[How England broke faith with its greatest sailor, Lord Nelson. Final part.]
The Nile was a world changing event. Nelson had destroyed the French fleet. He had immunised his country from Napoleon’s threatened invasion. It was as if he had saved the civilisation of the whole world. The Ottoman Sultan and the Tsar of Russia joined in homage to this new Caesar (from which the word ‘Tsar’ derived) who, like the old, did now bestride the world like a colossus. The First Lord of the Admiralty fainted when he heard the news (but he later he got mean with the honours to Nelson on a point of precedence and rank). Haydn wrote a mass. Crowned heads of Europe would bow before their saviour.
Nelson, his body broken, returned to Naples. And to the solace of Lady Emma Hamilton. We have the canvas of George Romney and other artists to attest to her beauty. She was drop-dead gorgeous – and God had done her no favours when he made her that way. The mutilated body of Nelson bore frightful witness to the physical toll of war. It would be silly to suppose that his psyche had stayed in mint, virgin nick.
Nelson sailed to Malta and while doing so, he wrote to his Commander-in- Chief, Lord St Vincent. He said that ‘I am writing opposite Lady Hamilton…..our hearts and our hands must be all in a flutter. Naples is a dangerous place and we must keep clear of it.’ His Lordship was a man of the world and he quite understood. He wrote to Lady Hamilton.
Ten thousand thanks are due to your ladyship for restoring the health of our invaluable friend, on whose life the fate of the remaining governments in Europe whose system has not been deranged by those devils, depends. Pray, do not let your fascinating Neapolitan dames approach too near him; for he is made of flesh and blood and cannot resist their temptation.
Since word of the relationship, as we now incline to say, had already reached Admiralty and Lady Nelson, you can interpret that admonition as you will – but it does look like a suggestion that if Emma were to bite the apple, there could be one Hell of a price to pay.
Who was Emma? She is worth a book of her own. From a humble background, she took service as a maid at twelve. (It is a symptom of how different these times were that both these future lovers were thrown on to the work-force at the age of twelve.) She then did bucks’ nights for the better people, sometimes starkers it is said, and then she got pregnant. It must have been dreadful for a young girl – and an under-age one at that – to dance nude on a table top before drunken, gruesome oafs who were morally blinded by ingrained caste. Emma then took to the stage and she became a sensation in London as Romney’s model. She became the mistress of a leading politician, a loathsome jerk called Greville.
When Greville needed to take a rich wife, he palmed Emma off on Sir William Hamilton, the ageing British envoy to Naples. Emma was shipped out to be Hamilton’s mistress, but they fell in love and they got married. She was twenty-six. He was sixty. Emma was at the commanding height of her powers of attraction. About two years later, she met Nelson. She was by then resigned to not having a child by her husband – as was the case with Nelson with a wife who was older than him.
There, then, was the powder keg just waiting to go off in Naples.
And now a whole new threat arose. Nelson had to confront the price of fame. Nelson was not enjoying being ensainted. He wrote to Lady Hamilton.
To tell you how dreary and uncomfortable the Vanguard appears is only to tell you what it is to go from the pleasantest society to a solitary cell, or from the dearest friends to no friends. I am now perfectly the great man – not a creature near me. From my heart I wish myself the little man again! You and good Sir William have spoiled me but for any place but with you.
There may well be some male coquetry here, but there is little reason to doubt the main premise. Nelson was content to play the part allotted to him in battle by England and Shakespeare, but dolling it up in peace or being divorced from his true office were steps too far.
To go back to Gibson, the English nation came alight at the news that Gibson had led a daring raid that had blown up German dams. Overnight, Gibson became a household name, a celebrity. Churchill made him into what we would call a poster boy. Richard Morris says that Gibson ‘intensely disliked being exhibited as a war hero.’ Before Gibson set off to tour America with others, Antony Eden warned of ‘the torrents of alcohol and adulation with which they will be deluged, and such tours of fine fellows can degenerate disastrously.’ Later, Bomber Harris told Cochrane that he thought the Americans had ‘spoiled young Gibson.’ Harris was sorry that his protégé had had his head turned – and he would be sorrier when Gibson kept what now looks to have been his inevitable appointment with death over Holland.
