The 200th anniversary in 2005 of Admiral Lord Nelson’s death at Trafalgar was a reminder of just how iconic a figure he is. Generations of schoolchildren have puzzled over his curiously ambiguous dying words (“Kiss me, Hardy”), while central London is defined for many by his 170-foot monument in Trafalgar Square. With his missing eye and arm, fearless naval encounters and patriotic bombast, Nelson encompasses a very British sense of heroism.
But much less known is the story of his long-suffering wife, a woman eclipsed by the admiral’s glamorous mistress, Emma Hamilton, and a victim of abandonment and misrepresentation. Her name was Frances and she was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis 250 years ago, in 1758. The daughter of a judge and of aristocratic English lineage, she married a doctor, Josiah Nisbet, in 1779, but he apparently went mad and died within 18 months, leaving her with an infant son, also Josiah.
By all accounts an attractive—and rather well-off—young widow, Frances Nisbet caught the eye of a similarly young English naval officer, Horatio Nelson, who was captain of the Boreas, a frigate deployed in preventing illegal trading between the British Caribbean colonies and the newly independent United States. Nelson was based in Antigua but liked fashionable Nevis, only 25 miles away, where members of a wealthy white colonial elite lived a comfortable life on their plantations. Here it was that he met Frances in May 1785.
A two-year courtship ensued as Nelson served his tour of duty in the Caribbean. Unpopular with most colonists (as they wished to trade with the Americans) and weakened by illness, Nelson seemingly found solace in the company of Frances and young Josiah, and on March 12, 1787 the couple were married on Montpelier Estate, Nevis. Nelson’s fellow officer, Prince William Henry (later to be William IV) gave the bride away at a ceremony attended by the great and the good of the island.
A couple of months later, the couple were en route back to England as Nelson’s tour came to an end. On half pay and impatient for another commission, Nelson took up residence at Burnham Thorpe in his native Norfolk, where he farmed 35 acres. Frances, for her part, must have suffered from serious culture shock as she suddenly found herself in the cold and dreary Norfolk countryside. Used to plentiful servants and a tropical climate, she “took large doses of the bed,” according to Nelson’s father.
Then, in 1793, after five long years of waiting, Nelson got his wish—command of the Agamemnon, a 64-gun warship, and orders to attack the navy of a revolutionary and belligerent France. With his stepson Josiah joining him as a midshipman, Nelson sailed around the Mediterranean, engaging French naval forces and their Spanish allies in Toulon, Corsica, southern Spain and Portugal. In 1794 he was blinded in one eye by an explosion. Three years later, and after countless battles, he lost an arm as he led a bid to capture the island of Tenerife.
Quite what Frances, left in Norfolk, made of these events we can only guess at, but on several occasions she nursed her mutilated and sick husband when he returned home from yet another expedition. As was the norm, of course, she was expected to live a quiet life of duty while Nelson, conversely, became a celebrated public figure, especially after his spectacular defeat of Napoleon’s forces at the 1798 Battle of the Nile.
The marriage’s fate was sealed when in 1798 Nelson—reportedly by now toothless and consumptive—started his affair with the voluptuous Emma Hamilton, wife of the elderly British ambassador in Naples. It was a liaison that fascinated scandal-loving British society and one that must have humiliated Frances. Relations between the couple predictably took a turn for the worse and they separated in 1801. Nelson agreed to pay her an annual settlement of £1,200.
Ironically, Frances has traditionally been depicted as the architect of her own misfortune: a cold, unloving woman who drove her husband into the arms of a mistress. “A marriage between a man so warm-blooded and high-spirited and a woman so frigid and neurotic was ill-starred from the beginning,” wrote one biographer in 1972. Nelson, it seems, could not be held responsible for the collapse of his own marriage.
Abandoned, Frances was to play a marginal role in the rest of the Nelson drama, with Emma taking her place at centre stage. After the death of the admiral at Trafalgar in 1805, Frances received a modest pension from the British government and lived quietly and modestly in London until 1831. It was the death of her son Josiah, the previous year, that apparently hastened her own end. (In contrast, Emma died in Calais in 1815, poverty-stricken and alcoholic.)
In 2001 the discovery of a collection of letters in an attic led to a long overdue reappraisal of Frances. Written by her to Alexander Davison, a friend of Nelson, the 72 letters reveal not a frigid shrew but a warm and loving woman, desperate to repair her relationship with her husband and establish a reconciliation. Using Davison as a confidant, she tells him that she wants Nelson back and that she will make any sacrifice to achieve that goal. “Should he receive me with affection,” she wrote, “I will do every thing for him.” At the same time she wrote to Nelson in December 1801: “Do my dear husband let us live together. I can never be happy until such an event takes place. I assure you again I have but one wish in the world, to please you. Let everything be buried in oblivion, it will pass away like a dream.”
Nelson, by now obsessed with his femme fatale, destroyed most of Frances’ letters. And Davison hardly helped matters by failing to pass on Frances’ correspondence to Nelson and also acting as a go-between between the admiral and Emma. As a result, and until the 2001 discovery, it was generally assumed that Frances was as much to blame as Nelson for their separation. Now a different picture has emerged of the faithful and affectionate woman from Nevis who was callously abandoned by the man described recently as a “hero…and a cad.”
In February 1983, 25 years ago, Lord Nelson was back in the limelight—only this time in the form of “the soca daddy,” aka Robert Nelson. Born in Tobago in 1930, Nelson was a steelband musician and calypsonian before carving out a place for himself as an innovative force in soca. He emigrated as a teenager to the US and was exposed to a wide range of musical influences, but it is generally reckoned that a formative 1963 meeting with the legendary Mighty Sparrow changed his career path and steered him into his own very style of delivery. His 1983 Carnival hit Mih Lover remains an absolute classic, while other songs he wrote and performed, such as We Like It, King Liar and La La rank among the best-loved numbers in the soca repertoire.
The infectious Mih Lover may not have the most sophisticated of lyrics (“let’s have a good, good time”) but it does have a certain resonance regarding the other Nelson as the singer asks his lover to put aside jealousy and suspicion: “Your love is too precious and too delicious to lose/Mih lover, and you’re too vital and special to abuse.”
Fine sentiments, and ones that the great British hero might well have endorsed when thinking of Emma—but not of poor Frances.