Woman on a Man o’ War

In the 18th and 19th centuries the wives (and sometimes the mistresses) of naval officers would accompany their men aboard ship. One of these stalwart women was Elizabeth “Betsey” Wynne Fremantle, wife of Captain Thomas Francis Fremantle, and she left an amazing 40 volume diary to enrich the historical record.

aHR0cDovL3d3dy5saXZlc2NpZW5jZSBetsey Wynne Freemante

Their marriage was happy, as befitting their romantic meeting. In 1796 Fremantle, who was already a daring young captain admired by none other than Horatio Nelson himself, was assigned to harass the Franco-Spanish navy off the coast of Italy and to evacuate any British civilians in the area. One of the British families he rescued from Livorno were Richard Wynne, his wife Camille de Royer Wynne, and their two beautiful daughters, the youngest of whom was 18-year-old Betsey.


Fremantle fell head over ears for Betsey, and they married on 12 January 1797 in Naples, at the home of the British envoy, Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton. Freemantle, who was the son of Sir Admiral Charles Howe Fremantle and a rising star in the Royal Navy, had none other than Prince Augustus, son of King George III, as his best man.

Prince Augustus was probably sympathetic to his fellow countryman for two reasons. First, Fremantle was a hero whose quick thinking had allowed the British to capture the 80-gun Ça Ira and had been lauded in all the papers. Secondly, Fremantle was daring to wed a Catholic lady. Augustus had dared to do the same thing himself, marrying Lady Augusta Murray, the second daughter of the 4th Earl of Dunmore, illegally in Rome. Augustus’s marriage was declared null because of the Royal Marriages Act 1772, and his children with Lady Murray rendered illegitimate under British law. You can see why the Fremantle-Wynne union would have been extra romantic in the prince’s eyes.


They had a very short honeymoon, since Fremantle had to sail again once more. Betsey, rather than be separated from her husband, joined him aboard the inaptly named HMS Inconstant.  She waited on board the ship, while her husband and Nelson were fighting Spanish gunboats off Cadiz. Fremantle and Betsey then set off, again under Nelson, to the Spanish Canary Islands. There, in July 1797, her husband’s ship was involved in the Battle of Tenerife, where both Nelson and Fremantle were wounded in the arm. Nelson’s right arm was amputated below the elbow, Fremantle kept his limb intact but never recovered its full use.

Betsey nursed both Nelson and her husband during the long journey back to Naples, even though she was in the first trimester of her first pregnancy at the time. During the first trimester, even if a woman is spared morning sickness, she is usually exhausted because making a placenta requires a huge energy expenditure. Nonetheless, Betsey took excellent care of her husband and his admiral and the fetus and even found time to write in her diary.


I need a nap just thinking about it.

Once in Naples, Nelson’s care was taken over by Lady Hamilton, and the two soon fell in love, much to Betsey’s disgust. As a bride who was deeply in love with her husband, her sympathies were all for Nelson’s wife. Later, when Lady Nelson sued her husband for a separate maintained, Betsey would write, “I have no patience with her husband, at his age and such a cripple to play the fool with Lady Hamilton.”

Betsey’s own marriage continued to be a happy one. Fremantle used some of his prize money to buy Swanbourne House in  Swanbourne, Buckinghamshire, for his growing family to live in while he spent two years recuperating from his injuries. Swanbourne House was the primary Freemantle residence while on shore for the rest of their lives, and where Betsey lived when she wasn’t with her husband aboard ship.


Their first son, Thomas, was born on 11 March 1798, followed by a sister, Emma, born 13 June 1799 who sadly didn’t survive infancy, and another son, Charles, on 1 June 1800.

Shortly after the birth of their third child, Fremantle was given the command of the ship of the line HMS Ganges  and again went to serve under Nelson, this time in the Channel Fleet. Betsey, with a toddler and an infant to care for, did not accompany him and would only see him sporadically for the next five years, which understandably caused her significant dismay.

Fremantle’s career, however, continued to bloom. After several more successful engagements with the enemy, he was given the massive 98-gun HMS Neptune in May 1805 and was third in Nelson’s division at the Battle of Trafalgar that October. During the engagment Fremantle overcame the Santissima Trinidad, and it was the Neptune that towed Nelson’s badly damaged flagship through a severe storm back to Gibraltar after the battle.

HMS_Victory_towed_into_Gibraltar by HMS Neptune

Following Trafalgar, Fremantle returned home and spent the next five years in England with Betsey and his sons. During this time he served as a member of Parliament for Sandwich and as a Lord of the Admiralty. He and Betsey also had two more sons; William on 30 August 1807, and Stephen in 1810.

In 1810 Fremantle was given command of fleet in the Adriatic Sea:

where he employed the frigate squadrons under him successfully against French-held Italy and Dalmatia. When the French empire surrendered in 1814, the entire Balkan coast surrendered to him with over 800 ships, netting Fremantle a vast fortune. For his services he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath on 12 April 1815, as well as a baron of the Austrian Empire and later a vice-admiral and, from 1818, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet. He also received several Austrian and Italian knighthoods and initiation into the Royal Guelphic Order of Hanover.

Unfortunately for Betsey, her husband died of a sudden illness in December 1819 while far from home. He buried at San Gennaro, Naples, in the Garden of Don Carlo Califano. Betsey would outlive him for more than 40 years, dying on 2 November 1857 in France. She never remarried.

2 thoughts on “Woman on a Man o’ War

  1. Thanks for this Kyra! I’ve been wondering about the feasibility of wives staying on Royal Navy ships, particularly during wartime.

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