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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

England's Mistress

This year sees the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Lady Hamilton, mistress of England's greatest naval hero, Lord Nelson.


I've often found that the lives of women who are primarily famous because of the men they are associated with are fascinating in their own right, and Emma's is no exception. Her extraordinary beauty, that so captivated George Romney and the many others who painted portraits of her, combined with her link with Nelson, may make up the sum total of what she is remembered for today, but a little research reveals that there is so much more to tell.


In fact, Emma Hamilton was one of the most famous women of her day long before she met Nelson and their coming together was a meeting of two celebrities who not only adored, but also admired each other in equal measure.


Emma's real name was Amy Lyon and she was born in 1765 at a place called Ness in Cheshire, England. Until the opening of a coal mine nearby, Ness had been a small, squalidly poor, fishing village where families eked out a harsh living from the sea. The mine changed all that and workers poured in from as far afield as Ireland, overwhelming the existing huddle of meagre cottages and turning Ness into a kind of mini Wild West town.

Emma's mother, Mary, had come to Ness from another village to help a relation with her new baby. She was pretty and vivacious and caught the eye of a local blacksmith, Henry Lyon. The marriage however seems to have been an unhappy one. Domestic drudgery and a husband who may well have proved violent made Mary's life wretched. Following Henry's death in suspicious circumstances, she took Emma and fled to London.


There, by the age of fifteen, Emma had graduated from working as a servant to performing at Drury Lane Theatre. She became the mistress of a baronet (who persuaded her to change her name) and when their affair ended, the mistress of the second son of the Earl of Warwick, Charles Greville.

When Greville saw his chance to marry an heiress, Emma became an embarrassment. He quickly persuaded his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British envoy to Naples, to take her off his hands. Under the pretence she was being sent for a holiday, Emma was dispatched to Naples. When she discovered it was a trick, she was furious but she soon made the best of the situation. Sir William, who loved to play host to the cream of Naples' society,  adored her. Blessed with charm and a shrewd intelligence as well as beauty, she was the perfect hostess, even becoming a confidant of the Neapolitan queen.


Eventually, she and Sir William married, but a few years later, Nelson sailed into the harbour. The rest, as they say, is history....

Harriet Steel's biographical novel about another remarkable woman, Lola Montez, is available on Amazon. In her day, Lola was the second most famous woman in the world after Queen Victoria and the novel has been highly praised. Amazon universal link -

'Wonderful exciting read, I couldn't put it down.' 5*
'A mesmerising read.' 5*
'Wonderful read and wonderful writing.' 5*
'Great book about a controversial character.' 5*

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