolina, who had concerns about the influence of the French Revolution on her own subjects.
Maria Carolina’s spidey senses were right—and Emma was there to step in and help her regal friend.
In 1799, aristocrats revolted against Maria Carolina's family, and the French seized the opportunity to insert themselves into the situation, too. In response, Emma brought the hammer down. She enlisted Nelson to help the royal family, and then on June 24, she arrived alongside Nelson with his whole dang fleet. Soon enough, the admiral crushed the revolution and restored the monarchy. And more good news was on the way.
1800 was an eventful year for Emma. She, Sir William, and Nelson returned to Britain together. Sir William resigned from his post in Naples, and the British Navy recalled Nelson shortly after. In that year, Emma also became pregnant with her first child with Nelson but continued traveling. Finally, they arrived in England in November—and got the world's most awkward reception.
Emma wasn’t the only married one. Remember, Nelson had a wife. When Emma, Sir William, and Nelson arrived in London, they met Nelson’s wife, Fanny, and his father at Nerot’s Hotel instead of his home, due to some miscommunication. And boy, things got messy. Fanny didn’t know Emma was pregnant and got an unpleasant surprise when she saw Emma’s belly.
Up to that point, she had tolerated their affair, but a child was too much for her. Emma was about to meet her match.
In merry ol’ Britain, Emma’s affair with Nelson was well-known. As always, everyone had an opinion about it, and people were taking sides. The British press loved the fact that Fanny, who didn’t accept the affair as lightly as Sir William did, was no pushover. She didn’t back down from Emma, who was the darling of society at the time. So Emma devised a secretive way to carry on her romance with Nelson.
The next year, Nelson, who received a promotion to vice admiral, set off to battle again, leaving a very pregnant Emma in London. Instead, the lovebirds kept in touch through letters. To keep the contents of the letters a secret, they used a secret code to communicate about her pregnancy. Then, during Nelson’s absence, the product of their love finally arrived.
On January 29, 1801, Emma gave birth to her love child with Nelson. She named the baby girl…Horatia. Yeah. Interesting choice, Emma. Nelson was away but received the happy news about the birth of his first biological child before he went off to battle. Probably due to Horatia’s illegitimacy, there were lies about the timing of Horatia’s birth.
Horatia’s precarious legal status didn’t dampen her parents’ spirits as they were delighted about their new baby. However, Emma’s relationship with Nelson was about to hit a bump.
While Nelson was away, Emma’s beauty attracted royal eyes. The Prince of Wales, Prince George, who later became King George IV, couldn’t resist Emma’s charm and quickly had the hots for her. Word got to Nelson about His Royal Highness’ interest in his lady. His reaction was explosive. Although a patriotic man, Nelson wasn’t going to step aside for anyone, even the future King of Britain.
Nelson got really jealous about another man having a thing for his boo, and others had to step in before the situation blew up.
When her affair with Nelson reached a low, Emma had a surprising supporter on her side. True as steel, her husband, Sir William, had her back. He was so supportive that he wrote a letter to Nelson to reassure him she wasn’t cheating on him behind his back! Because of the letter, Nelson eventually calmed down, and all was well in love.
Emma welcomed her second baby in late February and prepared for a home life with him—and her husband, of course.
Emma convinced Nelson to buy a home for them to live together. In the fall of 1801, he bought Merton Place with a loan from a friend. Emma had full freedom to renovate the home, which was a fixer-upper, and she used it to create a home befitting of Britain’s naval hero. The thing was, it wasn’t just them living in the house. Sir William and her mom lived with them, too!
The living arrangements became instant fodder for the gossip columns as the public didn’t know what to make of the situation. After settling into her new abode, Emma set her eyes on winning over Nelson’s family.
With kids under her care, Emma decided it was time to get Horatio’s family on her side. Ever the savvy diplomat, she used her charm and resources to win their favor. Her plan was brilliant. Her first target was his aging dad, Edmund. She won his affection by playing nurse so much so that he contemplated living with them in Merton. Ultimately, he decided he couldn’t leave his home in Norfolk.
