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

(Continued from page 3)

Nelson, 24 in 1782, was skipper of the HMS Albemarle, quartered in Quebec City in what the British called the War of American Independence, when he struck up a friendship with Davison. The bond was cemented after Davison talked Nelson out of marrying 22-year-old Mary Simpson, an innkeeper’s daughter. Davison convinced the relatively impoverished Nelson to hold out for a rich wife. Nelson had grown up the son of a country parson, the 6th of 11 children, in a little village in Norfolk called Burnham.


Nelson was commanding the frigate Boreas, interdicting trade between the British Caribbean colonies and the United States, when he met Frances Nisbet. “She was accustomed to the grand life, which of course he wasn’t,” says biographer Pocock. They married in 1787. He was 29; she 26. (Her son, Josiah, then 7, would himself become a Royal Navy captain. She and Nelson would not have children together.) From 1787 to 1793, when Britain was at peace and Nelson and other officers were forced to cool their heels at half pay, he and Fanny lived together in Norfolk, England. But when war with revolutionary France broke out in 1793, the navy called him back to active duty, and he took command of the Agamemnon.


In 1794, Nelson lost most of the sight from his right eye in action during an engagement near Corsica. In 1797, he played a significant role in defeating the French fleet at Cape Saint Vincent, for which he was knighted. The same year, Nelson lost his right arm in an attack on Santa Cruz in Tenerife and returned to England, where Fanny nursed him back to health. A year later, he was sufficiently recovered to defeat Napoleon’s fleet at the historic Battle of the Nile.


In that engagement, a wound to the head forced him to recuperate in Naples, where he would visit Sir William Hamilton and his wife, Emma, Lady Hamilton. In late 1798, he began his affair with Emma, under the nose of her doddering husband, who apparently chose to overlook the matter. In time, Emma would take a dim view of Nelson’s wife. “What a sad thing it is to think such a man as him should be entrapped with such an infamous woman as that apothecary’s widow,” she wrote to Davison in a letter dated July 15, 1804.


By this time, Davison, 54, had begun to play a pivotal role in Nelson’s economic and private affairs. The vice admiral hired him to handle his claims and those of his subordinates before navy tribunals that parceled out spoils from the Battle of the Nile. (In the British Navy of the time, seamen split the proceeds of the sale of enemy ships and cargoes they captured; official panels determined how much each man, from the highest admiral to the lowliest seaman, would get.)



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus