Chapter 1

‘A Backwater in Time’


THE ROAD THAT RUNS from Norwich to Holt intersects a bleak and featureless tract of the north Norfolk countryside. Fields stretch out on either side, interrupted by the occasional cluster of houses or woodland. When the road reaches the scattered village of Cawston, it passes a small enclosure on the east side, set back from the verge and obscured from view by the overgrown copse beside it. In the middle of this enclosure, bounded by railings, is a large stone urn mounted upon an imposing square pedestal. Years of exposure to the elements have taken their toll, but amidst the rust and moss that cover the decaying structure, it is just possible to make out the letters ‘HH’ chiselled into the crumbling façade.

Sir Henry Hobart of Blickling Hall was one of the most truculent squires in Norfolk. Active military service had provided a useful outlet for his aggression during his younger days, but now, aged almost forty, he expended most of his energy in politics and was a fierce proponent of the Whig party. From the start, this had brought him into conflict with a number of his fellow noblemen, and he now had a reputation as a troublemaker. ‘I wish Sir Henry, instead of prosecuting his neighbours, would think of paying his debts,’ complained Humphrey Prideaux, Dean of Norwich, adding: ‘It may be his turn, sometime or other, to bear as much as he now acts.’ His words were to prove prophetic

In 1698, a county election brought about the downfall of many individual Whig members – Sir Henry included. His defeat was decisive and humiliating: he only achieved a miserable third place in the voting. Mortified by the result and the accompanying loss of status, and angry at the wasted expenditure that it had entailed, Hobart retired to Blickling to lick his wounds. Introspection and remorse were not qualities that he had in abundance, however, and he soon began casting about for someone to blame. He did not have to wait long to find the perfect scapegoat.

A report reached Hobart’s ears that Oliver Le Neve of Great Witchingham, his neighbour and Tory rival, had been spreading rumours that he had committed an act of cowardice at the Battle of the Boyne, and that this had led to his election defeat. Given that the Boyne had been fought some nine years earlier, the report was probably scurrilous and put about by a mischief-maker. But, as one commentator observed, ‘Sir Henry would not be satisfied without fighting’, and he therefore seized upon the unlikely rumour as sufficient grounds. All of the fury and resentment that he had been harbouring since the election defeat now found full expression, and he immediately challenged Le Neve to a duel.1

Le Neve had no desire to quarrel with his formidable neighbour. He was by no means an aggressive man, and challenges and duels did not enter into his scheme of existence at all. Convivial and sociable, he had a wide circle of friends and devoted a large amount of his time to reading, gardening and hunting. Having been left a widower in 1696, he had recently married his second wife, Jane, and was looking forward to a life of uneventful domesticity at Great Witchingham. The arrival of Hobart’s challenge shattered this tranquil prospect.

The strict rules of conduct governing late seventeenth-century society allowed Le Neve little choice but to accept the challenge. Hobart would brook no delay. He assigned the very next day for the duel and named the place as Cawston Heath, which was within easy reach of both men’s estates. In contrast to his opponent, he relished the prospect of what looked set to be an easy contest. He was an exquisite swordsman; Le Neve was an amateur – and a left-handed one at that. Hobart also had the advantage of height and presented a tall and formidable figure against his opponent’s much smaller and slighter frame. The outcome seemed all but assured.

Sir Henry was already at Cawston when Le Neve arrived at dawn the following day. The heath was a bleak expanse of grassland, flanked on either side by copses and hedgerows. The sultry August weather, which had threatened to break for some days past, must have added to the sense of foreboding as the pair faced each other. There is no record of either man having brought along a second, and the only known witness to the ensuing fight was a local serving girl who had hidden in some nearby bushes.

Within minutes, the duel began. Hobart drew first blood, wounding his opponent in the arm. In the confused mêlée that followed, Le Neve – whether by skill or chance – ran his sword deep into Sir Henry’s belly. As his opponent fell to the ground, Le Neve swiftly mounted his horse and galloped off to Yarmouth, the nearest port, from where he intended to make his escape to the Continent.2

Whether the girl who had witnessed the duel raised the alarm, or Hobart had been accompanied by a second is not known, but he was shortly afterwards carried home to Blickling. His arrival caused great consternation amongst the household, and he was immediately conveyed to the principal bedroom of the house. By now he was bleeding profusely and in excruciating pain. It was said that his agonised screams could be heard throughout the grounds.3 A surgeon was hastily summoned to the house, but his endeavours were in vain and Sir Henry died the following day.

