Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lady Emma Hamilton's Pendant

By on Sunday, September 18, 2011 8 Comments

Lady Hamilton as Circe.Emma Hamilton by George Romney
Lady Emma Hamilton (1765 - 1815) was born Amy Lyons in very humble circumstances. Yet in adulthood, this beautiful woman with dark copper hair and dancing eyes became infamous as the mistress of Britain's greatest naval hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (1758 - 1805).

Their doomed love affair scandalized society as both were married at the time.  It tragically ended when Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Not much is known about her earliest life.  When she was 13, she starting working as a maid. Other jobs (and name changes) followed including stints as a shop assistant, barmaid and when things got rough and she was starving, a prostitute. At 15, she became the mistress of a sea captain in exchange for her cousin's freedom when he was press-ganged. The cad deserted her when he went back to sea. Emma gave birth to a still born child.

Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante.Emma Hamilton by George Romney

With acting aspirations, Emma became a model posing as a classical "living statue" for a quack who peddled fertility cures.  Inevitably, one of the young bucks, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who came to gawk at the scantily clad young women, hired Emma to entertain at his stag parties. Dancing almost naked on his dining table was one job description.

Her time with Sir Harry introduced Emma to upper class society and surroundings. She also met and was attracted to one of his friends, the scholarly Charles Greville, who in turn found her ravishing.  Sir Harry dumped her when he found out about their mutual attraction and refused to acknowledge the paternity of the little girl Emma later delivered. Little Emma as she was known was raised by Emma's grandmother.

Emma Hamilton, in a 1782–84 portrait by George...Emma Hamilton by George Romney

Charles Greville and Emma stayed together for nearly five years. In many ways, he was the Professor Higgins to her Eliza Dolittle. Emma said years later, "My education began when I was seventeen."  She also became the muse of artist, George Romney, who painted her many times at the height of her beauty.

Sir William Hamilton
Alas, it all ended when Greville was forced to marry wealth.  He unceremoniously passed Emma off to his widowed uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples.

Greville never told Emma their affair had ended. She thought she was just going to visit this agreeable much older gentleman whom she had met before and liked. Greville got her to go when he pointed out the fine singing tutors in Italy could help her improve her lovely soprano.

Sir William helped her recover when she finally and bitterly realized she was being deserted yet again. They grew very fond of each other despite the 34-year gap. He eventually married Emma making her Lady Hamilton.

It was in Naples where Nelson and Emma first met briefly in 1793. Of small stature and not handsome at all, the young naval officer still made a good first impression with both Hamiltons.

Captain Horatio Nelson, age 23 in 1781
Unlike Emma, Nelson came from a prosperous and well connected family. His brilliant career began at age 12, when he joined the British Navy with the help and support of his uncle who was also in the navy.

The family connection meant Nelson started as a seaman and not at rock bottom as a cabin boy or powder monkey - someone who relayed small bags of gunpowder from the magazine in the ship's hold to the gun crews.

His self-discipline and tenacity was such that Nelson continued with his chosen career despite suffering from seasickness, a life long affliction.

Napoleon BonaparteNapoleon via WikipediaWhat truly set Nelson apart was his incredible leadership abilities and his brilliant but unorthodox battle tactics.  His men gave him their unwavering loyalty not just because he could lead but because he truly cared for their welfare in both peace time and during the Napoleonic wars.

Napoleon was nearly invincible on land but Britain still ruled the seas. The country owed Nelson and his men a great deal because the strong British navy at the time was the only barrier to an invasion by Napoleon.

Earlier this year,  the Daily Mail reported the discovery and subsequent auction for a remarkable early 19th century gold pendant. An Australian couple found it in the cupboard of a house in Portsmouth (British naval port) they had inherited.

Although it's not known for sure who owned the pendant, experts think the locks of hair likely belonged to Nelson and Emma. The pendant was probably worn by a woman. One would like to think it was Emma's because this is the only known piece of jewelry marking their love affair and no one else would have wanted such a piece.

The pendant is double sided, one of which has the date August 1, 1798 and the initial N as well as naval motifs. If you click through to the auction house's enlarged pictures, the double spray of blondish hair thought to be Nelson's is bound by a strand of tiny pearls. The anchor is also delicately decorated with small pearls. The simple spray of dark auburn hair also held together with pearls on the reverse side is probably Emma's. The hair color matched other locks known to be hers.

The date on the pendant is significant. It marked the beginning of the epic Battle of the Nile. Nelson led the British fleet to victory after defeating the French forces. 15 of 17 French ships were sunk without a single British loss. But Nelson suffered a head injury - he was shot in the forehead. The fleet retreated to Naples for replenishment and rest.

The many portraits by Abbott originate from th...Rear Admiral Horatio NelsonThe Hamiltons welcomed the wounded Nelson on board his ship. When she got onto the deck, Emma stood still in shock. In the intervening years since she first met him, he had lost an arm and the sight from one eye. She then exclaimed, " Oh, God! Is it possible?" and swooned into his remaining arm.

She nursed him back to health and the two of them fell deeply in love. The attraction was definitely not based on looks as Emma had become, as one Scandinavian diplomat bluntly said, "the fattest woman I have seen." Nelson had lost most of his upper teeth and looked far older than he really was given how much abuse his body had taken over the years.

Emma still cared for the aging Hamilton, her "Willum",  and so this ménage à trois came to be, all three of them living in the same household. Nelson's friends, his superiors, even his own wife back in England were aware of his growing attachment to Emma. The scandal titillated Europe.

Nelson's arrogance and disobedience to Admiralty orders also added to the bad publicity. He actually asked his superior if the Hamiltons could travel back to England on a British warship. Permission was not granted. Apparently the Admiralty thought Lady Hamilton had ruled the fleet long enough.

Back in England, Emma gave birth to their child, Horatia, who was fostered out in secret. Nelson and his wife separated. Sir William also asked for a separation but conveniently died soon after.  Little Horatia was then able to return and live with Emma and Nelson. The couple were only to have one last year of happiness before he was recalled to command the fleet to counter Napoleon's final attempt at decimating the British navy.

Before he left for duty, and perhaps by premonition, he signed a codicil to his will stating, " I leave Emma Hamilton therefore a legacy to my King and country, that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her rank in life." 

But the words for his men just before the battle were different. His famous morale boosting message  "England expects every man to do his duty" was relayed from his flagship, the aptly named HMS Victory captained by Thomas Hardy.

The battle plan called the Nelson Touch was outlined to his officers prior to the Battle of Trafalgar.  But unlike the enemy commander, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve, Nelson trusted his captains to act on their own initiatives once the battle began.

Back in the days of sail, battleships of opposing sides moved in parallel, firing their guns broadside at each other with unsatisfactory results for both sides. But Nelson's brilliant tactic at this decisive battle was the "crossing of the t" where he deftly got two lines of his ships to cross the enemy line. This effectively divided and weakened the combined French and Spanish fleet. Nelson insisted on leading one line on board the Victory despite pleas from his officers not to.

Map of the Trafalgar battleImage via Wikipedia

It was a dangerous but carefully calculated maneuver. The British ships were highly vulnerable during the approach  because they could not fire their broadside guns while the enemy could engage all theirs. Nelson got his men to crouch or lie down to reduce injuries from splinters as enemy canon fire rained down on them.

It took nerves of steel to wait for the right moment when the ship was finally in position to fire broadside at the enemy. This is what is called "raking" :

Click here for full but brief animated map of Nelson's brilliant tactics at the Battle of Trafalgar

The fighting was ferocious with many casualties.  In the thick of it all, Nelson and Thomas Hardy, walked up and down the deck, giving orders and encouragement to the men.

Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the mizen starboard shrouds of HMS Victory
 Painting by JMW Turner

At one point, the crew of the French ship, Le Redoubtable, prepared to board and capture the Victory. They were thwarted by the timely arrival of the second British ship in the column, the Temeraire.  17-year-old Robert Sands, a barely literate powder monkey on the Temeraire who survived, wrote about the choking smoke and the narrow miss he had when his ship's magazine exploded killing those there.

Nelson had previously refused to remove his medals and decorations and was thus conspicuous to marksmen. A sniper on board the Redoubtable picked him out and shot him through the shoulder, piercing a lung and his spine.

For the remaining 3 hours of his life, his crew mates tried to make him comfortable below deck despite the pain. Nelson knew he was dying and begged that his possessions be given to Emma and reminded Hardy "to take care of poor Lady Hamilton." He lived long enough to know his fleet had won a great victory.  

A detail from the wall painting in the Royal p...Painting detail of the death of Nelson via Wikipedia

Nelson's final moments :
10 minute video of part of British reenactment, Nelson's Traflagar

On being told the news, King George III reportedly said in tears,"We have lost more than we have gained." 

Britain lost a war hero but Emma lost the man she loved. She later said, "They brought me word, Mr Whitby from the Admiralty. 'Show him in directly,' I said. He came in, and with a pale countenance and faint voice, said, 'We have gained a great Victory.' - 'Never mind your Victory,' I said. 'My letters - give me my letters' - Captain Whitby was unable to speak - tears in his eyes and a deathly paleness over his face made me comprehend him. I believe I gave a scream and fell back, and for ten hours I could neither speak nor shed a tear."

Emma was inconsolable, sobbing on her bed strewn with Nelson's letters. Hardy did deliver the mementos and trinkets as well as a lock of Nelson's hair as he was asked to do. Emma was not invited to Nelson's state funeral as she was too much of an embarrassment.  The codicil he signed?  It was ignored.  The nation chose instead to heap honors and grants galore on Nelson's blood relatives.

Emma did receive financial bequests from Nelson's will and together with those from her late husband's should have been enough to see her comfortably set up for the rest of her life.  It was not to be. Driven by deep unhappiness, she turned to drink and ran up huge gambling and spending debts. Emma was eventually forced to flee England or face arrest.

Her health was seriously damaged by her drinking and she died in Calais, France aged 50. Even on her deathbed, she still wrote and pleaded with the Prince Regent for financial aid for Horatia so that their daughter could "live as becomes the daughter of such a man as her victorious father was." Her final request was ignored just like Nelson's was 10 years before.

Right to the very end, Horatia remained loyally at her side. Horatia never ever publicly acknowledged she was Emma's daughter but she had to have known.

Leigh Eduardo (2005) Mistresses: True Stories of Seduction Power and Ambition

Before You Go :

Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
Jewelry Making Tips - Jewelry Business Tips 



  1. Nothing like a tragic love story to start my Sunday morning! So interesting! Thanks for that change of pace.

  2. what a sad story, just goes to show not everything can have a disney ending. the locket is such a beautiful symbol though it lets them be together somehow!

  3. I had seen the movie "That Hamilton Woman" but didn't know it was based on a true story. It's amazing they found the locket with his hair still in it. Thanks for sharing such an interesting story!

  4. Thanks Steph for mentioning that old movie. I will have to look for it! It stars the great Laurence Olivier as Nelson and Vivienne Leigh as Emma Hamilton.

  5. I especially love your historical tales. Poor Emma did not fare as well as she should have. How insulting that Nelson's last request was ignored. I wonder whatever happened to Horatia. I highly recommend "That Hamilton Woman." Very dated, of course, but who can resist Vivien Leigh and Larry Olivier? Thank you for all your hard work in bringing us your blog every day.

  6. Thanks for letting me know you like my bejeweled historical tales! Horatia married a reverend and had 10 kids!

    That old movie probably was reasonably historically accurate unlike modern films. But the two lead actors were sure better looking than the real people they portrayed!

  7. I just love your historical posts. They are like looking into a little window in time.

  8. What a fantastic opera this would make. It has all the twists, turns, torment and tears. Much on the same level as Aida, La bohème or Madam Butterfly.