IN 1729, WHEN HENRIETTA reached the age of forty, she should have been enjoying the fruits of her long struggle for independence. She had finally succeeded in ridding herself of her violent husband, who had been a thorn in her side for more than twenty years. She had also built a splendid home for herself away from court. But life at St James’s had long since lost its appeal.
‘No mill-horses ever went in a more constant, true or a more unchanging circle’, complained Lord Hervey, ‘so that by the assistance of an almanack for the day of the week and a watch for the hour of the day, you may inform yourself fully, without any other intelligence but your memory, of every transaction within the verge of the Court.’1 George II’s love of routine had set the tenor of life at his court ever since his residence at Leicester House, and while the round of receptions, balls and other formal occasions that he had established as Prince of Wales were diverting enough at first, after more than twelve years they were driving virtually everyone at court to distraction.
The days were filled with levees, walks or formal audiences, while the evenings were taken up with drawing rooms, balls, assemblies, or more low-key entertainments such as cards. While the public drawing rooms and assemblies afforded the opportunity of conversing with one’s friends or making new acquaintances, the crowds that thronged into the palace often made these stiflingly hot and (eighteenth-century hygiene not being particularly advanced) malodorous affairs. ‘There was dice, dancing, crowding, sweating and stinking in abundance as usual,’ complained Lord Hervey after returning from one such gathering.
For the privileged few who were also required to attend the private evenings, these occasions were purgatory. They could set their watches by the time that the King sat down to quadrille or commerce, and would look on in almost mournful silence as he continued to play for the requisite number of hours, oblivious to the boredom of his guests and attendants. The Duke of Grafton would routinely doze off after an hour or so, remaining in that condition for the rest of the evening. Lord Grantham, meanwhile, would try to stave off tedium by wandering from room to room ‘like some discontented ghost, that oft appears, and is forbid to talk’, and moved about ‘as people stir a fire not with any design in the placing, but in hopes to make it burn a little brighter’.2 At last the King would lay down his cards and stand up, giving the signal that the assembled company was dismissed. Those who still had enough energy and spirit would go to supper, but most would retire to bed, greatly fatigued by another interminably long and dreary evening.
When the court moved from St James’s to Hampton Court or Kensington, the change of scene prompted no alteration to the accustomed routine. Henrietta now knew every royal residence intimately, and any interest or appeal that they may once have held had long since faded. She complained to friends about the tedium of her life. Chesterfield, who was still enjoying a lively time of it in the Hague, sympathised with his old friend back at court. ‘I find by your account that Kensington is not at present the seat of diversions,’ he wrote. He added that he hoped his letters would provide a welcome, albeit brief, distraction for her, and urged her to fill her ‘idle time’ by writing back to him.3
Mrs Howard did indeed rely more and more on letters to and from her friends outside court to relieve the boredom of her life within it. One of her most frequent correspondents was Lady Hervey. Following the gentle pursuits of a country lady at her Ickworth estate, surrounded by her children, she had the life for which Henrietta yearned. For her part, though, Lady Hervey was restless and longed for the days when they had been giddy young maids together at court. ‘I pass my mornings at present as much like those at Hampton Court as I can,’ she told her friend, ‘for I divide them between walking and the people of the best sence of their time, but the difference is, my present companions [books] are dead, and the others were quite alive.’ Henrietta soon dispelled such pleasant illusions of what she was missing out on at court, and assured her that it was ‘very different from the Place you knew’. The ‘frizelation, flurtation and dangleation’ that had preoccupied the young ladies in earlier times were no more, she said, and added: ‘to tell you freely my opinion the people you now converse with are much more alive than any of your old acquaintance’. The wry humour of Henrietta’s letter betrayed a deep longing to escape her life at court, and she ended by confiding ‘[I] do envy what I cannot posses.’4
Lady Hervey, Mary Bellenden, Sophia Howe and the other lively beauties who had graced the court during Mrs Howard’s heyday had been supplanted by a new generation of young maids, even more giddy and wild than their predecessors. Chief among them was Anne Vane, who had been appointed a Maid of Honour in 1725. A clever young woman with a propensity for intrigue and deceit, Miss Vane’s morals were dubious, to say the least. Horace Walpole described her as ‘a maid-of-honour who was willing to cease to be so – at the first opportunity’.5 At one stage, she was rumoured to be pregnant, having taken a rather hasty vacation to Bath on the grounds of ill health. She wrote to Henrietta from there, complaining of the ‘aspersions I labour under, for I am inform’d that tis whisper’d about the court that I am with Child’. She claimed that this had done ‘infinite hurt’ to her health, but clung to the rather vain hope that it had not done the same to her reputation.6
Miss Vane was as indecent in her speech as in her actions. In her analogy of the ladies at court being like volumes in a library, Lady Hervey had described her as ‘very diverting & may be read by people of the meanest as well as by those of the best understanding being writ in the Vulgar Tongue’.7 She had good reason to be snide, for it was rumoured that her husband was one of a string of men at court who had fallen for Miss Vane’s ample charms.
The lady’s most famous lover, though, was Frederick (‘Fritz’), Prince of Wales, who had finally been allowed to come over to England in 1728 after being detained in Hanover at his father’s orders for fourteen years. He was smitten with Miss Vane from their first meeting and trailed after her like a lovesick puppy. When she at last succumbed to his advances (which in truth did not take long), she used all her feminine wiles and cunning to ensnare him even more than he had been at the beginning. Her hints about fine clothes and rich jewels were quickly taken, and she even persuaded Frederick to set her up in a home of her own. He duly purchased a house for her in London’s fashionable Soho Square, where she lived in some style, receiving company and holding receptions as if she were the Prince’s wife rather than his mistress. Anne rewarded her royal lover by giving him a son, whom he doted upon. It was rumoured, however, that Lord Hervey was the real father. Anxious not to lose the Prince’s favour, Miss Vane publicly insisted that the child was his and, as if to prove the point, had him christened Cornwell fitzFrederick.