Hobart’s death caused a sensation across Norfolk and beyond. One of the first to record it was Narcissus Luttrell, who wrote in his diary on 25 August: ‘Letters yesterday from Norfolk brought advice, that Sir Henry Hobart was killed in a duel by justice Le’neve: they fought on Saturday, and Sir Henry being run into the belly, dyed next day; Captain Le’neve was also wounded in the arm.’ Within a few days, the news had reached as far as Bath, from where a local notable, Roger Townshend, wrote to his brother: ‘Ye news of Sir Harry’s having lost ye Election & yt of his death were equally surprising to me.’4

The almost gleeful way in which Sir Henry’s peers exchanged reports of his death threw the genuine grief of his wife and eight young children into sharp relief. Among the latter was Henrietta, the middle daughter, who, aged nine, was the image of her late father. This tragic episode provided a foretaste of the drama and upheaval that lay ahead in what was to be a truly remarkable life. Henrietta’s fate lay well beyond the safe confines of Blickling and would take her right to the heart of the royal court.

Henrietta Hobart was born on 11 May 1689, and baptised nine days later at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. It was common for noble ladies from remote country estates to travel to London for their ‘lying in’ because of the superior medical care that was readily available in the capital – although even that was primitive by modern-day standards. As soon as her mother was well enough to travel, she was taken back to the family estate at Blickling.

Blickling had been in the hands of the Hobarts since 1616, when the first Sir Henry Hobart, with customary shrewdness, had acquired it at a knock-down price from the impoverished incumbents.5 The Hobarts had made their name and fortune in law during Tudor times, and Sir Henry had risen to the esteemed position of Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. He was acknowledged by his peers as a ‘leading light’ of that profession and ‘renowned for his Learning’.6

Sir Henry had been keen to perpetuate his achievements and enhance the Hobarts’ standing by investing in a country estate. He had had his eye on Blickling for some time. It was ideally situated, being some twenty miles north of the county’s principal city, Norwich, and the same distance again from the picturesque coastline beyond. The surrounding countryside was characterised by wooded valleys, gently undulating fields and pastures.

But for all that, the house itself – a decaying, inconvenient medieval structure – hardly befitted a man of his stature, and many puzzled that he had gone to so much trouble to acquire it when he could have easily afforded to build a sumptuous new estate in the latest Jacobean style. But Blickling was associated with some of the most prominent figures in England’s history. Harold Godwinson, Earl of the East Saxons and later King of England, owned it in the eleventh century, and it was then seized by William the Conqueror after his victory at Hastings. It was also the birthplace of Henry VIII’s disgraced queen, Anne Boleyn, whose family owned it for eighty years.

Blickling Hall’s distinguished past, and in particular its association with Anne Boleyn, was well known at the time, and would undoubtedly have been one of the main attractions for Sir Henry. He could not have imagined that two centuries later, the fate of one of his own descendants would also be dictated by a king’s desire.

Having acquired the estate, Sir Henry immediately set about extending and updating it. He enlisted the services of one of the most celebrated architects of the day, Robert Lyminge, who had built the sumptuous Hatfield House for Robert Cecil. Sir Henry hoped to establish a dynasty at Blickling, and his ambitions were reflected in the new building. He ordered initials to be carved prominently in the stonework: H for himself and D for his wife, Dorothy. His son John and daughter-in-law Philippa were represented in the same way. Keen to preserve the links with the estate’s illustrious past, Sir Henry also decided to incorporate some of the existing medieval and Tudor fabric into his new Jacobean mansion.

