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

“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.”

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.

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.”

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.)

Davison also helped Nelson juggle the demands of the two women in his life. “From December 1798 to late 1800, Frances writes to her trusted ‘friend’ a series which it is now impossible to read without a sense of dramatic irony,” Downer notes in the Sotheby’s catalog of the Davison family collection. In the early letters, about the time Nelson and Emma were beginning their affair, Frances expresses joy that her husband will soon be with her. “All the Boys letters from the Vanguard confirm my dear Lord’s intension of coming home,” she writes to Davison in the fall of 1798. She adds: “All hands expect my Husband home very soon.”

But by the spring of 1799 Nelson has still not returned from Italy, and Fanny complains about nervous illnesses, telling Davison that she “had upwards of eight oz. of blood taken” and adding, “I have had spasms, which has again shook me very much.” Still, she seems unaware of any romance between her husband and Emma, and offers to come to Naples to help nurse Nelson back to health. He rebuffs her. “I fixed as I thought a proper allowance to enable you to remain quiet, and not be posting from one end of the Kingdom to the other,” he writes in early 1801.

“It’s quite clear that she doesn’t understand what’s happening,” says Nelson Encyclopedia author White. “She’s bewildered and upset and hurt, and she’s blaming herself in classic abandoned wife fashion.” Even so, she remains generous toward her husband. “There’s one very poignant letter where she tells Davison that she actually destroyed some letters that Nelson had sent her; she didn’t want to affect his reputation for posterity. That’s not the act of a bitter and estranged woman; that’s an act of love.”

Apparently unaware of her husband’s betrayal, Fanny even entered into a correspondence with Emma. “Lady Hamilton’s second letter, I have received it,” Fanny writes to Davison in March 1799. “It mentions my Husband’s recovery. . . indeed he required Agreat deal of good Nursing and Asses Milk. Sir W. and Lady Hamilton’s kindness, attention and real friendship, has been great indeed just such as yours.”

But by November 1800, Fanny, in a letter to Davison, appears to realize that Lady Hamilton has become more to her husband than a solicitous friend: “[British Admiral] Lord Hood always expresst his fears that Sir W. & Lady Hamilton would use their influence, to keep Lord Nelson with them: they have succeeded.” Finally, that same month, Nelson returned to England. Almost everyone knew that he and Emma were having an affair, and polite society was scandalized. Nelson did spend a few days with Fanny but was soon spending most of his time with the Hamiltons, also returned to London, at their Piccadilly town house, or at Davison’s mansion on St. James’ Square.

Emma and Fanny would meet on at least two occasions that winter, at a dinner and at the theater. At the second meeting, Lady Nelson helped an ill Emma out of the theater. “The horrible truth that Emma was in the final stages of pregnancy with Nelson’s child probably dawned on Fanny on that occasion,” says Pieter van der Merwe of the National Maritime Museum. Emma gave birth to Nelson’s daughter, Horatia, in either the last days of January 1801 or the first days of February. In mid-January 1801, Nelson returned to his ship San Josef, which had been ordered to the Baltic. In February, Fanny wrote to Davison: “My Mind has not recovered its natural calmness, nor do I think it ever will. I am now distrustful and fearful of my own shadow.” But in March 1801, Fanny put on a brave front, hoping that next time Nelson came home he would live with her. She wrote to Davison that “I will receive him with joy.”

On April 2, 1801, while attacking the Danes at Copenhagen to try to break up an alliance between Napoleon and the Scandinavian countries, Nelson resorted to another unorthodox action. After the British and Danish fleets had exchanged heavy fire for three hours, the commander of the British ships, Adm. Sir Hyde Parker, raised signal flag number 39, an order to “discontinue the engagement.” Nelson reminded his officers that he had only one good eye and then said, “I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal.” He continued the attack and defeated the Danes. Sir Hyde Parker went home in disgrace.

After his return to England in June 1801, Nelson chose not to see Fanny. By December 1801, his attitude toward her had deteriorated to something approaching caddish incivility. Nelson sent a letter from his wife to Davison, who returned it to Fanny with the terse note: “Opened by mistake by Lord Nelson but not read.”

In August 1805, two months before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson spent a few weeks with Emma at Merton, an estate southeast of London that he had bought with the help of a loan from Davison. (Sir William had died in April 1803.) Referring to the Merton idyll, Emma wrote to Davison of “one fortnight of joy and happiness I have had for years of pain. My Beloved Nelson is so delighted with Merton & now he is here—tis a paradize.”

After Nelson’s death in October, Emma began a slow, painful slide into penury. Her husband had left her 800 pounds a year in his will—not enough to maintain Merton and pay for its elaborate grounds. (For his part, Nelson left her Merton and 500 pounds a year.) Nelson also had asked the government to provide for Emma; the story goes that the Prince of Wales was inclined to grant the request until he stumbled across some papers in which Nelson had ridiculed him. Emma never received a penny from the Crown.

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.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.