Chapter 11

‘The Indissolvable Knot’

THE CORONATION OVER, GEORGE II and his consort soon settled back into the routine of court life that they had established as Prince and Princess of Wales. The euphoria with which the people of London had greeted their new King and Queen soon disappeared, however, and in the cold light of day their appraisal of them was rather less favourable than it had been in the warm October sunshine outside Westminster Abbey. Ironically, for all the bitter hatred that he had felt towards his father, George was coming to resemble him more and more in both opinions and behaviour. ‘Dunce the second reigns like Dunce the first,’ sneered Pope in a poem published soon after the Coronation. The lofty professions of admiration for the English people and their country that he had aired so often as Prince were now shown to be false, and he began to demonstrate a bias towards Hanover that even his father would have been proud of.

As George’s eyes were cast in the direction of his homeland, his English subjects began to resent the enormous allowance that had been bestowed on their avaricious King from the Civil List, and the heavy burden of taxation that had come with it. There were mutterings that all he cared about was ‘money and Hanover’, and their respect for him was further diminished by the fact that he seemed to be unwittingly dominated by his wife. Rumours of her manipulation had been circulating around the court for some time, and now spilled out into the coffee houses and taverns of London. The subject proved excellent fodder for the pamphleteers and poets. A particularly popular verse ran:

  You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain:

  We know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign –

  You govern no more than Don Philip of Spain.

  Then if you would have us fall down and adore you,

  Lock up your fat spouse, as your Dad did before you.

This was soon picked up by the staff at St James’s, and before long the whole court was sniggering about it. When at last it reached the King’s own ears, he was so furious that he stamped up and down, his face ablaze, and spluttered a series of oaths, half German, half English, making himself even more ridiculous than he appeared in the verse. He demanded that the traitorous author be brought before him. Information was surprisingly unforthcoming, however, and the culprit remained at large.

There was more of a grain of truth in the lines that had caused such hilarity. Caroline’s ascendancy, cultivated by Walpole while she was Princess, was greatly strengthened now that she was Queen. ‘The whole world began to find out that her will was the sole spring on which every movement in the Court turned,’ observed Lord Hervey. ‘Her power was unrivalled and unabounded.’1 Meanwhile, The Craftsman, the most prominent opposition newspaper, likened Caroline’s machinations to a game of chess, with Walpole as the knight: ‘see him jump over the heads of the nobles . . . when he is guarded by the Queen, he makes dreadful havoc, and very often checkmates the King’.2

Caroline knew that the only way to govern her husband was to give every appearance of being utterly subservient to his will. ‘Tho his affection and confidence in her were implicit, he lived in dread of being supposed to be governed by Her,’ observed Horace Walpole. He went on to describe the ‘silly parade’ which she and his father, Sir Robert, would orchestrate in order to hide their collaboration from the King. Whenever the latter found them together in conversation, the Queen would immediately rise and curtsey, and meekly offer to leave the room so that the men could continue their business without the distraction of a silly woman. Sometimes George was content for her to retire, but more often than not he condescendingly bade her to stay. Either way, she invariably succeeded in persuading him of the wisdom of their chief minister’s advice, but in such a way that he believed he had arrived at that opinion of his own accord.3

The King may have been duped by his wife’s clever manipulation, but it was all too obvious to the rest of the court. ‘She managed this deified image,’ observed Lord Hervey with some admiration, ‘as the heathen priests used to do the oracles of old, when, kneeling and prostrate before the altars of a pagan god, they received with the greatest devotion and reverence those directions in public which they had before instilled and regulated in private.’ Her husband was so blissfully unaware that he was being hoodwinked by his wife and minister that he made himself increasingly ridiculous to those who knew better by boasting that he reigned supreme. On one occasion, he treated an assembly of courtiers to a proud speech about the superiority of his power compared with that of his predecessors. Charles I had been governed by his wife, he claimed, Charles II by his mistresses, James II by his priests and William III by his men. Worst of all, his father had been governed by ‘anyone who could get at him’. At the end of this address, he turned to his smirking audience and, with a self-satisfied and triumphant air, demanded: ‘And who do they say governs now?’ They remained politely silent.4

