Diaries tell forgotten story of Nelson's nurse

As a young woman Elizabeth Wynne witnessed some of the key events of the 18th century, noting meticulously in more than 40 volumes of diaries experiences from nursing Admiral Lord Nelson following the loss of his arm to the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution. But despite her remarkable life, "Betsey" was lost to history.

Now a historian at Bath Spa University has been awarded a £100,000 grant to write the first definitive biography of Wynne after her journals were rediscovered at her ancestral home, Swanbourne House in Buckinghamshire.

They recount in detail Wynne's life as the wife of one of Horatio Nelson's famous "band of brothers", Admiral Thomas Fremantle, and whose bohemian relations included a lover of Casanova. Wynne was just 19 and pregnant when she cared for Nelson at sea after his amputation.

The project will cast new light on the role of women in 18th- and early 19th-century society, including their place on board the Royal Navy's ships as Nelson's fleet sailed around the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars.

The diaries were kept by Wynne, a striking beauty of her era, from the age of 11, just weeks before the start of the French Revolution, until her death in 1857. The cast of characters encountered by Wynne ranged from a key agent of the doomed French king Louis XVI to Lady Hamilton, the scandal-prone socialite who became Lord Nelson's mistress and organised Fremantle's wedding to the young Englishwoman.

Born to Richard Wynne, a rakish member of the English landed gentry, and his French wife, Camille, the young Elizabeth was brought up on the Continent, moving between Venice, where her father was a friend of Casanova, and various courts in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

An accomplished musician and linguist, she ran the gauntlet of anti-aristocratic sentiment in revolutionary Europe before she and her family were evacuated from Livorno, near Naples, in 1796 on board the ship of a dashing Royal Navy captain.

Describing her first encounter with her future husband, Wynne wrote: "How kind and amiable Captain Fremantle is. He pleases me more than any man I have yet seen. Not handsome, but there is something in his countenance and his fiery black eyes are quite captivating. He is good-natured, kind and amiable, gay and lively; in short he seems to possess all the good and amiable qualities that are required to win everybodies [sic] heart the first moment one sees him."

A year later, after spending time on board various naval vessels where accommodating captains vacated their quarters to make way for the Wynnes, a newlywed Elizabeth found herself on board the HMS Seahorse, a warship conveying the wounded Nelson back to England after a disastrous raid on Tenerife.

She made clear her ability to handle the irascible hero, writing on 24 August 1797: "A foul wind which makes the Admiral fret, he is a very bad patient."

Dr Elaine Chalus, whose research grant comes from the British Academy, said: "Betsey lived in Europe at a time when it was on the cusp of revolution. She was a young woman who was incredibly unflappable and ambitious, and has left us with this remarkable record of what life was like for a woman in her position.

"She was 19 and pregnant on board a British warship when she nursed Nelson and showed herself able to cope with just about anything. She went on to have a family who were involved in the highest levels of British society. She is a fascinating and important character. I would love to be able restore her to her rightful place in history."

The journey back to the historical record for Wynne began when Dr Chalus discovered a worn paperback on a bookstall at a folk music festival containing a few extracts of the diaries. Further research located the journals in a private family archive, the vast majority of them unpublished.