Frances Nelson the Wife of Horatio Nelson

Frances “Fanny” Herbert Woolward was born on the small prosperous Caribbean island of Nevis that functioned under a slave economy on its sugar estates. Her parents were members of the colonial elite: Her mother, Mary Herbert, died while she was a child, and, her father, William Woolward, died of tetanus in February 1779.

Fanny Nelson. Author’s collection.

Soon after his death, she married a doctor, 31-year-old Josiah Nisbet on 28 June 1779. Despite Nisbet having political connections on the island, they moved to England, and, soon after, he died “deranged” on 5 October 1781. He left nothing to provide for her or their 17-month-old child, a boy named Josiah after his father. Fortunately, Fanny had friends from Nevis in England and according to twenty-first century historian John Sugden:

“[F]or a while Fanny appears to have acted as a guardian to three offspring of the Nevis planter John Pinney. Indeed, when John Pinney returned to England in 1783 and Fanny presented his children to him he did not recognize them. ‘Good God! Don you know them? Exclaimed Fanny. ‘They are your children!’ Pinney’s wife was so surprised she set her headdress alight on a nearby candle.”[1]

As Fanny was dependent on her uncle, John Richardson Herbert, she soon returned to Nevis and lived with him at his house Montpelier. Before Fanny met British naval officer Horatio Nelson, her friend did. She then wrote to Fanny about the young commander of the frigate Boreas, who was the same age as Fanny:

“We have last seen the captain of the Boreas, of whom so much has been said. … It was impossible, during this visit, for any of us to make out his real character; there was such a reserve and sternness in his behaviour, with occasional sallies, though very transient, of a superior mind. Being placed by him, I endeavoured to rouse his attention by showing him all the civilities in my power, but I drew out little more than ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ If you, Fanny, had been here, we think you would have made something of him, for you have been in the habit of attending to these odd sort of people.”[2]

Sometime after the friend’s letter, 27-year-old Fanny became acquainted with the Nelson. It likely happened through her uncle, a prominent politician at the time and President of the Council of Nevis. Nelson met a pretty, young widow. She was also talented in numerous ways because she was a watercolorist, embroiderer, and fluent French speaker. When Fanny and Nelson met, they found they had many other things in common and viewed each other as a good mate.

Even if Fanny hand’t been pretty, talented, or intelligent many men would have been attracted to her because she was also in line to inherit a substantial portion of her uncle’s estate. Thus, with all her advantages, it probably came as no surprise when by the end of June 1785, Nelson had decided to marry her. Several months later he and wrote his uncle a letter dated 14 November 1785 stating:

“My present attachment is of pretty long standing; but I was determined to be fixed before I broke the matter to any person. The lady is Mrs. Nisbet, widow of Dr. Nisbet, who died eighteen months after her marriage, and has left her with a son. From her infancy … she has been brought up by her mother’s brother … a gentleman whose fortune and character must be well known to all the West India merchants … Her age is twenty-two; and her personal accomplishments you will suppose I think equal to those of any person I ever saw; but, without vanity, her mental accomplishments are superior to those of most people of either sex: and we shall come together as two persons most sincerely attached to each other from friendship.”[3]

During their courtship, Nelson, who had been named Horatio after his godparent Horatio Walpole (the 1st Earl of Orford), made numerous visits to the island. He also wrote Fanny several love letters. Among them was the following one dated 1 January 1787:

“What is it to attend on princes? Let me attend on you, and I am satisfied. Some are born for attendants on great men. I rather think it is not my particular province. His Royal Highness often tells me, he believes I am married, for he never saw a lover so easy, or say so little of the object he has regard for. When I tell him I certainly am not he says, ‘Then he is sure I must have a great esteem for you, and that is not what (vulgarly), I do not like the use of that word, called loved.’ He is right: my love is founded on esteem, the only foundation that can make passion last. I need not tell you, what you so well know, that I wish I had a fortune to settle on you; but I trust I have a good name, and that certain events will bring the other thing about: it is my misfortune, not my fault; therefore I ought to make you a good husband, and I hope that it will turn out that I shall. You are never absent from my mind in any place or company. I never wished for riches, but to give them to you; and my small share shall be yours to the extreme. A Happy New Year, and that many of them may attend you, is the most fervent wish of your affectionate, ‘H.N.’”[4]