The remodelling of Blickling took more than a decade, but the result was a triumph. Lyminge had created an exquisite Jacobean mansion for his patron, the envy of the nobility for miles around. Contemporary visitors would have been impressed by the first sight of the building: the warm colour of its brickwork, the glittering of its many leaded windows, its festive turrets with their gilded vanes, the extravagant gables and the outstretched arms of the wings, flanked with dark walls of yew. Its appearance was to remain unchanged for centuries. In the 1930s, Country Life magazine enthused: ‘The suddenness and completeness with which the scene bursts upon the eye strikes a simultaneous chord rather than a scale of impressions: a backwater in time . . . a vanished line of Norfolk grandees, the generous vitality of Shakespeare’s England, the childhood of Anne Boleyn, and, muted by the imprisoned mist of time, faint memories of famous knights, the pomp of bishops’ courts, and the last of the Saxon kings passing through the water-meadows that gave his manor its name.’7 Modern-day visitors to the house are treated to much the same view as Sir Henry would have enjoyed almost four hundred years earlier.

After Sir Henry’s death, the estate passed to his son, John, who established Blickling as the principal family seat for the next twenty years. He was succeeded by his youngest daughter, Philippa, whose marriage to her first cousin, John, son of Sir Miles Hobart of Intwood, ensured that Blickling stayed in the Hobart family. It was during this time that the estate received its first royal visitor in almost two hundred years. In an attempt to secure the loyalty of this former Parliamentarian stronghold, Charles II went on progress to Norfolk in 1671.

To the royal court in London, Norfolk seemed a remote and self-contained province, situated far from the heart of national affairs. Its topography made it even more unwelcoming, bounded as it was by sea on the north and east, by the Wash and fenlands on the west, and by wild and lonely heathlands on the south-west. From the coastal regions of this vast county, it was easier to reach Holland than to negotiate the great forests, fens and heathlands on a journey inland to other parts of England.

This wild and isolated corner of the kingdom had a long history of rebellion and independence. Over the centuries, it had endured repeated invasions from Romans, Vikings and Normans. Many of these and subsequent invaders settled in the lands which they had come to ravage and loot. The sparse population of natives and settlers developed a character that was distinct from the rest of England and marked by a strong independence of spirit. The people have been described as ‘reserved suspicious of “foreigners”, by which they mean people from other English counties’.8 This reserve and suspicion in turn bred political and religious dissent, which found its fullest expression during the Civil War, when the county rallied to the Parliamentarian cause against the King.

Norwich was, admittedly, the third city in the kingdom, but it had received scant attention from Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Charles II’s visit was therefore the cause of great excitement. One of the few houses of sufficient stature for the King to visit was Blickling, and Charles made his way there with the Queen, Catherine of Braganza, the Duke of York and various other court notables as part of his progress. The visit represented something of a reconciliation. Charles was fully aware that Sir John Hobart had been one of Cromwell’s most active supporters, both in the House of Commons and in county affairs. But in the spirit of appeasement that had served him so well, the King was gracious and charming to his Norfolk host. He even knighted Sir John’s eldest son, Henry (Henrietta’s father), who was then just thirteen years old. It was recorded that the royal party was ‘most noblie and plentifully treated’ in the Great Dining Room, but the apparent conviviality did not penetrate far beneath the surface. Sir John’s political stance remained unchanged, and the King was later heard to comment on the ‘hollow hospitality’ he had received at Blickling.

Sir John Hobart returned to Parliament the following year, and after another decade of mutually exhausting political conflict, he died in 1683. And so Blickling passed to Sir Henry Hobart. It was by now an onerous legacy, for the estate was desperately in debt and already reduced to a quarter of the acreage it had possessed in 1625. He therefore set out to find a wife with a dowry large enough to ease his financial burdens. He evidently did not have to search for long, because the following year he married Elizabeth, co-heir to the famous judge, Sir Joseph Maynard.9 At the time of their marriage in 1684, Sir Henry was twenty-five years old, and his bride was seventeen. Elizabeth Maynard brought with her a £10,000 dowry, which afforded Blickling at least a temporary respite from its financial problems.

But Sir Henry soon plunged the estate into further debt. He had inherited his father’s passion for politics and, like him, proceeded to enter into a series of cripplingly expensive election campaigns. The fact that he had been knighted by Charles II in no way reconciled Sir Henry to royal policy, and, like his father, he became an outspoken member of the Whig party. Within a few years of inheriting the estate, Sir Henry had almost brought it to its knees. He had little choice but to sell off considerable portions of it in order to keep his creditors at bay.

