THE ELECTORATE OF HANOVER lay between the Elbe and Weser rivers, the North Sea and the Harz mountains, in what is today north-west Germany. Lacking both strong natural defences and manmade fortifications, this loosely united patchwork of territories was seen as easy prey for invaders, and therefore relied heavily upon the protection of the Holy Roman Empire, of which it formed part. The lack of unity within the Empire, however, made it an unreliable source of security, and Hanover’s vulnerable geographical position was further weakened by the lack of an army large enough to see off any would-be attacker. The Electorate therefore needed to find a powerful international ally, and thanks to the Act of Settlement of 1701, there was an ideal candidate: Britain, a country whose population and military forces dwarfed those of Hanover, now became her chief hope.
When Queen Anne named the Hanoverians as her successors, it had a dramatic effect upon the prestige and importance of the Electorate. This in turn had a marked impact upon its architecture and culture. Hanover had changed little since medieval times. At the turn of the seventeenth century, when the nearby court began to rise in status, the appearance of the old city of Hanover was transformed. Handsome new public buildings and houses sprang up on every side, and the outskirts of the town, beyond the walls, also began to expand. It became the resort of wealthy nobles, eager to enhance their position at court, and new entertainments were introduced for their amusement.
For all of Hanover’s improvements, it remained rather modest in scale and did not really compare with the magnificent new towns and cities that were springing up across Europe at this time. A contemporary English traveller, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, described it as ‘neither large nor handsome’, and the only thing that she found worthy of note was the opera house, which she declared was one of the best she had seen and even eclipsed that of Vienna.1 Lady Mary’s acerbic accounts form one of the best sources for Hanover and its court during this period. Although sometimes exaggerated for effect, they provide a shrewd – often unforgiving – reflection of the characters and customs within.
If Hanover was – at least in Lady Mary’s eyes – an unimpressive provincial town, it did have one important asset, and that was its proximity to the Electoral court, which for most of the year resided at the palace of Herrenhausen, some two miles away. Herrenhausen was built in 1665 by John Frederick, Duke of Hanover, and substantially remodelled by the last Elector, Ernest Augustus, in the late seventeenth century. The palace was wide and low, consisting of just two storeys. The main building sprawled across three sides of a great courtyard, with terraces on the right and left over the ground floor, and a magnificent double stone staircase forming its centrepiece. It was flanked by several smaller houses occupied by officials of the court, and a vast range of stables that could accommodate up to six hundred horses. It also boasted a splendid orangery, decorated with frescoes that depicted scenes from the Trojan War, which housed a vast array of exotic fruits.
The most celebrated feature of Herrenhausen, however, was its magnificent gardens. These were modelled on Versailles and were designed to inspire awe. The palace was approached by an imposing double avenue of limes, which gave way to 120 acres of terraces, fountains and statues of mythological beings, fenced about with high, maze-like hedges of clipped hornbeam. Enclosing the whole was an enormous moat, 86 feet wide, on which ornamental gondolas would float during the summer months. Even the most critical of visitors could not fail to be impressed. Lady Mary admitted that the grounds were ‘very fine’ and was surprised by ‘the vast number of orange trees, much larger than I have ever seen in England, though this climate is certainly colder’.2
The palace and gardens of Herrenhausen were built to enhance the status of the Electorate, as well as to give pleasure to the occupants and visitors. Under the rule of the late Elector and his lively spouse, Sophia, the court soon gained a reputation for being the gayest in Germany, and its splendour was out of proportion with the importance of their modest dominions. This was to change with the death of Ernest Augustus and the accession of his son, George Louis, to the Electorate in 1698.
