Lord Nelson ~ A Different Point of View

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…)

Ehem.  

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.    

To speed his recovery, he was taken to the Hamilton’s home in Naples, and it was at this point that the affaire began. 

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.

20 comments on “Lord Nelson ~ A Different Point of View

  1. Very interesting post! I love taking a closer look at history.

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    What a lovely post! Thank you!

  3. Sarah Head says:

    Really good post. I love how you have considered historical characters as people using today’s standards. Thank you – and thank heavens for Lady Hamilton!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I believe that however much does change, human nature doesn’t change…which is why for example Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s jokes are still funny. And therefore, it seems to me we can understand our forebears better when we apply some of these modern lessons…

      Glad you liked it.

  4. Great Post. I’m betting Frances lifted her skirts to catch him – selfish reasons the motive.

    Behind every great man there’s an equally great woman: whether wife or mistress! Nelson and Emma were each others life-jackets. Let’s be honest William Lord Hamilton was old and eccentric, nonetheless a decent and loving husband, and Nelson was sexy! Such a pity Nelson failed to legally provide for Emma in the event of his death, and hers a none too pleasant end by all accounts. Not much is written about their daughter Horatia.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Though no one will say so, I think Frances was a gold-digger and I’ve always seen her as such. She was a widow with absolutely no money, though allegedly ‘expectations’ and she had a small son to provide for. Nelson was young, he was sexy, he was far from home, and he loved playing with the little boy. Bingo–she’d found her meal ticket.

      I love the way you call them each other’s “life-jackets” by the by. That they were.

      Before he left for his final mission, Nelson and Emma had a private ceremony–a quasi-wedding service–in the local church, pledging themselves to each other for eternity, and they exchanged rings.

      Horatia grew up to marry a local Norfolk curate, the Rev. Phillip Ward in 1822. They had about ten children, and whilst she knew herself to be the child of Lord Nelson, she never did know who her real mother was!

      As to Nelson being sexy–not so much by the time Emma and he got together. He’d lost most of his back teeth, which is why his cheeks are so sunken in later portraits. His “fin” as he called his stump used to twitch when he was wound up–he suffered badly from Phantom Limb syndrome. His face was scarred and his right eye was coated over white. He wasn’t tall and his mien was that of a man who’d known great physical suffering. It’s said he no longer laughed, only occasionally smiled. Which makes Emma’s love for him and her falling for him in the first place even greater, I think.

  5. msimon43 says:

    Very interesting. Just watched a piece on Emma and Nelson as part of Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour. It went into detail as to how Emma acted out her “attitudes.”

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Many of her attitudes are on display in the many portraits George Romney painted of her–she was his muse.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. So nice to see a vindication of Emma! She did get a raw deal.

  7. dwwilkin says:

    Very nicely done. I aspire to be able to blog as well as you do. I remember vaguely a Glenda Jackson movie with a strong Emma, and then Vivien Leigh about which I still hear a Fiddle dee dee and not as strong I think as the Emma of your post.

  8. A beautifully written and very moving article. Yes, Emma got a very raw deal. Hypocrisy was de rigour in those days. But I do so vehemently agree with your statement that although the fashions, demands and expectations of society change vastly over the centuries – human nature remains safely human.

  9. Lively style makes for a very readable blog. My understanding is that Emma was a pretty big girl by the time she fell upon Nelson…. If you are taking an interest in Nelson, which I would say you have, you might enjoy the Nelson and His World forum – http://www.nelsonandhisworld.co.uk/forum/ – unless you already know it. If you repeated your blog there you would get some very interesting feedback I’m sure.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Thanks for the heads up about the Nelson and His World forum. I’ll get on to it.

      I’ve been a serious Nelson devotee since I attended some of the Trafalgar conferences run by Nick Rodgers and Colin White in 2005.

  10. They are a very friendly and knowledgeable group. I don’t have much to contribute to that forum because although I have done some naval research for my next biography I’m not really doing any more at the moment. Enjoy!

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Saw it in a post on Facebook and had to check it out. Congrats on a well-written and interesting blog.

  12. Tim Vicary says:

    Very nice, illuminating and moving post. I enjoyed it. I wondered about Emma’s husband though; how did he cope? You don’t say much about him.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      From all accounts he appears to have been quite sanguine about the arrangement. He was, of course, significantly older than Emma–perhaps he was, er, relieved?

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