Untroubled by the knowledge that her father’s profligacy was storing up problems for her future, Henrietta’s childhood, and that of her siblings, was a happy one. Although Sir Henry’s costly obsession with politics had burdened the Blickling estate with debts, there had still been money enough to provide the family with a good diet. The items listed in a bill paid to ‘Goodwife Agness Parnell’ included ‘fresh herin’, ‘anchovises’, capers, plums and coffee (something of a rarity outside London in the late seventeenth century).

Sir Henry also ensured that his children received an education befitting their noble status: like his great-grandfather and namesake, he had a strong sense of dynastic ambition. Provision was made for his son John to receive a private education when he came of age. His daughters, meanwhile, were well versed in the social skills required of young noblewomen. The household accounts include a receipt for thirty shillings paid to a dancing-master in March 1693 ‘for twice coming to Blickling to teach the young Ladyes to Daunce’.10

In the late seventeenth century, daughters were commonly given instruction in what was considered useful for their future way of life, in particular those accomplishments that were most likely to secure a wealthy husband. Most well-bred young ladies could play a musical instrument and were taught to dance, write, and in some cases speak modern languages such as French and Italian. Mary Dewes, a contemporary of Henrietta, reflected: ‘In our childhood, writing, dancing and music is what is most attended to.’11 The more challenging intellectual studies, meanwhile, were reserved for their male counterparts.

This was considered the natural order of things. Published two years before Henrietta’s birth, the ‘Treatise on the Education of Daughters’ warned: ‘we should be on our guard not to make them [women] ridiculously learned. Women, in general, possess a weaker but more inquisitive mind than men; hence it follows that their pursuits should be of a quiet and sober turn. They are not formed to govern the state, to make war, or to enter into the church; so that they may well dispense with any profound knowledge relating to politics, military tactics, philosophy, and theology . . . women are by nature weaker than men.’12

At the same time, however, there was the beginning of a subtle shift in the attitudes of many women in society. During the Civil War, with their husbands away for long periods fighting for Crown or Parliament, women had increasingly taken centre stage in the running of great houses and estates. With greater responsibilities had come a growing sense of independence. This had been augmented by the substantial loss of life among the male combatants, which meant that for many women, their new-found independence had been permanent.

Mary Astell, often hailed as the first English feminist, argued that if women were subservient to men, then it was due to inequality of education rather than to nature. She declared: ‘I think Women as capable of Learning as Men are’, and lamented that: ‘Custom and Education have dwindled us into very Trifles! such meer Insignificants!’13 Such ideas had become increasingly widespread by the dawn of the eighteenth century. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a contemporary and later acquaintance of Henrietta, regretted that women’s education was so limited, and confessed to her daughter: ‘The ultimate aim of your education was to make you a good wife.’ She scorned the prevailing attitude, whereby ‘the same studies which raise the character of a Man should hurt that of a Woman’, so that she should ‘conceal whatever learning she attains, with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness’.14

The cry was even taken up by some leading men of letters in the early eighteenth century. Henry Fielding criticised ‘the morose Schoolmen who wou’d confine Knowledge to the Male Part of the Species’. Jonathan Swift (who later became a close friend of Henrietta) satirised the state of affairs in his most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver’s master proclaims that it is monstrous of mankind ‘to give the females a different kind of education from the males, except in some articles of domestic management’.15

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that standards in women’s education underwent a marked improvement. A century earlier, when Henrietta was growing up at Blickling, they were still woefully inadequate. But despite the limitations of her education, Sir Henry’s third daughter had a keen intellect and thirst for knowledge, and the views that she was to express in adulthood suggest that she may well have absorbed some of the early feminist beliefs that were being propounded at this time. She certainly had a precocious talent for writing, which was later to find expression in her correspondence with some of the brightest stars of the Georgian literary world. But for now she enjoyed the traditional upbringing of a nobleman’s daughter in the privileged confines of Blickling, surrounded by her many siblings.