Of medium height and build, with the typical Germanic features of fine hair and light blue eyes, George bore no trace of his Stuart ancestry. While his father had been every bit the genial and charming prince, George was by contrast a dour man, unrefined in taste, uncouth in speech, and excessively fond of order and routine. Naturally shy and uncommunicative, he was suspicious and aloof in his dealings with others. But he was honest and straightforward and loathed the intrigue and double-dealing that was so often a feature of court life. He also had great personal courage and had distinguished himself on a number of military campaigns. While acknowledging these virtues, contemporary observers were less than kind in their assessment of George’s character. The Earl of Chesterfield described him as ‘an honest, dull, German gentleman’, while Lady Mary Wortley Montagu called him ‘an honest blockhead . . . more properly dull than lazy’.3
George Louis was as penurious as his father had been extravagant, and cut back on all unnecessary expenditure. The resulting impact on court life was bemoaned by contemporaries. The waspish Duchess of Orléans wrote: ‘It is not to be wondered at that the gaiety that used to be at Hanover has departed; the elector is so cold that he turns everything into ice – his father and uncle were not like him.’4 The Duchess was, admittedly, biased, for she had long harboured a dislike for most of the Hanoverian family. If the court was not quite so dull as she claimed, however, it was still less refined than it had been in the days of the old Elector.
The great German philosopher Leibniz, who was a favourite at court, described one of the revelries held there in imitation of a sumptuous Roman banquet. The Elector and all the ladies and gentlemen of the court were dressed in Roman costume, and there were singers, dancers, drummers, huntsmen blowing horns, slaves, and all manner of raucous entertainments. Unfortunately, things got rather out of hand when a quarrel arose between one of the noble couples present. Fuelled by rage (and no doubt an excess of wine), the lord threw a goblet at his lady’s head, and there ensued a monumental battle, much to the amusement of the onlookers, who assumed it was part of the entertainment. This incident was typical of the Hanoverian court, both in Germany and later in England, where great state occasions so often descended into farce.
The coarseness of the Hanoverian court in the early eighteenth century extended to the Elector’s personal life. Since the age of sixteen, when he had made his sister’s governess pregnant, George Louis had held the view that women were essential for the normal entertainment of a full-blooded man, and scorned the idea that sentiment should enter into it. Marriage, meanwhile, was simply a biological and political necessity. Love certainly seemed to have had little to do with his choice of a wife. At the age of twenty-two, he had married his first cousin, Sophia Dorothea, heiress of the Duke of Celle, who was then just sixteen years old.
It was not a happy union. Sophia Dorothea’s immature and flighty nature clashed with George Louis’s sternness, and his frequent absences on military campaigns doomed their marriage to failure within a few short years. Both found solace in various lovers, but one of Sophia Dorothea’s choices was to prove her downfall. The charismatic and glamorous Count von Königsmarck could not have been more different from her dull and boorish husband, and Sophia Dorothea was captivated. The two became lovers, but the affair did not remain a secret for long, and when Königsmarck suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, it was rumoured that George Louis had had him murdered. George promptly divorced his wife and imprisoned her at Ahlden Castle, while he assumed custody of their two children.
Henceforth George Louis preferred the company of mistresses, and there was no talk of his taking another wife. He favoured one mistress above all others: Melusine von der Schulenburg, who in 1690 was appointed lady-in-waiting to his mother, Electress Sophia. Within a year she had become his lover, and in 1692 she gave birth to their first daughter. Madame Schulenburg lived with George Louis to all intents and purposes as his wife, and when he succeeded to the Electorate in 1698, her position became even more influential.
Contemporaries were bemused by the Elector’s choice of mistress, for she was hardly the most attractive lady to grace the Hanoverian court. Her tall and emaciated frame earned her the nickname of ‘the Maypole’, and a bout of smallpox in her youth had left her pockmarked and virtually bald. Her attempts to remedy these defects with thick make-up and an unsightly red wig only made things worse, and her overall appearance was compounded by an appalling dress sense. Perhaps the lady’s real attraction for George Louis, though, lay in the similarity of their characters. In a letter written to a friend back in England, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu snidely observed that Madame Schulenburg was ‘so much of his own temper, that I do not wonder at the engagement between them. She was duller than himself, and consequently did not find out that he was so.’5 She was also very faithful to him – a quality that he valued highly in lovers and ministers alike.