She also managed to get on Nelson’s sisters’ good side by offering financial and childcare assistance. After finding herself in the good graces of the Nelsons, she finally had the courage to reveal a secret she held from him for a long time.
Remember how Emma already had one daughter before Horatia? Well, Emma definitely didn’t forget about her firstborn, who now went by Emma Hartley. But there was just one thing: Despite the close bond she had with Horatio, Emma didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell him about her older daughter. But after the birth of Horatia, she came clean and told him about the other Emma.
Horatio didn’t care about it and even invited the younger Emma to stay with them in Merton. He eventually developed a close relationship with her and took financial responsibility for her. Emma’s relationship with Nelson was so strong that he put her first before anyone else—occasionally, to his own detriment.
Emma had Nelson wrapped around her finger, and that was putting it lightly. In fact, it went way too far. He was head over heels in love with her to the point that he spent time with her instead of his dying father! By April of 1802, Edmund was in critical condition, but Horatio didn’t pay him a visit, choosing to remain in Merton to celebrate Emma’s 37th birthday.
Well, it also turned out to be the day Edmund died. Horatio didn’t seem to grieve much over the loss of his father—he didn’t even go to his funeral! He wasn’t the only person to leave Emma and Horatio’s life around this time.
Over the course of a year, Sir William’s health quickly deteriorated. On April 6, 1803, he collapsed and took his last breaths in Emma’s arms. Now a widow with no children from her marriage, Emma found herself at the mercy of a man from her past. It was her husband’s nephew, Charles Greville—yes, the ex who unceremoniously dumped her with Sir William.
See, Greville was the executor of Sir William’s estate and ordered her to vacate her London home. Emma had nowhere else to go, but given the strict social rules of the times, she had to officially maintain a separate home from Horatio. So, she moved to a place of her own. Although widowhood created some instability in her life, it allowed her and Nelson to finally be able to deal with Horatia’s legal status.
With Sir William out of the way and Nelson about to set sail again, Emma and her beau rushed to have their daughter christened. For Horatia’s sake, they tweaked a few important details on her baptism record. For one, her name became Horatia Nelson Thompson. The record named Emma and Nelson as her godparents with a Vice-Admiral Charles Thompson listed as her father. They also listed her date of birth as October 29, 1800.
Emma and Nelson made these changes to back up the story that they adopted Horatia as an orphan from Naples. Horatia was truly a blessing—but sadly, the couple was about to experience a series of tragedies.
Unbeknownst to Emma and Nelson, she was pregnant with another child when he sailed off to fight Napoleon. In reaction to her loneliness, she threw herself into building the home of his dreams but suffered from a difficult pregnancy. In early 1804, she gave birth to another child, apparently also named Emma, who sadly only survived for six weeks. To make matters worse, Horatia was sick.
Emma suffered in silence as she kept her third daughter’s existence from the public and didn’t approach the Nelsons for support. The emotional toll of these events eventually got to Emma.
Emma didn’t deal with her problems well. While Nelson was away at sea, she was left to cope alone, and soon fell into a downward spiral. To take her mind off her sorrows, she turned to destructive hobbies. She developed gambling, eating, drinking, and spending problems. Although she didn’t reach rock bottom at this point, it was the beginning of a long descent for Emma.
But in the meantime, her reputation remained untarnished, and the girl was still in demand.
Many men couldn’t resist Emma’s charm. In 1804, she received marriage proposals from a series of rich suitors. During this time, Nelson was still fighting against Napoleon, and Emma was still in love with him. She also believed that her boo was going to score a huge payday with a victory, which meant a large inheritance for her.
Thinking she didn’t have to settle for less, Emma rejected the proposals and continued to wait for her beloved. Little did she know, she bet on the wrong horse.