The Hobart family’s life seemed to be largely dictated by the forceful personality of Sir Henry. His quick temper and dictatorial manner were well known throughout the county and had won him respect and enemies in equal measure. They also ultimately led to his death. The only two portraits that Sir Henry commissioned were both of himself alone, and none of his wife or any of his eight children is known to have been painted during his lifetime. It may of course be that these were subsequently sold or lost, but it would be consistent with Sir Henry’s character that he should dominate the portraiture at Blickling as much as he did his family’s daily life there.

If the rumours put about by Hobart’s adversaries were true, then this same self-interest extended to the family’s finances. He was said to have deprived his wife of her rightful income and subjected her to a life of comparative hardship in order to fund his own extravagant lifestyle. Archbishop Prideaux told a fellow churchman: ‘Here is a lady of one of ye best families in ye countrey who hath all her fortune in his hands, and he hath not payd her any interest these severall years, whereby she is put to great hardships for her subsistence.’16

Yet the grief that his death caused at Blickling suggests a genuine love and tenderness between Sir Henry and his wife and children. That Henrietta would cherish a fondness for Blickling for the rest of her life provides a testament to the happiness of her early family life there. The tenacity with which her mother pursued Sir Henry’s murderer, who was eventually brought to justice in 1700, proves the sincerity of her love. So too the sums that were lavished on his funeral, despite the family’s straitened circumstances. The household accounts include an order for a coffin lined with six yards of white baize, and the craftsmen spent two full days cutting out the inscription. Nine escutcheons were painted for the funeral and nine gold rings were bought for the bearer and minister, along with gloves of Cordova leather, fine black cloth, crape, silk hatbands, black silk hose, cotton stockings and a mourning sword.17 Lady Hobart also ordered a monument to be erected on the spot where her husband fell.18 It would mark the last duel ever fought in Norfolk.

With Sir Henry’s mortal remains interred in the family vault at Blickling church, his wife had to shoulder the considerable burden of managing a large family and a debt-ridden estate alone. The eldest of her seven girls were the twins Mary and Anne, aged thirteen, and the youngest, Catherine, was just two months old. The only son and heir, John, was four years old and therefore far too young to take on the inheritance that would one day be his.

The list of Sir Henry’s creditors had been steadily growing throughout the 1690s, and a number of the individual sums that he owed were substantial. The year before his death, one of his creditors had ridden in person to Blickling to serve a bill of £8,000 on the baronet. Hobart’s old adversary, Prideaux, had predicted with barely disguised glee that this would ‘reach a great part of his estate’.19 Although many of Hobart’s debts were associated with his expensive political campaigns, there were still more generated by the day-to-day running of Blickling Hall. The elegant new Jacobean house built by Sir John Hobart earlier in the century was now in need of repair, and the family accounts are riddled with bills for emergency works. Ongoing maintenance, such as thatching, added further to the Hobart family’s debts, as did window taxes (whereby owners had to pay a set amount per window, making it cripplingly expensive for a property the size of Blickling) and estate staff. While the estate itself generated a reasonable amount of income from tenants and livestock, this was not enough to cover the mounting debts. Neither had Sir Henry left his wife and children sufficient financial provision in his will: all of it was tied up with the management of his lands and estates.20

Less than a year after her husband’s death, Lady Hobart was forced to borrow money from local businessmen in order to make ends meet.21 It was also rumoured that she planned to escape financial ruin by marrying again, and, within a year of the funeral, several rich men were named as prospective husbands. If Lady Hobart had such plans, they came to nothing. With no dowry, a notoriously encumbered estate, and a large number of dependents, she did not present an alluring prospect to the eligible noblemen of Norfolk, regardless of what her physical attractions might have been.22

Faced with mounting debts and a beleaguered estate, Lady Hobart had no choice but to seek help through her family connections. Her grandfather, Sir John Maynard, had been a famous judge and Member of Parliament, and had retained office as councillor to various governments during the turbulent periods of the Civil War, Commonwealth, Restoration and Glorious Revolution of 1688. He had married, as his fourth wife, Mary Charleton of Apley Castle. After his death, she had made another good match, to Henry Howard, 5th Earl of Suffolk. This made her one of the richest relations that Lady Hobart had, and although their family connection was somewhat tenuous, she wrote to ask for her assistance. To her delight, the Countess of Suffolk invited her granddaughter by marriage to spend the summer of 1699 at Gunnersbury House, which she had inherited from her first husband. Lady Hobart gratefully accepted, and she and her children duly made their way there.

