By Cheryl Bolen
Every Regency history buff knows about Lord Horatio
Nelson's love for Emma Hamilton, and many of us have felt sympathy for
poor Sir William Hamilton, the most openly cuckolded man in England. But
few have spared a thought for Nelson's pathetic wife, the former Frances
Nelson met Fanny when he was 26 and in commanded of
the Boreas while it spent time in the West Indies. Just a few
months older than Nelson, Fanny had been widowed three years previously
when her son, Josiah, was only two years old. Upon her husband's death,
she returned to the Indies to live with her uncle, a planter who was the
largest land owner on the island of Nevis.
Nelson was good with the lad, and a romance with
the mother blossomed. On the outside, the plane, slender woman appeared
the perfect wife for a man who had grown up in a country parsonage with
a curate father, like the senior Nelson, who sired five sons and three
daughters. Fanny certainly was the complete antithesis to Emma Hamilton,
a former courtesan.
The romance between Nelson and Fanny began, on his
part certainly, as somewhat of a love match. Prince William of the Royal
Navy would write, "Poor Nelson is head over ears in love." When Nelson
and Fanny had to be apart, he wrote affectionately to her with phrases
like this: "At first I bore absence tolerably, but now it is almost
insupportable." Not exactly bursting with the passion that would later
scorch the pages of his letters to Emma, but affectionate nevertheless.
They married on March 22, 1787, and set sail for
England. Five peaceful years at his father's parsonage (which Edmund
Nelson turned over to the newlyweds) followed before he was called back
to active duty after the French Revolution. One wonders if the marriage
may have been different had Fanny been able to conceive her husband's
Horatio and Fanny Nelson would be apart a great
deal over the next six years – and indeed the remainder of their
marriage – though all that he was and all that he felt (mostly about his
career) he would impart to his wife in letters – even after he lost his
Then in the summer of 1798 their lives would
dramatically change when he demonstrated his superiority in naval battle
strategy and gained fame across Europe as the Hero of the Battle of the
Nile. Not only did he earn a peerage, but during his subsequent posting
in Naples (while Fanny was glorying in the accompanying fame back in
England) the beautiful wife of the elderly English ambassador at Naples
threw herself at Nelson's feet – or, more appropriately, in his bed.
Nelson and his "Beloved Emma" would remain
passionately in love until a musket ball killed him at Trafalgar in
While Lord Nelson never had any compunction about
later shunning his own wife at every turn, strangely, he never wished to
estrange Sir William; therefore, Nelson, Lady Hamilton, and her husband
would thereafter live together in a bizarre triangle – even while Emma
attempted to conceal her pregnancy with Nelson's child (whom he later
adopted – and adored).
Nelson did not return to England until a year and
half after the Battle of the Nile, and he would return accompanied by
the Hamiltons. He would tolerate Fanny's company only for a few weeks
before he formerly separated from her. For her part, Fanny had attempted
in every way to do all that was pleasing to her hero husband.
Though Nelson's last thoughts and last concerns
were about Emma, Fanny came out the winner. Of sorts. Emma was denied
the pension Nelson begged that she receive and died in poverty. Fanny
would forever be Lady Nelson and receive a generous pension from a
grateful nation. Sadly, both women died heartbroken.