Emma Hamilton as a young woman c. 1782, by George Romney

Emma was born in 1761, with the birth name Amy Lyon. She was the daughter of a blacksmith but she rose through several high profile relationships to become one of the most well known British women in the world, the most famous of which was her relationship with Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Emma’s father died when she was very young, and she was brought up by her mother. She had no formal education and began working at a young age as a maid in houses, which she soon switched to be a maid to actresses at Drury Lane Theatre. It was here that she caught the eye of her first suitor, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. He hired her as part of the entertainment for a stag event and she soon became his mistress. The relationship didn’t last long as he was angry when she became pregnant with his child, the child was brought up by another couple, although Emma did see her throughout her life.

Emma then began a relationship with Charles Francis Greville, who she met at the stag event Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh had organised. It was Charles who introduced Emma to the artist George Romney. They were friends and Charles wanted a painting of his new love. Emma became Romney’s muse, he was obsessed with her beauty and she was the model for many of his most famous pieces. However Charles was looking for a wealthy wife, he was in debt and needed money. Having such a high profile mistress Рthanks to the work of Romney, Emma was very well known Рwas only going to hinder his prospects.

He made a deal with his wealthy uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Kingdom of Naples. His uncle would pay off his debts in exchange for Emma, and this would also clear the way for him to marry heiress Henrietta Middleton. So Charles sent Emma off to Naples, she was completely unaware that she was being given as a mistress to Charles’ uncle and when she realised she was furious. It seems that she soon settled into Neapolitan life and became Hamilton’s mistress, they married a short while later.

Despite her lack of education, Emma fitted well into Neapolitan society. She became good friends with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and adapted to her husband’s job of diplomacy very well. It was in these surroundings that Emma first met Nelson, her most famous lover. It is believed the pair became lovers after she helped Nelson triumph over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. She aided him by procuring the support of Naples, in which they allowed the British fleet to get supplies and water in Sicily. It appears that her husband, Sir William, did not mind her relationship with Nelson, and perhaps even encouraged it. He was 34 years older than Emma.

She had two daughter with Nelson (although one of them did not survive infancy). When Emma, Nelson and Sir William returned to England they were treated with fascination for the scandalous way they behaved. It wasn’t until Sir William died that Emma and Nelson could really be together. Sadly for Emma, Nelson did not long outlive her husband, dying at the Battle of Trafalgar a few years later.

Emma quickly fell into debt; she had been left a small pension by Sir William and Merton Place by Nelson, but she exhausted her funds trying to maintain the house as a monument to Nelson. She moved to France to escape her debt and took to drink. She died at the age of 49 of amoebic dysentery, which she probably picked her in Naples.

-Danielle Triggs
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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