Sir John Maynard had purchased Gunnersbury at the height of his fame. There had been an estate there since the Middle Ages. Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, had lived there for a time, and it had subsequently passed to various other distinguished owners. In 1658, Sir John Maynard commissioned John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones, one of the most celebrated architects of the seventeenth century, to build a magnificent new house in the style of a Palladian villa. It was completed five years later and was one of the finest houses for miles around. It stood on a raised terrace in the surrounding parkland and commanded a much-admired view towards the Thames and beyond to Kew and Richmond. ‘From the portico in the back front of the house, you have an exceeding fine prospect of the county of Surrey, the River Thames, and all the meadows on the borders for some miles, as also a good prospect of London, in clear weather,’ enthused the writer Daniel Defoe.23 At first-floor level was an elegant Corinthian portico, which looked out over a formal forecourt. The interior was no less impressive, with its grand imperial staircase, richly ornate saloon, and lavish furniture and tapestries throughout.24

Elizabeth Hobart and her eight young children lived in some considerable comfort at Gunnersbury and enjoyed the company offered by the Countess and her elderly husband. They were to make several more visits over the coming years, which in itself was a considerable feat given that it was almost 150 miles from Blickling. In an age when travel by road was still agonisingly slow, not to mention uncomfortable and dangerous, the journey would have taken at least a week.

Living at Gunnersbury gave Lady Hobart some much-needed respite from the onerous duties of running the Blickling estate. But it was not long before tragedy again blighted her family. In August 1701, during one of the family’s sojourns at Gunnersbury, she was taken ill with what proved to be the final symptoms of consumption. Her condition worsened rapidly and she died on 22 August, three years to the day since her husband’s death.25

The seven young Hobart girls and their brother were now orphaned. As the only son, John had inherited Blickling on his father’s death, but being then just four years old, the estates were given over to trustees, who would administer them until he came of age fourteen years later. Protracted minorities such as these were always unsettling for estates, and this one was made worse by the financial burdens under which the family was struggling. Their prospects were now far from favourable.

Shortly after the death of their mother, the Hobart children moved back to Blickling. Although they returned to Gunnersbury the following summer, the trouble and expense of doing so meant that for the most part they stayed in Norfolk.26 The link with the Suffolks was maintained by the terms of Sir John Maynard’s will, which obliged the Countess (who was the trustee) to draw down the twice-yearly allowances for the Hobart children.27 But the Earl and Countess of Suffolk remained rather distant figures in the lives of the children, and it was the two eldest, the twins Mary and Anne (now aged sixteen), who took charge of their upbringing.

The downward turn of fortune that had begun with the death of their father in 1698 dealt the young family another blow when, in the spring of 1702, Anne was taken ill and died a few days later. Their happy and carefree early childhood had been replaced by the constant fear of death and ill fortune. These fears were to be realised again and again, for during the following three years, three more of the siblings were borne to the churchyard at Blickling.28

By 1705, Henrietta, aged sixteen, was the eldest of the surviving Hobart children, and assumed responsibility for their care. They did have two uncles, John and Thomas, brothers of the late Sir Henry, but both were practising law in London and there is no record that they provided any assistance. Members of the household at Blickling would no doubt have supported the children as much as possible, but the main burden would still have fallen on Henrietta as the oldest surviving representative of the family. Her brother John and sisters Dorothy and Catherine were all under twelve years old. The latter fell dangerously ill the following year, and the abundance of apothecary bills among the family papers suggests that the threat of further tragedy continued to hang over Blickling. With her mother and elder sisters dead, and the estate virtually bankrupted by her late father, Henrietta’s future looked bleak indeed.

Having taken on responsibility for the care of her siblings, she decided to appeal to the Suffolks for more active assistance. It was a step that she would soon live to regret.

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