Tracing Emma’s Footsteps

 The Unknown Emma, Lady Hamilton: 

Her friendship with Queen Maria Carolina

By Alex Grover, Cataloguer at the Royal Museums Greenwich

Transcript of talk delivered at Queen’s House, Greenwich on 7th March 2018

Photo courtesy of National Maritime Museum

I wanted to start this talk with a quote from the BBC comedy series Blackadder the Third, because for most people of my generation to learn about history from this period is to watch Blackadder. The scene in question is that Blackadder is trying to get Amy Hardwood to agree to marry Prince George mainly to get an inflow of cash into the Royal Treasury. Blackadder has just made a comment to the father of Amy Hardwood saying he can see where Amy gets her business acumen from but her good looks and charm are somewhat of a mystery. Amy’s father retorts “No one ever made money on good looks and charm”, to which Blackadder deftly replies “You obviously haven’t met Lady Hamilton sir”. Aside from personally being my very first introduction to Emma Hamilton, I included this quote because I feel that it captures quite well what most people are likely to know about her. My feeling is that whilst her beauty, captured by many artists of the period, most notably George Romney, certainly contributed to her rise in high society, and her relationship with Nelson eventually led to her tragic fall, I feel it is misleading to categorize her simply in those terms. The purpose of this talk is to show Emma from a less known perspective: that of Emma as a friend, specifically of Queen Maria Carolina of the Kingdom of Naples. Emma’s life is defined by the relationships she had with men in her life specifically Nelson whilst her emotional connections with women are overlooked. Through my own research and after reading their personal letters, (Some of which are held at the Caird library here and others in the Egerton and Morrison collections at the British Library) you get an insight into a woman who was ruled by her emotions, but also someone who was loyal, politically savvy and affectionate. Just to set the scene, I think it’s important to have a brief biography of Emma, Lady Hamilton.

Emma was born as Amy Lyon on 26th April 1765 into poverty in the town of Ness, Cheshire. She spent her early childhood living in the town of Hawarden until deciding to move to London to seek better opportunities. Spending her time as a maid in a doctor’s house and as part of a theatrical family she got a taste for acting that would serve her well later in life. She was then left her theatre job and there is some fragmentary evidence to suggest that she spent some time as a courtesan in London as well as a model for the Temple of Health, a holistic health centre providing an assortment of remedies to rejuvenate the body. Emma then spent some time as the mistress of Sir Harry Fetherstonaugh, a wealthy aristocrat from Uppark in Sussex. Sir Harry, soon tired of her and after learning that she was pregnant, most likely with his child, essentially left her destitute. Another aristocrat by the name of Sir Charles Greville, second son of the Earl of Warwick, took her and her child under his ‘protection’. He sent Emma to be painted by George Romney, a relationship that would ultimately make her the most painted woman in Europe, more so than Queen Victoria and any other actress or aristocrat. Greville, however, wanted a wealthy aristocratic wife. Early on, he had sent Emma’s daughter to live with a wealthy family in Manchester. He then essentially sent Emma to be the mistress of Sir William Hamilton, Greville’s recently widowed uncle and British envoy to the Kingdom of Naples in 1786. Emma did not know that this was a permanent move until situated in Naples for a few months, as she thought Greville would be joining them. But after it became clear this was not the case, and pouring out her heart in an angry stream of letters to him, she became determined to better herself and adapt to her new life in Naples, something that Sir William greatly encouraged. She soon became fluent in French and Italian, classical history and became an accomplished singer and dancer, which would be crucial in her forming the foundation of her ‘Attitudes’, a series of choreographed performances where Emma combined classical poses of historical figures such as Medea from Old master paintings with modern allure, and which were to be make her famous throughout Europe.