The same fidelity did not extend to George Louis himself, for he took a number of other mistresses. The most prominent (in more ways than one) was Madame Kielmansegg, whose mother, the Countess Platen, had been the long-standing mistress of George’s father. Madame Kielmansegg was as different to Schulenburg as it was possible to be – except for the fact that she was equally unattractive. A lively and vivacious woman, she was flamboyant in everything she did. In contrast to Schulenburg‘s avaricious nature, she was exceedingly extravagant in her personal tastes, and rumour had it that her morals were as loose as her purse strings. George Louis’ son, who hated her, once declared that she had slept with every man in Hanover – an allegation she countered by producing a certificate of moral character signed by her husband. This might have proved a more convincing defence had she not deserted him for another man some years earlier.
Kielmansegg’s appearance presented a sharp contrast to that of her rival mistress. Her enormous bulk earned her the nickname of ‘the Elephant’, and her permanently flushed complexion and ostentatious black wig did her no favours. One of the best, and most amusing, contemporary descriptions of her was provided by Horace Walpole, who had met her when he was a child and had been terrified by her overbearing girth. He described her as being ‘as corpulent and ample as the Duchess [Schulenburg] was long & emaciated. Two fierce black eyes, large & rolling beneath two lofty arched eyebrows, two acres of cheeks spread with crimson, an ocean of neck that overflow’d & was not distinguished from the lower part of her body, and no part restrained by stays – no wonder that a child dreaded such an Ogress.’6
The Elector’s unusual taste in women did little to enhance his reputation. The Earl of Chesterfield described Schulenburg and Kielmansegg as ‘two considerable samples of his bad taste and good stomach’, and claimed that they ‘made all those ladies who aspired to his favour, and who were near the statutable size, strain and swell themselves, like frogs in the fable, to rival the bulk and dignity of the ox’.7
The prominence of George Louis’ mistresses was one of the most notable features of the Hanoverian court in the early eighteenth century. Another was the role of his mother, the Electress Sophia, whose forceful personality wielded a great deal of influence over the court’s social and political life. Fiercely intelligent, she read and corresponded widely and was fluent in five languages. She possessed a naturally cheerful and lively disposition, and enjoyed excellent health – due in no small part to her passion for outdoor exercise. Even in old age, she would spend two or three hours every day pacing up and down the gardens of Herrenhausen, tiring out many a young courtier who kept her company.
Electress Sophia was immensely proud of her British ancestry. Although she had never set foot in England, she took a keen interest in her future subjects and was said to be more English than German in her tastes and habits. Unlike the rest of the Hanoverian family, she spoke the language perfectly and kept herself well acquainted with events there. She even instructed her immediate circle to call her ‘Princess of Wales’, though in reality she had no claim to that title.
Relations between Electress Sophia and her son were notoriously hostile. Sophia found George Louis’ lack of refinement irksome, and lamented the decline of court life that she had witnessed since he had inherited the Electorate. She found some solace, however, in her grandson, the Electoral Prince George Augustus, and his wife Caroline, whose bright and engaging presence offered a much-needed boost to life at Herrenhausen.
The only son of George Louis by Sophia Dorothea, George Augustus was born at Herrenhausen on 10 November 1683. Although he would have detested the comparison, he bore a strong resemblance to his father, being short and stout, with a quick, springy step that was described by less generous observers as ‘strutting’. Together with his bulbous eyes and a complexion that was often given to flushing, this gave him an appearance that bordered on the comical. To George Augustus, his father was a cold and distant figure who took little interest in his upbringing, preferring to leave this to Sophia Dorothea, who doted on him. George Augustus adored her in return, and was therefore devastated when, at the age of eleven, he was snatched from her arms and placed under his father’s guardianship following his parents’ divorce.
Sophia Dorothea was desperate to see her children, but the letters she wrote to her estranged husband begging him to grant her wish went unanswered. George Augustus was occasionally allowed to visit his maternal grandparents, who fuelled his antagonism towards his father. He never gave up hope of seeing his beloved mother again, and it was said that he once escaped the confines of Herrenhausen and got as far as Ahlden, where he swam across the moat and almost succeeded in gaining entry to the castle before he was apprehended.
