15th January 1815 was the day on which Emma, Lady Hamilton, died in Calais at the age of 50. Hers had been an unfortunate life as a professional mistress, being passed from one aristocratic “owner” to another, and she would have been unknown to history had it not been that one of her partners was Horatio, Lord Nelson, the hero and chief victim of the Battle of Trafalgar.
She started life in 1765 as Emma Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith. She used her undoubted beauty from an early age and had already borne a child to Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh by the age of 16. She then became the mistress of Charles Greville who subsequently passed her on to his uncle, 62-year-old Sir William Hamilton. She was 21 years old at the time.
The couple married after five years of cohabitation, but Emma had not finished “playing the field”. She was in her thirties when Horatio Nelson came along, and her famed beauty was being compromised as she grew considerably fatter. The Hamiltons and Nelson lived under the same roof for a time, and Emma bore Nelson a daughter.
Sir William died in 1803, but Emma could not marry Nelson because the latter was already married. On Nelson’s death in 1805, Emma was left penniless but petitioned for a government pension on behalf of her daughter, who was Nelson’s only living child.
Emma continued to live above her means but the money gradually ran out and she was eventually forced to live in lodgings in Calais where she spent what money she had on wine. She therefore drank herself to death in poverty, having used her physical attractiveness and lack of morals to rise to the top but having nothing left when her beauty and her lovers left the scene.
© John Welford