Emma’s time in Naples had attracted the attention of virtually all of its aristocracy, but none more so than the Queen Maria Carolina, older sister of the French Queen Marie Antoinette, both from the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. Historians have argued that it was Maria Carolina, rather than her husband King Ferdinand I, who was the true leader of the Kingdom of Naples. Napoleon himself, who would mock all the monarchs of Europe as being useless puppets, always made an exception for Maria Carolina praising her appetite for work and her intelligence. Emma first appeared on the Queen’s radar as it were for successfully refusing the advances of her promiscuous husband, King Ferdinand I. The Queen usually had all the King’s lovers banished from the Kingdom. She didn’t dislike them personally; it was more that she didn’t want any woman dominating the King more than her and by extension the Kingdom. This act put Emma into the Queen’s good graces; King Ferdinand usually left his spouse alone to go hunting and so she relied on female confidantes. Emma was a prime candidate for many reasons including being adaptable, up to speed on the latest fashions, but also someone who was both warm and emotional. By the beginning of the 1790s, the Queen was worried deeply about her sister Marie Antoinette due to the political situation in France, where there had been complete social upheaval with the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of a republic along with exceptionally violent periods of political disturbances. After Emma’s marriage to Sir William in 1791, Emma visited Marie Antoinette in France and was able to smuggle back the French Queen’s words to Maria Carolina. This would certainly raise her political, but also her personal standing with the Queen of Naples. In fact, it is said that on Emma’s return to Naples, Maria Carolina received her privately to discuss her sister. Emma became so overcome that she burst into tears, which deeply touched the Queen. Despite Maria Carolina lobbying intensely for Europe to intervene in France, most European powers would be defeated in battle and Marie Antionette, along with her husband King Louis XVI would be put on trial and then executed by the French Republic in 1793. Emma writes, on being presented to the Queen that “she has shown me all sort of kind and affectionate attentions”, the kind that she would never find in England with Queen Charlotte not allowing her to be received at court after her marriage to Sir William. Part of this was due to Emma’s birth into poverty which made her lower class, but it was also due to Emma’s own past as a mistress. Emma’s popularity in Naples, was in part based on her anonymity and the reduced relevance of her earlier ‘indiscretions’ to the local notables.  

Now there is a very credible argument that Maria Carolina accepted Emma at court to simply use her as a political pawn for her own machinations, but also as an Austrian herself, to further and protect Habsburg interests in Europe to rival France. Moreover, Sir William may have been using Emma for her unbridled access to the Queen in order to increase British influence in the Kingdom over other countries. As the years went on she did become an important political ally, especially with forming alliances with Britain and later down the line with a certain Naval officer. I mean the Queen was no fool, she was an adept political strategist (certainly more so than her husband) and took her opportunities where she saw them, especially when she saw how far Emma had come since arriving in Naples from her lowly origins in England. I think that is true to a certain extent that both parties were using each other, but I also feel that their friendship was authentic. I think that Maria Carolina was genuinely intrigued by Emma. Kate Williams argues that since the Queen was constantly surrounded with jaded aristocrats and cynical courtiers, she took pleasure that Emma was genuinely excited to be at the Neapolitan Court. By 1792, she had become the Queen’s favourite. It should be said that Emma was not the first or last close friend that the Queen had, but she is significant for two reasons: one for having such a long tenure as the Queen’s favourite, the other was Emma’s birth was of the people and not from the court. In their correspondence with each other, the Queen actually began signing her letters to Emma ‘Charlotte’, which she would only do with members of her family and her closest friends. 

On Emma’s acceptance into court she became Maria Carolina’s closest courtier. You can see the same kind of devotion to the Queen that Emma would show to Sir William. She was at Court with the Queen day after day from 1793-1798, willing to be at the Queen’s beck and call and attentive to all her concerns. They read together talked in French and exchanged mementoes with each other. Alongside appearing every day at court Emma and Sir William were both invited to every royal occasion from then on. Although they were both intimate in private Emma was prudent to keep her distance from the Queen as French spies were continuously reporting back to the French on the status of the Kingdom. France was at war with England at the time and the closeness of Emma and the Queen could potentially tell its own story about British influence to those who were watching. Emma would always be there to defend Maria Carolina as well. In a letter to Greville at a time when rumours were spreading about the Queen, including one of her and Emma having a lesbian relationship, Emma wrote: “She is everything one can wish, the best wife, mother and friend in the world. I live constantly with her and have doen intimately for two years and I never have in all that time seen nothing but goodness and sincerity in her. If you ever hear any lies about her, contradict them and if you should ever see a cursed book written by a vile French dog with her character in it, don’t believe one word. If I was her daughter she could not be kinder to me & I love her with all my soul.” 