George Augustus grew to loathe the father who had so cruelly separated him from his mother. His feelings were reciprocated in full. Indeed, there was something of a tradition of hatred between fathers and sons in the Hanoverian line. Rather than showing any sympathy towards George Augustus for the sudden loss of his mother, the Elector mocked and bullied him for weakness, and was fond of making half-veiled threats to disinherit him. This in turn fostered a strong sense of insecurity in the young prince.
Bullying aside, George Louis took little interest in the upbringing of his son, and it was his mother, Electress Sophia, who took over. As she had no great love for her own son, it may be supposed that her grandson’s hatred for him grew even stronger under her tutelage. The Electress made no secret of the fact that George Augustus was her favourite grandchild, and she indulged rather than checked his wayward behaviour. As a result, he grew up spoilt and with a lofty sense of his own importance.
Ironically, while George Augustus loathed his father intensely, he developed a personality that was remarkably similar in many respects. He was boorish, unrefined, obstinate and avaricious. Having received the traditional training of a German prince, he also shared his father’s passion for military affairs. He never developed any real talent in this respect, but like his father he was brave in the line of fire. He was to distinguish himself in 1708 at the Battle of Oudenarde, where he had his horse shot from under him. The greatest military leader of the age, the Duke of Marlborough, praised his conduct, and the poet Congreve wrote a ballad in honour of ‘young Hanover brave’.
For all his courage on the battlefield, the Electoral Prince was prone to petulant outbursts and his temper could flare up at the slightest provocation. One contemporary said of him that he ‘looked on all the men and women he saw as creatures he might kick or kiss for his diversion’.8 Another wrote that he ‘had rather an unfeeling than a bad heart; but I never observed any settled malevolence in him, though his sudden passions, which were frequent, made him say things which, in cooler moments, he would not have executed’.9
The strong sense of insecurity that his father had engendered in him at an early age plagued George Augustus throughout his life. He found refuge in an obsession with facts and figures, and developed a slavish, almost manic attention to detail which found expression in his fascination for genealogy. He knew the complicated family trees of all the princes of Europe and could recite them with absolute accuracy. His knowledge of military regiments, orders and uniforms was equally precise and could never be faulted. Subjects such as these formed the basis of his conversation, and his companions at court were treated to many long hours of it. He did not so much win arguments as bore his opponents into submission. One courtier lamented his ‘insisting upon people’s conversation who were to entertain him being always new, and his own being always the same thing over and over again’.10
George Augustus’s obsession with detail also materialised in a love of order and routine. His days moved with clockwork regularity, and his eye was exceptionally quick to spot anything that was at odds with the established order, especially when it concerned the ceremonials at court. He hated the unexpected, and even the most minor disruption would make him fly into a rage. Meals were regular and to the moment, as was every other aspect of his daily routine. ‘Little things, as he often told me himself, affected him more than great ones,’ the Earl of Chesterfield observed. The Prince’s eldest daughter, Anne, later concurred with this. ‘When great points go as he would not have them, he frets and is bad to himself,’ she told a friend at court, ‘but when he is in his worst humours, and the devil to everybody that comes near him, it is always because one of his pages has powdered his periwig ill, or a housemaid set a chair where it does not use to stand, or something of that kind.’11
Such an acute obsession with order, coupled with an extraordinary ability to retain the most detailed facts and figures, may simply have been traits inherited from his Guelph ancestors. While he had much in common with his father, however, George Augustus’s personality was more extreme in many respects, and it is possible that there was a medical reason for this. In fact, he displayed some of the main traits of Asperger’s syndrome.12
George’s love of routine extended to his sexual relations, which he conducted in as well regulated a manner as he would an inspection of infantry. There was certainly no absence of passion, though, and he shared the same animal appetites as his father. He was highly energetic, eager for satisfaction, and not over-delicate as to how it was gratified. Having been raised predominantly by women, he felt safe in their company and preferred it to that of men. But he rarely developed any great affection for them and, like his father, believed that their primary function was to meet his physical needs.
