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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Spendthrift Emma soon had to borrow money from Davison. Apparently she also sold him many of the artifacts that would end up in his possession. Her letters reflect her decline: “The loss of Nelson under this Dreadful weight of Most wretched Misery that I suffer I fell & Hope that I shall be not Long after Him—nothing gives me a gleam of Comfort but the Hope that I shall soon follow,” she wrote in November 1805 to Davison. Eight years later she was sentenced to debtor’s prison at King’s Bench, in London; upon her release a year later in 1814, she fled to Calais with 13-year-old Horatia, putting herself beyond the reach of English law. She died the following year, probably at age 49; her exact birthdate is not known. Today, a monument to her, built in 1994 with the help of an American donor, stands in the Parc Richelieu in Calais. Horatia Nelson married a country curate and lived a quiet life until her death in 1881.


Over the years Davison benefited from his relationship with Nelson and amassed a good fortune. In addition to the mansion on Saint James’ Square, he had bought an estate in Northumberland called Swarland. But his ambition got the best of him. In 1802, he tried to bribe voters in an attempt to win a seat in Parliament. In 1804, at the age of 54, he was sentenced to a year in prison for the crime. And in 1808, he was convicted of fraud, in connection with his role as a purveyor of supplies to the British Army, and served another term. Although he lived until 1829, he never recovered his social standing after his release from prison in 1809.


Fanny’s loyalty and patience paid off. Faithful to her husband’s memory to the end, she received a generous pension from the Crown and was accepted in polite society until her last days. She died at age 70 in 1831, having never remarried. “This was a woman who was continuously and desperately in love with her husband,” says Colin White.


For all his indiscretions and downright cruelties, Nelson’s place in history remains secure. His tactics are still taught in naval war colleges, and the moment of his death has been immortalized by English painters for generations. By one estimate, more than 2,000 books have been written about his life and half a dozen films have captured his exploits. Nelson’s Column holds pride of place in London’s huge Trafalgar Square. His flagship Victory is on display at the Portsmouth Naval Base, no less revered than Old Ironsides in Boston.


What made the hero such a scoundrel? “Fanny was devoted to her husband and extremely solicitous of his health and welfare, but ultimately not in the way he craved,” says Pieter van der Merwe. “My theory is that Nelson remained in many respects a small boy from a large family who lost his mother very young and spent his life searching for a source of uncritical love. He was almost entirely disappointed in finding it in Fanny, but found it writ larger than life in Emma.”


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