 As Emma became adept at providing for her, Maria Carolina would do the same. When Emma or Sir William were in danger when Vesuvius was erupting in 1794, The Queen invited them to stay at the Royal Palace for their safety. When Sir William fell grievously ill, the Queen wrote to Emma out of concern for him advising “to put confidence in God… who never forsakes those that trust in him” whilst also confirming her sincere friendship for Emma. Emma nursed Sir William back to health and did not leave his side for eight days. She wrote in a letter to Greville about the experience “My ever dear Queen has been like a mother to me since Sir William has been ill. She writes to me four to five times a day and even offers to come and assist me. This is friendship”. Emma’s friendship with Maria Carolina would soon take on a new dimension. Ever since the French declared war on Austria in 1792 along with the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793, Maria Carolina had a deep hatred for the French and was intent on gaining British support for going to war with France. King Ferdinand had other plans and decided to make peace with France in 1796, despite the Queen’s protestations. Desperate to help her friend, Emma would become a mediator on behalf of the British Government to make the case for Britain to Naples and vice versa. The Queen was happy to oblige, passing a letter from King Ferdinand to his brother in Spain to the British Government alerting them to Ferdinand’s ambitions for an alliance with Spain against England. This is one of many cases where the Queen and Emma would exchange information with each other, each gaining insight into events elsewhere in Europe. Her loyalty to the Queen also brings a new perspective for why she initially reached out to Horatio Nelson, who was revisiting the Mediterranean in 1798. Historians including Kate Williams have argued that it was through Emma’s persuasion that Maria Carolina allowed the British fleet to resupply in Sicily, despite it breaching the French Neapolitan peace treaty made in 1796. This is something that Emma was never credited for as Sir William failed to mention it in dispatches back to the British Government. The Queen asked after Nelson in a letter to Emma but we also get more glimpses in the mutual affection they had for each other. The Queen wrote, ”The brief moments during which I saw you yesterday have not satisfied my Heat?? and my affection for you. I wish to know about your precious health and is there any news about our dear, courageous Admiral”. She goes onto talk about English ship movements but signs off with “Farewell my dear Milady. Let me know when you have news. Take care of yourself and know you can count on my eternal friendship. My compliments to the Chevalier”. 

 It was this fleet that would go on weeks later to win the Battle of the Nile and throw the strategic balance of the Mediterranean in Britain’s favour. 

This victory, however, and Nelson’s fleet’s presence at Naples, broke the Franco-Neapolitan Peace Treaty and gave France the perfect justification to invade. The Neapolitan Army attempted an invasion of their own. Supported by Nelson’s troops and fleet, they successfully captured Rome from the French, but would only hold it for a week, after which the Neapolitan Army retreated back to Naples closely followed by the French Army. Fearful of what might happen when the French arrived, keeping in mind what happened to the French Monarchy, The Neapolitan Royal Family decided to evacuate. Emma would not only play a key role in assisting the evacuation and dealing with logistical issues, but the Queen would rely on her ever more as she became distraught, which you can glean from the following excerpt of a letter from the Queen to Emma: “I am overwhelmed with misery and confusion, I’ve lost my head tonight, I’m sending over more trunks…. Believe me the saddest of mothers and queens but your sincere friend, Charlotte”. Emma loyal to the end would also send a note saying “Emma will prove to Maria Carolina that a humble-born Englishwoman can serve a Queen with zeal and true love even at the risk of her life”. The Royal Family, with the assistance of the Hamiltons and Nelson providing his ship HMS Vanguard, fled to Sicily. Aside from the family jewels, the Royal Family had not bought much with them, so Emma offered her own possessions to make the family comfortable, even wrapping the Queen’s feet with an expensive cashmere shawl that Nelson had given her. She spent her entire time on the ship caring for the family and tragically Maria Carolina’s son Prince Albert sick with disease died in Emma’s arms. It was this fortitude that is said to have attracted Nelson to Emma.

