‘Henrietta Howard – the mistress who saved a royal marriage’, article in the Mail on Sunday, 4 May 2010
As mistress of King George II and ‘woman of the bedchamber’ to the queen, Henrietta Howard had a difficult balancing act to perform. But her role at the 18th-century court of Kensington Palace was crucial, as historian Lucy Worsley reveals.
In 1734, an uneasy love triangle existed at Kensington Palace. George II was Britain’s king – his fat and shrewd wife Caroline was queen. Mrs Henrietta Howard was one of six ‘women of the bedchamber’ who worked for the queen.
Calm and conscientious, Henrietta seemed the perfect servant. But resentment seethed within her. During her 20 years as the queen’s bedchamber woman, she’d also had unglamorous, unenviable and unpaid extra duties as the king’s acknowledged lover.
During the research for my book Courtiers, The Secret History of Kensington Palace, Henrietta Howard stood out as one of the Georgian court’s most attractive characters. She was not an astounding beauty, but she radiated charm and intelligence. Her build was slim, she had ‘the finest light brown hair’ and she was ‘always well dressed with taste and simplicity’. Yet she suffered all her life from headaches and deafness. Her friend, the poet Alexander Pope, described a grievous ‘air of sadness about her’, and accused her of ‘not loving herself so well as she does her friends’.
But Henrietta was a survivor. After so many years at court, she’d become legendary for her ‘imperceptible dexterity’ in negotiating the hazards of palace life. She had been forced to become fluent in a courtier’s language of half-truths and flatteries. She knew, though, that her way of life was gradually eroding her health and her happiness. She hoped to escape from court while her integrity still remained intact. But the story of her difficult life so far suggested that this might be impossible.
Henrietta was born in 1689 to the Hobart family of Blickling Hall, Norfolk. Their finances were precarious, and became desperately so after Henrietta’s father was killed in a duel. Henrietta, aged 16, assumed that a marriage to the 30-year-old Charles Howard, younger brother of the Earl of Suffolk, would provide security.
This was a terrible mistake. Howard would prove himself to be a ‘drunken, extravagant, brutal’ reprobate. As one friend put it, ‘thus they loved, thus they married, and thus they hated each other for the rest of their lives’.
Despite their high birth, the couple were genteel paupers. Her husband wasted money in gaming houses and brothels, while Henrietta often felt the ‘smart of hunger’ in their dingy London lodgings. This experience of poverty scarred her deeply.
Henrietta gave birth to a son in 1707, and in 1713 insisted that she and Charles flee to Hanover to escape his creditors. She even offered her long brown hair to a wig-maker in exchange for the money for the journey.
In the little German state of Hanover, she hoped to become intimate with its ruling family. Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, had no surviving children, and on her death it seemed likely that the electors of Hanover, her nearest Protestant relatives, would be invited to rule Britain.
The gamble paid off. Caroline, the elector George’s daughter-in-law, offered Henrietta a job as a personal servant. Soon afterwards Caroline’s husband, the future George II, indicated that he would like her services sexually. Caroline accepted Henrietta as her husband’s mistress: she rightly feared that a woman less discreet and sensible than Henrietta would cause more trouble. Nor did the court as a whole see cause for scandal: George’s German grandmother thought Henrietta would at the very least improve his English.
After the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Henrietta Howard – both servant and mistress – accompanied the newly royal family on its journey to England. She was in high favour with both George and Caroline, now Prince and Princess of Wales (George’s father was now King George I of Britain). Her husband had also found a job at court. But he still constantly harassed Henrietta, pretending to be jealous of her position as the prince’s mistress, and attempting to get blackmail money by threatening to reveal her royal relationship.
Henrietta’s plight was pitiable. While her husband lorded over her ‘with tyranny; with cruelty’, she had no remedy in the eyes of 18th-century law. She reasoned with herself that his neglect alternated with brutality negated their marriage contract: ‘I must believe I am free.’
Courtiers having tea at Lord Harrington's house - Henrietta, sitting at the card table in a blue and yellow dress, has her head inclined towards the man near the fireplace, the love of her life George Berkeley
Her only comfort lay in her female friends. Her stalwart supporter, Lady Lansdowne, was typical in writing: ‘Dear Mrs Howard, you & I shall live to see better days, & love & honour to flourish once more.’
Eventually Henrietta plucked up the courage to leave her husband, a risky and shameful undertaking. But her fear of him still compelled her to remain in her degrading relationship with the Prince of Wales, who became King George II in 1727. The palace walls provided protection, and her servant’s salary was her only source of income.
In 1728 Henrietta finally succeeded in persuading her husband to sign a formal deed of separation, a very rare proceeding for the time. But freedom came at a high price. Her only child would remain in her husband’s custody. It seemed unlikely that she would ever see her son again.