However, the Electoral Prince was not as coarse and unfeeling as this portrait suggests. His confidence may have been difficult to gain, but once won, his loyalty was sincere and enduring. Furthermore, as well as military training, he had also acquired more refined princely accomplishments. His education included the classics, and he was given a good grounding in modern languages. He could speak French and Italian, and his knowledge of English was sound, even if he retained a marked German accent. But this was where his academic achievements ended. Like his father, he was contemptuous of intellectuals and men of letters, famously declaring: ‘I hate boets and bainters both.’ He often told courtiers that when he was a young boy he had despised reading and learning as other children did, not merely upon account of the confinement they entailed, but because he viewed them as ‘something mean and below him’.13 It is extraordinary, then, that he should have chosen for his bride one of the most accomplished and intellectual princesses in Europe.
Wilhelmina Caroline, Princess of Brandenburg-Ansbach, was born in the palace of Ansbach, a small town in south Germany, on 1 March 1683. She was the elder of the two children of Johann Friedrich, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, and his second wife, Eleanore Erdmuthe Louisa. Like that of George Augustus, Caroline’s childhood was dominated by women. Her father died when she was just three years old, and she was raised by her mother until she, too, died ten years later. Caroline was subsequently taken into the care of her guardians, the Elector of Brandenburg and his wife, Sophia Charlotte, who became Queen of Prussia in 1701. It was she who exerted the greatest influence over her young charge. Electress Sophia Charlotte presided over a liberal, cultivated court, where intellectual discussion was actively encouraged, and Caroline was introduced to some of the greatest intellectuals and artists of the day, including Voltaire and Handel. Her favourite was the celebrated German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, with whom she developed a close friendship. They spent long hours together discussing philosophical, historical and religious questions. With regard to the latter, Caroline was a staunch Protestant and even turned down the prospect of what would have been a prestigious marriage to Archduke Charles, the future Holy Roman Emperor, on the basis that it would have meant converting to Catholicism.
Politics was also a passion for Caroline, and early on she developed a lust for power that was to stay with her for life. In certain respects she had the makings of a consummate politician. She was shrewd, wily, lavish in her compliments and often sparing with the truth. According to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, she had a ‘low cunning, which gave her an inclination to cheat all the people she conversed with’, but at the same time she lacked ‘understanding enough that falsehood in conversation, like red on the face, should be used very seldom and very sparingly’.14
Like her future husband, Caroline could speak French, and she later employed an Englishwoman to read to her, although she herself admitted that she found some difficulty in speaking the language. Perhaps because of the absence of any formal education when she was a child, her spelling was idiosyncratic and her handwriting poor. The Electoral Prince once observed that she ‘wrote like a cat’.15 On the whole, Caroline’s intellectual abilities and tastes could perhaps be described as wide, but not very deep. They might have been completely absent for all George Augustus cared. What interested him were the reports of her physical charms.
Caroline was comely in a soft, flaxen, Aryan way. Contemporary portraits of her as a young woman show her with fair, fine and abundant hair, and blue eyes that matched those of her future husband. Her skin had an attractive rosy hue and was remarkably soft. She was quite small in stature, but robust rather than delicate. Her greatest asset (and the one that attracted most admiration from her male suitors) was her ample bosom, which she displayed to maximum advantage. She was well aware of her charms, and her poise and coquetry served to enhance her overall attractiveness.
