The Nelsons were originally Nielsens, of East Anglian Viking stock; perhaps Horatio had ships in his blood. He was born September 29, 1758, in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, which neighbors the sea. His father was rector of the parish. His mother was related to Robert Walpole, prime minister. Her brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, was assigned in 1770 to H.M.S. Raisonnable in expectation of war with Spain. Horatio, aged twelve, begged and received permission to serve under him; thereafter the boy’s school was the sea.
He was not physically strong; he was often sick; but he was resolved to seize every opportunity for instruction, development, and honor. He served in various vessels on a variety of missions, repeatedly risking his life; was promoted step by step, and at twenty was made captain of the frigate Hinchinbrook. He was as vain as he was competent, and never doubted that he would someday reach the top in post and fame. He was as tardy in obeying his superiors as they were in rewarding his services; but he gave an arm, then an eye, then his life for Britain, and could be indulged in a pride as lofty as his monument.
Sensitive to every sight and touch, he readily surrendered to the beauty, grace, and tenderness of women. At Quebec in 1782, as captain of the Albemarle, he was on the verge of leaving his post at the cost of his career, to return to the city with an offer of marriage to a woman who had given him her warmth the night before; a resolute friend barred his way and called him back to his duty and destiny.12 In 1787, as captain of the cruiser Boreas, he dallied at Antigua, in the West Indies, and married Mrs. Frances Nisbet, a pretty young widow with a rich uncle. He brought her to England, set her up on a small but comfortable estate, and spent a happy interbellum with her in the country. When war with France became likely he was made captain (1793) of the Agamemnon—one of the most highly rated ships in the Navy—with instructions to join Lord Hood’s fleet in the Mediterranean, and incidentally take a note to Sir William Hamilton, British minister at the court of Naples. He delivered the message, and met Lady Hamilton.
Amy Lyon, born in 1761 to a Welsh blacksmith, had in youth earned her bread with her body, and had borne two illegitimate children by the time she was nineteen. In that year she settled down as the mistress of the Honorable Charles Greville, second son of the Earl of Warwick. He rechristened her Emma Hart, taught her the arts of ladyship—singing, dancing, harpsichord, entering a room gracefully, exchanging nougats of conversation, and pouring tea. When he had refashioned everything but her soul, he took her to George Romney, who painted thirty portraits of her. When Greville found a chance to marry an heiress, he had to find another berth for his fair lady, who had now learned to love him. Luckily his uncle Sir William Hamilton, a childless widower, was then in England. He was rich, a foster brother of George III, a fellow of the Royal Society, a distinguished collector of Herculanea and classic art. He found Emma to his liking, and agreed to take her off his nephew’s hands. After returning to Naples, he sent Emma an invitation to come to Naples with her mother and there complete her education in music. She accepted, on the understanding that Charles Greville would soon follow her. He did not come.
Sir William gave her and her mother four rooms in the British Legation. He comforted her with luxuries and tactful admiration; he arranged for her instruction in music and Italian; he paid her milliners without complaint. She wrote fond letters to Greville, begging him to come; he bade her “oblige Sir William”; his letters became rarer, shorter, and ceased. She became Sir William’s mistress, for she relished love only next to luxury. Otherwise she behaved modestly and discreetly, spread charity, became a favorite with the nuns, the King, and the Queen. She sat for her portrait to Raphael Mengs, Angelica Kauffmann, Mme. Vigée-Lebrun. Pleased with her, Sir William made her his wife (1791). When France declared war on England she became an active and passionate patriot, and labored to keep Naples in the coalition with England.
In the summer of 1794 Nelson was ordered to lay siege to Calvi, a seaport of Corsica, then held by the French. He captured the stronghold, but during the battle an enemy shot, striking near him, spattered sand into his right eye. The wound healed without disfigurement, but the eye was left permanently blind.
That victory meant little in the perspective of events, for their course in the next two years was strongly against England. Napoleon entered Italy, scattered the Sardinian and Austrian armies, and compelled the governments of Sardinia, Austria, and Naples to leave the First Coalition and accept terms of peace with France. In October, 1796, Spain, angered by British actions in the West Indies, declared war against England. With the Spanish fleet ready to join the French in the Mediterranean, that sea became unsafe for the British. On February 14, 1797, a British force of fifteen ships under Admiral Sir John Jervis, then commander of the Mediterranean fleet, came upon a Spanish armada of twenty-seven vessels some thirty miles out from Cape St. Vincent, the extreme southwest coast of Portugal. Nelson, commanding H.M.S. Captain, directed this and other vessels to attack the rear guard of the enemy flotilla, and himself led his men in boarding and capturing the San Josef and then the San Nicolas. The Spanish ships, poorly armed and poorly managed, with untrained men at the guns, surrendered, one after another, giving the English so complete a victory that Jervis was made Earl of St. Vincent, and Nelson was made a knight of the Bath. The British Navy was again master of the Mediterranean.
