Lord Nelson: Hero and...Cad!

A cache of recently discovered letters darkens the British naval warrior's honor and enhances that of his long-suffering wife, Frances

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

“I can only say that no woman can feel the least attention from a husband more than I do,” Frances Nelson wrote to a friend in 1801. By then, her celebrated husband—England’s greatest naval hero—was openly cohabiting with another woman, and a married one at that. Most everyone in English high society seemed to know about the affair that Horatio Nelson, Vice Admiral of the British Fleet, was carrying on with Emma, Lady Hamilton, a striking beauty—and the wife of one of his closest friends, Sir William Hamilton.


Frances Nelson had little choice but to live with her pain. Perhaps no man in all of Britain was as scandal-proof as the one who had all but annihilated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. As for the notorious Emma Hamilton, “she would have been all over what we now call the tabloids,” says Nelson biographer Tom Pocock. “It was a tasty story.”


More tragedy than farce, this Georgian soap opera would not end well: the admiral would leave two women’s lives devastated as certainly as he devastated the French fleet; one would die wealthy but heartbroken, the other would know depression and disgrace. And the man who served Nelson as both friend and facilitator of his affairs, Alexander Davison, would spend two terms behind bars.


Many historians have accepted the view that Frances, Lady Nelson, was the cause of all this anguish. “If you read most of the Nelson biographies,” says Colin White, author of The Nelson Encyclopedia, “Frances Nelson almost without exception was demonized for the breakdown of the marriage. She was said to be incompatible with him, cold, whining.” Now that view is changing, thanks to the discovery two years ago of some 70 letters from Fanny, as she has come to be known, Emma, and Nelson to Nelson’s friend, Davison.


Written between December 18, 1798, and January 20, 1806, the letters, and some other Nelson artifacts, were sold at Sotheby’s in London on October 21 (Trafalgar Day), 2002, for more than $3 million to the BritishNationalMaritimeMuseum in Greenwich and assorted individual collectors. “This amazing archive shows us how wrong people have been,” says Pocock, who calls it the most significant discovery of Nelson-related items “for more than a hundred years.”



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus