Lady Hamilton’s Lover in Cardinal Wolsey’s Sarcophagus

The state funeral of Admiral Horatio Nelson was held on 9 January, 1806 and frankly there were Roman Emperors who were mourned with less gravitas and pomp than the Hero of Trafalgar was lamented by the English.


The funeral was lavish to say the least. Nelson’s body, inside of a lead coffin that was in turn placed into:

another wooden one, made from the mast of L’Orient which had been salvaged after the Battle of the Nile … lay in state in the Painted Hall at Greenwich for three days, before being taken upriver aboard a barge, accompanied by Lord Hood, chief mourner Sir Peter Parker, and the Prince of Wales … The coffin was taken into the Admiralty for the night, attended by Nelson’s chaplain, Alexander Scott. The next day, 9 January, a funeral procession consisting of 32 admirals, over a hundred captains, and an escort of 10,000 soldiers took the coffin from the Admiralty to St Paul’s Cathedral. After a four-hour service he was interred within a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey. The sailors charged with folding the flag draping Nelson’s coffin and placing it in the grave instead tore it into fragments, with each taking a piece as a memento.

It is odd to think of Wolsey’s sarcophagus used to inhume the body of an Admiral almost 300 years after the Cardnial’s death, but history is full of such odments.

After the funeral, Nelson was quickly elevated to the status of demigod. The Anglican church tended to avoid saints as “Popish” but Nelson was revered to the point that I would not be surprised to hear sailors beseeched him to intercede with the divine on their behalf.


While Nelson was certainly laudatory, I have always been more interested in his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, who was allowed to fall even as Nelson was being upheld for the masses.

Lady Hamilton was born Amy Lyon. She was the daughter of a poor working class couple and became even poorer when her father died in her infancy. She worked as a maid at age 12 and then as an dancer until, as many impoverish but beautiful girls were, she was conscripted into child prostitution. Sure, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, the man who took her to be his mistress when she was only 15 wouldn’t have thought of her that way … but she was nevertheless just a young girl when he reportedly had her dancing naked to entertain his friends. He also made her an unwed teenaged mother shortly thereafter.

Fetherstonhaugh wasn’t completely despicable. He didn’t cast out the pregnant teen to starve in the streets. Instead, he supported her until the baby, named Emma, was born and placed under the care of a respectable couple, a Mr and Mrs Blackburn. Amy was then taken as a mistress by Charles Francis Greville, the second son of the then Earl of Warwick and a member of Parliament for Warwick. Grenville was smitten by her, but changed her name to the more classy-sounding Emma Hart. He also sent her to have her portrait done by the painter George Romney.

It was then that Emma became the subject of many of Romney’s most famous portraits. In fact, so began Romney’s lifelong obsession with her, sketching her nude and clothed in many poses he used to create paintings in her absence. Through the popularity of Romney’s work and particularly of his striking-looking young model, Emma became well known in society circles, under the name of “Emma Hart”. She was witty, intelligent, a quick learner, elegant and, as paintings of her attest, extremely beautiful.

future Lady Hamilton (as_a_Bacchante)

Although Grenville seemed fond of Emma, he needed to marry an heiress and thus in 1783 he started looking for a way to get rid of her so he could scrounge up a bride. He came up with the clever idea of sending her to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples, to use her as a bed-warmer until Grenville was safely married and could bring Emma back to serve as his sex toy once more.

Emma’s famous beauty was by then well-known to Sir William, so much so that he even agreed to pay the expenses for her journey to ensure her speedy arrival. A great collector of antiquities and beautiful objects, he took interest in her as another acquisition. He had long been happily married until the death of his wife in 1782, and he liked female companionship. His home in Naples was well known all over the world for hospitality and refinement. He needed a hostess for his salon, and from what he knew about Emma, he thought she would be the perfect choice. Greville did not inform Emma of his plan, however, but instead suggested the trip as a prolonged holiday in Naples while he (Greville) was away in Scotland on business. Emma was thus sent to Naples, supposedly for six to eight months, little realising that she was going as the mistress of her host. She became furious when she realised what Greville had planned for her.

Emma initially refused to become Hamilton’s mistress, but after several months in his company she formed a liaison with her elderly host. They married on 6 September 1791, when she was twenty-six and Sir William was sixty. The low-born Amy Lyon — working under the stage name Emma Hart — was now Lady Hamilton with a husband in the Privy Council.

