ON THE MORNING OF 25 October 1760, George II rose, as usual, at six o’clock. He called for his hot chocolate, as he had done on every other morning since his accession, and drank it down. He then walked over to the window overlooking the gardens at Kensington, opened it, and declared that as it was a fine day, he would walk in the gardens. A little after seven o’clock, he retreated into the water closet, methodical as ever in his habits. His valet de chambre, waiting patiently outside while His Majesty completed his evacuations, just as he did every morning, was surprised by ‘a noise louder than the royal wind’, followed by a thud ‘like the falling of a billet of wood from the fire’. He rushed in and found the King lying on the floor. There was a gash on his right temple caused by a heavy fall against the corner of a bureau, and his hand was stretched towards the bell that he had tried to ring for assistance. He whispered, ‘Call Amelia,’ then spoke no more.
The valet tore off to find help, and arrived back with several doctors in tow, as well as Princess Amelia, the King’s second eldest daughter. Together they laid him on the bed and the doctors attempted to bleed him, but ‘not a drop followed’. Princess Amelia, who was rather deaf, put her face close to her father’s to catch any whispered commands, but finding his cheek cold, she leapt back in horror, realising he was dead. A post-mortem later revealed that he had died from a ruptured ventricle of the heart, the origin of which was probably syphilitic.1
As with so much of his life, death had come to George II accompanied by an element of farce. As he lay dying on the floor of his water closet, it was most probably his mistress, not his daughter, whom he had called for. They shared the same Christian name, but the Princess was more commonly known as Emily. It made little difference, however, for by the time his daughter arrived at his side, George was already dead. If he could have chosen the moment of his passing, he might well have preferred something more suited to his royal stature. As it was, this proud warrior king, who had led his troops to glory at Oudenarde and Dettingen, had breathed his last on the toilet.
George II was seventy-seven years of age when he died. He had enjoyed rude health for most of his life, and only in recent years had he been troubled by fading eyesight and poor hearing. He had reigned for thirty-three years, during which time the Jacobite threat had been extinguished for good, the Hanoverian succession had been securely established, and the political regime had been stabilised by the long ministries of Walpole, Pelham, Pitt and Newcastle. At the same time, Britain had been transformed into a great world power. The foundations of the Industrial Revolution had been laid, with new levels of production in industries such as coal and shipbuilding as well as in agriculture, and there had been a rapid rise in population. Overseas trade had been boosted by successes in India, which placed Madras and Bengal under British control, and by the capture of French-held Quebec. George had played a personal role in some of his country’s military successes, notably at Dettingen in 1743 when he had become the last British sovereign to lead his troops into battle.
The tributes paid to the King upon his death were perhaps more flattering than might have been expected for such a cantankerous monarch. The London Chronicle proclaimed that he was ‘beloved honoured and regretted by his subjects, for his eminent and royal virtues’. His former minister, Lord Carteret, told his daughter that he had ‘lost in common with the public an excellent King but also I can say with great truth a most gracious and good friend in particular’. The Duke of Newcastle, meanwhile, lamented that he had ‘lost the best King, the best master, and the best friend that ever subject had. God knows what consequences it may have.’ Even Lord Chesterfield, who had long since fallen foul of the King, admitted that he had departed this life unloved ‘but not unpraised since he was dead’.
Such accolades were short-lived, however. A little over a month after George II’s death, one contemporary observed: ‘I can’t help still regretting our late Sovereign, if he had some defects, he had certainly many virtues, and he had experience, which nothing but time can give; yet he seems already to be almost forgotten.’2 Most of his subjects were now looking to his successor with the renewed hope and optimism that so often characterises the beginning of a new reign.
George III was the grandson of the late King, and had become the heir to the throne after the death of his father Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1751. He was the first of the Hanoverian kings to be born in England, and although he could speak German, he showed little interest in his Hanoverian dominions, and in fact was never to visit them. His popularity was further enhanced by his youth (he was twenty-two on his accession) and enthusiasm, coupled with the fact that he was the first unmarried monarch to ascend the throne since Charles II in 1660. Before long, he had swept away the vestiges of his grandfather’s court, including its tedious customs, dreary entertainments, and most of its officials. George II’s mistress, Lady Yarmouth, was expelled from her apartments clutching the strongbox he had left her, which was said to contain £10,000. She remained in Britain for a few months before returning to Hanover, where she died of ‘a cancer in her breast’ in October 1765.3
The German mistress’s predecessor, Lady Suffolk, profited rather less from the King’s death. All that it brought her was the cessation of the pension that she had enjoyed since leaving court twenty-six years earlier. She now faced the prospect of living in straitened circumstances. This in itself was sufficient cause for anxiety, but she also seemed to be genuinely saddened by the King’s passing. Horace Walpole observed that she was ‘very sensible to his death’ and remained rather melancholy for some time afterwards.