Jealous of her power and alive to anything that threatened it, Caroline seemed bent on ensuring that her will held sway throughout the court. But the wily courtiers were not to be so easily fooled as the King, and Caroline lacked the subtlety to bring them all under her influence. They were careful enough to flatter her vanity, however, and make her think that they obeyed her. Thus she was played at her own game. ‘The Queen’s greatest error was too high an opinion of her own address and art,’ observed Horace Walpole. ‘She imagined that all who did not dare to contradict her, were imposed upon; & She had the additional weakness of thinking that she could play off many persons without being discovered.’5

Henrietta knew the Queen’s tactics all too well. Wary of the enhancement of the mistress’s prestige after George’s accession, Caroline did everything she could to restrict her influence. Not content with preventing Mrs Howard’s close friends from gaining their sought-after positions at court, she undermined those who already had places in the household and implied that her husband’s mistress was unfaithful to him politically as well as sexually. Caroline was particularly vindictive towards Lord Chesterfield, one of her husband’s Gentlemen of the Bedchamber, who she knew made fun of her in his poems and puns. Chesterfield was fond of gambling, and one night at court he won such a large sum of money that he asked Henrietta if she could keep it safe in her apartments. The door to these was visible to the Queen from her own rooms, courtesy of an ‘obscure window . . . that looked into a dark passage, lighted only by a single lamp at night’. Having witnessed Chesterfield’s furtive entry into her Woman of the Bedchamber’s apartments, Caroline went at once to tell the King that the pair were conducting an illicit affair. Enraged by such an underhand betrayal, George ensured that the Earl would henceforth receive no favour at court. Chesterfield was subsequently dispatched to the Hague, where he languished in virtual exile for five years as ambassador.

Caroline was aware that an increasing number of dissident Whigs and Tories were flocking to Mrs Howard’s evening supper parties, among them the powerful Lord Bolingbroke and William Pulteney, and she was anxious to ensure that Henrietta did not succeed in winning favour for them with the King. The advantage that her Woman of the Bedchamber had secured in helping Compton to triumph over Walpole in the early days of George II’s reign may have been short-lived, but it had served as a warning to Caroline, and she was anxious to avoid any such disruption to her plans in future. Lord Chesterfield recorded how she would therefore make the mistress feel her inferiority by preventing the King from visiting her room for three or four days at a time, ‘representing it as the seat of a political faction’.6

Whether it was due to the Queen’s tactics or George’s own inclinations, Henrietta’s relationship with him was visibly deteriorating within a few short weeks of the Coronation. He was impatient with her in public, and although he continued his evening visits with the same clockwork regularity as before, he seemed to derive little pleasure from them. Rumours of a rift began to spread beyond the court, and soon even her friends in the country heard of it. Henrietta tried to play them down by saying that the King’s coldness towards her was due not to a decline of his affection but rather to his natural shortness of temper, which he displayed with many other people at court. But this only served to make her friends more suspicious that something was badly wrong between them. ‘I very much applaud your discretion on retiring when-ever you beheld the clouds gather,’ wrote Lady Hervey from Ickworth, ‘but I own I suspect you of bragging when you tell me of avoiding the sunshine; to my certain knowledg that is a precaution that has long been unnecessary, so indeed my dear madam that sun had not darted one beam on you a great while, you may freeze in the dog days for all the warmth you’ll find from our Sol.’7

Henrietta’s company and conversation, which had previously been so diverting for the King, seemed to be an increasing source of irritation, and he began to find fault in everything she did. On one occasion, a year after the Coronation, she unwittingly said something to cause offence when they were walking together in the gardens at St James’s. This met with such a furious rebuke from the King that she feared she had been dismissed altogether. ‘I beg to know . . . how soon it will be agreeable to you that I leave your famely,’ she wrote to him afterwards, ‘for with the utmost respect permitt me to say; that from your Majesty’s behaviour to me, it is impossible not to think my removal from your presence must be most aggreable to your inclinations.’ She was clearly still perplexed as to what had sparked his fury, and pleaded: ‘as I am very sensible that I am under your displeasure, so I am intirely ignorant in what manner I have incurr’d it’. In desperation, she tried to win back his favour by stressing the longevity of their attachment and her unswerving loyalty to him throughout it. ‘Were I allow’d to pursue the same way in thinking of your Majesty that I have for fourteen years past; I shou’d then think it impossible that such a tryfle cou’d wear out the remembrance of a fourteen year attachment with unwearied duty, and respect for you.’8 She evidently succeeded on this occasion, and the King gave no indication that he wished to discontinue her as his mistress.

The courtiers who seized upon the King’s increasing display of short temper with Henrietta as a complete loss of favour were either misguided or mischievous. The source of most of these rumours can be traced back to Lord Hervey, who despite being married to Henrietta’s close friend Molly, was very firmly in the Queen’s camp and therefore always quick to discredit her rival whenever he had the opportunity. George had retained Henrietta as his mistress for almost a decade, which was longer than any of his previous mistresses. What was more, he had continued to spend a great deal of time with her – between three and four hours every evening, as well as occasional meetings in the day – during most of which the couple had been alone together. It should not, therefore, be too surprising that once the novelty of the situation had worn off, and any initial burst of passion had cooled, the King was more inclined to display his natural short-temperedness with her. Indeed, the Queen, whom he undoubtedly loved very deeply, had been the subject of his wrath on numerous occasions, and he had often reduced her to tears in front of the whole court. The ebbs and flows of this choleric little man’s humour should not, therefore, be taken as reliable proof of which way his affections lay.

Nevertheless, even a temporary loss of favour was unsettling for Henrietta, who still relied heavily on her position at court to save her from ruin. This was therefore the worst possible moment for her estranged husband to begin a fresh onslaught.

Charles Howard had been put out of his place upon the death of George I, and as a result was now more desperate for money than ever. His brother Edward was still pestering him for the £1,200 that he had agreed to pay him each year as part of their recent court settlement. Added to this were the spiralling debts that he was accruing from his expensive habits. As was his custom, rather than seeking to pay these off through honourable means, Howard chose to persecute his wife until she would agree to give him the money he needed.

Like so many others at court, Charles believed that now Henrietta was mistress to a king rather than a mere prince, she would be in a much better position to assist him. He therefore renewed his campaign against her with even greater vigour than before. This time, he had no patience for putting his demands in writing: his wife had proved that he was no match for her when it came to reasoned and protracted debate. Neither was he prepared to use the law or the Church to further his cause, as both had proved inadequate in the past. Instead, he opted for a far more peremptory (and familiar) course of action: violence.

Late one night, after the court had retired, he forced his way into the inner courtyard of St James’s and shouted his demands so loudly that the whole palace was woken from their slumbers. Before the guards could seize him, he broke into the royal quarters and succeeded in reaching the apartments of the Queen herself. Startled by this sudden intrusion, she demanded to know what Howard’s business was. Unabashed, he told her that he would have his wife leave her service and return to him at once. He added that if he was not permitted to do so that very night, then he would seize Henrietta from Her Majesty’s coach the next time the royal family ventured out.

Caroline was not a woman to be cowed by such threats, and retorted that he might ‘do it if he dare’. For all her bravado, however, she was clearly alarmed at being alone with such a notoriously volatile man as Howard, and later confessed to Lord Hervey: ‘I was horribly afraid of him . . . all the while I was thus playing the bully. What added to my fear upon this occasion . . . was that I knew him to be so brutal, as well as a little mad, and seldom quite sober, so I did not think it impossible that he might throw me out of the window.’ Anxious for her own safety, she edged closer to the door so that she might make her escape if he became violent. Feeling more secure, she told him very firmly that she would neither force his wife to go to him if she had no mind to it, nor keep her if she had. Charles retorted that he would apply instead to the King, which irked Caroline so much that she told him to save himself the trouble ‘as I was sure the King would give him no answer but that it was none of his business to concern himself with my family’.9 At this point, the palace guards burst into the room and removed Howard by force.

Henrietta was mortified when she heard of the incident. Anxiety that it would exhaust what little patience the King had left with her combined with terror that her husband would strike again. The bitter irony of her situation was not lost on her. As Lord Hervey neatly put it: ‘A husband ordered her home who did not desire to have her there, and a lover was to retain her who seemed already tired of keeping her.’ It was an intolerable position to be in, and the part that she now had to act was ‘equally extraordinary, difficult and disagreeable’.10

In desperation she abandoned her customary discretion and poured out all her fears and torment in a letter to her old friend Alexander Pope. He was so aghast upon receiving this that he wrote back to her by return of post, offering all the words of comfort and support that he could think of. ‘I do not Only Say that I have a True Concern for you: Indeed I feel it, many times, very many, when I say it not. I wish to God any method were soon taken to put you out of this uneasy, discomforting situation.’ Although it must have seemed an unlikely prospect to him, he urged his friend to take comfort from the thought that her husband’s outrageous behaviour might turn their son against him, and thereby make him reflect that ‘possibly his Mother may be yet worse used than himself’. But Pope knew Mrs Howard well enough to realise that all this must be having a devastating effect upon her. ‘You, that I know feel even to Delicacy, upon several triffling occasions, must (I am sensible) do it to a deep degree, upon one so near & so tender to you.’11

His fears were realised, for within a matter of days the sorry affair had taken its toll on his friend’s health. She was struck down with such violent pains in the head that she was forced to take to her bed for several weeks. Even after she returned to her duties in the Queen’s household, the headaches continued to plague her. ‘I have been in the most exquisite [pain] for many days,’ she wrote to Chesterfield in the Hague, ‘which left so sensible a feeling for some weeks that I could attend to nothing else.’ Frustrated by his inability to help her from such a distance, the Earl tried to lift her spirits with a series of witty letters on the subject of her illness. ‘I can’t help being very angry at your head for having given us both so much pain,’ he wrote. ‘I have known some Ladys heads very troublesome to others but at the same time very easy to themselves; yours is just the reverse.’ Henrietta was still suffering the after-effects of her illness the following summer, and Dr Arbuthnot wrote to express his anxiety that she had not fully recovered.12

These were miserable times for Henrietta, worn down as she was by ill health and frustrated by the confinement that Charles’s threats made necessary. The King’s obvious impatience with her and the Queen’s skilful manipulation of them both had turned her life at court into a relentless ordeal. Added to this was the knowledge that Marble Hill – the source of so much joy and hope just a few months before – now stood empty and unfinished. Even if she had had the money to complete it, she could not risk leaving the safety of the court and settling there, because she was bound to fall straight into her husband’s hands.

Thwarted by the guards at St James’s and by his wife’s powerful protectors at court, Argyll and Ilay, from forcing his way into Henrietta’s presence, Charles resorted to tormenting her with letters and messages. One evening, when she was with her friends Gay and Arbuthnot in her apartments at St James’s, their light-hearted conversation was rudely interrupted by a messenger from her husband. He announced that he had come to secure Henrietta’s agreement to pay Charles’s brother the annual sum of £1,200, and that as he was due to dine with his master later that evening, he required her immediate response. At turns embarrassed and angered by this intrusion, she told him that she would not meddle in anything that related to the brothers’ agreement about the Suffolk estate. The man pressed her further, however, saying that as well as the £1,200, her husband demanded that she settle the interest from her £4,000 inheritance on their son. Henrietta knew full well that doing so would be as good as handing it over to Charles himself, and absolutely refused. She added that she had ‘starv’d with Mr H, & would not put herself in a circumstance to starve without him’. To this, the messenger responded that his master had ‘not above four hundred a year’. Henrietta threw back that she had ‘not many times, while with him, known where to get four hundred pence’.13

This incident threw the misery of Henrietta’s situation into sharp relief. Not since the early days of her marriage had she felt so trapped. She confided to her lawyer and close friend, James Welwood, that she found it utterly impossible ever to live with her husband again, but equally so to resign her position at court, ‘which service defends me from that poverty and want and that more insoportable misfortune of being illtreated’.14 Feeling increasingly isolated at court, and being perpetually tormented by her husband, Mrs Howard began to consider taking the radical and, for the time, shocking step of suing for a legal separation.