Naples was retaken several months later, partially with the help of Nelson and his fleet. When Nelson and Emma arrived in Naples Emma essentially became Maria Carolina’s lieutenant there, trusting her to enforce her will wherever she went. Those in the Neapolitan Court who had welcomed the French into the city were seen as traitors. Queen Maria Carolina gave Emma and Nelson authority to carry out reprisals on her behalf. Emma would write back every day to inform her of the day’s events, and whenever Emma was feeling strained by the acts she had seen such as the execution of the noble and ardent republican Bailli Caracciolo, The Queen would write back instantly to comfort her “I can truly sympathise in your excellent heart in all its sufferings” 

Emma carried out the Queen’s instructions to the letter and by the time the Royal Family returned with gifts for Emma, the courtiers who had supported the French were either in hiding, or dead. This is without doubt a problematic chapter in Emma’s life, but it certainly gives an idea as to the lengths that Emma would go for Queen Maria Carolina, partially out of loyalty, but also friendship. Emma’s time in Naples, however, was to come to an end. Shocked by the barbarity of the reprisals and alarmed at the influence the Queen and Emma had on him, Nelson was recalled by the Admiralty. For his perceived failure in Naples, Sir William would be recalled to England and be replaced in Naples by Sir Arthur Paget, essentially destroying Emma’s influence at the Neapolitan Court, but also damaging her fortunes back in Britain. Nelson, the Royal Family and the Hamiltons then travelled back to Austria, by this time Nelson and Emma’s romantic affair had begun and Emma was now pregnant with her daughter Horatia. This was the last time that Emma and the Queen would be in any meaningful contact. Despite doting on Emma on the trip to Austria, paying for various expenses the party accrued, one does get the feeling that Maria Carolina did toss Emma aside, as she would spend two years back in Vienna becoming more interested with marrying off her daughters and the rise of Napoleon. But the Queen effused that “At all times and places under all circumstances, Emma, dear, dear Emma shall be my friend and sister” and did pay her the compliment of begging Emma to return to Naples with her. Maria Carolina aware of the British Court’s slight to Emma also wrote a letter of Commendation to Queen Charlotte, highlighting all her achievements and petitioning her to allow Emma into the British Court, which amounted to nothing. This lack of intimacy might also explain Maria Carolina’s lack of efforts to help Emma after Sir William and Nelson’s death in 1805. It should be noted, however, that Maria Carolina had lost Naples to the French and was living in exile, so she herself was not in the best position to help anyone.

In conclusion, the friendship between Emma and Maria Carolina can provide not only an insight into their own personal lives, but also a small snippet to the behind the scenes politics of eighteenth century Naples. The relationship that develops from this point on between Nelson and Emma is certainly interesting, but also one that has been documented many times over. I hope, with this talk, that I have given an insight into suggesting that Emma’s life was defined in ways by the women in her life as well as the men. Thank you.


-Kate Williams (2006) England’s Misstress: The Infamous life of Emma Hamilton Hutchinson, London

-Walter Sichel (1905) Emma Lady Hamilton : from new and original sources and documents, together with an appendix of notes and new letters Archibald Constable

-Flora Fraser (2003) Beloved Emma: The life of Emma, Lady Hamilton John Murray.

-Letters from Queen Maria Carolina to Emma, Lady Hamilton (Held at the Caird Library and Archive, National Maritime Museum, London)

-Tom Pocock (1994) Horatio Nelson, Pimlico

-Julie Peakman (2005) Emma Hamilton, Haus Publishing, London