The passing of her old royal lover no doubt heightened Lady Suffolk’s growing sense of nostalgia and reflection as she looked back over the events of her life. ‘We do extremely rejoyce to hear that you are at least left so to yourself, as to be able to think of what is past, so as to be able to judge what is to come,’ wrote her friend Lady Mary Vere. At seventy-one years of age, Henrietta was now an old woman. Although she was still plagued by deafness, her health was tolerable and her mind was still sharp. ‘She has all her senses as perfect as ever,’ marvelled her constant companion, Horace Walpole, ‘is clean, gentle upright; and has her eyes, teeth, and memory, in wonderful conversation, especially the last, which unlike the aged, is as minutely retentive of what happened two years ago, as of the events of her youth.’4
Henrietta continued to keep abreast of the lives of her friends, and as these now included the statesmen William Pitt and George Grenville, her interest in politics was reignited. ‘Don’t Mr Walpole think Lady Suffolk gave great proofs of her knowledge and wisdom last Saturday night?’ she wrote to her friend in 1761, after accurately predicting that Grenville would be offered the post of Secretary of State in succession to Pitt. The same year, she played an active role in the election to the influential post of Master of the Charterhouse in London, canvassing votes on behalf of Dr Morton, Librarian of the British Museum. She called in some of her connections to help her, including the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England, and her old court acquaintance, the Duke of Newcastle.5
Henrietta also retained some contact with the court. Her advice was sought about the proper ceremonies to be observed at the coronation of George III’s new wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz, in September 1761. Even though it had been almost thirty-four years since she had attended the late Queen’s coronation, she recalled all the ceremonies, precedents and codes of etiquette in remarkable detail – from the guarding of the robes and jewels at Westminster to the handkerchief used to wipe the Queen’s face after she had been anointed.6
Lady Suffolk herself attended the coronation. Although an expert on the protocols involved and the clothes that were appropriate, she called upon the assistance of her friend Walpole in dressing her hair. She was later able to return the favour by helping him out of an awkward and embarrassing situation when Queen Charlotte paid an unexpected visit to Strawberry Hill. Unaware who the caller was, Walpole’s servant had announced that his master was in bed and could not be disturbed. Greatly flustered upon learning the truth, Horace ran at once to seek his friend’s advice, and she helped him write a letter of apology to the palace.
Henrietta was also consulted by William Chetwynd about the extent of his daughter’s privileges as Sempstress to the Queen. Miss Chetwynd was eager to attend a drawing room, but her comparatively humble position in the household would not allow her to do so, no matter how well born she might be. Henrietta cautioned that if she ignored the rules, it would be ‘a very mortifying circumstance and distress to her’, and that she should therefore ‘obey them without a murmer’.7
Although she dabbled in matters of court and politics from time to time, Lady Suffolk’s main preoccupations were closer to home. She did take a trip to Cheltenham in 1762, but otherwise preferred to stay at Marble Hill. She continued to entertain friends both here and at Savile Street, and would also visit Horace Walpole at his Strawberry Hill villa. The latter was with her when a fire broke out near her town house in April 1761. After making sure that she had suffered no ill effects, he persuaded her to remove her most valuable possessions in case the fire should spread. Although Lady Suffolk behaved ‘with great composure’, she was clearly shaken by the experience and afterwards admitted ‘how much worse her deafness grew with the alarm’.8
Henrietta came to rely on Walpole more and more as the years passed. When business in town detained him, he would write to her often from his house on Arlington Street. ‘I could not help scrawling out a few lines to ask how your Ladyship does, to tell you how I am, and to lament the roses, strawberries, & banks of the River,’ he wrote on one such occasion, adding: ‘pray keep a little summer for me. I will give you a bushel of politics, when I come to Marblehill, for a teacup of strawberries & cream.’9 She was therefore distraught when, in the autumn of 1765, he announced that he was taking a trip to France and would probably not return until the following year.
This was the longest period that Henrietta had been deprived of her friend’s company, and she felt his absence keenly. She complained that her ‘head, eyes, stomach, feet and spirits’ had all been adversely affected by his departure, and begged him to comfort her with frequent letters. This Walpole promised to do, and he proved as good as his word. He sent a series of entertaining descriptions of his life in Paris, the company he kept and the sights he encountered. ‘All my hours are turned topsy-turvy,’ he complained soon after his arrival. ‘Indeed Breakfast and Dinner now and then jostle one another.’ Very little in France seemed to meet with his approval. ‘Their gardens are like Desserts, with no more verdure or shade,’ he wrote. ‘What trees they have, are stripped up, & cut strait at top; it is quite the massacre of the Innocents.’
Lady Suffolk delighted in his irreverent letters and urged him to write more often. Walpole accused her of being a ‘tyrant, who does not allow me many holiday-minutes’, but he was clearly glad to obey her request. For all his criticism of France, the longer he stayed there, the more he seemed to like it. By the beginning of December, he was reporting that he had ‘seen several people I like’, and had become ‘established in two or three societies, where I sup every night’. Among his acquaintance there was a family very dear to Henrietta’s heart: the Berkeleys. Lady Elizabeth Berkeley, widow of the 4th Earl (George Berkeley’s nephew), was a star of the gaming tables, and her son, Frederick, the 5th Earl, was also noted as being among the party. The mention of such a tender connection to her past must have evoked fond memories for Henrietta, who had enjoyed the society of Paris with her late husband George almost thirty years earlier.