Emma couldn’t have imagined how bad things were going to get for her. On October 21, 1805, although victorious at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson was badly hurt and succumbed to his injuries. In his last moments, he spoke of her. Emma received the horrible news from a messenger and found out later about his last words.
To provide security for his love and their child, the admiral wrote a note as an add-on to his will. He asked that Emma receive an allowance fitting of her social status and Horatia use the name of Horatia Nelson. Unfortunately for Emma, Nelson’s wishes fell on deaf ears.
Emma miscalculated the strength of her relationship with the Nelson family. Horatio’s brother and his wife avoided her and were ecstatic that the will remained unchanged, which meant they stood to inherit Horatio’s estate. Horatio’s sisters tried to provide emotional support, but they were in a worse position than Emma.
They, too, counted on Horatio returning with a huge pot of gold and had spent money in anticipation of receiving his financial help. This was just the beginning of the end for Emma.
In the end, Emma only got a fraction of the money Nelson wanted her to receive. She got £2,000 and Merton Place as well as an annual stipend of £500, a mere pittance compared to what Nelson provided for her during his life. The money wasn’t sufficient for the upkeep of the home she inherited in Merton. No one honored Nelson’s last wish for Emma and their daughter to be cared for either.
As if Emma’s treatment wasn’t bad enough, she faced more public humiliation in the wake of Nelson’s demise.
Horatio Nelson’s funeral was a grand affair—but one notable face was missing. As much as she wanted to be there, Emma didn’t receive an invitation. The state only allowed the men of Horatio’s sisters’ families to attend, so Emma and his sisters, who also weren’t invited, had to spend the day together. Despite the indignity she faced, she tried to take the high road and performed her duties to Horatio’s family.
She provided them with breakfast and dinner and hosted one of his sisters’ families. But things still got worse for her.
Emma’s out-of-control spending habits caught up with her. To keep up the appearance of a lavish lifestyle, she spent a lot of cash that she didn’t have on parties and more home renovations on Merton Place to make it into a shrine to Nelson. Not even the annual allowance of £800 she received from her husband’s estate was enough for her to stay financially afloat, and she eventually accumulated a lot of debt.
In desperation, she continued to host influential people, such as the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Sussex and Clarence, in hopes of earning their favor, but her plan didn’t work. Eventually, the act was up.
Unable to pay her debts, Emma spent most of 1811 and 1812 in a debtors’ prison. In early 1813, she requested help from her former admirer, the Prince of Wales, the government, and friends, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. The former It girl sold many of her assets, including Nelson heirlooms, to raise money. Even then, Emma didn’t learn her lesson and still borrowed money to save face.
She also lost her reputation when Nelson’s letters to her became public in 1814. It seemed like she didn’t have anything else to lose—but sadly, there was one more thing.
Father Time was not kind to Lady Hamilton. The stress of years of emotional and financial burden took a toll on the former model’s physical appearance. Once renowned for her beauty, Emma was a shadow of her past self. With the loss of her beauty, she had lost the one thing that saved her from a hard life. Her fate was about to take a turn for the worse.
Emma just couldn’t escape from the debt collectors. Seeing no way out of her predicament, she decided to flee England—but her plan was seriously risky. If caught, she could be arrested. So, she and Horatia went into hiding for a week before they traveled on a private ship for Calais on July 1, 1814. After trying to establish a luxurious life, her expensive tastes created problems for her once again.
Broke and in poor health, Emma decided she had enough and approached the Catholic Church for salvation.
As they say, all good things come to an end. In November of 1814, Emma and Horatia settled in a cheap apartment in Calais. With all hope lost, Emma drowned her sorrows with drink and laudanum. Her misery ended on January 15, 1815. She was only a few months shy of her 50th birthday. A few days later, she was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Pierre’s in Calais. It was an anticlimactic end to the life of a glamorous woman who captivated many of Europe’s powerful men.
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