Then two things happened that also look to have been inevitable. The two ladies met, and Lady Nelson snapped. We may be sure that as with the wife of Wellington, Lady Nelson’s friends kept her tightly hooked up to the grapevine.
Nelson’s solicitor was with them at breakfast one morning when Nelson mentioned Emma. ‘I am sick of hearing of dear Lady Hamilton, and am resolved that you shall give up either her or me.’ What else could Fanny have done? The solicitor’s account looks like it may have been taken from notes made at the time.
Lord Nelson, with perfect calmness, said, ‘Take care, Fanny, what you say. I love you sincerely, but I cannot forget my obligation to Lady Hamilton or speak of her otherwise than with affection and admiration.’ Without one soothing word or gesture, but muttering something about her mind being made up, Lady Nelson left the room, and shortly after drove from the house. They never lived together afterwards.
Now, that account may be partial, but it is what you might expect from an English gentleman who was used to command, but who found himself unable to deny to his wife that, for better or for worse, he had fallen in love with another woman. In truth three people had been on a collision course that providence and nature had made inexorable. That is the stuff of tragedy.
Lady Nelson said that her husband’s last words to her were ‘I call God to witness, there is nothing in you or your conduct, I wish otherwise.’ Carola Oman does not know whether Lady Nelson sent the following letter.
My dearest Husband,
Your generosity and tenderness were never more strongly shown than…for the payment of your very handsome quarterly allowance, which far exceeded my expectations….Accept my warmest , my most affectionate and grateful thanks. I could say more but my heart is too full. Be assured every wish, every desire of mine is to please the man whose affections constitute my happiness. God bless my dear husband…’
It is a fact of life that marriage breakdowns commonly involve a descent into Hell. This separation doubtless caused grief, but it looks to have been made in heaven when put beside the usual case. Shortly after the separation, Emma bore Nelson a child, a daughter they named Horatia. The couple was very happy, although the customs of the times precluded public acknowledgment of the parenthood.
We know now that Nelson dared death once too often at Trafalgar and lost. Emma had been an object of prey before her adulthood, and gradually she slipped back to that condition after the death of the father of her child. Crushed by predators, debt and a turning public, Emma, the sometime slut, took to drink and died a miserable death at Calais before turning fifty. The woman in these stories never gets the monument.
That then is the sad tale of Nelson and Emma. How is it that anyone could claim to sit in judgment on either of them – or of Wellington? I have no idea. First, I am not God. That self-evident proposition is sufficient to dispose of the issue. Secondly, and relatedly, we have no chance at all of understanding the social or military forces of a different era and place. For starters, we now have little understanding of their view of marriage or their law of divorce; or bastardry; or caste.
It was the insight of the great German historian von Ranke that every age is ‘equally immediate to God.’ This is to look eternity in the eye – all ages are equal in the eye of God. God is not subject to the constraints of time as we are. The historian has to look at each period in its own terms. It makes little or no sense to say that the Renaissance was in some way better than the Middle Ages. In a different way, it is very silly to seek to compare the infidelity, if that is your chosen word, of Wellington with that of Nelson.
It is enough to say that the evidence is that Nelson fell in love with another woman and that Wellington did not. These things can happen; if it were otherwise, Hollywood would go bust. The fascination that some feel for the gory details is a reminder of the meanness of our mediocrity. As Shelley remarked about those nasty people that sent the Cockney John Keats to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, we are like gnats straining at a camel.
But we would have loved to have been a gnat on the wall when these two very great men came to meet by accident in 1805 not long before Trafalgar. They had both been asked to call on Lord Castlereagh, but they were kept waiting because Cabinet was sitting. Wellington recognised Nelson because of the eye and the arm – and the notorious egotism. ‘He entered into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side, and all about himself, and, really, in a style so vain and silly as to surprise and almost disgust me.’ But then Nelson must have guessed he was talking to somebody, so he stepped out to inquire. (How very English! But what a clash of egos!) Nelson came back quite a changed man.
All that I thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked … with a good sense….in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman….I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more.