Another overseas correspondent to enliven Lady Suffolk’s retirement at Marble Hill was her nephew, John, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire. John had been rising steadily through the political ranks during the previous few years. In common with many of his contemporaries, he had cut his teeth on elections in his native county, and had been returned as a Whig MP for the city of Norwich in 1747. At the end of 1755, he had secured his first office in government as Comptroller of the Household to George II, and a little over a year later, he had been elected to the Privy Council. To this honour had been added the sinecure of Lord of the Bedchamber to the King, who had apparently taken a shine to his former mistress’s lively young nephew.
The Earl had devoted so much of his younger life to politics and the court that it was not until 1761, shortly before his thirty-eighth birthday, that he turned his attentions to more domestic matters and took a wife – Mary Anne Drury, daughter of a Northamptonshire baronet. Perhaps married life was not to his taste, for barely a year into it, he accepted the apparently prestigious commission of concluding a new treaty with Russia. This was something of a poisoned chalice, however, for while the British government’s motivation was commerce, the Russians were seeking a political alliance. Such an impasse would have challenged the most seasoned of diplomats, but Buckinghamshire had precious little experience of such matters, and was therefore ill equipped for the situation that greeted him upon his arrival in St Petersburg in the autumn of 1762.
Nevertheless, the Earl’s engaging manner made him an instant hit at the Russian court, and he also succeeded in charming its formidable matriarch, Catherine the Great. Before long, she was so fond of him that she habitually requested his attendance, both at court and on more private occasions, such as when she indulged her passion for riding. ‘I had the honour of seeing her ride,’ he told his aunt a few months after his arrival. ‘She was dresst in man’s cloaths and it really is not flattery to say that few men ride better.’ Riding was a passion that the Earl shared with the Empress, and so highly did she favour him that the year after his arrival, she ordered two horses to be sent over from England so that they might ride them together. During the course of his ambassadorship, she showered him with more gifts, including a magnificent tapestry of Peter the Great, which now hangs at Blickling.
Their mutual affection was obvious to everyone who saw them together, and it was not long before rumours began to circulate that relations between Her Imperial Majesty and the English envoy had deepened into intimacy. They were in each other’s company almost all the time, both at the court in St Petersburg and in Catherine’s beautiful Summer Palace nearby. When matters of state took her away from there in the summer of 1764, the Earl greatly missed her company and confessed to his aunt: ‘The Empress is expected this evening at Peterhoff, about twenty miles from hence, which I equally rejoice at both in my publick and private capacity, as I have sensibly felt in both the difference of her absence.’10
Buckinghamshire was both enchanted by his new country and amused by its eccentricities. He described it all to his aunt back in England, who derived real pleasure from his witty and colourful accounts. The weather was a constant theme. ‘As yet everything is covered with snow,’ he wrote during his first spring there. ‘The river has the appearance of a Broad Street and on Sunday is covered with thousands of people who resort there to see Sledge races and Boxing Matches.’
The following year, he had grown more used to the harshness of the climate. ‘The Russian spring is begun, that is to say, it freezes all night and thaws all day. Early in the morning you travel upon ice, but all the rest of the day the streets are canals,’ he wrote. He still marvelled at the brevity of the warmer months, describing the summers as ‘very concise’, and observing that ‘What we call three seasons are in great measure united here – Spring, Summer and Autumn when the weather is particularly favourable will together make nearly four months.’ As well as being ‘concise’, summer brought other irritations. Writing to his aunt one hot August day, he complained about the flies that had descended upon the city, ‘three of those animals (the purpose of whose existence I can as little account for as of my own) taking their evenings walk upon my forehead’.11
The food, traditions and etiquette of the Russians were of even greater fascination to John than his typically English obsession with the weather. When his aunt informed him of a likely betrothal that she had heard about between an English lady and a Russian count, he offered the following advice to the bride: ‘She must learn Russ, eat mushrooms, fryd in rape oil and pickled cucumbers in Lent; she must forget to courtesy and learn to bow, she must wear red without measure, dance Polish dances, and drink Chisterskij, Quash and Burton Ale, the nature of the first two her dear man will inform her of, the last she will know is the produce of England.’12
On another occasion, he described a Russian wedding that he had attended. He had witnessed every part of it: from the bride’s dressing party to the wedding ceremony itself and the evening entertainments that followed. While he spoke respectfully of the overall ‘dignity and solemnity’ of the occasion, he could not resist expressing his amusement at one of the more extraordinary events of the day. Just before the company had set out for the church, the mother of the bride had ordered all those present to be seated and the doors of the room to be closed ‘as a prognostick of the future tranquillity of the new marry’d couple’. Unfortunately, however, a young child of the family had ‘burst out into a most violent fit of roaring’, which, the Earl observed, ‘seem’d to me a much apter emblem of what might hereafter insue’.
For all his bemusement at the unusual customs and climate of St Petersburg, Buckinghamshire was clearly enjoying his time there to the full. ‘I find myself so much fatigued this morning with dancing last night with the Maids of Honour, that it is with difficulty I can undergo the fatigue of writing,’ he observed in one letter to his aunt. In another, he described a lavish reception that he had hosted at his apartments, which had been ‘one of the prettiest Balls & cheerfullest evenings I ever was a Party to’, and had included twenty ‘interesting’ young women.13
So energetically did the Earl enter into all the social diversions the city had to offer that he scarcely had any time for his official duties. Indeed, these seemed to present an irksome distraction, and on the rare occasions that he did turn his attention to them, he showed neither enthusiasm nor initiative. He had clearly hoped that his secretary would undertake most of this work for him, in the same way as his servant in the English court carried out the duties required by a Lord of the Bedchamber. He was therefore extremely frustrated to find that the man who had been appointed to him was rather incompetent. ‘My secretary, is the most disagreeable, illiterate, underbred, wretch in the Universe,’ he complained. ‘I am forced to do almost everything myself, tho’ I pay him two hundred pounds per an. which is full double the usual stipend.’14 The Earl begged his aunt to use her influence with the politicians back in England to find him a more diligent replacement.
Henrietta did what she could to help him, but her efforts were in vain and he was obliged to endure the less appealing aspects of his posting, as well as enjoying its many pleasures. She performed what was arguably a greater service, however, by looking after his young wife, who was feeling a little neglected by her new husband. A few months before his departure, she had given birth to a daughter, whom they had christened Harriet. Lady Suffolk sent her nephew regular reports of his young family’s health, and was clearly delighted to have another child to care for. ‘Lady HH is a very fine Child,’ she told him, ‘very Healthy, forward on her feet and takes great pains to be so with her Tongue.’ The little girl had apparently inherited some of her father’s capacity to entertain, for one of Lady Suffolk’s acquaintances described her as ‘the most amusing little Creature I ever saw’, when she encountered her at Marble Hill.15
Lady Suffolk also kept her nephew informed of political events back in England, although she always pretended that these were far beyond the comprehension of his ‘affectionate old aunt’. ‘What passes in St Stephens Chaple [the Houses of Parliament] and other matters [are] much to heigh and intricate for my capacity either to judge of, or even to Comprehend,’ she insisted in one letter. The insincerity of such protestations was proved by the well-informed insights she provided him with, all of which were based on the conversations she had had with the various high-standing politicians among her acquaintance. The Earl trusted his aunt implicitly and relied upon her advice as he tried to maintain his influence in England. ‘There is no person but yourself whom I can talk with confidence upon my situation,’ he assured her.16
But for all Henrietta’s efforts, she was not able to conceal from the English ministers that her nephew was failing to make any progress with the Russian alliance, despite having been there for almost two years. In August 1764, they issued him with an ultimatum: either get the stalled negotiations moving or return to Britain. The Earl knew that such a difficult mission was beyond his capability, and reluctantly agreed to relinquish his position. As he prepared to take his leave from the country that had provided him with so much entertainment over the previous two years, he wrote sorrowfully to his aunt: ‘Whatever pleasure a man may promise himself in breathing the air of his native soil and renewing his antient connections, yet the approach of a moment when you are to take eternal leave of those with whom you have lived in an agreeable familiarity and a state of mutual benevolence, cannot but be painful to a feeling mind.’ The prospect of seeing his wife and infant daughter again apparently offered little compensation, and he was full of foreboding about the situation that would face him when he returned home. ‘What welcome I shall meet with in England except from my own family seems to me rather uncertain, as from the extreme negligence with which my friends have corresponded with me, I almost suspect I shall find myself a little upon the footing of a stranger.’17
He was right to be apprehensive. Upon arriving back at court in spring 1765, he was greeted by a rather cool reception from several of his former acquaintances. What was worse, the King seemed to show a growing disapproval of him. His sharp wit and irreverent manner jarred with the more formal behaviour expected in George III’s court (not to mention in government) and he often caused offence. Lady Mary Coke once heard him give an address in front of the King in the House of Lords, and noted in her journal that evening: ‘His manner is not pleasing.’18
Despite the failure of his mission to Russia, Buckinghamshire was offered the ambassadorship of Spain the year after his return. He felt that his position at court was too fragile to leave it, however, so declined. Nevertheless, he remained eager for advancement, but his lack of influence, coupled with his increasing alienation from the King, made this an unlikely prospect. Finally, in November 1767, he was dismissed as Lord of the Bedchamber following his support of a failed plot concerning George III’s American dominions. He would have to wait almost a decade before another appointment in government would come his way.
The Earl of Buckinghamshire’s correspondence with his ageing aunt continued with the same frequency after his return to England. He was clearly grateful for the care she had taken of his wife and child, and sent regular accounts of their life at Blickling. His return there had brought him little joy at first, for political events in Norfolk seemed to be conspiring against him as much as they had in London. ‘I am sorry to find that I have made myself so many enemy’s in Norfolk,’ he lamented to Lady Suffolk. ‘Would I had never seen Blickling!’ But he soon succeeded in patching up local relationships, aided in no small part by the plentiful victuals that the county had to offer. He recounted to his aunt how he had dined with the new local sheriff ‘upon Venison Swan & Turkey’, washed down with ‘copious draughts of . . . a coarse homely liquor’. He had managed to remain sober enough to find his way home, and had arrived in time to see ‘the Chit’ (his young daughter Harriet) before she had been put to bed.19
John soon settled down into a life of tranquil domesticity with his family. His wife bore him three more daughters in successive years, between 1767 and 1769, and he doted on them. Having all but given up on his political ambitions for now, he turned his attentions to a programme of repair and modernisation at Blickling. Sharing his aunt’s passion for architecture, he threw himself into the task with alacrity and kept her fully informed of progress. ‘There is no person in the universe to whom I more willingly communicate my Idea’s and no Ideas than to your Ladyship,’ he assured her. ‘The alterations in the Eating Room go on, Gothick it was, & Gothick it will be, in spite of all the remonstrances of Modern Improvers upon Grecian Architecture. The Ceiling is to be painted with the Lives of Cupid & Psiche, cupid is to hover exactly over the centre of the table to indicate to the Maitre d’Hotel the exact position of the Venison Pasty.’ He went on to describe the loss of the ‘Nine Worthies’ – a set of classical statues that had previously adorned the Great Hall – but assured his aunt that they would be replaced by figures from Blickling’s distinguished past. His knowledge of architecture was evidently greater than his knowledge of history, however, for he observed: ‘as Anna Boleyn was born at Blickling it will not be improper to purchase her Father Henry the eighth’s Figure (which by order is no longer to be exhibited at the Tower) who will fill with credit the space occupy’d by the falling Hector’.20
Buckinghamshire’s natural energy and exuberance ensured that the works at Blickling soon became more ambitious than he had originally planned. Within a few months, he was supervising a whole host of workmen, and was clearly in his element – although he admitted that paying their bills was a good deal less diverting. His aunt followed the progress at her childhood home with great interest. In spite of failing health and fading eyesight, she faithfully answered each of his letters, and the duel of wits between the elderly lady and her spirited nephew was reminiscent of her correspondence with the likes of Chesterfield and Peterborough many years before. ‘Another letter from the Old Woman!’ she began one, mimicking her nephew’s irreverent terms of address, before scolding him for writing such dull accounts of domestic life at Blickling, which she claimed were an unworthy successor to the lively descriptions he had sent her from Russia. John, meanwhile, scoffed at her ‘extensive notions of liberty and the high prerogatives of the female world’, and argued that if women were left to follow their own inclinations with regard to such important matters as choosing a husband, ‘nineteen times in twenty they will choose wrong’.21
Henrietta’s nephew provided a much-needed diversion in a life that was increasingly beset by ill health and financial hardship. Although she was hardly destitute, the loss of her royal pension upon George II’s death had left her with considerably less money than she had had before, and the cost of maintaining her house and servants was becoming ever more burdensome. John provided for her as best he could, sending her regular parcels of bread, coal and other staples from Blickling. But these were not enough to sustain her, and frequent bouts of illness put a further strain on her meagre funds, requiring as they did the services of doctors and apothecaries. To her old complaints of deafness and headaches were added painful attacks of gout in her joints and even in her eyes, which often laid her low for several days at a time. Her correspondence is littered with concerned enquiries from her friends and family, and hardly a month seemed to go by without some fresh cause for discomfort. Lady Suffolk made light of her illnesses, telling her nephew John: ‘I would flatter myself I shall soon be so [healthy]; but head and eyes love contradiction and will not agree with me.’22 Her growing frailty was clear to all, however.
Nothing was a greater source of comfort to Lady Suffolk during these difficult years than the presence of Henrietta, daughter of Dorothy and Charles Hotham. The girl had come to live with her at Marble Hill in 1763, when she was eight years old. This was some considerable distance from her parents’ estate in East Yorkshire, fifteen miles north of Hull, but Lady Suffolk was still revered by Dorothy and her brother John after the happy childhood she had given them at Marble Hill, and both had absolute trust in her abilities as a guardian. ‘You will tell Miss Harriet [Henrietta] I have but one piece of advice to give her,’ wrote John soon after the girl’s arrival there, ‘that is, to act as you would have her, tell her to try it only for three days, & if at the end of them she do’s not confess she never pass’d three days so agreeably, Let blame light upon your most truly affectionate Nephew.’23
Henrietta Hotham was a precocious child, and lively to the point of waywardness. Like John, she had inherited her great-aunt’s intelligence and humour. Lady Suffolk was instantly charmed by her and did everything she could to ensure her comfort and amusement. She transformed the bedroom next to her own into Miss Hotham’s private chamber, furnishing it with a fine walnut dresser and a ‘cloaths chest’ in the latest ‘India’ fashion. From this room, the young girl could look out across the gardens or watch the coaches and promenaders who passed by on the road beyond. Lady Suffolk also employed a maid to attend to her every need, and ensured that she was given all the elements of a young lady’s education – including dancing, music, reading and embroidery.
