Everybody knows the story.
He was a lad from Norfolk sent to sea as a younker. He had talent and determination and verve. And over the course of his life, he became Britain’s greatest naval hero, at actions such as the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, the Battle of Aboukir Bay and the Battle of Copenhagen. Ultimately, this utterly brilliant, crazily courageous man saved Britain from the threat of imminent French invasion at the Battle of Trafalgar.
He is, of course, Horatio Nelson, or if you prefer, Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805). And he is, or he should be, known and admired by all. And mostly, he is.
But there are one or two elements of his personal life that still make historians and particularly naval historians squirm–and one of these is his passionate long-term affaire with Emma Hamilton.
It was an affaire that allegedly shocked the nation–even a nation so steeped in salacious tales of men and their mistresses as early 19th century Britain. But perhaps it’s time to rewind, look at the facts and maybe consider them from another point of view–his.
So to recap: he went to sea when he was twelve. From the outset he suffered from seasickness–this would plague him all his life. By 1779, he was suffering from malaria, which would prove a terrible and recurring debility.
Whilst on duty in the Caribbean in 1786-7, he met then married a young widow, Frances Nisbet–she had a young son and no money–and eventually returned to England with her, intending that they should make their home there…and they seemed happy enough, though his great wish–for children–remained unfulfilled.
The resumption of hostilities with Revolutionary France ended this idyll, if idyll it was, and he was recalled to duty in January 1793 just as France was gearing up to declare war on Britain on 1 February.
By 6 February, he was aboard the HMS Agamemnon, and soon heading for Gibraltar–and it was sometime in the summer of 1793 that he probably first met Emma Hamilton, wife of the British diplomat in Naples. (Nothing happened.)
Also that July, during the siege of Calvi [Corsica], a shell burst on a rampart made of sandbags, sending a shower of stones and sand into the air and into his right eye, an injury which would eventually lead to his loss of sight in that eye.
By 1797, he’d been a key player at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Kudos all round.
But shortly thereafter, at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, his right arm was hit by a musket ball. He would have bled to death but for a tourniquet applied by his stepson, Josiah, and later that day, most of that arm was amputated. Not very successfully either, and he returned to Britain in the frailest of health, his stump swollen and inflamed.
Over the next few months, his wife nursed him back to health–and the word nursed is important here. From all accounts, she was a bit of a whinge-bucket and a worrier–she didn’t like Norfolk and complained incessantly about it. She was apparently infertile. And in nursing him, she allegedly “laid aside her scruples” as Tom Pocock phrases it so that she could clean and dress his wound and administer opium.
Now at this point, though I’m generally the most avid devotee of the married state and all it entails, I’m saying “Hang on a tick…” Because you see, this is where the criticism of Emma and the praise of Fanny falls apart for me. She “laid aside her scruples…”
So, looking after this wounded veteran who was willing to lay down his life for his country in time of greatest need, was somehow not part of “love, honour, cherish and obey, in sickness and in health”?
(Someone talk me through this…)
And there was another scruple she apparently wasn’t willing to lay aside either–and that was to do with marital relations. She was willing to nurse him, but physical intimacy was off the menu. She recoiled from him; how cruel is that?
Now before some feminist accuses me by saying, “Yes, but she was a person and had her own self to consider…” I’d like to just point out, he was a person too, a human being with needs and desires who’d made immense, intense sacrifices not just for her, but for the 11 million other Britons as well.
Now I have never been wounded, nor have I been disfigured by accident. But this one thing I do know and that is that injuries such as Nelson sustained often leave the sufferer not just physically scarred, but prey to the most wretched and heart-breaking of fears–to feelings of self-loathing, self-doubt and loss of self-esteem, a conviction that one has become hideously deformed and will never again be attractive or lovable, fears about identity and virility…and desperate for the physical reassurance that a loving relationship can give. And it’s not just Afghan vets who’ll tell you this…
(Hence, to me, for her self-pitying treatment of this gallant, brave, devoted man, Frances Nelson will always be among the most selfish, sanctimonious, dung-hearted of sows who ever plagued the earth…)
Nevertheless, by 28 March 1798, our man was back in service and, in true Master and Commander fashion, delighted to be so. And that summer, after a chase around the Mediterranean, he took on the French fleet at the Battle of Aboukir Bay. It was a scintillating and daring victory.
But during the course of it, Nelson took a shot in the forehead from which a flap of skin fell down over his good eye. He thought he was a goner. Not so. In an hour, he was bandaged and up on deck again, leading his crew.
Imagine it: He’s wounded. His malaria is recurring so he’s sick as a sick dog. He’s fresh from the horrors of a particularly annihilating battle. He’s exhausted; he’s emotionally fraught; he’s been maimed and he’s in constant pain.
And the woman who’s soothing his fevered and sliced up brow is none other than the most beautiful woman in Europe. Not only that but she’s warm-hearted, effusive, ebullient, voluptuous, generous and kind. He’s desperate for sex for so many reasons and holy wow is she sexy! How could he not have fallen for her?
And he was such a hero, such a brave and brilliant and loving man, she fell right back.
By 1800, they were making their way back to London, overland–Sir William Hamilton and his wife and Lord Nelson.
When he landed back in Britain, Nelson received a rapturous welcome, a hero’s welcome, everywhere he went. The affaire allegedly shocked society. Frances got sanctimonious and spiteful–which didn’t work out so well for her.
In 1801, Nelson was back at sea, leading the Royal Navy to victory over the Danes (allies of the French) at the Battle of Copenhagen. Subsequently, he chased the French fleet all over the Atlantic and eventually destroyed the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805–a victory which ended forever the Napoleonic dreams of overseas empire and the threat of invasion for Great Britain. (Huzzah and thrice huzzah!)
Frances, as Nelson’s widow, received all his pensions and honours, of course.
Emma, in one of those acts of political hypocrisy which make me spit teeth, was barred from even attending his state funeral. Which, to me, is unforgivable.
Because Emma had given Nelson something quite unique, quite tremendous: when and wherever he was with her, he wasn’t disgusting, he wasn’t ashamed, he wasn’t less than a man. When he was with her, he was whole. She loved him fully. She loved him in all ways.
And I truly believe it was her unstinting, all-embracing, passionate devotion–with no holds barred–that rebooted his unfaltering courage in the long months that led to the victory over the French at Trafalgar. She didn’t just believe in him, she loved him with her whole being, every part of him.
But she did even more than that. Through her very public display of long-term affection for this maimed veteran–and that’s what he was–I do believe she set a new standard for treatment of the war wounded, treatment which must have been so vital for all those brave lads returning wounded or maimed by cannon, gunshot or disease from the Peninsula and from Waterloo some years later. She demonstrated a lesson that we’re still struggling with, even after two world wars: the power of love and how it transforms and uplifts and heals even the most wounded of souls.