Mrs Howard had neither the energy nor the inclination to keep up with all the scandals created by Miss Vane and her fellow Maids of Honour. Their ‘merry pranks’ disturbed her sleep, as they scurried around the palace at night, giggling and committing all kinds of mischief. On one occasion they stole out into the gardens at Kensington and ran around flinging open and rattling people’s windows until soon the whole palace was awake. Henrietta complained about this incident in a letter to Lady Hervey, who wrote back in sympathy: ‘I think people who are of such very hot constitutions as to want to be refresh’d by night-walking, need not disturb others who are not altogether so warm as they are.’8
The daytime activities offered little respite for Henrietta. When the court was at Hampton or Windsor, the ladies were expected to join in the hunting, as they had in former years. This was a far greater challenge to the King’s middle-aged mistress than it was to the giddy teenagers in his wife’s household. Henrietta bore it stoically, but her increasingly fragile constitution soon rebelled, and the headaches that had plagued her in the past returned with a vengeance. ‘As your Physician I warn you against such violent exercise,’ scolded Lady Hervey. ‘All extreams are I believe equally detrimental to the health of a human body, and especially to yours, whose strength like Sampson’s lyes chiefly in your head.’9
Mrs Howard’s growing loneliness at court was partly eased by the contact she had with John Hobart, ‘the best of brothers’. Thanks to her, he had been appointed a Treasurer of the Chamber on George II’s accession, and owned a house close to court on Pall Mall. Although the management of his estate at Blickling kept him away from London for long periods at a time, his daughter, Dorothy, often came to stay with Henrietta in her apartments at court. She delighted in these visits, for she had always doted on the child and a close bond had developed between them. Mrs Howard’s friends referred to her as an ‘indulgent mother’, and to Dorothy as ‘your child’. Whether their expressions were meant literally is uncertain.
Apart from John and Dorothy, Henrietta had no close family left. The two sisters who had survived with Henrietta into adulthood, Dorothy and Catherine, were both now dead. The elder of them, Dorothy, had died unmarried at Bath in 1723. Catherine had married General Charles Churchill, a Groom of the Bedchamber, which suggests that she had been a visitor to her sister at court, but death had robbed the latter of her company in 1726.
The family member whose presence Henrietta missed most, however, was her son Henry. Almost thirteen years had passed since she had last seen him, and during that time she had been able to glean precious little news of him. Thanks to her friends outside court, she had learned that he had been sent to a private school in 1720 under the tutelage of Dr Samuel Dunster, a High Church parson who had a living in Paddington. He had subsequently followed the traditional education of a young nobleman by attending Cambridge, where he had been enrolled as a student at Magdalene College in 1725 at the age of eighteen.
Lord Peterborough had discovered that the boy had been sent to an academy in Paris after graduating from university. At Henrietta’s entreaty, he had changed the plans he had had for his own son so that he could enrol him at the same place and thus secure regular reports of his welfare. Peterborough had also hoped that his son might speak favourably to the young man of his mother, and thereby undo some of the damage that Charles’s evil influence had wreaked. The fact that there are no further references to him in Peterborough’s correspondence suggests that the plan failed. Nor is there any evidence that Henry ever tried to contact his mother directly after he returned to England in 1728. He had not lost touch with his family altogether, though, for that same year he was elected the Member of Parliament for Bere Alston in Devon, which was part of the Maynard family estate. Henrietta’s brother, John, had inherited it in 1720 and wielded a strong influence in the local elections, which suggests that he helped his nephew to secure the seat. Whether he thereby hoped to engineer a reconciliation between his sister and her son is not certain.
If Henry was grateful for the advantage he had gained from his mother’s connections, he did not show it. His father had evidently done too good a job in raising him to hate her. This is borne out by references in letters from Henrietta’s friends. Pope was aghast at ‘the odd usage of Mr Howard to his son’, but tried to reassure Henrietta that Henry would surely have inherited enough of her own good nature to resist his father’s attempts to warp him. It soon became clear, though, that he had adopted his father’s attitude towards her, as well as a fair portion of his nature. Indeed, he had evidently made this aversion so clear that she had been afraid to encounter him. When Lord Bathurst invited her to stay with him at Cirencester in the summer of 1734, she at first resisted on the grounds that she had heard her son was there, and asked Pope to find out if this were true. Bathurst wrote at once to reassure her: ‘My castle is not molested by your fair son.’10 Henrietta’s fear of Henry must have been real indeed for her to have changed from longing to see him to doing all she could to avoid him.
The ever-increasing certainty that her son was lost to her for ever must have caused Henrietta great anguish during her long hours of solitude. Weighed down by this sadness, and weary of her life at court, she had a further reason to wish to be free of it. The waning of George II’s affections towards her had until now only manifested itself in the occasional outburst of temper. Much as he loved the routine of their liaison, he was growing tired of his long-term mistress. Her body was losing its appeal, and her increasing deafness hampered the long conversations they had enjoyed in the past. After her legal separation from Charles Howard, however, the King’s apathy turned to open aversion. On one occasion he charged into the Queen’s room while Mrs Howard was arranging a piece of fabric around her mistress’s décolletage, and snatched it from her, crying: ‘Because you have an ugly neck yourself, you hide the Queen’s!’ According to Horace Walpole, this and similar incidents were repeated on numerous occasions.11
Other courtiers began to notice that the King’s nightly visits to his mistress’s chambers were becoming much shorter than they had been, and sometimes there was a total intermission. The tension between the pair soon spilled out from their private apartments into the open court. All those who saw them together at the commerce table or other evening entertainment observed that they were ‘so ill together that, when he did not neglect her, the notice he took of her was still a stronger mark of his dislike than his taking none’. At Richmond Lodge, where the walls were thin enough for private conversations to be overheard, Lady Bristol, a Lady of the Bedchamber whose apartment adjoined Henrietta’s, reported that she often heard the King speaking to his mistress in an ‘angry and impatient tone’. One evening (her ear no doubt pressed close to the wall), she could discern Mrs Howard’s subdued tones for a long time, as she tried to persuade him about some political matter. At length, Lady Bristol heard him exclaim: ‘That is none of your business, madam; you have nothing to do with that.’12
Her husband’s obvious irritation with his mistress was no doubt a source of satisfaction to Caroline, who had always been jealous of her rival. Yet she still refused to release Henrietta from service, for the danger that George might find a more attractive replacement was even greater now that she herself had started to lose her sexual appeal for him. Bearing ten children had taken its toll on her figure, and her fondness for chocolate had further increased its rotundity. In fact, she had grown so fat that she struggled to keep up with the King on their customary long walks in the gardens at Kensington, and by the time they returned, her ladies noticed that she was always red in the face and sweating profusely. She often had to plunge her gouty legs into icy-cold water before these excursions so that she was able to set out at all.