Then came the news of Trafalgar and the death of the man that England until then had relied on to defeat Napoleon. Wellington was there at the Guildhall where Pitt, the nation’s youngest ever Prime Minister, was thanked for saving Europe. He heard Pitt utter perhaps his most famous statement.
I return you my thanks for the honour you have dome me; but Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England saved herself by her exertions and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.
A long time after he had defeated Napoleon, His Grace, as he had become, said: ‘That was all; he was scarcely up two minutes; yet nothing could be more perfect.’
Well, the wars killed Pitt as surely as they had killed Nelson. Wellington would survive and go on to lead the nation in another capacity, and it may not be fanciful to suggest that in that role, he helped England avoid its version of the French Revolution. But you don’t have to be Burns to know that no matter how high a man rises, he stays a man. People who forget that wind up in the wrong end of Shakespeare.
When quitting Portsmouth to go to Trafalgar, Nelson had tried to escape quietly by the back entrance of the George Hotel. He could not fool the crowd.
He pushed his way through a pressing multitude, explaining that he was sorry he had not two arms, so that he could shake hands with more friends, and it was soon evident that his Portsmouth following felt more poignantly than the admirers who had mobbed him daily in London. As his figure came in sight, some people dropped to their knees in silence, uncovered and called out a blessing on him; tears ran down many faces….After the Admiral’s barge had pushed off…he turned to Hardy as the regular dip of oars gained pre-eminence over Portsmouth cheers on an afternoon of flat calm, and said, ‘I had their huzzas before. I have their hearts now.’
On the morning of the battle, and within sight of the Combined Fleets of France and Spain, Nelson got Hardy and another captain to witness what he called a codicil.
…I leave Emma, Lady Hamilton, therefore a Legacy to my King and Country, that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her rank in life. I also leave to the beneficence of my country my adopted daughter, Horatia Nelson Thompson; and I desire she will use in future the name of Nelson only. These are the only favours I ask of my King and Country at this moment when I am going to fight their Battle.
When news of the victory in battle and the death of Nelson made the London papers, something entirely out of the English character happened on the streets of London.
Many contemporaries attest that when London newspapers appeared on November 6, with the heading ‘Glorious Victory over the Combined Fleets. Death of Lord Nelson’, the instinctive comment of the British public was: ‘We have lost Nelson!’ and strangers stopped one another in the street to repeat the news and shake hands to an accompaniment of tears.
For many years, some English families kept framed copies of The Times:
If ever there was a man who deserved to be ‘praised wept and honoured’, it is LORD NELSON. His three great naval achievements have eclipsed the brilliancy of the most dazzling victories in the annals of English daring.
But Pitt died before the King and Country could honour Nelson’s last wish ‘when I am going to fight their Battle’ on behalf of Emma and Horatia. King and Country did not honour their obligation to two people who had depended on Nelson, and the course of their breach of faith with their hero is too painful to relate. People who feel the need to rate infidelity might care to dwell on this one.
Nelson’s prayer for Horatia was eventually answered. She married a clergyman, and she had many children who got on. She had a full and happy life. She died at the age of eighty-one. She had lived more than thirty years longer a life than that of either her mother or her father – she later discovered who her father was, but she was never to learn or accept who her mother was.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The transit of Emma Hamilton from gutter to gutter was a dreadful tragedy. We defiled Emma as a child and we defiled her as she aged and in her death. We just used her up and dropped her each time. We were obliged to Nelson and he sought our assurance that we would answer to that obligation for the woman he loved and his daughter when he was gone. So, when he was gone, and of no more use to us, and he could not bear witness to what we did, we built a great monument that made us feel good. And we forbade Emma from attending his funeral and we would not allow Horatia to know her mother. Whatever fidelity might mean, we did not show it to Nelson. Our breach of faith was complete.
You may wish to bear this in mind the next time you are in Trafalgar Square underneath Nelson’s Column mixing it with the tourists and their cameras and the pigeons with their shit. Grandeur usually comes at a price; but discomfort is one thing; dishonour is something else altogether. What a falling-off was there!
*Wellington said something about this that escaped the liberators of Iraq. ‘I always had a horror of revolutionising any country for a political object. I always said, if they rise of themselves, well and good, but do not stir them up; it is a fearful responsibility.’