Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk.
Born 11th May 1689, died 26th July 1767
‘There is a greater court now at Marble Hill than at Kensington’, wrote Alexander Pope to a friend in August 1735, ‘and God knows when it will end.’
Pope was one of many celebrated poets and artists who flocked to the Thames-side retreat of Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, in the fashionable village of Twickenham. Hailed as ‘A Woman of Reason’, Henrietta attracted some of the greatest intellectuals of the Georgian age to her receptions and supper parties, invitations to which soon became the most sought after in London – even more so than those to the royal court. This was ironic, given that it was to the latter that Henrietta owed her elevated social position.
Henrietta had been the long-term mistress of George II, the irascible Hanoverian King who had succeeded to the throne in 1727. Their affair had begun many years before, while he was Prince of Wales. It had proved the turning-point of Henrietta’s life, freeing her from the clutches of a violent and drunken husband and propelling her to the very heart of fashionable society.
Henrietta was raised at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of England’s most famous royal mistress, Anne Boleyn. One of eight children born to Sir Henry Hobart and his wife Dorothy, her idyllic childhood was shattered when her father was killed in a duel. Her mother’s death three years later left her an orphan, and she soon afterwards made a disastrous marriage to Charles Howard, youngest son of the Earl of Suffolk. Described by a contemporary as ‘wrong-headed, ill-tempered, obstinate, drunken, extravagant, brutal’, Howard dragged his young bride into a life of misery and deprivation. Before long he had squandered all of their money on drinking, gambling and whoring. Living in a succession of squalid lodgings in London, and going by false names, the couple were forever on the run from creditors. It was Henrietta who eventually rescued their fortunes.
Determined to claw her way back into polite society, she seized upon the idea that she and her errant husband could go to Hanover in an attempt to secure themselves positions in the future royal court. In her desperation to raise money for the voyage, she sold what little furniture and goods they couple had left, ‘Beds & Bedding not Excepted’, and even contemplated selling her own hair to a wig-maker. Her efforts were repaid when they finally reached the Hanoverian court in late spring 1714. She immediately won favour with Anne’s heiress, Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, and her daughter in law, Princess Caroline. Sophia promised Henrietta a position in her household if she became Queen. In the event, Sophia died and her son, George Louis, inherited the British throne on the death of Anne a month later. However, Princess Caroline, now Princess of Wales, honoured Sophia’s promise by appointing Henrietta as her Women of the Bedchamber. Charles Howard, meanwhile, became Groom of the Bedchamber to the new King, George I.
Henrietta carried out her duties assiduously, winning favour with the Princess and the other ladies in waiting. But this harmonious situation would soon be disrupted, for in 1718 Mrs Howard caught the attention of Caroline’s husband, George Augustus, the Prince of Wales. Now aged 29, Henrietta was an attractive woman, with fashionably pale skin and long hair which a contemporary described as ‘very fair’. Her main charm for the Prince, however, was the patient interest that she showed in his tedious conversation. He would spend hours regaling her with minute descriptions of the military campaigns in which he had fought, or reciting the intricacies of European royal genealogy.
Before long, the Prince was spending ‘three or four hours…tête à tête’ in Mrs Howard’s apartments every evening. Their affair was conducted with the clockwork regularity so typical of the Prince. Onlookers at court noted that he would enter Henrietta’s apartments at precisely 7 o’clock every evening, ‘with such dull punctuality, that he frequently walked about his chamber for ten minutes with his watch in his hand, if the stated minute was not arrived.’
Exactly how George and Henrietta passed the three or four hours every evening alone together was a source of much speculation among the courtiers and politicians who hung about in the public rooms beyond. The rather clinical way in which he conducted the liaison, always with one eye on the clock, led some to doubt that he ‘entered into any commerce with her, that he might not innocently have had with his daughter.’ But the Prince lacked the subtlety to conduct an affair purely for show and, in contrast to his new mistress, was not given to concealing his true emotions. Nevertheless, it was an affair born not of passion but of convenience. George was expected to take a mistress, and he rightly predicted that the modest and discreet Mrs Howard would give him little trouble. Henrietta, meanwhile, saw the affair as a means of strengthening her position at court and shielding her from the claims of her estranged, brutish husband Charles.
She was to remain George’s mistress for the next sixteen years until she was 45, during which time she became the darling of Georgian society, courted by the greatest wits, poets and intellectuals of the age. Jonathan Swift was charmed by her and they exchanged witty correspondence; she was the inspiration for Alexander Pope’s ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’, and John Gay relied upon her for advice in writing his satires. Henrietta revelled in their attention, but it set her increasingly at odds with her royal lover, who hated ‘poets and painters both’. Her mistress, Queen Caroline, meanwhile, was jealous of her popularity and subjected her to ever more menial duties at court. Charles Howard, who had lost his position upon the accession of George II, also regularly created trouble for his estranged wife, on one occasion breaking into St James’s Palace and attempting to remove her by force.
By 1734, after twenty years’ service at court, Henrietta had had enough. She resigned her position amidst a political storm and went to live in Marble Hill, the elegant Palladian villa that she had built in Twickenham some time before. This ushered in the happiest period of Henrietta’s life. With her husband dead, she married again – this time for love – to George Berkeley, the amiable brother of a great friend, Lady Betty Germain. The couple established Marble Hill as the liveliest social centre away from London and their glittering circle of friends became known as ‘The Twickenham Set’. Dorothy and John, the two teenage children from Henrietta’s brother’s first marriage came to live with her and her new husband, creating a lively family atmosphere at Marble Hill.
After eleven years of happy marriage, George Berkeley died in 1746. Deeply saddened, Henrietta, aged 57, was forced to rebuild her life once again and she busied herself with refurbishments at Marble Hill.
The arrival of a new neighbour in 1747 helped lift her spirits. Horace Walpole, son of the former Prime Minister, bought a small cottage in Strawberry Hill and set about transforming it into a fantasy Gothic castle. He was introduced to Henrietta by mutual acquaintances and the pair became friends at once. Walpole was attracted by the ‘peculiar glamour’ associated with one who had been the mistress of a King, while Henrietta enjoyed his lively and witty conversation. They would often talk long into the night, and Walpole later published notes of their conversations.
In 1761 Henrietta was asked to act as guardian to her niece Dorothy’s eight year old child, also named Henrietta. Thus the 72 year old Countess found her life enlivened once again by the exuberance of a child, her great-niece, who came to live at Marble Hill.
On an evening in late July 1767, Walpole paid one of his regular visits to Marble Hill and was concerned to find his old friend ‘much changed’, although he did not believe her to be in any great danger. He was distraught to find the following day that she had died later that evening. ‘I never knew a woman more respectable for her honour and principles, and have lost few persons in my life whom I shall miss so much’, he confided to a friend.
Henrietta bequeathed her beloved Thames-side home to her nephew John, and in the event of his death with no male heirs it was to pass to her great-niece and namesake, little Henrietta Hotham. This would have shocked her contemporaries, for women were all but barred from inheriting titles, property or estates. But it was typical of the ‘Woman of Reason’ who had fought so long for independence in a world dominated by men.
Tracy Borman’s biography, Henrietta Howard: King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant, was published by Jonathan Cape in September 2007. The paperback was published by Pimlico in July 2008. For further details see: www.tracyborman.co.uk