A more worrying complaint that had been festering for some years was also now causing her real discomfort. During the birth of her last child, Louisa, in 1724, she had developed an umbilical hernia. Knowing that the King could not tolerate any sign of physical infirmity or illness, she had taken great care to hide this complaint from him, and nobody knew of it but her German nurse and her most trusted Lady of the Bedchamber, Mrs Clayton, who had discovered it by accident. ‘To prevent all suspicion her Majesty would frequently stand for some minutes in her shift talking to her Ladies,’ recounted Horace Walpole, ‘tho labouring with so dangerous a complaint.’13
In May 1729, tired and frustrated with his bloated wife and ageing mistress, George II sought refuge in the one place on earth he desired to be more than any other: Hanover. He had long cherished a desire to return to the country he had not seen since his father’s accession some fifteen years earlier, and this had intensified after he himself had become King and abandoned any pretence of loving England. The people were now as irksome to him as they had been to his father, and he found fault in everything they did – from their manners and customs to the very fabric of their political constitution. He even insisted that his cooks learn how to prepare traditional German dishes, and became so fond of ‘Rhenish soup’ that it was hardly ever off the menu.14 All this generated a great deal of bad feeling among his English subjects, who needed little excuse to revert to their accustomed xenophobia.
George cared little for their resentment, however, and began to establish a regular pattern of visits to his homeland. Whilst he enjoyed these immensely, his courtiers there were subjected to the same monotony of routine that their counterparts in London suffered on a daily basis. ‘Our life is as uniform as that of a monastery,’ complained one of his English retinue at Herrenhausen. ‘Every morning at eleven and every evening at six we drive in the heat to Herrenhausen through an enormous linden avenue; and twice a day cover our coats and coaches with dust. In the King’s society there is never the least change. At table, and at cards, he sees always the same faces, and at the end of the game retires into his chamber. Twice a week there is a French theatre; the other days there is a play in the gallery. In this way, were the King always to stop in Hanover, one could take a ten years’ calendar of his proceedings, and settle beforehand what his time of business, meals, and pleasure would be.’15
When her royal master was away in Hanover, Henrietta was at least free from his bouts of temper and hostility towards her. But she was still left serving a spiteful and vindictive mistress, and the tedium of court life was only slightly alleviated by the King’s absence. Frustration, melancholy and downright boredom soon took their toll on her health. In July 1730, she fell ill with a ‘severe fitt of Collick’. The Queen refused to excuse her from her duties, however, and she complained to Gay: ‘I am now in close waiting, my spirits very low, and my understanding very weak.’16 She had barely recovered from this when in October she was struck down by a fever. This time Caroline was forced to relent, and Henrietta kept to her bed for several days ‘in extreme pain’.17 It took her some months to get over this, and it was only at the end of the year that her friend the Duchess of Queensberry was able – with some relief – to speak of her recovery. ‘I am . . . very very glad that you are better & think of life,’ she wrote, ‘for I know none who one could more wish to have live than yourself.’18 Although Henrietta weathered this particular attack, she continued to be plagued by ill health throughout the years that followed.
But in 1731, her luck suddenly changed. Relief came from a wholly unexpected quarter. So many times in the past, her husband had tormented her when she was at her lowest ebb, but this time he was the cause (albeit inadvertently) of great joy. On 22 June, his brother Edward died and he succeeded as 9th Earl of Suffolk. By the terms of their separation, Henrietta was entitled to style herself Countess if her husband inherited the family title and estate. What was more, the late Earl had defied convention (or more precisely his brother, whom he despised) by bequeathing all that remained of his fortune to his long-suffering sister-in-law. Thanks to his protracted legal wranglings with Charles, this had dwindled to some two or three thousand pounds, but to Henrietta it was still a considerable sum.
Her new title, though, meant more to her than any amount of money. She had at last won some recompense from the husband who had subjected her to years of misery and hardship. As Countess of Suffolk, she was unlikely ever again to return to that wretched state, for with such a prestigious title came the potential for influence and money. This had a profound effect upon her position at court. A countess could not hold such a lowly position as Woman of the Bedchamber. The Queen would therefore either have to release her from service altogether, or promote her. If she chose the latter, the options were limited. The rank immediately above Henrietta’s former one – that of Lady of the Bedchamber – was a possibility, but her new status entitled her to aim even higher. Indeed, the most prestigious position in the Queen’s household was now open to her: that of Mistress of the Robes.
Henrietta now faced the prospect of a substantial promotion if she stayed at court, or the freedom and independence for which she had so long fought if she was allowed to quit it. It was a prospect at once delightful to the mistress and galling to the Queen, who for years had derived petty satisfaction from subjecting her rival to menial tasks. For her part, the new Countess of Suffolk no doubt preferred the option of escaping court altogether and settling at her beloved Marble Hill, but her mistress still had an eye to the delicate balance of power that she had so long maintained at court, and was not about to let a mere title disrupt it. She therefore gave Henrietta the choice of becoming a Lady of the Bedchamber or Mistress of the Robes. The latter post was then occupied by the Duchess of Dorset, but Caroline was still obliged to offer it to Henrietta.
