Georgian Celebrities – Emma, Lady Hamilton
For me this post is about a ‘local’ celebrity as Emma was born on The Wirral.
She was born Amy Lyon on 26th April 1765 in Ness, Cheshire, the daughter of a blacksmith. Her father died very soon after her birth and she was raised by her mother in Hawarden, North Wales. She later changed her name to Emma Hart.
Emma had no formal education and, at the age of 12, she was working as a maid at the Hawarden home of Doctor Honoratus Leigh Thomas. Then she worked for the Budd family in Chatham Place, Blackfriars. It was there that she met a maid called Jane Powell, who wanted to be an actress and Emma joined her in rehearsing for various tragic roles.
Emma started work at the Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, as maid to various actresses, amongst them Mary Robinson (mistress to the Prince Regent).
At the age of fifteen, Emma met Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, who hired her for several months as hostess and entertainer at a lengthy stag party at his country estate. She is said to have entertained Harry and his friends by dancing naked on the dining room table.
Emma formed a friendship with one of the guests, the Honourable Charles Francis Greville, second son of the Earl of Warwick and a Member of Parliament. It was about this time (late June-early July 1781) that she conceived a child by Sir Harry.
Sir Harry was furious at the unwanted pregnancy but is thought to have accommodated Emma in one of his many houses in London. Emma gave up on Sir Harry and became Greville’s mistress. When the child, Emma Carew, was born, she was taken to be raised by a Mr and Mrs Blackburn.
Greville sent Emma to sit for his friend, the painter George Romney. Romney painted many portraits of Emma at this time and maintained a lifelong obsession with her, sketching her nude and clothed in many poses. Through the popularity of Romney’s work and her own striking beauty, Emma became well known in society circles. She learned quickly and was elegant, witty and intelligent.
In 1783, Greville needed to find a rich wife to replenish his finances and he settled on an eighteen-year-old heiress, Henrietta Middleton. But his chosen bride would not accept him as a suitor if he lived openly with the now famous Emma Hart.
To be rid of Emma, Greville persuaded his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples, to take her off his hands. Greville suggested to Sir William that Emma would make a very pleasing mistress, assuring him that, once married to Henrietta Middleton, he would come and fetch Emma back. In his mid fifties and a great collector of antiquities and beautiful objects, Sir William enjoyed female companionship very much. Emma’s famous beauty was by then well-known to Sir William, so much so that he even agreed to pay the expenses for her journey to ensure her speedy arrival. His home in Naples was well known all over the world for hospitality and refinement. He decided Emma would be the perfect hostess for his salon.
Greville did not inform Emma of his plan, instead suggesting the trip would be a prolonged holiday in Naples while he was away on business. Emma was sent to Naples, supposedly for six to eight months, little realising that she was actually going as a gift to her host. She was reported to be furious when she realised what Greville had done.
Sir William was smitten with Emma and, to Greville’s shock, married her on 6 September 1791. She was twenty-six and he was sixty. Her marriage brought Emma the title Lady Hamilton. It is interesting to note that, when she married, she used her birth name of Amy Lyons.
Lady Hamilton became a close friend of Queen maria Carolina, wife of King Ferdinand I of Naples. As the wife of the British Envoy, Emma welcomed Nelson to Naples in 1793. Nelson returned to Naples five years later, a living legend, after his victory at the battle of the Nile. However, Nelson’s adventures had prematurely aged him: he had lost an arm and most of his teeth, and was afflicted by coughing spells. Emma and Sir William escorted Nelson to their home, the Palazzo Sessa.
Emma nursed Nelson under her husband’s roof, and arranged a party with 1,800 guests to celebrate his 40th birthday. They soon fell in love and their affair seems to have been tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the elderly Sir William. Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton were, at that time, the two most famous Britons in the world. Emma became an important political influence, advising Queen Maria Carolina on how to react to the threats from the French Revolution. Maria Carolina’s sister was Queen Marie Antoinette of France. In 1799 Naples French troops arrived in Naples and the royal family fled to Sicily. Nelson tried to help the royal family put down the revolutionaries.
On Nelson’s recall to Britain shortly afterwards, Emma and Sir William followed him to England in 1800. The three of them lived together openly, and the affair became public knowledge. This induced the Admiralty to send Nelson back to sea, in an attempt to get him away from Emma.
Emma gave birth to Nelson’s daughter, Horatia, on 31 January 1801 at Sir William’s rented home in London. By the autumn of the same year, Nelson bought Merton Place, a ramshackle house on the outskirts of modern day Wimbledon. There he lived with Emma, Sir William, and Emma’s mother, a fact which fascinated the public. The newspapers reported on their every move, looking to Emma to set fashions in dress, home decoration and even dinner party menus.
Sir William died in 1803 and Nelson returned to sea to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, leaving Emma pregnant with their second child. The child, a girl, died a few weeks after her birth in early 1804.
On 21 October 1805, Nelson’s fleet defeated a joint Franco-Spanish naval force at the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was fatally wounded during the battle, and died shortly after. When the news of his death arrived in London, a messenger was sent to Merton Place to tell Lady Hamilton. Later, on describing the moment she was given the news, she said, ” I believe I gave a scream and fell back, and for ten hours I could neither speak nor shed a tear.”
After Nelson’s death Emma quickly exhausted the small pension Sir William had left her and fell deeply into debt. Nelson left Merton Place to Emma, but she depleted her finances further by trying to keep it up as a monument to him. In spite of Nelson’s status as a national hero, the instructions he left to the government to provide for Emma and Horatia were ignored.
Emma spent a year in a debtor’s prison, in the company of Horatia, before moving to France to try to escape her creditors. Turning to drink and living in poverty in Calais, she died in January 1815 of amoebic dysentery, an illness she probably contracted during her years in Naples.