Fanny’s Story: Lady Nelson

The story of Lady Nelson is not told often enough, as everyone seems to be captivated by Lady Hamilton. But Fanny's story is well worth telling, one would think. It is nice, therefore, that her biography has been republished after 25 years. 

Frances Herbert Woolward was born in 1761 on Nevis which forms part of the Leeward Islands. She came from an influential colonial family; her grandfather and her uncle both served as president of the colonial council, while her father had been a judge. She met Nelson on the Island while he was stationed there. She had but recently returned there from England as a young widow with a son. She was living with her uncle and filled the role of hostess to visiting naval officers. 

Nelson at the time was a nobody from a family of country parsons. By 1785, he had made up his mind to ask her to marry him, and surprisingly she said yes. During his frequent absences from Nevis, Nelson wrote her many letters full of very conventional love assurances. He was no poet. The marriage took place on Nevis in 1787. Prince William Henry (later King William IV) had taken a shine to Fanny and insisted on giving her away. It was the most important wedding ever on Nevis, the only one with Royal attendance. 

The family moved back to England where Nelson was land bound until recalled to the navy in 1793. Nelson took his stepson Josiah Nesbit with him on-board ship as a midshipman. When his arm was blown off in Tenerife, it was his stepson who saved his life. Nelson returned home to be nursed back to health. 

When Nelson was stationed in the Mediterranean, he met Emma Lady Hamilton in Naples and fell for her like a country bumpkin. Emma had started out as Amy Lyon, became known as Emma Hart on London stages and was best known for her striking poses as the Goddess of Health. She had arrived in Naples as the mistress of the ambassador’s nephew but soon saw the chance to do better. She then married Sir William Hamilton, the ambassador, instead.

Meanwhile, Fanny was a frequent guest at court where she attended Levees and was on chatting terms with the Royal couple. The gossip from Naples soon reached her ears, too, and nobody was very impressed with the antics of Nelson. When he returned, he set up a menage a trois with the Hamiltons while Fanny was left to her own devices. 

Nelson's death at Trafalgar was followed by a state funeral. Fanny decided not to attend in case That Woman would be there, too. But Lady Hamilton for once showed a remarkable tact and stayed away as well. While Fanny had kept up the appearance of a Lady of Quality and as the Lady Nelson and Duchess of Bronte, Lady Hamilton spent her time writing spiteful letters about Fanny and generally making a pest of herself to everyone.

Fanny spent some time in Paris with her son before retiring to England where she died in 1831. Emma took to drink, got into debt, fled to France and died in poverty in 1814 in Calais. 

Nelson’s First Love – Fanny’s Story by Patrick Delaforce was published by Amberley. It is an excellent biography and heals anyone of any affection or admiration for Lady Hamilton. It is well researched and may stand as a reference book for the life of Lady Nelson anytime.

Further reading
All at Sea With Nelson
Independent Corsica
Tambora: The Volcano That Changed History