Henrietta of course chose the more prestigious position. It was hardly a difficult decision, and she confessed to a friend that she ‘did not take one moment to consider of it’. She ‘kissed hands’ for the post on 29 June, and the following day an official letter of appointment was drawn up. Queen Caroline’s ‘Right Trusty and Welbeloved Cousin’, the Countess of Suffolk, was henceforth the most senior member of her household.19
Henrietta’s new position came with a salary of £400 a year and a substantially reduced set of duties. No longer would she be required to undertake such menial tasks as spending hours on bended knee holding a heavy ornamental wash basin while the royal person was cleansed by her ladies. In fact, she was no longer concerned with any of the Queen’s more personal requirements, for her responsibilities were now confined to the rather more pleasant task of overseeing the royal wardrobe. Even then, the majority of the work was carried out by the Ladies of the Bedchamber, who commissioned new garments and ensured that everything was in place for the daily ceremony of dressing. Lady Suffolk might also be required to attend formal state events such as the reception of ambassadors, or the lavish dinners and assemblies that were periodically held at court to celebrate royal birthdays, the anniversary of the coronation, or other notable events. But these were hardly burdensome duties, and the post was a sinecure compared to that which she had formerly held. Gone were the days of having to be always on hand to answer the Queen’s slightest whim. Indeed, regular attendance at court was not a requirement for the Mistress of the Robes.
‘Every thing as yet promises more happiness for the latter part of my life then I have yet had a prospect off,’ Henrietta wrote expansively to Gay. ‘I shall now often visit Marble-Hill my time is become very much my own; and I shall see it without dread of being oblig’d to sell it to answer the engagements I had put myself under to avoid a greater evil.’20 The ‘engagements’ that she referred to were the financial provisions that she had made for her husband as part of their legal separation. The £1,200 she had agreed to pay him each year had only been for as long as his brother lived, so it had now ceased. Free from this heavy financial burden, as well as from practically all her onerous duties at court, Henrietta had just cause for celebration.
Her friends rejoiced at her sudden change of fortune. ‘Your Letter was not ill-bestow’d,’ wrote Gay, ‘for I found in it such an air of satisfaction that I have a pleasure every time I think of it.’ He and the other members of her circle gently teased her by adopting a formal style to their correspondence and insisting upon calling her ‘Your Ladyship’. Dr Arbuthnot led the charge. ‘I have the honour to congratulate your ladyship on your late honour and preferment’, he wrote, ‘and the obliging manner that I hear the last was conferred.’ Lady Hervey went one step further by calling her friend ‘dear Swiss Countess’.21 Henrietta pleaded with them to revert to their former way of addressing her, but she was nevertheless proud of her new title, and henceforth signed her letters ‘H. Suffolk’.
Only Swift, who still harboured a bitter resentment against her, sounded a false note on the occasion. Although he had not written to her for years, he could not resist doing so now. ‘I give you joy of your new title,’ he sneered, before warning of ‘the consequences it may have, or hath had, on your rising at court’. He went on to remind her that he had prophesied in his ‘Character’ that if she ever became a great lady, the impact upon her attitudes and behaviour would inevitably be a negative one.22 But nothing could dampen Henrietta’s spirits – not even the fresh trouble that was brewing with her husband.
Although he had inherited all the titles and estates that were due to him, Charles had been incensed by his late brother’s deliberate slight in leaving his money to Henrietta. Fury combined with greed, as well as his customary readiness to torment his wife, and he immediately contested the will. ‘I am persuaided it will be try’d to the utmost,’ Henrietta told Gay, but added: ‘poor Lord Suffolk took so much care in the will he made, that the best lawyers say’s it must stand good’. Her friend’s reply was sympathetic. ‘I dont like Lawsuits,’ he wrote. ‘I wish you could have your right without ’em.’ But he evidently perceived that she was not overly troubled by her husband’s actions, for he concluded: ‘As you descend from Lawyers, what might be my plague perhaps may be only your amusement.’ Charles was so intent upon overthrowing the will, however, that he poured all his energies into the task, even disregarding the arrangement of his brother’s funeral in the process. ‘Mr Howard took possession of Body and goods,’ his wife reported in early July, ‘and was not prevail’d upon till yesterday, to resign the former for Burrial.’23
The new Earl of Suffolk would doggedly pursue his battle against the will for the next two years, even though the last thing he needed was to run up substantial legal costs. While he enjoyed undisputed possession of the Audley End estate, it was heavily burdened with debt. There was already a mortgage of £5,000 (with accumulated interest) on the house and lands, which dated back to the time of the 6th Earl. His successor, meanwhile, had run up debts amounting to more than £8,000. Charles was continually being pressed for payment of these, to say nothing of his own obligations (which were now considerable), and he was eventually forced to seek an act empowering him to raise money by sale or mortgage so that he could settle them. His inheritance had therefore brought him nothing but worry, vexation and trouble. His wife, by contrast, could enjoy all the benefits of her new title without being associated with any of the Earl’s debts: her carefully worded deed of separation had made sure of that. Revenge had been a long time coming, but it was all the sweeter for it.
The promotion of George II’s mistress to her new title and position attracted a great deal of interest in both the press and the court. It was reported in all the major newspapers, from The Craftsman to The Gentleman’s Magazine. At court, meanwhile, the chief speculation was who would succeed Lady Suffolk as Woman of the Bedchamber. ‘I hear no one but Mrs Claverin named for Mrs Howard’s place,’ wrote the Countess of Pembroke to Charlotte Clayton, who, as Henrietta’s long-standing rival in the Queen’s household, was galled by her promotion. The Countess tried to console her friend by adding that Henrietta’s new position did not seem to have brought her much joy. ‘She has come in the Queen’s train to the drawing-room . . . and has appeared with the most melancholy face that was possible.’24
Any anxiety Henrietta may have had that the Queen would disregard her new position and continue to inflict menial tasks upon her was dispelled on her very first day as Mistress of the Robes. She offered to dress her mistress’s head as before, but Caroline insisted that protocol should be followed and therefore gave this task to a lower-ranking servant. Lady Suffolk was obliged to do nothing more taxing than present her jewels. The Queen remained as good as her word, and in return Henrietta was assiduous in carrying out her new duties. These were much better suited to her, for she had always had a natural sense of style and did her best to improve that of her mistress. Her correspondence shows that she went to great lengths to procure luxury fabrics and adornments for the royal wardrobe, even sending specific requests to any of her acquaintances who were travelling abroad. The Earl of Essex, a former Gentleman of the Bedchamber and now the King’s ambassador in Sardinia, was particularly helpful in this respect. At Henrietta’s request, he purchased everything from fine Italian leather for the Queen’s gloves to lavish gold fabric for her dresses.25
Lady Suffolk soon developed a reputation for being one of the most successful dressers the Queen had ever had. Just a few months after her appointment, the Duke of Dorset (whose wife had ceded the post to her) wrote of the celebrations in Dublin for the King’s birthday, and claimed: ‘I believe more rich clothes were never seen together, except at St James’s, and some of them so well chosen, that one would have sworn a certain Countess of my acquaintance had given her assistance upon this occasion.’ Two years later, she was entrusted with the considerable responsibility of ordering the clothes ‘and other necessaries’ for the Princess Royal’s wedding.26
Henrietta derived a great deal more satisfaction from her new position than she had as Woman of the Bedchamber. But its real appeal lay in the opportunity it gave her to pursue a life away from court. She was quick to take full advantage of this. During the summer immediately following her appointment, she spent a great deal of time at Marble Hill, arranging the interiors, organising the household, receiving friends, holding supper parties, and – above all – simply relishing being in the home that she had spent so many long hours dreaming about. One of her most frequent visitors was Alexander Pope. The fact that their letters dried up at around this time suggests that they were able to converse in person far more than before. Lady Suffolk must have been overjoyed that she was now so often in the company of the man who had proved her most loyal and supportive friend during the past few years of strife.
