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

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Only Wellington and Churchill rival Nelson’s stature in British history. If Wellington, at Waterloo, forever thwarted Napoleon’s ambition to rule Europe, it was Nelson who destroyed the French emperor’s sea power and ended his plan to conquer England. Few military figures of the modern age—perhaps George Patton is one—have been simultaneously as reckless and brilliant. When Napoleon attempted to conquer North Africa, with the ultimate intent of extending his empire all the way to India, Nelson pulled off one of the most celebrated victories in naval history (one in which the fictional Capt. Jack Aubrey, played by Russell Crowe in Master and Commander, participated).


The Battle of the Nile began when Nelson’s scouts discovered the French fleet—commanded by Napoleon’s chief admiral, François-Paul Brueys d’Aigailliers—anchored at Aboukir, near Alexandria, Egypt, in 1798. Nelson slipped his warships between the enemy and shore, safe from Napoleon’s cannons, which faced the open sea. “In the rapidly falling darkness, confusion seized their fleet,” Churchill wrote in his History of the English Speaking Peoples. “Relentlessly the English ships. . . . battered the enemy van, passing from one disabled foe to the next down the line. At ten o’clock, Brueys’ flagship, the Orient, blew up. The five ships ahead of her had already surrendered; the rest, their cables cut by shot, or frantically attempting to avoid the inferno of the burning Orient, drifted helplessly.” Later, Nelson would gloat to his crew: “It must strike forcibly every British Seaman, how superior their conduct is, when in discipline and good order, to the riotous behaviour of lawless Frenchmen.”


While the Battle of the Nile made Nelson a national hero, it was on an October morning seven years later that he became a near divinity in English lore. That day in 1805, Nelson attacked the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar, between Gibraltar and Cádiz, Spain; in a totally unorthodox maneuver, he split his ships into two parallel lines and sailed them straight at the enemy, cutting it in half. By late afternoon, Napoleon’s navy had been vanquished, though Nelson, struck by a musket ball, would himself expire just hours after the battle began. Every English schoolchild since has learned the story of Nelson’s collapse on his vessel’s bloodstained quarterdeck and his dying request to Lt. Thomas Hardy: “Take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy; take care of poor Lady Hamilton.”


The two women in Nelson’s life could hardly have been more different. Frances came from a wealthy family living on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where it owned sugar plantations. Her handwriting in the letters reflects her upbringing: steady, straight, legible and neat. In 1785, when Fanny’s father introduced her to 26-year-old Nelson, she was a 24-year-old widow with a 5-year-old son. (Her husband had died, probably from a tropical disease, in 1781.)


Emma Lyon, on the other hand, was a woman of volatile temperament; her handwriting wanders in crooked lines, her letters large and often all but unreadable. Born in Cheshire in 1765, she became a maid in London at about age 12; before long, she had become the mistress of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh and bore him a daughter. When he jilted her, she took up with his friend, Charles Greville, who introduced her to the painters Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, both of whom did portraits of her. (One of Romney’s hangs in the Frick Collection in New York.) Unlike Fanny, who is remote and expressionless in her portraits, Emma appears both fetching and flirtatious. In one of Romney’s renderings, she has a beguiling smile, upswept hair and a rose dress with a swooping low bodice. In 1782, Greville’s aging uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to the court of Naples, was widowed. In exchange for Hamilton’s help paying his debts, Greville sent Emma to Naples to become Hamilton’s mistress. She eventually married him, acquiring in the bargain a title, a mansion and a considerable fortune.



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