Nelson’s widow died a week after Wellington’s wife

In looking up something quite unrelated, I noticed two interesting entries within a few lines of each other on page 188 of The Asiatic Journal and Monthly MiscellanyVolume 5, from 1831.


“April 24, At Apsley House, after a lingering illness, the Duchess of Wellington.

“[May 4], At her house in Harley Street, in her 69th year, the Viscountess Nelson, Duchess of Bronte, widow of the immortal Nelson.”

Apsley House, Home of the Duke of Wellington

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, lived at Apsley House. This is the elegant building at Hyde Park Corner.

I visited the house during a week when I was tried my hardest to see every museum and historic house on my London Pass. It had snowed a little that day, and nearby two giggling young ladies from Japan had just made the only snowman in London.

Apsley House isn’t huge. It has so many beautiful things to look at, though, that I spent a couple of hours taking it all in. The only incongruous element was the statue of Napoleon, and much as I hate to spoil the surprise, I will just say that it has to be the tallest nude indoor statue there is of the world’s most famous short man. I really didn’t care for its proportions. Sorry, Canova fans.

Having said that, I’ll emphasize that the house has a gorgeous interior, many treasures, and on top of all that, even Giant Naked Napoleon can’t detract from the thrill of being inside Number One London.

The Duchess of Wellington

When he was young and unknown, the future Duke of Wellington was just Arthur Wellesley, third son of an aristocratic family. His family background was fine, but being son number three was not particularly impressive, as Arthur discovered when courting Kitty Pakenham. He went away because her family didn’t approve of him as a potential son-in-law. Ten years later when he’d made a name for himself, the tune had changed.

Unfortunately, so had Kitty. Arthur said to his brother, “She has grown ugly, by Jove!”. Still, a promise is a promise, and so they got married. At some point all those promises ceased to matter; the Duke was neither attentive nor faithful to his wife. The Wellesleys had two sons, thereby fulfilling their biological destinies and dynastic obligations, but they didn’t like each other. They had separate rooms and were often apart, pursuing paths of avoidance, though it may have been only one-sided.

Poignantly, when Kitty was on her death bed, the Duke realized the sad truth. He’s reported to have said later, “How strange it was that people could live together for half a lifetime and only understand each other at the end”.

The deserted Lady Nelson

“The immortal” Admiral Horatio Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar on the 21st of October, 1805.

Even immortals can leave widows, and Nelson effectively left two of them: his mistress Emma Hamilton, and his lawfully wedded wife, Frances (Fanny) Nisbet nee Woolward.

Nelson had married the young Widow Nisbet on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where she grew up. He was a young officer with not much to his name. She was an orphan with a son, a rich uncle, and a desire to leave Nevis. The future King William IV gave Fanny away at the wedding. All looked rosy, and it wasn’t too bad for a while. Horatio, Fanny, and young Josiah Nisbet lived together in Burnhamthorpe, the family home of the Nelsons.

Had there been no wars to fight, things might have gone differently, but maybe not. Nelson became depressed without a ship to sail and a job to do, so there’s no saying that Fanny’s life would ever have been happy ever after. We’ll never know. The Navy called Nelson back to duty and he rose to the occasion. His reputation as a hero was sealed in 1797 at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.

Not long after St. Vincent, Horatio fell in love with Emma, Lady Hamilton. After that, he wanted nothing more to do with his wife.

Fanny retained her dignity despite it all. For years she took care of Horatio’s widowed hypochondriac of a father and endured the coldness of her sisters-in-law.

Following the tremendous victory at Trafalgar, Nelson’s funeral was the most spectacular event imaginable. As his widow, Fanny should have had a place of honour. She wasn’t even there, avoiding the unpleasantness that would be felt if Emma Hamilton were to show up. Nelson and Emma were the power couple of their day. Fanny was nobody.

Young Admiral Nelson, Horatio Nelson as a young man, before he became one of Britain's greatest heroes. Courtesy Visit Greenwich, CC Att Generic 2.0 License.

Young Admiral Nelson, Horatio Nelson as a young man, before he became one of Britain’s greatest heroes. Courtesy Visit Greenwich, CC Att Generic 2.0 License.

Emma wasn’t at the funeral either. She wasn’t even invited. The instant Nelson died, she became persona non grata, yesterday’s news. Nelson truly loved her, but England had just been faking it.

Emma died alone, miserable and poor in 1815.

Fanny lived on, devoted to Horatio to the end. As the newspaper said, she died at her house in Harley Street in 1831.

Harley Street isn’t huge, but years before, the Duke of Wellington had also had a home there. Kitty and the children lived there when he was away fighting. Small world.

Nelson and Wellington only met once. Now their tombs are neighbours in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and both hold high places in history as Great British Heroes.

How poetic that their respective wives would end up sharing so much in common as well: dying within days of each other, and having their hearts broken by their husbands.



One thought on “Nelson’s widow died a week after Wellington’s wife

What do you think?