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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Fanny’s, Emma’s and Nelson’s letters might never have come to light had descendants of Nelson’s confidant not decided to sell a diamond brooch that had been in the family for almost two centuries. “The brooch is the key to everything,” says Martyn Downer, head of jewelry at Sotheby’s London office at the time of the sale and author of Nelson’s Purse, a forthcoming book about Nelson’s friendship with Davison (Smithsonian Books). “It was brought to one of our offices outside England.” It is quite likely, though no one can prove it, that Nelson gave the brooch, shaped like an anchor and adorned with the initials “H” and “N” (for Horatio Nelson), to Emma and that she in turn sold it to Davison when she was strapped for cash.


Downer says the Davison heirs, who wish to remain anonymous, told him they inherited the brooch “from their ancestor, Alexander Davison. I kept asking them about Davison, and they finally said, ‘Why don’t you come to our house? We’ve got a few papers.’ ” When Downer walked into the house and saw two 18th-century deed boxes, one bearing the name Davison, “it was,” he says with British understatement, “a wonderful moment.”


The artifacts include swords, pistols and a blood-soaked purse, which Nelson is believed to have carried when he was killed by a French sniper at Trafalgar, as well as elaborate porcelain pieces, decorated with Nelson’s coats of arms (he changed them as he rose in rank) and depictions of his ships. Some were purchased by Nelson for Emma, others bestowed on him by Davison and other admirers. There are gold medals and coins—some struck by Davison, apparently to curry favor with Nelson and his men. And there is a sword, known as Nelson’s Scimitar, probably given to Nelson by the ruler of Constantinople.


But the letters from Fanny are the real treasures. “You know we have had so little communication, for some Months that My Lord, has most likely never received my letter,” she writes plaintively to Davison in 1799. “I have not had a line from him for Ages,” she writes later that year. “I am sure he writes, who can be so wicked as to take my letters. . . . ” Although Davison’s replies have all been lost, it would appear from Fanny’s missives that he did his best to let her down gently, bucking up her spirits without sharing information he was getting from Emma Hamilton in her correspondence with him.


Davison “was a very complicated and intriguing man,” says Downer. “When he was 23 he went to Quebec with his brother George and established a business; he made a fortune through the fur trade, the shipping trade, and victualing the British Army in North America. And there’s some suggestion, not proved, that he was involved in the slave trade.”



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