As well as visiting Marble Hill, Henrietta also went on an excursion to Highclere in Hampshire, the estate of Robert Sawyer Herbert, with whom she had become acquainted when he was a Groom of the Bedchamber to George I. His estate was a convenient distance between Marble Hill and Amesbury, where the Duchess of Queensberry lived with Gay as a more or less permanent guest, and the two friends met there that summer. ‘Those that have a real friendship cannot be satisfied with general relations,’ Gay wrote when he heard of the trip. ‘They want to enquire into the minute circumstances of life that they may be sure things are as happy as they appear to be.’27
Spending time with her friends that summer was a source of great joy for Henrietta, but it was also one of frustration. If she had longed to be free from court before, now that she had had more than the briefest glimpses of what her life could be like, she was desperate to escape for good. But Caroline was no more inclined to release her than she had been in the past. Even though George was spending more and more time in Hanover, where he was cultivating new romantic liaisons, she still saw Henrietta as instrumental to her hold over him. Knowing from bitter experience that it was futile to try to go against her mistress’s wishes, Henrietta instead began to further isolate herself from the established regime, including Walpole’s Whig ministry.
As early as 1729, she had set herself firmly in opposition to the Prime Minister by supporting her friend Gay in a fierce controversy prompted by one of his plays. The Beggar’s Opera had been performed to great acclaim at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields the previous year, and the royal family themselves had been among the many who had thronged to see it. The play had made fun of Walpole and contained characters who were clearly supposed to be his wife and mistress. The joke was lost on neither the audience nor the minister, and the latter was furious at being so humiliated. The King and Queen had greatly enjoyed the performance, however, so he could do little to prevent its circulation. Only when he heard that Gay was about to put a sequel, Polly, into rehearsal did he decide to act.
By all accounts, Polly was an even more blatant attack on Walpole because it represented him as a highwayman, robbing the good people of England. The minister heard of this and immediately ordered the Duke of Grafton, who as Lord Chamberlain presided over such matters, to ban the play ‘rather than suffer himself to be produced for thirty nights together upon the stage’. If it could not be performed, however, it could still be printed, and Gay’s friends advised him to publish it by subscription. At a stroke, the court was divided between those who supported the existing political regime and thus declined to subscribe, and those who demonstrated their opposition to it by adding their names to the list.
The Duchess of Queensberry placed herself very firmly in the latter camp by touting the play everywhere, including the court. She even invited the King himself to subscribe – an act of bare-faced audacity since his own Lord Chamberlain had banned its performance. In truth, George was rather amused by this, particularly as the Duchess was such a comely and vivacious addition to his assemblies. However, after relating to the Queen what had happened, he quickly changed his view, and the next day sent word to the Duchess that she was banned from court. Undeterred, the latter replied that she was ‘surprised and well pleased that the King hath given her so agreeable a command as to stay from Court, where she never came for diversion’.28
With the Duchess of Queensberry in exile, Henrietta stepped in as Gay’s chief advocate at court. She urged her royal masters to reconsider their ban on his play, arguing that it was stirring up resentment across the capital. She also attested to the author’s excellent character and sincere loyalty to the Crown. ‘Mrs Howard hath declared herself strongly both to the King and Queen as my advocate,’ Gay wrote to Swift in March 1729. In defending her friend so vehemently, Henrietta placed herself in direct opposition not only to the sovereigns, but also to their most powerful minister in government, and therefore put her own position at court in jeopardy. John Arbuthnot wrote anxiously to Swift: ‘he [Gay] has gott several turnd out of their places, the greatest ornament of the Court Banishd from it for his sake, another great Lady in danger of being chasé likewise’.29
The controversy eventually died down, but Gay had achieved notoriety as a result. As Arbuthnot wryly observed: ‘The inoffensive John Gay is now become one of the obstructions to the peace of Europe, the terror of Members, the chief author of the Craftsmen, and all the seditious pamphlets which have been published against Government.’30 This deterred many at court from having any contact with him, but Henrietta remained steadfast in her loyalty, making a point of seeing him often and maintaining a regular correspondence. She was equally supportive of the Duchess of Queensberry, who took Gay to live with her after the controversy, and the two became firm friends. Henrietta would often write letters to them both at Amesbury, and would receive joint replies in return. In an age when correspondence was frequently intercepted, particularly to and from the court, this was nothing less than an act of open defiance.
Mrs Howard’s friendship with Gay deepened as time went on. His witty and irreverent letters kept her amused during her long hours at court, and she often expressed a longing to see him. The poet valued their friendship just as much, and even contemplated buying a house next to Marble Hill so that the pair could see each other often once Mrs Howard was finally able to leave court. But death was to rob them of their happy schemes.