They wed at St. Kitts on Sunday 11 March 1787. Fanny loved Nelson and she found him to be a wonderful husband and father. Ten years after their wedding, she wrote to him on 11 March 1797, stating:

“Tomorrow … is our wedding-day, when it gave me a dear husband and my child the best of fathers.”[5]

Nelson also seemed happy with his decision to marry and drew up a new will making Fanny his sole beneficiary. He also wrote a short note to his friend William Locker, an officer in the Royal Navy who had taken command of HMS Lowestoffe and sailed her to the West Indies in 1777. At the time 19-year-old Nelson was one of his newly promoted lieutenants and he served with Locker for the next fifteen months. In Nelson’s letter dated 21 March 1787, he mentioned his new wife stating:

“I am married to an amiable woman, that far make amends for everything: indeed till I married her I never knew happiness. And I am morally certain she will continue to make me a happy man for the rest of my days. I shall have the great pleasure in introducing you to her.”[6]

Plaque in honor of the Montpelier House and Fanny and Nelson’s Marriage. Author’s collection.

July of that year was also the month that Nelson returned to England with Fanny following later. After her arrival, husband and wife first visited Nelson’s relatives in Norfolk before meeting his father, the Reverend Edmund Nelson. The Reverend had been living a quiet life and earning a modest income as a parson. However, his health was not necessarily robust:

“[He] had long been an invalid, suffering under paralytic and asthmatic affections, which for several hours after he rose in the morning, scarcely permitted him to speak. He had been given over by his physicians for this complaint nearly forty years before his death; and was, for many of his last years, obliged to send all his winters at Bath.”[7]  

The Reverend’s wife had died in 1767 and he had been left to raise eight children. He had done his best and was now was happy to live in seclusion with an occasional chat with a parishioner or letters from his family. So, when news came that Nelson was returning with a new wife, the Reverend was none too happy and wrote to his daughter:

“I am not now anxious to see them. … Him for a day or two I should be glad of, but to introduce a stranger to an infirm and whimsical old man, who can neither eat nor drink, nor talk, nor see, is as well let alone.”[8]

Fortunately, the meeting went much smoother than planned and soon the Reverend was good friends with his new daughter-in-law. To give the young couple some privacy, the Reverend moved out of the parsonage in late 1790. Having established their own home, Sugden wrote of this time:

“Nelson took up his abode at the parsonage, and amused himself with sports and occupations of the country. Sometimes he busied himself with farming the glebe; sometimes spent the greater part of the day in the garden, where he would dig as if for the mere pleasure of wearying himself. Sometimes he went a bird’s nesting, like a boy: and in these expeditions [Fanny] … always, by his express desire, accompanied him. Coursing was his favorite amusement. Shooting, as he practised it, was far too dangerous for his companions, for he carried his gun upon the full cock, as if he were going to board an enemy; and the moment a bird rose, he left fly, without every putting the fowling-piece to his shoulder. It is not, therefore, extraordinary, that his having once shot a partridge should be remembered by his family among the remarkable events of his life.”[9]

Although the couple were happy, Nelson was frustrated that he and Fanny could not conceive a child. He was also unhappy that he could not obtain employment in the navy, but the outbreak of war with the French in 1793 would change that because he would gain command of his own ship. It was the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon, and to help him with his new command he took his now 13-year-old stepson Josiah on board as a midshipman.

