Laurie Voss Profile picture
13 Jan, 29 tweets, 7 min read
I've got a few minutes to kill so I may as well dash out #EuropeanBios entry 65, Lord Horatio Nelson, a rich kid who sought fame and a glorious death and got both at the Battle of Trafalgar. He was also hot as hell, tabloid fodder, and an open and committed polyamorist. Oh yes.
(#EuropeanBios is a series of Twitter threads about famous European historical figures, from 500 BCE to 1963 CE. I mine for fun facts and comedy, people whose reputations don't match their lives, and queer people. The full list of threads and bios is at
Nelson was born posh in 1758: he was related to lords and named after Horatio Walpole, the first British Prime Minister, who was his godfather. He accumulated additional titles later. I always try to come up with annoying nicknames for posh people, so I'm calling him Nelly.
Nelly was an ambitious young man and one of the best routes to social advancement at the time was the Royal Navy, which was entering its heyday. Using family connections he started service at age 15 on a ship captained by his uncle, and a series of rapid promotions ensued.
It's generally accepted that Nelly was a pretty good captain and strategist and what-have-you but it's impossible to say he succeeded entirely on his merits. Over and over, his story his littered with his family and their friends giving him an unfair helping hand.
(One of the people who helped him was this guy, Sir Peter Parker. His impact on Nelly's life is not pivotal or anything, but he came up a lot and every time it made me giggle to imagine Spider Man helping Lord Nelson out of a jam. Just me? Okay.)
The result was that by age 19 Nelly was given command of his own vessel, an absolutely unheard of speed of career advancement. To gain the post he'd had to sit some written examinations but since his uncle was also a member of the exam board his success was a foregone conclusion.
His naval career is excruciatingly dull. He sailed on ships in the Caribbean, the Arctic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian ocean. He got malaria. The Royal Navy at the time tended to furlough sailors outside of wartime but he used family connections again to keep sailing.
As a Trinidadian, I was amused to learn that in the Caribbean he upset everyone by prosecuting corruption. Everyone knew there was corruption and everyone had been playing along except him and it got him a reputation as an uptight troublemaker. This sounds very realistic.
While in the Caribbean he met Fanny Nisbet, a young widow. He was mildly fond of her. Her uncle offered him an enormous dowry to marry her. They got engaged, and then the uncle revealed that he had been lying about the dowry. But breaking off the engagement would be a scandal.
So, it being the 1700s, they got married anyway. Their marriage was pretty weird. He was extremely attractive and clever and ambitious and she was noted as being none of these things. They were companionable and friendly but far from being passionately in love.
The Navy started putting people on furlough again and this time Nelly did not escape. He spent 5 years in semi-retirement in the UK, living with Fanny. Nelly was not jazzed about being away from the sea and spent the whole time trying to schmooze his way back into the navy.
He got back into the navy in 1793 and did a bunch of mostly dull stuff in the Mediterranean. While there he developed a new style of battle: instead of strict orders, he gave his captains general outlines of a plan and let them wing it. This was novel and worked really well.
While in the Mediterranean he spent time in Naples where he met Emma Hamilton, an attractive woman of 28 married to the British ambassador, William Hamilton, who was 62. Nelly, at this point 35 years old and, have I mentioned, hot as hell, started an affair with Emma, also v hot.
This was already relatively scandalous but what really vaulted it into the upper echelons of salaciousness was that William Hamilton was apparently completely okay with the situation. Nelly lived in their house and they are described as operating "as a family unit".
The 1700s were even by British standards an extremely conservative era, so the idea that their famous military hero was for the rest of his life openly fucking somebody else's wife with the full knowledge and approval of her husband was completely buried by historians.
But nevertheless it did happen. Emma gave birth to a daughter whose paternity was not officially acknowledged but was named Horatia, which rather gave the game away. The trio returned to Britain together; Nelly neglected to tell his wife that he was coming back.
Once back in the UK he broke things off permanently with his wife. Or rather, he didn't, he got got a friend of his to notify her instead. It was unbelievably callous and another huge scandal that, again, was completely ignored by historians afterwards to save his reputation.
His reputation at this point was already pretty great. This was partly due to his efforts but also to a very large degree the result of extremely good public relations on his part. He sent exaggerated tales of his contributions to major battles to newspapers and important people.
I emphasize that at the time none of this was remotely a secret. Tabloid newspapers routinely covered the story. This political cartoon is about it: Nelly and Emma are the two portraits in the top left, connected by bull's horns, a symbol for cuckoldry; William is the old man.
It was a huge deal! Everybody knew that this famous man was living in a menage a trois. Newspapers reported on their vacations as a trio, and upon Sir William's death in 1803 she moved into Nelly's home, a ruinously expensive pile called Merton Place.
It seems like Nelly had ambitions of becoming a member of parliament after his naval career had concluded, possibly even prime minister. This may also have contributed to his supporters attempting to brush over what might be described as a complicated personal life.
But he was not to have a post-naval career or a post-anything because in 1805 he defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. His loose outlines of strategy coupled with strong initiative worked brilliantly and the British trounced the enemy.
Unfortunately for Nelly, naval battles in 1805 were still at very close range and he had a habit of standing on deck wearing a very bright, conspicuous uniform. An enemy soldier shot him from another ship that was only 50 yards away at that point, wounding him mortally.
Already very popular, he was now a famously victorious hero and a national martyr, so a 200-year-long process of ignoring anything about him that might offend people began. Fanny, still technically his wife, was lauded and given a generous pension.
His actual love and mother of his child Emma was on the other hand completely ignored. Nelson's will had left instructions to care for Emma and the child, but these too were completely ignored. All of Nelson's money was left to his brother (confusingly also called William).
Nelson's will specified that Emma should sing at his funeral, but in reality she wasn't even invited. Her reputation ruined by the affair, she was shunned and over the next 10 years she sank into debt and eventually, hounded by creditors, fled to France, where she died in 1814.
Nelly's daughter Horatia was taken in by Nelson's brothers in law and survived to have ten children, meaning Nelly has a great number of living descendants today, although Horatia herself always maintained the fiction that she was not Nelson's child.
In terms of legacy Nelly will always be known as the hero of the battle of Trafalgar, but I would like him to start being known for his other major accomplishment, which was being a total hot mess. History deserves to know about his unapologetically scandalous life.

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