But young Henrietta had little patience for such refined pursuits, preferring instead to swim in the river with the local boys or run around doing animal impressions. ‘I can grunt like a Hog, Quack like a Duck, sing like a Cuckoo,’ she proudly told her parents, although she admitted that her great-aunt had cautioned her that such behaviour was only acceptable for spinsters.24 The model of propriety that Lady Suffolk presented was not at all emulated by the young girl. In vain, the former had tried to instil some sense of decorum into her wayward namesake by placing a seat in the garden where she could ‘retire and meditate’. Miss Hotham would have none of it, however, and instead scrambled up the nearest tree when she needed some solitude.
Lady Suffolk pretended to be exasperated by such conduct, but she was secretly delighted with her young charge and was soon a slave to her every whim. Her friends were equally indulgent towards this charming new addition to the household at Marble Hill – and none more so than Horace Walpole. He paid as assiduous a court to her as he did to his old friend, and delighted in composing poems and rhymes for her amusement. He even went to the trouble of printing one of these, ‘The Magpie and Her Brood’, at his publishing house at Strawberry Hill. When the coronation of George III took place, he invited Miss Hotham as his special guest to witness the procession from a friend’s house in Palace Yard. She adored him in return, and her great-aunt ensured that he was often among the company that gathered at her riverside home.
Another frequent guest was Lady Suffolk’s old friend William Chetwynd, who soon became equally besotted with her young charge. A good-natured rivalry developed between him and Walpole as they fought to outdo each other in devising games and pranks to keep the girl entertained. ‘Mr Chetwynd I suppose is making the utmost advantage of my absence,’ surmised Walpole during his visit to Paris in 1765, ‘frisking & cutting capers before Miss Hotham, & advising her not to throw herself away on a decrepit old man. Well, well, fifty years hence he may be an old man too, and then I shall not pity him, tho I own he is the best-humoured lad in the World now.’25 This ‘lad’ was in fact an old man of eighty, while Walpole was approaching fifty, and it is amusing to think of the two men prancing around for the sake of the young girl’s gratification.
Henrietta Hotham’s presence breathed new life into Marble Hill. She was always the centre of attention at her great-aunt’s parties and gatherings. Horace Walpole described one such occasion, New Year’s Day 1764. The girl had been thoroughly spoilt with gifts from Lady Suffolk and her friends, including a smart new coat which she insisted on wearing for most of the day. Lady Temple, who was among the company, planted a little box on her dressing table. Upon seeing this, the girl seized it ‘with all the eagerness and curiosity of eleven years’, and was overjoyed to find ‘A new-year’s gift from Mab our queen’. When she came downstairs, she found another sealed note lying on the floor, and squealed with delight when she discovered that it was from the ‘fairies’ who had left her the ring. The jest continued into the following day, for when Lady Temple again called upon her friend, she was accosted by Miss Hotham bearing a note from ‘Oberon the grand, Emperor of fairy land, King of moonshine, prince of dreams . . . Baron of the dimpled isles That lie in pretty maidens’ smiles.’ This had been composed with the help of Lady Suffolk and Will Chetwynd, who looked on in amusement at Lady Temple’s being thus outwitted.
Adored though she was, Miss Hotham did have a rival for her great-aunt’s affections. Lady Elizabeth Berkeley was Lady Suffolk’s god-daughter, and spent much of her childhood at Marble Hill. The youngest daughter of the 4th Earl of Berkeley, she would have been the great-niece of Henrietta’s second husband George. She was a pretty but somewhat neglected child whose mother had cultivated ‘a dislike both unjust and premature’ towards her. Lady Suffolk, who was always greatly disposed towards any relative of her late husband, immediately took pity on the girl and made sure that she came to visit whenever her family was in London. Lady Betty Germain, Elizabeth’s great-aunt, was often among the party, and the two elderly ladies showered her with affection. This may have been partly why the girl grew up to be rather spoilt and self-centred, although she later proudly claimed in her published memoirs that she had ‘made Lady Suffolk a pattern for my manners’.26
The effort of looking after two such wayward charges took its toll on Henrietta’s health. Walpole noted with some concern that his friend had greatly exerted herself in throwing a party in Miss Hotham’s honour, despite suffering from acute pains in her eyes and going without sleep for several weeks. ‘What spirits, cleverness, and imagination, at that age, and under those afflicting circumstances!’ he marvelled in a letter to a friend. Indeed, she was so ill at this time that Walpole feared for her life. ‘Alas! I had like to have lost her this morning!’ he wrote. ‘They had poulticed her feet to draw the gout downwards, and began to succeed yesterday, but to-day it flew up into the head, and she was almost in convulsions with the agony, and screamed dreadfully; proof enough how ill she was. This evening the gout has been driven back to her foot, and I trust she is out of danger. Her loss would be irreparable to me at Twickenham, where she is by far the most rational and agreeable company I have.’27 She fell ill again later that year, and although she did her best to conceal her discomfort, it did not escape the sharp eye of her great-niece. ‘I wish it was in my power to give you a better account of Lady Suffolk,’ Miss Hotham wrote to her father in October, ‘but she has got a bad cough which keeps her from sleeping.’28
As Lady Suffolk’s health deteriorated, she became less and less able to keep up the correspondence with her many friends and acquaintances. She therefore relied increasingly upon Henrietta Hotham and Horace Walpole to act as her scribes, and it is evident from the resulting letters that although her body was weak, her mind was as sharp as ever. She certainly had need of her wit, for one of her correspondents was her old friend Lord Chesterfield, whose humour had abated little with the onset of old age. In a letter written towards the end of 1766, he assumed the character of his footman. ‘I cannot well understand why my lord would rather employ my hand than his own in writing to your Ladyship,’ it began, ‘because I have heared him say that there was no body in the world that he honoured and respected more than your Ladyship, and that you was the oldest acquaintance, friend and Fellow servant that he had.’ He concluded that his ‘maser’, who, like Henrietta, was now in his seventies, ‘often complains that he feells a sensible decay both of body and mind’.
Lady Suffolk enlisted Walpole’s help in replying, and the ensuing letter was written as if from her maid, ‘Elizabeth Wagstaff’, who apparently spoke with a marked Irish accent. ‘Lack a day, Mister Thomas,’ she exclaimed, ‘here have I been turmoilin and puzelin my poor brains to write to a Jackadandy . . . They says as how your Lord is the greatest Wit in all England, & so I suppose you fansis yourself the second, & will make a mock of a poor Girl.’ ‘Mrs Wagstaff’ went on to report that her mistress was ‘pure well’, although she ‘coffs a litel now & tan all day long’, and that she had scoffed at the notion that Lord Chesterfield was growing old, ‘for he never was spritlier in his born days, & to be sure between you & I, My Lady is hugely fond of him, & I wishes with all my heart so I do, that it proove a match, for she is as good a Lady as ever trod in shoolether’.
The flirtation between these two old courtiers continued in Chesterfield’s reply, although he admitted that he had a ‘shattered Carcase’ as a result of living ‘a little too freely formerly’, and was therefore a less energetic lover than he had been previously. Like Henrietta, for all his frailty, he had lost none of his wit, and as a parting shot he made fun of the new fashion among women to wear inordinately high wigs. ‘A Gentleman having said at Table that women dres’d their heads three or four storys high, yes said my Lord, and I believe every story is inhabited like the lodging houses here, for I observe a great deal of scratching.’29
This amusing exchange between Lady Suffolk and her faithful old friend is among the last of the surviving letters in her collection. Shortly afterwards, her health took a turn for the worse, and throughout much of the long and bitterly cold winter of 1766, she was confined to her bed. Against the advice of all her friends, she managed to venture out for Lady Betty Germain’s New Year celebrations in January 1767. The snow had fallen so heavily that she was obliged to wear several layers of clothing in an effort to keep warm in the coach, but by the time she reached the house she was chilled through. She was immediately ushered to a place by the fire, but sat so close to it that her ruffle set alight. The other guests looked on in horror as the flames leapt up her arm. Lord Vere rushed to her aid, getting badly burnt in the process, and it took the intervention of another gentleman to finally extinguish the flames with his hat. The doctor was called to attend Lady Suffolk, who had sustained serious burns to her arm, and it was several weeks before the pain began to subside.
Meanwhile, the attacks of gout continued with increasing severity, and in February Henrietta was so ill with a fever that it was reported she was dead. Frantic with worry, her nephew dispatched his wife and eldest daughter to stay with her at Marble Hill. Although her spirits were lifted by the visit, her health continued to deteriorate, and by May she was no longer able to receive visitors. This was a worrying sign indeed for the members of her social circle, who knew that ill health had never stopped this most committed of hostesses before.
The onset of warmer weather improved her condition sufficiently for her to be able to leave her bed and welcome a small number of guests. Among them was Lady Mary Coke, who noted that Henrietta spent a good deal of time talking about her beloved husband George and his surviving relations, many of whom she had kept in touch with during the years following his demise.30 Lady Suffolk had apparently rallied so much that her death, when it came, proved a shock to her friends and family.
One evening in late July 1767, Walpole paid one of his regular visits to Marble Hill and was concerned to find his old friend ‘much changed’, although he did not believe her to be in any great danger. She told him that she was suffering from the effects of gout and rheumatism all over her body, and particularly in her face, but insisted upon sitting and talking ‘below stairs’ when she should have been in bed. Walpole sent for word of her the following morning, 26 July, and was told that she had had a bad night. By the evening, however, she seemed much better and was able to receive the two visitors who called on her: Lady Dalkeith, daughter of her late friend the Duke of Argyll; and the faithful Will Chetwynd. She was obliged to sit close to the fire, however, for it was an unseasonably cold evening. After Lady Dalkeith had left, Henrietta told Will that she would take her supper in her bedchamber. He escorted her up there and thought she appeared well enough to enjoy a good night’s sleep. But upon sitting in her chair to prepare her toilet, she suddenly gripped her side and collapsed. She died half an hour later.
News of Lady Suffolk’s death spread quickly throughout polite society. It was published in the newspapers, which refrained from making any reference to her affair with the King and instead described her simply as ‘for many years Keeper of the Wardrobe to her late Majesty Queen Caroline’.31 Her friends and family were devastated by her death, and none more so than Horace Walpole. ‘I am very sorry that I must speak of a loss that will give you and Lady Strafford concern,’ he wrote to his friend Lord Strafford three days later, ‘an essential loss to me, who am deprived of a most agreeable friend, with whom I passed here many hours . . . as it was not permitted me to do her justice when alive, I own I cannot help wishing those who had a regard for her may now, at least, know how much she deserved it than even they suspected. In truth, I never knew a woman more respectable for her honour and principles, and have lost few persons in my life whom I shall miss so much.’ He continued in another letter: ‘She was discreet without being reserved: & having no bad qualities, & being constant to her connections she preserved uncommon respect to the end of her life.’32 Miss Hotham was just as inconsolable at her great-aunt’s death, and Will Chetwynd had to stay with her at Marble Hill until her family could come from East Yorkshire to take her away.
Lady Suffolk’s will was read a few months later. She had made it in September 1758, two years before her pension from George II had ceased, and had evidently expected to have a rather greater fortune to bequeath than actually proved to be the case. It included generous gifts of money, such as £8,000 for her niece, Dorothy, which, although not considerable when compared to the vast sums bequeathed by wealthy noblemen and women, was generous within the context of Henrietta’s more modest resources. She also left half a year’s wages to her servants, and various other monetary bequests to friends and family.
In fact Henrietta had lived in increasing hardship after the King’s death, and had had to apply such strict economy that she had gained an ill-deserved reputation for covetousness. She had also been unable to make the necessary repairs to her Thames-side house, which had begun to show signs of considerable neglect during the last years of her life. By the time of her death, it was estimated that it would cost between £2,000 and £3,000 to put it right. In spite of such frugality, Walpole claimed, she had exceeded her income considerably, and the ‘anguish of the last years of her life, tho’ concealed, flowed from the apprehensions of not satisfying her few wishes, which were, not to be in debt, and to make a provision for Miss Hotham’. Unaware that his friend had made her will at a time when her prospects had been rather better, he predicted that its reading would ‘surprise those who thought her rich’.33
While Lady Suffolk’s ability to fulfil her financial bequests may have been in doubt, there was one possession that she could dispose of as she chose: her beloved house, Marble Hill. She had clearly been anxious to ensure that the house, contents and estate that she had so lovingly created over the past forty years should stay together, for she had made detailed provisions to this effect. The will specified that ‘all the Household Goods and Furniture . . . shall go along with my said house as Heir Looms’. The recipient of this most treasured bequest was her nephew, John, and on his death without male heirs, it was to pass to Henrietta Hotham and her heirs. Lady Suffolk’s affection for her great-niece was further demonstrated by the provision of a dowry of £3,000 for her, as well as ‘all my State Jewells China and Japan in whatever shall be contained in cabinets chests or Boxes under Lock and Key’.
Lady Suffolk’s decision to bequeath Marble Hill to a female relative in the event of there being no male heirs to inherit after her nephew was extraordinary for the time. In a male-oriented society, women were all but barred from inheriting titles, property or estates. If there was no direct male heir, these almost always passed to distant male relatives rather than to the wives or daughters of the deceased. Indeed, this had been the case when Lady Suffolk’s own son had died. But the inheritance of Marble Hill by a female relative was far from being intended as a last resort: Henrietta had stipulated that after Miss Hotham’s death it should pass to her daughters, or if she had none then to those of her uncle, John Hobart. Although this provision was highly unusual, it was typical of a woman who had fought so long for independence in a world dominated by men.
Lady Suffolk’s will also proved her enduring love for her late husband, George. She bequeathed a number of legacies to his family, including £2,500 in trust for Lady Betty Germain and £1,500 to be divided amongst the sisters of the present Earl of Berkeley, ‘as a mark of my respect to Mr Berkeleys Memory’. The most touching indication of this love, however, was the request that came before all others in the will: that she should be ‘buried as Mr Berkeleys widow very Privately as he was and with the Earl of Berkeley’s leave near him’.34 This wish was honoured, and the mortal remains of Henrietta, Dowager Countess of Suffolk, were interred next to those of her second husband in the family mausoleum at Berkeley Castle.