During Nelson’s absence, Fanny handled the finances and took care for her aging father-in-law. She also became closer and closer with him the longer her husband and son were out to sea, and, in addition, she began to take winters trips with him to Somerset. During these long periods of absence, Fanny’s only connection to Nelson was through letters, and, although she was exceedingly proud of his accomplishments, she was also fearful of his exploits and what might happen, particularly after he suffered an injury and lost most of his sight in his right eye during an engagement near Corsica in 1794. Still that did not stop Nelson, and, in fact, one of his next engagements made him famous.

It happened at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in February of 1797 when he found himself towards the rear of the British line and realized that it would be a long time before he would be able to bring his ship into action. He then disobeyed orders and wore ship, breaking from the line and engaging the Spanish van of three ships – the San Nicolas, the San Josef, and the Santísima Trinidad. With the aid of the HMS Culloden, he forced the San Nicolas to surrender and when the San Josef attempted to help, he captured it too. Of the four ships that surrendered to the British that day, two of them belonged to Nelson.

Disobeying orders at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent had been a daring move on Nelson’s part, and Fanny begged him to not to repeat such a reckless act, but he didn’t listen. In fact, he embraced further expeditions, including a fearless charge where he lost most of his right arm. It happened at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, an amphibious assault that got underway on 22 July of 1797.

After his injury, he returned home a sick, broken man with a stump. Still the thought of the sea would not leave him. When he began to heal in early December the resolve that he had taken never to return to the sea began to dissipate. Thus, in 1798, when he was given command of the 74-gun HMS Vanguard he happily took it. When he headed off to sea, Fanny went back to her domestic life, handling the bills and caring for the Reverend.

From 1 to 3 August 1798 Nelson found himself involved in the Battle of the Nile, an engagement that took place on the Mediterranean coast off the Nile Delta of Egypt. His victory would serve as a major blow to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions in the east, and, furthermore, the victory would come to be regarded by some historians as being more significant than what was to later happen at Trafalgar.

When dispatches reached London of his success at the Battle of the Nile, no one was more beloved than Nelson. Jubilant celebrations swept the countryside, balls and feasts were held, and everywhere church bells tolled in his honor. Newspapers also published reports about his deeds with one paper describing him in the following manner:

“[He] is middle height; thin, and somewhat inelegantly formed. He is a man of few words, and plain manners; but possesses great sincerity, and a found understanding. He is evidently a man of genius; since no one, but a master in the profession could have discovered the only point in which the French line was vulnerable, and have availed himself of it so dexterously. … In every point of view, we are warranted in concluding, that Lord Nelson has rendered a most important service to humanity by his late decisive and splendid victory.”[10]

After his win, Nelson sailed to Naples where he was cheered and lauded. Huge victory celebrations were also held, and the King of Naples, accompanied by 67-year-old William Hamilton and his wife, 33-year-old Emma, greeted him. Nelson had previously met the Hamiltons in September of 1793 when he was a 35-year-old post captain. William was a distinguished older man and an expert vulcanologist and fine art collector. He had originally planned to take Emma as mistress, but the two fell in love and he married her on 6 September 1791.

Those who knew Emma described her as likeable, good-humored, and kind, but most people were shocked when they first met her and heard her loud, coarse voice. Emma had also been a mistress to other men and had given birth to a daughter (Emma Carew) by Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh,* but the child was fostered out immediately and even after Emma married William, her daughter never lived with them.

Emma Hamilton in a portrait by George Romney, depicting Emma at the height of her beauty. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The second time Emma and Nelson met, she was considered voluptuous, perhaps even plump, but she was still a great beauty. She greatly admired him, and he was soon smitten by her. When his fortieth birthday arrived on 29 September 1798, she invited 1800 guests to a birthday bash for him, and it did not take long for officers to notice Nelson’s marked attention towards her.