Queen Caroline therefore mainly pitied rather than envied her love rival. She also recognised that Henrietta bore the brunt of the king’s famously bad temper. He spent a couple of hours every evening with Henrietta, but more out of duty than desire. By the 1730s the courtiers were firmly convinced that the king had a mistress ‘rather as a necessary appurtenance to his grandeur as a prince than an addition to his pleasures as a man’. He was heard speaking to her in an ‘angry and impatient tone’, and replying to a mild question with ‘that is none of your business, madam; you have nothing to do with that!’
As Henrietta put it, ‘I have been a slave 20 years without ever receiving a reason for any one thing I ever was oblig’d to do.’
Some of the most intense scenes in the breakdown of the eccentric but enduring love triangle between George II, Caroline and Henrietta were played out between the two women, in the bedchamber, during the queen’s toilette. Henrietta’s position of bedchamber woman was not physically demanding, but the long hours of waiting, the boredom, and the need for self-possession took their toll. If ever she showed a hint of insubordination – complaining about having to hold the basin while the queen washed her face, for example – Caroline had no hesitation in slapping Henrietta down.
In 1731, though, came Henrietta’s great stroke of luck. She inherited a considerable sum of money from the Earl of Suffolk, her former husband’s older brother. Despising his wastrel sibling, the earl had left a fortune to Henrietta instead. Along with the money, Henrietta also gained the title Countess of Suffolk (her husband Charles inherited the title of earl even though he got no money) and she was promoted from bedchamber woman to mistress of the robes. Now her duties were far lighter, and luckily her husband quickly followed his brother to the grave.
For the first time in her life Henrietta had plenty of money and a little leisure time. She was so happy, the courtiers said, that even her hearing improved. She began building a villa for herself by the Thames at Marble Hill, between Richmond and Twickenham, West London.
And in summer 1734 she took her first-ever holiday. She spent six weeks in the resort of Bath. Because no one could remember Henrietta leaving court before, it caused a sensation. When she returned in October, though, she found George II even less eager than before to share her company, and he cut her dead in the drawing room. That ‘the king went no more in an evening to Lady Suffolk was whispered about the court by all that belonged to it’.
Armed with what she thought was incontrovertible evidence of the king’s disapproval, Henrietta sought a resignation interview with Caroline, in the queen’s bedchamber.
At first Caroline claimed that she hadn’t noticed Henrietta’s cold reception since her return from Bath. She refused to listen to Henrietta’s complaints of court intrigue and the king’s coldness, saying, ‘Believe me, I am your friend, your best friend.’ She told Henrietta not to mind court gossip, and reminded her how cold the world would seem outside the court bubble. ‘I can’t say that to keep such an acquaintance will be any argument for me to stay at court,’ Henrietta replied.
Annoyed, Caroline tried hard to have her husband prevent her meekest, mildest and most useful servant from leaving. By now, though, he was as anxious to let Henrietta go as she was to depart. ‘What the devil did you mean by trying to make an old, dull, deaf, peevish beast stay and plague me when I had so good an opportunity for getting rid of her?’ he shouted at his wife.
Finally, on 22 November 1734, to universal amazement, Henrietta departed from the court for Marble Hill and private life. Queen Caroline condemned her departure as ‘the silliest thing she could do’, while the newspapers thought it reprehensible and incomprehensible in equal measure.
Most people thought Henrietta’s loss of the king’s favour a great setback, but with it the stage was set for her redemption. She could at last rediscover her talent for sincerity, writing and friendship. And there was also another, hidden, reason driving Henrietta forward in her path of propulsion from the court. She had fallen in love.
The next scandal to grip the court was the news of an unexpected and very hasty marriage. Henrietta’s wedding to MP George Berkeley in June 1735 consummated a relationship that had begun in secret well before her delicate negotiation of her exit from the palace. (They had met many times at the houses of friends.) George Berkeley was 42 to Henrietta’s 46, and her escape from court had left her looking ‘better than [she] did 17 years ago’. He was kind, loving and honest, and their correspondence shows they shared a deep bond.
Safe, happy, and third-time-lucky in love, Henrietta was occupied with her husband and with decorating their house at Marble Hill. On the rare occasions when they were apart, she signed off her letters to him with ‘God bless you… I do with all my heart and soul’. Her beloved George Berkeley died, after a painfully brief 11 years of marriage, in 1746. Henrietta continued to live quietly at Marble Hill. But her health and hearing remained poor, and her only son, turned against her by his father, was altogether lost to her.
Henrietta had one final, chance encounter with her former royal lover in October 1760. A London traffic jam brought Henrietta’s vehicle close to the coach of the king, ‘whom she had not seen for so many years’. Henrietta recognised him immediately, but he looked back at her blankly. Although he had seen her every day for more than 20 years, George II had erased her from his memory.
Only two days later, he suffered a massive heart attack while seated on the water closet at Kensington Palace. His death brought with it the end of Henrietta’s court pension. Her fortune spent, and having inherited little from her second husband, her final years were marred by penury. Into her 70s, though, Henrietta retained ‘spirits and cleverness and imagination’.
She finally died in 1767, and asked to be buried next to George Berkeley, her one true love.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley