Nelson’s Letter: The importance of context

Nelson’s letter: The importance of context

Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) was the Admiral Lord Nelson of 1805 Battle of Trafalgar fame. He was at the time and subsequently almost equally famous for his scandalous affair with Lady Hamilton, who left her husband for him after they had a child together called Horatia. As scandal erupted around them, Nelson wrote to Emma Hamilton a letter which was sold at auction some years ago. The transcribed text of this letter together with a photograph appears below.


My Dear Lady –

I shall not come to your house after what passed last night ‘till you send for me when I shall fly, I never will retract one syllable I utter’d, or one thought I felt, never will I sit tamely and see you my Dear friend neglected or Insulted, for Believe me as Ever your Most Sincere and affectionate


The letter is undated. However, it is signed with just ‘Nelson’, and because of this it has been dated in the literature to 1801, for other dated letters show he generally used this form of signature at this time.

What does the bare text of the letter – the words on the page and nothing but – tell the reader?

It has a kind of informal formal way of addressing the person the letter has been written to. No name is provided for this person and so in a sense the addressee is anonymous. The signature is not explicitly that of a man, although the use of just a surname strongly implies this according to the usual conventions prevailing at the time.

Its contents contain a number of elliptical references and the meaning of these cannot be discerned by looking to other contents of the letter alone. Why the writer cannot come to the Lady’s house is not explained, nor why he might possibly retract any syllables uttered or thoughts felt, nor why the Lady might be neglected or insulted. Indeed, the whole point of the letter cannot be understood except by reference to wider knowledge not present in the letter itself, although what comes across is that something has happened, and that the writer will not come to the Lady’s house, which implies that before the letter was written there was some thought that he might, but that he would ‘fly’ if asked, and also that he would not ‘sit tamely’ if she was neglected or insulted.

It certainly conveys that something dramatic had happened, but not what this was, and the letter itself is written in a quite dramatic way. It also implies that the Lady can be assured of the writer’s constancy – the ‘never retract’ bears a wider meaning.

So what does knowing about context add?

If the dating is correct, then at the time the letter was written Emma Hamilton had already given birth to Horatia and the affair between her and Nelson had become public. Soon after, he left his wife and he and Lady Hamilton then lived together openly until his death at Trafalgar. It seems likely that the letter was written at the point at which he and she had decided to live together and that a difficult situation had arisen the night before, perhaps involving her husband and Nelson’s erstwhile friend Sir William Hamilton as it had occurred in her house.

The letter came onto the market after having been in private ownership since a few years after it was written. During the scandal, Nelson had asked Emma Hamilton to destroy his letters to her, as he did most of hers. In the event she kept them, and under mysterious circumstances they were later stolen and published in 1814 as the ‘Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton’, losing her any chance of public sympathy or a government pension, and by the following summer she was imprisoned for debt. Out of debtors prison, she went to Calais and died there in January 1815, aged 49. Her and Nelson’s daughter Horatia then returned to England and lived with Nelson’s sisters, marrying in 1826 and dying in 1881.

Many of Nelson’s letters including those to Emma Hamilton were obtained and kept as memorabilia because he was such a legend in his own time. This was one of them.

Last updated: 1 July 2016


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