AMONG LADY SUFFOLK’S BEQUESTS to her nephew John was the voluminous collection of letters and memoirs that she had preserved with great care from the time of her entry into the Georgian court to her death at Marble Hill. In terms of their historical worth, they were perhaps the single most valuable item of her entire inheritance. Many years later, they would breathe new life into the characters, events and places of one of the most fascinating periods in Britain’s history.
But in the years immediately following Henrietta’s death, it was her estate that most preoccupied her nephew. As executor and chief beneficiary of her will, the disposal of her property fell to him. He sold the Savile Street town house in February 1768,1 and also attempted to sell Marble Hill. This might seem a betrayal of his aunt’s last wishes, but the estate comprised a complicated series of leases and agreements, for Lady Suffolk had gradually extended it over the years by investing in plots of adjacent land as they became available. She had, however, protected the house and estate too carefully in her will for it to be sold off by her heirs, and John therefore resigned himself to its care and upkeep. A detailed inventory of the contents was drawn up, which survives intact today and conjures up an image of an elegant country villa, tastefully decorated with fine ornaments and furnishings – from the large marble tables and ‘looking glasses’ in the Great Room, to the mahogany card table and ‘India fire screen’ in the Paper Room.
The Earl let Marble Hill, fully furnished, to various tenants during the first few years of his ownership, before moving there himself in 1772 and subsequently using it as an occasional retreat. Horace Walpole once visited him there, but was saddened by the memories of his old friend that it invoked and described it as ‘a melancholy day to me, who have passed so many agreeable hours in that house and garden with poor Lady Suffolk’.2 On Buckinghamshire’s death in 1793, the house finally passed to Lady Suffolk’s great-niece, Henrietta Hotham. Perhaps, like Walpole, she found it too poignant, for she only lived there a short time before deciding to let it out to others.
The first of Miss Hotham’s tenants was Maria Fitzherbert, the mistress (and almost certainly secret wife) of George II’s great-grandson, the future George IV. Anxious to escape London before the day appointed for her lover’s ‘official’ marriage to Caroline of Brunswick, Mrs Fitzherbert chose this most fitting of rural villas as her refuge. In order that the gossips at court would not hear of her absence, she left instructions that her town house was to be illuminated on the wedding night. However, Prince George heard of her flight and rode furiously to Twickenham to see her. Maria refused to grant him an audience, and he rode backwards and forwards outside Marble Hill for some considerable time, before reluctantly turning back to face his future bride. As she waited for news that the marriage had been concluded, Mrs Fitzherbert may have reflected wryly on the appropriateness of her surroundings. Sixty years earlier, another mistress of a Hanoverian prince had fled there to escape her royal lover – albeit for rather different reasons.
It was an irony that would not have been lost on Henrietta.