In the early eighteenth century, marriage was very much considered to be for life. Except in the most extreme cases, once the wedding vows had been exchanged, there was no going back. Both the law and society forbade it. Contemporary tracts referred to marriage as an ‘indissolvable Knot’, and those women who dared to voice dissatisfaction with their lot were dismissed as vain and ungrateful. ‘The Institution of Marriage is too sacred to admit a Liberty of objecting to it,’ one nobleman warned his daughter. ‘You are therefore to make the best of what is settled by Law and Custom, and not vainly imagine, that it will be changed for your sake.’ The author of ‘The Real Causes of Conjugal Infidelity and Unhappy Marriages’, meanwhile, laid the blame of such troubles firmly at the door of ‘the too great Liberty allowed our Women’.15

Only a very small number of women dared openly to criticise the unfairness of the situation. Mary Astell was one of the most vocal, and railed against a system in which ‘Wives may be made Prisoners for Life at the Discretion of their Domestick Governors’. But such women were seen as blasphemous troublemakers; the product of too much learning and too little authority. Any man who sided with them was similarly shunned by society. One of these rare types was the author Daniel Defoe, who in 1724 published ‘The Great Law of Subordination’. In this he claimed that ‘the case of women in England is truly deplorable, and there is scarce a good husband now to twenty that merited that name in former times; nor was beating of wives ever so much the usage in England, as it is now’.16

Domestic violence was wholly disregarded by the law as being sufficient grounds for separation or divorce: indeed, most men hardly viewed it as grounds for complaint. As late as 1753, the law still dictated: ‘If the wife be injured in her person or her property, she can bring no action for redress without her husband’s concurrence, and in his name, as well as her own.’17 Divorce was in fact such a rare and extreme measure that it took an Act of Parliament to bring it about. From the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, only four divorces were obtained by women, and all involved extraordinary expense, trauma, and – ultimately – disgrace. Even the less extreme legal actions were similarly beset with difficulty. Annulments were so staggeringly unusual that the very word would have been little understood in the context of marriage. Another option was legal separation, but to gain this a female petitioner had to go through the church courts and prove both adultery and life-threatening cruelty.

There was a third, slightly less problematic, alternative which was to draw up a private deed of separation – in effect, an ‘informal divorce’. This latter option was by far the most common, though compared to the number of women who chose to stay in their miserable marriages, it was still very rare. Again there were powerful social prohibitions against it, and the legal and financial risks were considerable. In most cases, the wife would forfeit any income she might have from real estate, as well as any future earnings or legacies, all her personal property, and – worst of all – custody of any children. Indeed, the most vindictive husbands could claim the right to total control over their children and exclude their wives from even seeing them, let alone influencing their upbringing. Charles Howard was already exercising this right to the full, and there was absolutely no reason to expect that he would change his behaviour if legal action was brought against him. The only way to minimise the risks involved in these informal divorces was to secure the best possible legal representation and draw up a very carefully worded deed of separation.

Henrietta must have felt that in James Welwood she had the former safeguard, and driven to desperation by her intolerable situation, she instructed him to begin proceedings. Dispatching the letter in secret, she urged him ‘to have some body prepose to Mr H. to Enter into articles’, so that in future ‘it may not be in the power of our Enemies again to Torment us’. She added that as a meeting was both impractical and inadvisable under the circumstances, he must instead write to her with his thoughts on ‘this project of negotiating with Mr Howard for a separation’.18 Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no trace of Welwood’s response in the family papers, but he evidently agreed with his client’s suggested course of action, for he subsequently began preparing the ground.

Welwood already had Mrs Howard’s own testimony about her marriage, because earlier that year she had written a long and detailed account of it in a letter to her husband, and had wisely kept a copy for herself. It is clear from this that she was already considering legal proceedings at this time. ‘You urge ye marriage Duty which I have perform’d and you have violated,’ she argued. ‘Ignorant as I am I must tell you yt there are circumstances which have at least suspended my Duty towards you who have made marriage an instrument of cruelty and have otherwise broken those laws you now vainly plead.’ The letter ends with a reasoned, but rather inaccurate, claim that through his abusive behaviour he had forfeited any right to use the law against her. ‘I am bound to preserve my life by a law superior to any claim of a husband, and I must tell you yt one who has broke other parts of his Matrimonial vow, has no right to possess himself of his wifes person.’19

Compelling though this account was, Welwood knew that on its own it was insufficient to prove Howard’s infidelity and violence beyond doubt. For this, he would need to secure testimonies from independent witnesses, which was no easy task. The Howards had been living apart for over a decade, and during the early years of their marriage, Henrietta had been so humiliated by her husband’s drunkenness and womanising that she had done her best to hide their situation from the world. Added to this was the fact that legal separation was so frowned upon that most people would have shied away from getting involved in any way. Thanks to sheer persistence, however, Welwood was eventually able to track down two credible witnesses who were willing to put such considerations aside.