After the birthday celebration, Emma and Nelson became even closer. She became his secretary, translator, and political facilitator, and soon it was reported they were madly in love. Some people believe that her husband may have even encouraged the relationship partly because his health was failing. Of Emma and Nelson’s relationship, William once noted:

“I have no complaint to make, but I feel that the whole attention of my wife is given to Lord Nelson … I well know the purity of Lord Nelson’s friendship for Emma and me. And I know how very uncomfortable it wou’d take his Lordship, our best Friend, if a separation shou’d take place, and am therefore determined to do all in my power to prevent such an extremity, which wou’d be more sensibly felt by our dear Friend than by us … I am fully determined not to have more of the silly altercations, that happen too often between us, and embitter the present moments exceedingly. If really we cannot live comfortably together, a wise and well-concerted separation is preferable; but I think, considering the probability of my not troubling any party long in this world, the best for all wou’d be to bear those ills we have rather than fly to those we know not of.”[11]

In the meantime, Fanny had to read her husband’s effusive letters full of praise for the Hamiltons, and before long she would understand why. Around April of 1800, about the time that Emma got pregnant by Nelson, he was recalled to Britain, and when he landed there on 6 November 1800, the Hamiltons were with him. Fanny came with her father-in-law to meet them and found that they had all taken suites at Nerot’s Hotel, including her husband.

Horatio Nelson as Vice Admiral by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1799. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fanny would soon learn that Emma was pregnant and when she did, she realized that Nelson and Emma were having an affair. Their affair became even more scandalous when it became public knowledge and gossipers began reporting on it. Around Christmas time, everything came to a head for Fanny. Nelson had grown cold and distant towards his wife, and Fanny was not willing to take Nelson’s affair with Emma placidly like William. She therefore issued Nelson an ultimatum telling him to choose between her or his mistress. He replied:

“Take care, Fanny what you say. I love you sincerely but I cannot forget my obligations to Lady Hamilton or speak of her otherwise than with affection and admiration.”[12]

On 1 January 1801, Nelson’s promotion to Vice Admiral was confirmed, and he prepared to go to sea that same evening. He had also thought about Fanny’s ultimatum and the more he thought about it the more furious he became. He therefore decided to formalize his separation from Fanny and chose his mistress over his wife. It was scandalous as he was the first high-profile man to do such a thing.

After Nelson’s departure, Emma gave birth to their daughter on 29 January 1801. Nelson had been worried about his reputation and Emma had worked hard since her arrival to vilify Fanny and keep the press on her side by presenting herself as respectable, but when she named the child Horatia, it became obvious, the baby was Nelson’s. Nelson’s family was aware of Horatia, and Nelson’s brother supposedly wrote to Emma praising her virtues.

By now, Emma had given up being polite to Fanny. She was referring to her and her son in the most unflattering terms. She called Fanny “Tom Tit” and her son “the cub” or “squinting brat.” Apparently, the “Tom-Tit” reference occurred because Fanny suffered from rheumatism in her legs and supposedly walked like a bird.

Genealogical and relationship chart for Fanny Nelson, Horatio Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Author’s collection.

It also did not help Fanny’s case that the Prince of Wales (later George IV) became infatuated with Emma or that Nelson refused to see his wife when he returned. Instead, he went to see Emma and met his new daughter. A heartbroken Fanny wrote letters to her husband begging him to end his relationship with Emma and return home, but instead Nelson returned her letters, mostly unopened with one cruelly stating, “Opened by mistake by Lord Nelson but not read.”[13]

He, William, and Emma then began to live together openly in what seemed to be an obvious ménage à trois. In the meantime, Fanny’s father-in-law continued to support her, and, in fact, at one point, he rebuked his son for heartlessly abandoning his wife and committing adultery. Fanny also began to spend much of her time with her father-in-law at Bath. Of this relationship Emma bitterly complained that Nelson’s father had been duped:

“His poor father is unknowing and taken in by a very wicked, bad, artful woman, acting a bad part by so glorious a son.”[14]

The Reverend’s health began to decline in early 1802 and he died on 26 April. Fanny was at his bedside when it happened, but Nelson remained with Emma at his newly purchased Merton Place. It was a small Queen Anne style house near Wimbledon that had fallen into disrepair. After Nelson bought it, he refurbished and expanded it while Emma got busy decorating it as a tribute to him in what some people described as a “gaudy” style. Nelson also did not attend his father’s May funeral, although he did pay the funeral expenses.

A year later, William died in April. He left Emma an annuity of £800, and to be closer to Nelson as it would be too scandalous to live with him, she bought a residence nearby Merton Place. Soon after, Nelson left for the Napoleonic Wars, but unbeknownst to either he or Emma, she was pregnant at the time. Emma gave birth while he was away to another girl reportedly named Emma, but the baby died about six weeks later in early 1804. All alone, Emma was depressed and to comfort herself she gambled, drank heavily, ate continuously, and spent lavishly.

The last time Emma saw Nelson was after he returned for three-week visit in August 1805. On 21 October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar, he was hit by a marksman from the Redoutable. The bullet entered his left shoulder, passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and lodged two inches below his right shoulder blade in the back. He was carried below deck and was taken to the surgeon William Beatty, whom he told:

“You can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live. My back is shot through.”[15]

When Emma learned of Nelson’s death, she was devastated. As his mistress, she was also not allowed to attend his funeral. Furthermore, she now had no “protectors” and the looks she had always counted on were fading. The annual incomes left her by William (£800) and Nelson (£500) upon their deaths would also not be enough for her to maintain Nelson’s beloved Merton Place, which she had inherited from him. Everything else had been left to his brother.

Supposedly, however, Nelson had asked that Emma receive compensation from the government, but no such compensation was ever paid. Allegedly the Prince of Wales learned that Nelson had ridiculed him and so she received nothing. Emma was also a spendthrift and soon began a descent into penury. This resulted in her being arrested for debts and imprisoned at the King’s Bench in London in 1813. When she was released a year later, she fled to Calais with her 13-year-old daughter Horatia. She died there in 1815 and was buried in the churchyard of St. Pierre’s in Calais.

As to Fanny, she remained faithful to Nelson’s memory. She was thus rewarded for her faithfulness with a generous government pension and polite society grieved with her, accepted her, and rejected Emma. After Nelson’s death, Fanny fell ill for time, recovered, and then suffered ongoing health problems intermittently thereafter. She eventually moved to Paris and lived with her son Josiah before eventually returning to England and settling at Exmouth.

Fanny Nelson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In May of 1831 newspapers noted that a little more than a week before Fanny’s death, there was the death of the wife of another great British warrior. The Duke of Wellington’s wife died on 24 April and Fanny passed away about a week later on 4 May. Fanny died at her home on Harley Street and was interred in the family vault in the churchyard of St Margaret and St Andrew, Littleham-cum-Exmouth, Devon.


*Carew would see her mother reasonably frequently as child, but by the time her mother fell into debt, Carew was working abroad.

References:

  • [1] J. Sugden, Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758-1797 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), 310
  • [2] G. L. Browne, Nelson: The Public and Private Life of Horatio, Viscount Nelson (London: T. F. Unwin, 1891), 44
  • [3] F. Chamier, Ben Brace, the Last of Nelson’s Agamemnons (London: R. Bentley, 1850), 63–64
  • [4] G. L. Browne, 47
  • [5] G. L. Browne, 49
  • [6] N. H. Nicolas, ed., The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson with Notes by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, G.C.M.G. (London: Henry Colburn, 1844), 219–20
  • [7] R. Southey, The Life of Admiral Horatio Nelson (New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1902), 53
  • [8] J. Sugden, 379
  • [9] R. Southey, 53–54
  • [10] Chester Chronicle, “Lord Nelson,” April 19, 1799, 2
  • [11] The Academy and Literature v. 31-32 (London, 1887), 279
  • [12] H. Gamlin, Nelson’s Friendships (London: Hutchinson & Company, 1899), 197–98
  • [13] Literature v. 2 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1898), 483
  • [14] J. Russell, Nelson and the Hamiltons (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 281
  • [15] The Annual Register or a View of the History, Politics, and Aliterature for the Year 1807 v. 49 (London, 1809), 808

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