Auctions | February 6, 2023

Marriage Certificate Witnessed by Nelson and Hardy

Lyon & Turnbull

Document signed by Lord Nelson, Lady Emma Hamilton, Captain Thomas Hardy and others

Lyon & Turnbull are presenting a spectacular document never before offered for sale, uniting Nelson with an astonishing array of characters in his story and providing a snapshot of a moment of sublime unreality amid a period of high tension in the contest for the Mediterranean. It will be offered in their Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs auction on February 8.

This document, unique in British naval history, records a moment of sublime unreality in the career of Lord Nelson, when, newly ennobled as victor of the Nile, he saw fit to host a lavish society wedding onboard his ship while the French fleet entered the Mediterranean, threatening to defeat in detail the scattered allied forces and relieve the army of Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt.

Never before offered for sale, the marriage certificate of William Compton and Anne Bottalin, two British residents of Naples who were married on the Foudroyant on July 9, 1799, is signed and witnessed not only by Nelson, but by Lady Emma Hamilton, by then his lover of several months, Captain Hardy, later his companion during his final hours at Trafalgar, and Josiah Nisbet, his stepson whose naval career he had sponsored and who applied the tourniquet to his subsequently amputated right arm at Tenerife.

Other signatories include his second-in-command Rear Admiral John Duckworth, and poignantly, Lord William Hamilton, the complaisant and much older husband of Emma, who until his death a few years later lived with the younger couple in an arrangement Emma mischievously described as tria juncta in uno.

Although the French presence posed an existential threat to the newly established primacy of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, Nelson refused three direct orders from his superior Admiral Keith to cruise to Minorca to help repel a combined Franco-Spanish assault. Nelson himself valued initiative among his officers, but his refusal to obey Keith was seen then and now as leaving the British forces dangerously exposed.

He nevertheless escaped with little more than a light reproof from the Admiralty, and in August was appointed acting commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean. Far stronger was the criticism directed at his personal conduct, with his devoted brother officers universally appalled to see his enslavement at the hands of Lady Emma, who by early 1800 was pregnant with his child, Horatia.