Reluctant Mistress – The Life of Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk
This week we leave the Plantagenet era behind and journey to the Early Georgian era of London during the reigns of George I and George II. The early Georgians seem rather tame compared to the antics of George IV when he was Prince of Wales or the many royal mistresses of Charles II & James II. I never even knew that George II had a mistress until I read Eleanor Herman’s book SEX WITH KINGS. As far as I knew, the Georgian kings had spent most of their time hating their eldest sons, and pining for Hanover. The story of Henrietta Howard is fascinating because she was the last person one would expect as a royal mistress. Circumstances led her to seek the protection of the Prince of Wales, later George II.
Henrietta was born Henrietta Hobart in London in 1689. Her father was a Norfolk landowner and MP who was killed in a duel when she was almost 9. Before his death, she had led an idyllic childhood at Blickling Hall (the childhood home of another royal mistress Anne Boleyn). By the age of 12, Henrietta had lost her mother as well. By 16, with her older sisters’ death, Henrietta found herself responsible for her younger siblings. She appealed to her distant relatives the Earl and Countess of Suffolk who took them in. At the age of 16, she married their younger son, the Hon. Charles Suffolk, only he wasn’t quite so honorable. He was 14 years her senior, and had just left the army. He was later described as “wrong-headed, ill-tempered, obstinate, drunken, extravagant and brutal.” She had been swayed by his looks and charm; he thought he was getting a rich wife. Both were doomed to be disappointed. Henrietta and her siblings had been through a difficult time after their parents death, what money was left was tied up in trusts. Henrietta could only access the money when she married. Lucky for Henrietta that she had a lawyer in the family! Her paternal uncle, who had heard of Charles’ unsavory reputation, tied up her dowry in such a way that Charles couldn’t touch it, even if Henrietta died, the money, would go to her children not to her husband.
This infuriated Charles who had a bad temper to begin with. Henrietta’s married life was as miserable as one could possibly imagine. As one of Henrietta’s friends later put it, “Thus they loved, thus they married, and thus they hated each other for the rest of their lives.” Charles spent most of his time drinking, whoring and gambling with what little money they had. His debts forced them to move into increasingly squalid accommodations while at the same time Henrietta tried to keep up appearances. And when he was home, he seemed to go out of his way to make Henrietta miserable, both physically and verbally abusing her. Their only child Henry Howard was born in 1706. Despite the horrific circumstances of her marriage, Henrietta had come up with a plan. She and Charles would travel to Hanover to ingratiate themselves with the new royal family to be. The plan was almost wrecked when Charles spent all the money that Henrietta had carefully saved. As much as she might have wanted to leave him behind, she needed her husband in order to secure positions in the new royal household. She finally managed to save enough again, even selling her hair for 18 guineas (her husband thought she was paid too much for it) and the couple set off, not knowing whether or not her plan would succeed.
In Hanover, Henrietta discovered that there were others who had the same idea. Despite the competition, she managed to ingratiate herself with not just the Electress Sophia, but also her grandson and his wife Princess Caroline. It was a delicate balance, being ingratiating without being seen as a suck-up. That Henrietta succeeded says a great deal about her character and strength of will. Henrietta was witty and intelligent, and she was smart enough not to get caught up in court intrigue. She was once described by a friend as ‘civil to everybody, friendly to many, and unjust to none.” She was also attractive with a trim figure, and she dressed well. It might have been so easy for Henrietta to have become bitter over the hand that life had dealt her but she had no time for that. The most important person in her life was her son Henry and she would do anything to secure his future.
Henrietta’s luck began to change when she was appointed a Woman of the Bedchamber to Princess Caroline and her husband a Groom of the Bedchamber to King George I. Henrietta was paid £300 a year for her new position, and she and her husband had rooms at St. James Palace. Life at court was hectic, but Henrietta made several new friends not only amongst the Maids of Honor but also amongst the courtiers who were attracted to her lively wit. The playwright John Gay and the poet Alexander Pope (Henrietta is generally supposed to be the model for Chloe in Pope's The Rape of the Lock) were amongst her admirers. Soon she had another admirer, the Prince George, the Prince of Wales. Although the Prince loved his wife passionately, he felt that it was his duty to keep a mistress. He felt that it was as necessary an accessory to the monarchy as the crown and scepter. He also wanted to prove that he wasn’t completely under the influence of his wife, although everyone knew that he was. Princess Caroline had perfected the art of skillfully manipulating her husband. She would listen to him and nod her head, but oh so subtlety, she would make him think that her ideas were his. Everyone at court knew that she was the power behind the throne.
