Two hundred years ago, on February 19, 1822, a young couple were married at Burnham Market. The bride was 21; the groom, an impecunious curate, was four years older. The groom knew his wife’s past - that she was illegitimate and had been raised by a guardian. What neither of them knew was that her father was the nation’s greatest naval hero and her mother was one of the most scandalous figures of the age.

The truth was that Horatia Nelson’s life had been one of subterfuge. Soon after her birth, she was placed with a nursemaid. She was given the surname Thompson, and grew up believing that the couple who visited her were her guardians, not her parents. That couple - Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton - were the most celebrated figures in Georgian England. But both were married to other people, and in order to protect themselves from scandal an elaborate ruse was maintained to protect the child’s identity.

And so it was that Emma Hamilton passed her off as another woman’s child, while Nelson claimed she was his adopted daughter. In his letters, Nelson maintained the fiction, referring to the fictitious Mr Thompson and the child when asking after her. ‘She is like her mother,’ he wrote, ‘Will have her own way or kick up a devil of a dust, but you will cure her.’

Concerned for her future, he established a trust fund for the child, but perpetuated the lie that she was not his, writing to one of his nieces of ‘The dear little orphan Horatia,’ whose parents were ‘lost.’

But in truth she was never far from his thoughts. On the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar he added a codicil to his will, witnessed by Thomas Hardy, in which he left to ‘the beneficence of my country to my adopted daughter, Horatia Nelson Thompson; and I desire she will use in future the name of Nelson only.’

‘Never forget Horatia,’ he was said to have uttered shortly before his death.

Eastern Daily Press: Horatia Nelson kneeling before her father's tomb by William OwenHoratia Nelson kneeling before her father's tomb by William Owen (Image: Royal Museums Greenwich)

After Nelson’s death - and her own husband having died two years earlier - Emma Hamilton was shunned by much of polite society. One by one the doors were closed. Denied a Government pension and without an income, she fell into debt.

Mother and daughter moved from house to house avoid her creditors. In 1811, she and Horatia attended the wedding of one of Nelson’s nieces at Bradenham, near Dereham. They stayed at Bradenham Hall, then home to Nelson’s older sister, Susanna Bolton and her husband, Thomas.

It was the last time Emma Hamilton set foot in Norfolk. Her life continued its downward spiral. Two years later, at the age of 48, she and the child, then aged 12, were confined to a debtor’s prison.

She was eventually bailed out by a friend, but her problems persisted. In 1814, she fled to Calais, taking the child with her. Mother and daughter argued frequently, particularly after Emma sold off keepsakes that Nelson had left to Horatia, among them a silver cup.

Emma took to drinking heavily and often lashed out at her daughter. ‘If you had grown up as I wished, what a joy, what a comfort might you have been to me,’ she told her, warning the young girl to ‘Reform your conduct, or you will be detested by all the world, and when you shall no longer have my fostering arm to shield you, woe betide you, you will sink to nothing.'

A little under a year later, Emma Hamilton died, penniless and alone. ‘For some time before her death she was not kind to me, but she had much to try her,’ Horatia wrote.

In the last days of her life, Horatia begged Emma to tell her who her mother was. Emma refused, ‘Influenced then I think by the fear that I might leave her,’ as Horatia wrote.

Horatia subsequently returned to England. The truth about her mother remained hidden. When she was 18, she became housekeeper to Thomas Bolton, who after his wife’s death had moved into a house in Burnham Market. The house stood opposite the church and had a long garden at the rear, shaded by lime trees.

It was at Burnham Market that Horatia met a penniless young curate, Philip Ward. Ward’s most notable characteristic was that he was kind.

Eastern Daily Press: Horatia Nelson and Philip Ward married in St Marys Church, Burnham Westgate, exactly 200 years ago in February 1822Horatia Nelson and Philip Ward married in St Marys Church, Burnham Westgate, exactly 200 years ago in February 1822 (Image: Archant)

The couple settled into married life. Ten months later, Horatia gave birth to a son. The child was named Horatio. He was the oldest of eight children.

In spite of Emma Hamilton’s prediction, she did not ‘sink to nothing.’ She became the devoted wife of a clergyman, but the questions about her mother remained. In 1843, she wrote to Nelson’s solicitor, William Haslewood, who claimed that he knew her mother’s identity, but had been sworn to secrecy. ‘So many years have passed since I had the pleasure of meeting you that I feel some hesitation in again recalling myself to your recollection,’ she wrote, adding that, ‘What you would have been unwilling to disclose to a giddy girl I hope you will not fear to trust to the discretion of a woman of 46.’ But Haslewood refused to betray Lady Hamilton’s trust.

At the same time, there were others in Nelson’s circle who refused to believe her parentage, most notably Nelson’s close friend Thomas Hardy, who had been with him in his final moments on the Victory. It was Hardy’s contention that Emma Hamilton had claimed the child as Nelson’s in order to squeeze a pension from the Government.

Eastern Daily Press: Lord Nelson, captured in stained glass at the village hall in Burnham ThorpeLord Nelson, captured in stained glass at the village hall in Burnham Thorpe (Image: Archant)

In 1845, the publication of the third volume of Nelson’s Dispatches made clear to the world that Nelson was Horatia’s father and Lady Hamilton her mother. But Horatia refused to believe it, as to do so meant she would have to acknowledge that Emma had given birth to Nelson’s child while still married to Sir William Hamilton.

In the end she went to her grave refusing to accept that Emma Hamilton was her mother. But at least she could read her father’s letters and know that shortly before his death, when she was four, she had been ‘upper-most’ in his thoughts.

Horatia Nelson died in 1881 at the age of eighty.