In July, 1797, Nelson—now a rear admiral—was sent to capture Santa Cruz, on one of the Canary Islands. The town had been strongly fortified by the Spanish as strategically vital for protection of their trade with the Americas. It offered an unexpectedly able resistance, helped by a rough surf that made the British landing boats almost unmanageable; some were smashed on rocks, some were disabled by Spanish guns; the attack failed. Nelson himself was shot in the right elbow; the arm was incompetently amputated, and Nelson was sent home to recuperate under the care of his wife.
He fretted at the thought that the Admiralty would list him—with only one arm and one eye—as permanently disabled. He begged for a new commission. In April, 1798, he was assigned as rear admiral to H.M.S. Vanguard, with orders to join Lord St. Vincent’s fleet near Gibraltar. On May 2 he was given command of three ships of the line and five frigates, with instructions to watch outside Toulon, where Napoleon was preparing a mysterious expedition under the shelter of the harbor’s forts. On May 20 Nelson’s squadron was so badly damaged by a storm that it had to retire to Gibraltar for repairs. When the ships returned to their watch Nelson learned that the French flotilla, under cover of darkness, had left Toulon and sailed east, destination unknown. He set sail in pursuit, spent much time following false clues, ran out of supplies, and put in at Palermo to provision and recondition his fleet. This was allowed him through the intercession of Lady Hamilton with the Neapolitan government, which, being then at peace with France, had hesitated to allow this violation of its neutrality.
His ships again in good order, Nelson led them back to the search for Napoleon’s fleet. He found it at last at Abukir, near Alexandria. Now again he risked everything. On the night of July 31, 1798, he bade his officers put all their ships in readiness for battle at dawn. “By this time tomorrow,” he said, “I shall have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey”—a hero’s tomb.13 In the battle he exposed himself as usual. A fragment of shot struck him in the forehead; he was taken below deck in expectation of death, but the wound proved superficial, and soon Nelson, head bandaged, was back on deck, and remained there till the British victory was complete.
With the dangerous “Little Corporal” apparently bottled up, Pitt was able to form a Second Coalition with Russia, Turkey, Austria, Portugal, and Naples. The Neapolitan Queen Maria Carolina, sister of the guillotined Marie Antoinette, happy to see her chaotic kingdom once more engaged on the side of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Catholic Church, joined with her lackadaisical King Ferdinand IV in preparing a royal welcome for Nelson’s victorious but damaged fleet, which anchored in Naples’ harbor on September 22, 1798. Lady Hamilton, seeing the wounded admiral, rushed forward to greet him, and fainted in his arms.14 She and her husband took him into their legation, the Palazzo Sassa, and did everything for his comfort. Emma made no effort to conceal her infatuation, and the famished hero warmed to her under her smiles and care. He was forty, she was thirty-seven; she was no longer ravishing, but she was near and fed the Briton with the adulation which had become to him, next to battle, the wine of life. Sir William, now fifty-eight, running short of funds and absorbed in art and politics, accepted the situation philosophically, and may have felt relieved. By the spring of 1799 Nelson was paying a large part of Emma’s expenses. The British Admiralty, after voting him the highest honors and substantial sums, and allowing him due rest, bade him go to the aid of other admirals; he excused himself on the ground that it was more important for him to stay and protect Naples from the spreading revolution.
Late in 1799 Hamilton was replaced by Arthur Paget as British minister at Naples. On April 24, 1800, Sir William and Emma left Naples for Leghorn, where they were joined by Nelson; thence they traveled overland to the Channel, and across the Channel to England. All London feted him, but public opinion condemned his continued attachment to another man’s wife. Mrs. Nelson came to reclaim her husband, and demanded that he divest himself of Emma; when he refused, she left him. On January 30, 1801, Emma, at Sir William’s estate, gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Horatia Nelson Thompson, presumably a product of “the Nelson touch.” In that month Nelson, who had meanwhile become a vice-admiral, set out on his next assignment—to capture or destroy the Danish fleet; we shall see him there. On his return, and during the Peace of Amiens, he lived on his estate at Merton in Surrey, with the Hamiltons as his guests. On April 6, 1803, Sir William died, in his wife’s arms and holding Nelson’s hand. Thereafter, with an inheritance of eight hundred pounds a year, she lived with Nelson at Merton till he was called to his greatest victory and his death.