Henrietta was not the Prince’s first choice for a mistress; he had his eye on one of the Maids of Honor who turned him down flat. He wasn’t exactly Don Juan. Prince George was short and stocky with somewhat bulging eyes. His conversation was also boring; he would repeat the same stories ad nauseum. He was also a little OCD in that he liked routine, any deviation by even a minute and he threw a fit. George also liked to think of himself as something of a stud, he would regale his wife with stories of the women he’d seduced in great detail. Historians debate as to when Henrietta became George’s mistress, some speculate that the affair began back in Hanover; others date it to after the rupture between George and his father, King George I. Given that Henrietta had to share rooms with her husband at St. James Palace, the more likely date is around 1718 or 1719 after she moved to Leicester House.
Princess Caroline was totally down with him having a mistress, if only because it gave her a break from having to listen to her husband. However, she was particular about who the mistress was. Her chief concern was that his mistress might somehow have more influence with him than she did. Henrietta’s chief assets were that she was a good listener, and that she was non-threatening. Unlike George I’s mistresses, she wasn’t greedy. For Henrietta, it was all about security and protection, chiefly from her husband Charles, who still continued to be horrible. So this affair was no love match, not even very much lust apparently. George tended to prefer buxom blondes like his wife, while Henrietta was a slender brunette. Although she died her hair lighter, since boob jobs hadn’t been invented yet, there was not much she could do upfront. She was also pushing thirty which was pretty long in the tooth to start a career as a royal mistress. Still every night for almost 15 years, George dutifully visited her apartments at the appointed time for several hours. More likely they spent at least part of that time playing cards before repairing to the bedchamber.
Unlike other royal mistresses, Henrietta didn’t receive a fancy title nor did she make out like a bandit. For her pains, Henrietta received a boost in her salary. She did end up with one memento from George II that still stands today, her small villa at Marble Hill. The King made sure that her husband wasn't able to touch any of the gifts that he gave her. Later on, George II gave her £1,200 a year, money that she used to pay off her husband to leave her alone. When George I feuded with his son and wife who were more popular than he, Henrietta chose to stay in the royal couple’s household, moving with them to Leicester House. In retaliation, her husband turned their son against her. Her independence from her brute of a husband ended up costing her the love of her child. Even after her husband’s death, Henrietta and her son were never reconciled. It turns out that Henry Howard was more like his father in terms of character than his mother. He was so horrid, threatening to remove her bodily from her carriage, that Henrietta took the unprecedented step of seeking a legal separation. Even his brother couldn’t stand him, when he died; he left all his money to Henrietta.
Henrietta’s relationship with the Prince of Wales, later George II, actually ended up hurting her relationship with her royal mistress. As soon as the news spread that Henrietta was the King’s mistress, disaffected Tories and Whig courtiers who were unhappy with Sir Robert Walpole, beat a path to Henrietta’s door hoping that she might have some influence. This displeased Caroline, the last thing she wanted was for Henrietta to have any political influence. That was Caroline’s domain, which she exercised through and for Walpole. She began to make life difficult for Henrietta, insisting that she kneel when she held the royal basis, something she had never insisted on before. There was nothing Henrietta could do since it was protocol. Henrietta was only able to escape when her husband inherited the title of Earl of Suffolk, making her a Countess. The post of Woman of the Bedchamber was too low for her title, so Henrietta asked and was given the post of Mistress of the Wardrobe. This gave her more time away from court. She escaped as often as she could to her little sanctuary at Marble Hill.
After more than ten years, the bloom was off the rose for George II and his mistress. Henrietta was now in her forties, and growing increasingly deaf. She’d suffered from severe headaches for years, and had several primitive surgeries to try and correct the problem. Her chief asset, being a good listener, no longer applied. Henrietta also wanted out. She was tired of court life, the intrigues, trying to please a lover who was tired of her. Still the King didn’t dismiss her. Queen Caroline also didn’t want the relationship to end. She feared that her husband would find a mistress more to his liking. While Henrietta had grown increasingly deaf, the Queen had grown increasingly fat. Too many babies (8 who survived childhood), too much chocolate and not enough exercise.
By 1734, Henrietta was finally able to make her escape. Her husband had died in 1733, so she no longer needed the King’s protection. It also helped that the King had moved on to green pastures in the form of Amalie von Wallmoden, later Countess of Yarmouth. Henrietta surprised everyone when she married the Hon. George Berkeley, son of the 2nd Earl Berkeley in 1735. The couple met through his sister Lady Elizabeth Germain, a friend of Henrietta. Henrietta finally found a man who not only loved her but also adored her. They were so in love that they hated to be apart even for a fortnight. For eleven years they lived happily, traveling the continent when they weren’t at Marble Hill. George died in 1746. Henrietta outlived her husband by 21 years and her former lover the King by 7, finally passing away in 1767 at her beloved Marble Hill.
Further Reading:Tracy Borham - Henrietta Howard: King's Mistress, Queen's Servant, Jonathan Cape, 2007
Eleanor Herman - Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge, William Morrow, 2004
Lucy Worsley - The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, Walker & Company, 2010