Gay had always lived somewhat hedonistically, pursuing pleasure wherever it lay – from the spas of Bath, Tunbridge Wells or the Continent, to the pleasure gardens and country estates of his fashionable friends. He enjoyed his fill of rich food and fine wine along the way, and with a tendency towards laziness and an aversion towards any form of exercise, he grew exceedingly fat. Nevertheless, he always seemed in the rudest of health, so when he was struck down by a fever at the end of 1732, his friends were confident that he would soon recover. Their shock and devastation was profound indeed when, a few days later, the much-loved poet died. ‘Would to God the man we had lost had not been so amiable or so good,’ wrote Pope to Swift on hearing of his death, ‘but that’s a wish for our sakes, not for his. Sure, if innocence and integrity can deserve happiness, it must be his.’ Swift did not open this letter for five days, having had ‘an impulse foreboding some misfortune’. When he eventually managed to steel himself to read its contents, he was so distraught that for many months afterwards he could not even bear to hear Gay’s name mentioned, for it brought on fresh waves of grief.
None mourned Gay’s passing more than Henrietta. They had been close friends for almost twenty years and had shared the joy and sadness of each other’s lives in equal measure. Gay had been the first to learn of his friend’s plans for Marble Hill, and it was to him that she had written upon hearing that she had become a countess. Even when she had failed to secure him a position at court, he had remained loyal to her. Their affection was mutual and sincere.
In her grief, Henrietta turned to the Duchess of Queensberry, who felt the loss of her friend and lodger deeply. The two women had loved Gay as faithfully as he had loved them, and they were to miss his amiable presence for many years to come. ‘I often want poor Mr Gay, & on this occasion extreamly,’ wrote the Duchess to her friend in 1734. ‘Nothing evaporates sooner than joy untold, or told, unless to one so intirely in your interest as he was, who bore at least an equal share in every satisfaction or dissatisfaction which attended us . . . tis a satisfaction to have once known so good a man. As you were as much his friend as I, tis needless to ask your pardon for dwelling so long on his subject.’31
The volume of Lady Suffolk’s correspondence increased after Gay’s death, as she tried to find solace among her remaining friends. The Earl of Chesterfield became a particularly frequent correspondent, and his lively accounts of the society and entertainments at the Hague provided a welcome diversion from life at court. His friendship had something else in common with Gay’s, for the Earl was moving increasingly into opposition to Walpole’s ministry. After years of pleading to be allowed home from an embassy that had long since lost any appeal, Chesterfield’s wish was finally granted and he arrived back in England in early 1732. He was soon presented with an excellent opportunity to avenge himself on the minister who had ensured his virtual exile on the Continent.
Walpole was now at the height of his power. He bullied and cajoled the Cabinet into submission, he exercised almost complete ascendancy in Parliament, and he enjoyed the full confidence of both the King and Queen. He therefore had few qualms about introducing a scheme that under any other circumstances would have posed a serious risk to his position. Ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the greatest burden of taxation had fallen upon land, but Walpole proposed to ease this by bringing the tobacco and wine duties under the law of excise. This would have effectively put a stop to the wholesale smuggling of these commodities, to which customs officials had hitherto turned a blind eye. George and Caroline, who knew that the Civil List depended to a significant extent upon the duties raised from tobacco and wine, gave their hearty approval to the proposal. Walpole was confident that it would breeze through Parliament without opposition, but this turned out to be a grave miscalculation.
Both within and outside Parliament, huge numbers of people rose up against the scheme, fearing that it was the start of a slippery slope that would end in every necessity of life being taxed. Walpole stoutly denied this, but suspicions had been aroused and there followed a rush of pamphlets and newspaper reports claiming that it was part of a much bigger plan. Meanwhile, a group of peers holding offices in the royal household gathered together and began plotting the overthrow of Walpole’s measure. They included the Earl of Chesterfield and two other members of Mrs Howard’s circle, the Duke of Argyll and William Pulteney. Thanks to their intervention, and to the huge tide of popular opposition, the minister was eventually defeated and his Excise Bill was thrown out by Parliament.
There were scenes of great rejoicing across the capital, and the peers who had led the rebellion were triumphant. The Queen, meanwhile, was as devastated as her minister, and her husband was outraged. He demanded to know the names of the upstart peers. Lord Hervey was delighted to supply them, and as he read each one out in turn, the King spluttered, ‘Booby!’, ‘Blockhead!’ and ‘Whimsical fellow!’, vowing to exclude them from court for good. Walpole took rather more direct action, and none felt it more keenly than Lord Chesterfield. Two days after the Excise Bill had been dropped, he was climbing the great staircase at St James’s Palace to attend the King as usual when he was halted by a guard and presented with a summons demanding that he surrender his office and absent himself from the court. Astonished at such an abrupt dismissal after so long a service to the Crown, Chesterfield insisted upon an audience with the King. Once admitted to the royal presence, he proceeded to make a well-reasoned and dignified protest, pointing to his eighteen years of good service and insisting: ‘I declared at all events against a measure that would so inevitably lessen the affections of Your Majesty’s subjects to you . . . I thought of it as the whole nation did.’32 But George would have none of it, and Chesterfield was obliged to retreat in disgrace to his father’s estate in Yorkshire.
As she had with Gay, so Henrietta maintained her friendship with the Earl as openly as before, and the two exchanged regular correspondence for the duration of his time in exile. She wrote to him as soon as he had left court, and he was clearly grateful for this proof of her loyalty. ‘This is the case of your letter, which, though I should at all times have valued as I ought, yett in this perticular Juncture, I must look upon it, as a most uncommon and uncourtlike piece of friendship,’ he replied, adding: ‘It may, for ought I know have brought you within the statute of Edward the Third,33 as aiding, abetting and comforting the King’s Enemies, for I can depose that I am an enemy of the King’s, so that, by an induction not very much strain’d, for the law, your generosity has drawn you into high treason.’ Although he wrote this somewhat light-heartedly, he was only half in jest, for he knew how much his friend risked in allying herself with a disgraced courtier and an avowed enemy of the most powerful politician in the land. He also knew that written communication was as clear an indication of her allegiance as if she had invited him to tea in full view of the court. ‘As to the contents of your letter, did you reflect upon the strict examinations it was to undergo before it reached me’, he chided, reminding her that it would have been subject to the ‘penetration’ of Edward Carteret, the Post-Master General, as well as ‘others of not inferior abilitys, and known Dabs, at finding out misterys’.34
In his exile, Chesterfield gathered about him a number of disaffected peers, including the Duke of Argyll, who had accompanied him to Yorkshire. Henrietta’s friends Lords Bathurst and Cobham were also among the party. But the most formidable member of the group was undoubtedly Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Although he had been debarred from his seat in the House of Lords upon his return from exile on the Continent in 1725, Bolingbroke was a man of considerable cunning and intelligence, more so even than his despised rival Walpole. During the crisis over the Excise Bill, he had succeeded, through his political writings and his genius for intrigue, in doing more than any other man to stir up public feeling against the measure. With his exceptional powers of organisation, he had used the members of the Opposition as puppets in his game to defeat the Prime Minister. Lady Suffolk’s private supper parties had provided the cover for many of their meetings, as they carefully planned the storm that would bring the mighty Walpole to his knees. Their eventual victory was only slightly marred by the minister’s continuance in office, and Bolingbroke stepped up his campaign with even greater vigour than before.
He soon found an ally who was at once more powerful and more dangerous to Walpole than the King’s mistress. Frederick, Prince of Wales, had been a thorn in his parents’ side ever since arriving back in England five years before. He had grown up bitterly resenting them for leaving him behind in Hanover when his grandfather George I had become King. Any expectation that he would soon be sent to join them had turned into fierce disappointment when, year after year, he had been kept at Herrenhausen, apparently to satisfy their desire to retain a representative of the Hanoverian family there. Only when he had deliberately gone against George II’s wishes by entering into negotiations for a politically unsuitable marriage had his parents grudgingly acceded that he was more trouble away from them than he would be with them.
Frederick landed in England in December 1728, aged twenty-one. His arrival was greeted with none of the ceremony that would be expected for a royal prince, and instead he was obliged to enter St James’s Palace by the back stairs. This rather inauspicious beginning was a sign of things to come. Although Caroline made an effort to be amiable at first, George did little to hide his distaste for this troublesome young upstart. Before long, relations were as frosty between them as they had been between George II and his late father. ‘Whenever the Prince was in a room with the King, it put one in mind of stories one has heard of ghosts that appear to part of the company and are invisible to the rest,’ observed Lord Hervey. ‘Wherever the Prince stood, though the King passed him ever so often or ever so near, it always seemed as if the King thought the place the Prince filled a void space.’35 The Hanoverian tradition of loathing between fathers and sons was thus rigorously upheld.
Frederick was as affable and cultured as his father was sour and boorish. He also had a love of intrigue, and naturally became a focus for all those who opposed the King or Walpole. The wits and writers, in particular, found favour with him, for he had a genuine appreciation of the arts and a respect for talent. Chesterfield and Pulteney both appealed to him, and he was greatly in awe of Bolingbroke, who became his political mentor. Under his guidance, the Prince secretly stirred up opposition to Walpole’s excise scheme and played a key part in its overthrow.
Riding high on their success, Bolingbroke and his allies launched another attack on Walpole in 1734. Their cause this time was the repeal of the Septennial Act (whereby parliaments lasted for seven years) and the revival of triennial sessions. Thanks to Bolingbroke’s work behind the scenes, Walpole was greeted by a hostile Commons when the House convened to debate the issue. But he rose admirably to the challenge and used the full force of his political skill and articulation to swing opinion his way. Decrying his absent rival as an ‘anti-minister’, he succeeded in defending the Act and was triumphant in the general election that followed. Bolingbroke was now ostracised at court and forced to pursue his activities even more covertly.
The disgrace of Bolingbroke, Chesterfield and others among Henrietta’s circle not only set her further apart from the court, but also demonstrated how far she had fallen from the King’s favour. Her subtle advocacy of such friends had, in the past, helped to protect their positions, even if it had not greatly enhanced them. As her own position at court became less and less important to her, however, she had grown more outspoken in defence of her political allies. That she was prompted by a strong ideological commitment to Toryism is uncertain. She was connected by birth and marriage to Whig families and had never openly expressed views either way. It is just as likely that she supported men such as Bolingbroke for the simple reason that she saw them as friends. Perhaps she also realised that their political stance presented her with an opportunity to break from the court. According to Hervey, she was ‘for ever thwarting his [the King’s] inclinations, reflecting on his conduct, and contradicting his opinions’, as well as criticising his ministers, in particular Walpole.36 The King met her entreaties with increasing impatience, and rather than furthering her friends’ cause, she began to hamper it.
Not all Lady Suffolk’s acquaintances were so controversial, however, and as the years went by she gradually widened her circle of friends away from court. Principal among them was Lady Elizabeth (‘Betty’) Germain, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Berkeley. Lady Betty had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne before marrying John Germain, a Dutch soldier rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Prince William III of Orange (and hence a half-brother of King William III) in 1706. Although the couple had three children, none had survived beyond infancy and Lady Betty was left alone when her husband died in 1718. A spirited and intelligent woman, she had befriended Jonathan Swift as a child when her father had taken his family to Ireland upon being appointed a Lord Justice, and the two had remained close. Given Swift’s hostility towards Henrietta, it is doubtful that he was the cause of their introduction. More likely was either that they had met on one of Lady Betty’s visits to court, or that the Duchess of Dorset, at whose house in Knole Lady Betty lived after she became a widow, had introduced them.
The first reference to Lady Betty in Henrietta’s correspondence was in the summer of 1730, although the affection that clearly already existed between them suggests that they had become acquainted earlier than that. As well as having a love of wits and the arts in common, the pair shared a passion for porcelain, and over the years would regularly buy each other gifts for their collections. They spent time together at Windsor in 1730 when the court adjourned there for the summer, and got on so well that Henrietta was quite bereft when her friend left for Tunbridge Wells. She wrote several times to Mary Chamber, Lady Betty’s niece, to enquire after her health. ‘The repeated messages I receive from you . . . occasions me much wonder,’ Miss Chamber replied from Tunbridge Wells. ‘Surely my last letter to you so fully and so particularly related the state of Lady Betty’s health, that I imagined you could not have required more information upon that subject.’37
The sincerity of their attachment was proved when, two years later, Lady Betty vigorously defended Henrietta against her old friend Swift’s bitter attack. ‘Im sorry to find our tastes so different in the same Person,’ she wrote to him, ‘and as every body has a Natural Partiality to their own opinion, so tis surprising to me to find La: Suffolk dwindle in yours who rises infinitely the more and the longer I know her.’38
Grateful though Henrietta was for this kind intervention, it was as nothing compared to what was arguably the greatest service that her new friend performed for her. Early on in their acquaintance, Lady Betty introduced her to her brother.
George Berkeley was some three or four years younger than Henrietta. He was the youngest son of the 2nd Earl of Berkeley, and had become acquainted with the court from an early age because his elder brother, James, had been a Lord of the Bedchamber to George I. He had been raised at the family estate in Gloucestershire with his sister before receiving the traditional education of a young gentleman, attending Westminster School in 1708 and entering Cambridge three years later, aged eighteen. He had enrolled at Trinity College, where his keen intellect and irreverent humour had made him an instant hit with the most lively young lords there. Among them was Lord Chesterfield, with whom George had soon become close friends. When he graduated two years later and went travelling abroad, Chesterfield greatly lamented his absence. ‘Your departure, dear George, has been very unsuccessful to us,’ he assured him, ‘for as soon as you went away we immediately lost the name of the Witty Club, and I am afraid we shall soon dwindle into no club at all.’39
Berkeley had an aptitude for politics, and in 1720 he became MP for Dover, representing the town in the following two parliaments. He did so on the side of the Whigs, for he was at that time a supporter of Walpole. It may have been thanks to the latter’s influence that he was appointed Master Keeper and Governor of St Katharine’s Hospital in London on 28 May 1723, a post he was to hold for life. However, he was to change allegiance when he became acquainted with William Pulteney, a staunch member of the Opposition, during the last year of George I’s reign. The pair shared a rather coarse sense of humour, and their letters were at times so indecent that large sections were edited out by the prudish nineteenth-century antiquary who later published them. Writing from the races at Newmarket in 1726, Pulteney described two horses that had particularly caught his eye, ‘Prick Louse’ and ‘Sweet Maidenhead’. He went on to complain about the inclement weather, which he said had affected his joints, but turned this into a jest by adding: ‘now I am cold I should find some soreness, or stiffness, about me, the last of which, I promise you, is no where but where it should be’.40
Berkeley matched his friend pun for pun, and on one occasion wrote a poem that was so vulgar it has until now remained buried in the archives of the British Library. His inspiration was the story of a woman in Godalming who in 1726 had caused a stir by claiming to have given birth to a family of rabbits. The poem begins:
A woman long thought barren
Bears Rabbits – gad! so plentifull
You’d take her for a warren.
It then goes on to describe how a local landowner was brought in to examine the unfortunate woman:
On tiptoe then this squire he stood
But first he gave her money
And reaching high as ere he could
Said sure I feel a Coney
Is it alive? St André cry’d
It is, I feel it stir
Is it full grown? the squire reply’d
Yes sure, see here’s the furr.41
Berkeley was rumoured to be as fond of Pulteney’s wife as he was of the man himself. Indeed, it was said that he so persistently laid siege to her affections that he eventually incurred his friend’s wrath and was ‘mortally hated’ by him henceforth. But the source of these rumours was unreliable, to say the least. It was Lord Hervey who put them about, and he was such a devout enemy of Lord Pulteney that the pair were later to fight a duel over an assumed slur in the press, even though this practice had been banned.
Although his friendship with Pulteney brought out a vulgar side to his character, George Berkeley’s tastes and interests were on the whole as refined as any young gentleman’s. He took great pleasure in the society of cultured wits and men of letters, and was a close friend of William Congreve, one of the greatest poets of the age. John Gay was also very fond of him, and he was among the pall-bearers at the latter’s funeral in 1732. Alexander Pope was another of his acquaintances, and George paid regular visits to his house in Twickenham. His affable manners and good humour rendered him a pleasant and popular member of Georgian society, although his increasingly recalcitrant political views kept him away from the more favoured circles at court.
Berkeley’s character was reflected in his appearance. He was not handsome by any means, but had a mild and pleasing countenance and eyes that sparkled with gentle humour. He did not enjoy the best of health, having suffered with gout from a relatively young age. He bore this complaint with patience, though, and dismissed his friends’ earnest requests to take better care of his health.
It is not certain when George first became acquainted with Mrs Howard. Their earliest surviving correspondence dates from 1734, but they already seemed to be close friends by then. The fact that it was at Henrietta’s request that he had agreed to be a pall-bearer at Gay’s funeral suggests that he had been part of her literary circle for some time. Furthermore, they both featured in a painting of an intimate social gathering commissioned in 1730. A Tea Party at Lord Harrington’s House, by the celebrated artist Charles Philips, shows Henrietta sitting in the centre of three groups playing cards. Standing by the fireplace to her right is Mr Berkeley, and she is inclining her head towards him, as if to suggest some intimacy between them. At the left-hand table is his sister, Lady Betty Germain, who seems to have been the hostess for the occasion.
Lady Betty had been responsible for their introduction. As she herself became acquainted with Mrs Howard around 1730, this corresponds with the evidence from the portrait. She subsequently conveyed messages about him to Henrietta through her niece, Mary Chambers, who little understood the implications of what she was instructed to write. On one occasion, she sent Henrietta two pieces of china decorated with pictures of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a clear reference to temptation. The bemused Miss Chambers, who had been asked to write a covering note to draw attention to the subject, added: ‘I am not to answer, nor to make any remarks upon what Lady Betty pleases to say, so you may easily imagine that what I have writ, is like what a Parrot says without understanding the meaning.’42
Henrietta and Berkeley’s mutual friends and interests brought them ever closer together as time went on, and it was observed that they spent many long hours in conversation together during the former’s supper parties at court and at Marble Hill. Then, in 1733, an unexpected event changed the tenor of their relationship and hastened its progress towards intimacy.