As part of her duties as a wife of the British Envoy, Emma welcomed Nelson to Naples in 1793. Nelson was a naval hero when he returned to Naples in 1798, but he had lost an arm, an eye, several teeth, and was in ill health. Sir William took gladly took the heroic Nelson into his home and Emma willingly nursed him. It didn’t take long for Emma and Nelson to fall in love, and Sir William not only condoned the affair … he seems to have encouraged it. Perhaps it was his age or his memories of his own beloved first wife, but Sir William only wanted to see his young wife happy with her lover.

The three of them lived together in Naples and when they returned to England in 1800, they lived together still, causing a massive scandal.

Nelson and Lady Hamilton

When Nelson was sent back to sea, Sir William continued to watch over and care for his wife, now pregnant with Nelson’s baby. Emma gave birth a daughter Horatia, on 29 January 1801.

A few months later, Nelson bought Merton Place, where he, Emma, Horatia, Sir William, and Emma’s mother all lived as one big, happily family. This drove the public batty with befuddlement. How could they possibly be happy in such an immoral muddle as that?

Nevertheless, they all lived very well with one another until Sir William’s death in 1803. Nelson was at sea again, and Emma was pregnant with their second child. All they needed was for Nelson to obtain a divorce and they could finally wed. However, tragedy would come before any wedding between them.

First, their newest baby daughter died a few weeks after her birth in 1804, then Nelson himself died in battle on 21 October 1805. Thomas Hardy, captain of the HMS Victory, recorded that Nelson made a final request was that he “take care of poor Lady Hamilton”. She had clearly been the love of Nelson’s life.

Lady Hamilton was devastated by the news of Nelson’s death:

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.

While Nelson’s brother, William Nelson, was created Earl Nelson and Viscount Merton of Trafalgar and Merton in the County of Surrey in recognition of his brother’s services, as well as inherited the Dukedom of Bronté in Sicily, Lady Hamilton and Nelson’s daughter Horatia were mostly left to fend for themselves. Nelson’s last will and testament  left his estate to his brother but begged that the government take care of his lover and their daughter as a tribute to his services to the country. Nonetheless, his posthumous pleas were ignored.

Emma and Horatia spent a year in a debtors’ prison in 1812, albeit housed by the jailer in relative comfort, before some of Nelson’s friends helped them move to Calais to escape Emma’s creditors. There, they lived in penury until Lady Hamilton died in January of 1815, at age 49.

After Emma’s death, Horatia disguised herself as a boy to evade her mother’s creditors and returned to England to live with one of Nelson’s sisters, Mrs Catherine Matcham in Sussex. Horatia would discover in 1845 that she was Nelson’s natural daughter, as well as his adopted Goddaughter, and embrace that honor, but for the rest of her life Horatia would insist that Emma Hamilton had not been her biological mother. Lady Hamilton had ONLY been Horatia’s adoptive mother and guardian. Apparently it was okay to be Nelson’s bastard, but not one born to such a notorious mistress who had moreover posed nude for artists?


Horatia married the Rev. Philip Ward on 19 February 1822, and had 10 children (half of whom sadly predeceased her) before dying on 6 March 1881. On her tombstone she is recorded as “the beloved daughter of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson” with no mention of a mother at all. She must have sprung from Nelson fully formed, like Athena from Zeus?

Amy Lyon “Emma Hart” Hamilton has no gravestone at all.

5 thoughts on “Lady Hamilton’s Lover in Cardinal Wolsey’s Sarcophagus

  1. I’ve just attended the Maritime Museum special exhibit on Lady Emma Hamilton, and she was a political force to be reckoned with. She was extremely influential in the Maltese political situation, working closely with Queen Maria Carolina and became the first woman to receive the petite croix de devotion de l’Ordre having arranged to send vital grain to the islands thus saving them from starvation.

    None of this is remembered!

  2. Nelson was married at the time which did influence the public opinion. Nelson’s wife couldn’t divorce him and he had no grounds to divorce her.
    I didn’t know about the daughter’s fate.
    I am afraid I am not one who feels that “:being in love” excuses all sorts of behavior. Though Amy/Emma had a raw deal as a child , once she was married, she could have honored her vows. One source says Emma had twins but gave one of them away.It is too bad that Nelson didn’t provide for Emma in his will. It was naïve to expect the nation to care for an adulterer– the other woman. Emma did show a great deal of competence as Sir William’s wife and was very effective in helping his diplomatic causes along.Nelson was probably the country’s greatest naval strategist. The affair robs both of some honor.

    1. What a judgmental tyrant you are. Were you there? Did you live their lives? Guess what? No one cares what you think or will remember you. Nelson and Emma will be remembered forever.

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