Mrs Anne Hall and Mrs Anne Cell had been landlady and neighbour respectively to the Howards when they had lived in cheap lodgings in Soho. Their testimonies provided damning evidence against Charles. Both women told of his violence, cruelty and insobriety; that he would often reduce his wife to tears with his harsh words and even harsher actions, and that while he frittered away their money on his sordid habits, she would suffer ‘as poor & as mean a manner as she could possibly be left to live in’. By contrast, Mrs Howard, they said, always behaved in ‘ye most Obliging Courteous & Obedient manner’, and never did anything to provoke or deserve her husband’s ill treatment.20

Welwood could not have wished for more compelling testimonies than these. The two women had simultaneously upheld his client’s character while damning that of her husband, and, crucially, their accounts tallied exactly with Henrietta’s own. But he was not to enjoy the satisfaction of reading them, for no sooner had he dispatched his clerk to take their statements than he was struck down by a sudden illness and died. Henrietta was distraught. Not only was her legal separation now thrown into jeopardy, but she had lost a dear and trusted friend who had served her faithfully for many years.

In her grief, she cast about for allies at court. Thomas, 1st Baron Trevor, was Lord Privy Seal and a distinguished jurist. He was distantly related to Henrietta, for his grandfather, John Hampden, ‘The Patriot’, was her great-grandfather. At what stage Mrs Howard sought his intervention in her marital dispute is not clear, but he was certainly assiduous on her behalf. Without the formidable legal brain of James Welwood, she felt much less confident in pursuing her case through the law alone. She therefore resorted to the one thing that she knew her husband valued above all others: money. Having precious little of this herself, she urged Lord Trevor to seek her royal mistress’s help in the matter. He duly secured an audience with the Queen and humbly requested that she pay Charles Howard the £1,200 in order to retain his wife in her service. His request was given short shrift. Caroline began by pleading poverty, saying that although she would do anything to ‘keep so good a servant as Mrs Howard about me’, she really could not afford such a sum. She later confessed to Lord Hervey that she had greatly resented this application, considering that it was ‘a little too much not only to keep the King’s guenipes . . . under my roof, but to pay them too’.21

The Queen’s outright refusal to help, coupled with the fact that Henrietta had not applied to her in person, shows how hostile relations now were between the two women. Whether this prompted Henrietta to dispense with intermediaries and apply directly to her royal master is not certain. But against all the odds, the notoriously frugal King came to her rescue. On his orders, her annual allowance was increased by £1,200, thereby enabling her to pay her husband the exact sum that he demanded. An agreement was subsequently drawn up that provided Charles with an annuity during the lifetime of his brother, the 8th Earl of Suffolk. Thus, as Lord Hervey gleefully observed, ‘this affair ended, the King paying the £1,200 a year for the possession of what he did not enjoy, and Mr Howard receiving them, for relinquishing what he would have been sorry to keep’.22

Bitter experience had taught Henrietta that money alone could not keep Charles at bay for long, however, and that he would soon fritter it away in the taverns and whorehouses of London. She therefore resumed the proceedings for a legal separation, confident in the knowledge that this time she had the means to make her husband agree to it. Her old friend the Duke of Argyll took up the case that Dr Welwood had so ably prepared, and instructed his lawyers to draft a deed of separation. They more than earned their fee, for the resulting document was so carefully worded and impenetrable that in signing it Charles Howard would have to relinquish all future claims to his wife and her money.

The deed opened with a declaration that ‘henceforth during their joint Lives there shall be a Totall and Absolute Separation between them’. The pages that followed were filled with precise instructions and strictures that Mr Howard was to abide by in relation to his wife, notably that he must not ‘by any means or on any pretence whatsoever claime seize Restrain or detain’ her. Furthermore, he was to be as cut off from her purse as he was from her person, and every possible income, property or possession that Henrietta owned or might own in the future (apart from the £1,200 allowance) was to be kept well beyond his reach. Such resources were to be employed by Mrs Howard as she chose, and in return she was to forfeit any claim to her husband’s fortune, such as it was. Above all, though, she was to be at liberty to ‘Reside and Inhabit at her free will and pleasure in such place or places as she will see fitt in the same manner as if she was sole’.23

Thus drafted, the deed was passed to Charles’s lawyers for their consideration. Their client objected to just one clause, but it was a significant one: that neither Henrietta nor her representatives could execute any further deeds or acts to consolidate the separation. Taken to their ultimate conclusion, these acts could have enabled the instigation of divorce proceedings, and this he was determined to thwart. Undoubtedly it was a desire to keep one final thread, however fine, in place so that his wife could never feel completely free of him, rather than any more sentimental feelings, that drove him to do so. Anxious to bring the matter to a swift conclusion, Henrietta agreed to his demand, and the words ‘except his consenting or agreeing to a Divorce’ were added to the clause, interlined between the original text.

The deed of separation was signed by Charles and Henrietta Howard on 29 February 1728, almost twenty-two years to the day since they had exchanged their wedding vows at St Benet’s Church. Their miserable, destructive marriage was at last at an end.

Henrietta’s relief was overwhelming. She could hardly believe that the heavy burden of fear under which she had laboured for so many years had finally been lifted. Her friends were overjoyed to witness the transformation in her. ‘She is happier than I have ever seen her,’ John Gay wrote to Swift a few days later, ‘for she is free as to her conjugal affairs by articles of agreement.’ Martha Blount concurred. ‘Mrs Howard is well, and happier than ever you saw her,’ she told Pope, ‘for her whole affair with her husband is ended to her satisfaction.’24

Her joy was compounded the following year when work on her beloved Thames-side villa was finally completed. The King’s additional allowance, coupled with the separation, had freed her from her husband’s debts and given her a much greater measure of financial security. She was therefore able to instruct her architect, Roger Morris, to resume his work at Marble Hill. Substantial progress had been made by the end of 1728, and the ‘Principall Story, two sweepe Wall and 4 Buildings in the Garden’ had all been finished. Henrietta was now able to turn her attention to the interior furnishings, and was delighted when her friend Lord Chesterfield wrote to her from the Hague to say that he had spied ‘an extream fine Chinese bed, window Curtains, Chairs, & c.’ for sale at a very reasonable price. He assured her: ‘If you should have a mind to it for Marble Hill, and can find any way of getting it over; I will with a great deal of pleasure obey your commands.’ A few months later, the finishing touches to the exterior were made, and on 24 June 1729 Henrietta settled the final account of £763 for ‘the finnishing all workes . . . and all Demands’.25

Mrs Howard’s satisfaction at the completion of Marble Hill, a project that had taken more than six years and overcome many obstacles along the way, must have been great indeed. But it must also have been tempered by the frustration that she was not at liberty to enjoy her new retreat. The Queen showed no inclination to release her from service; indeed, she seemed to derive great satisfaction from the knowledge that her husband was tiring of his ageing mistress. If anything, this made her more determined than ever to ensure that she remained at the palace so that he would not be able to find a more alluring replacement.

Thus, even though the past year had given Henrietta much greater independence than ever before, she was still tied to a life that had ceased to bring her any joy. Moreover, she could no longer comfort herself with the knowledge that it was necessary for her survival: with Charles Howard being as good as out of the picture, she did not need her position at court to protect her.

The letters she wrote to her friends betray her growing restlessness and frustration, and the entertaining accounts of their own lives away from court made her even more wistful. ‘I am glad you have past your time so agreeably,’ she wrote to Gay during one of his jaunts to Bath, adding: ‘I need not tell you how mine has been employ’d.’ To Swift, she lamented: ‘I have been a Slave 20 years without ever receiving a reason for any one thing I ever was oblig’d to do,’ and concluded: ‘I wou’d take your giddiness, your head-ake or any other complaint you have, to resemble you in one circumstance in life.’26

It was to be some considerable time before Mrs Howard was finally granted her wish.

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