The courtship of the Electoral Prince George Augustus and Caroline of Ansbach reads like a work of romantic fiction. The story goes that George rode out to the palace of Triesdorf, where Caroline was staying for the summer. He disguised himself as a young nobleman travelling for pleasure and assumed a false name to complete the ruse. Acting incognito would allow him to find out if he could love the Princess, and if she could love him, without bringing the considerable factor of his true status to bear. It was also expedient because of the hatred that Caroline’s guardian, the King of Prussia, harboured for George’s father. George was said to have fallen in love with the Princess at first sight. Her fair hair and large breasts were exactly to the taste of this lustful young prince. An envoy in Hanover reported that as soon as he met her, ‘he would not think of anybody else’.16
Caroline was more calculating in her assessment of the Prince. Although she went along with the pretence of his being an ordinary young nobleman, she knew full well that he was really the heir to the Electorate of Hanover, and potentially to a much greater prize – the throne of Great Britain. She was also shrewd enough to realise that for all his bluff and bluster, here was a man who could be manipulated and subjected to her will. From the very start, she seemed to know instinctively how to play him. She appealed to his vanity and insecurity by professing a most ardent devotion to him, as well as a fervent desire to fulfil his every whim. His irascibility and petulance she met with soothing patience and apparent submissiveness, and for much of the time she was pursuing her own ambitions by appearing to comply with his. George may have been blind to her manipulative nature, but contemporary observers were not. One of these noted: ‘Her first thought on marriage was to secure herself the sole and whole direction of her spouse; and to that purpose counterfeited the most extravagant fondness for his person; yet, at the same time, so devoted to his pleasures (which she often told him were the rule of all her thoughts and actions).’17
Caroline was not completely devoid of affection for her young suitor, however. Of an energetic and vigorous constitution, she shared his earthy nature, and the couple were thoroughly to enjoy their marriage bed. Nevertheless, it was the Prince’s powerful status that attracted her most, and she readily accepted his offer of marriage. Their betrothal was formally announced in July 1705, and they were married at the beginning of September in the chapel of Herrenhausen. Eager though he was to claim Caroline for his wife, George was bored by the tediously long ceremony and dozed off during the sermon, much to the amusement of the congregation. The Duchess of Orléans rather crudely observed: ‘What good news for the bride that he should be well rested.’18
The Princess manipulated her new husband from the start. She suggested that his family had shown him a lack of respect by presenting his bride with inadequate gifts. At the very least, she said, they ought to have given her all of his mother’s jewels. It did not take much to inflame George’s hatred of his father, and he now also turned on his grandmother, the Electress, ‘which ended in such a coldness towards all his family as left him entirely under the government of his wife’.19 In driving a wedge between him and his family, Caroline had succeeded in strengthening her own hold over him. This episode set the tone for what was to be an enduring, if subtle, subjugation of George to his wife’s will, and before long he came to rely on her utterly.
Their marriage soon brought forth the expected heirs. The Electoral Princess gave birth to a son, Frederick, on 1 February 1707. Three further children followed in quick succession: Anne (1709), Amelia (1711) and Caroline (1713), and there were more to come. This strengthening of the Hanoverian dynasty could not have been more timely. Early in 1714, rumours reached Herrenhausen that the English Queen was fading fast.
Soon Hanover was thronging with well-born English adventurers, all anxious to pay homage to their future sovereign. The Electress was by now an old woman of eighty-four, so many hedged their bets by also seeking favour with her son, the Elector George Louis. Both of the main political parties in England, the Whigs and the Tories, sent emissaries, ostensibly to pay their respects, but in reality to gain the upper hand with the Hanoverians. At that time, the court of Hanover was apparently ‘as much divided into Whig and Tory as the court of England’.20
All English visitors of any standing were received and entertained like invited guests. The Electress relished the prospect of taking the throne of her ancestors, and welcomed her future subjects with enthusiasm. Among them were Henrietta and Charles Howard. They arrived in Hanover early in 1714, after travelling ‘in the meanest and most fatiguing manner’, as Henrietta later recorded.21 Their meagre funds had allowed them none of the comforts usually enjoyed by well-bred travellers. They took what lodgings they could afford in the town and prepared to make their court to the Electoral family at Herrenhausen. They had been out of polite society since their marriage, and there is no evidence that they had any acquaintances in Hanover to effect an introduction. Everything now rested upon their ability to render themselves agreeable to the Electoral family and thus pave the way for appointments in the future royal household. If they failed, they would have no choice but to return to England and face certain ruin. The modest allowance from Henrietta’s dowry would not be enough to satisfy the growing list of creditors.
This was a daunting enough prospect in itself, but was made even more so by Charles. Rather than helping his wife to carry out her plan, he chose instead to torment her. More irritable than usual due to the long and arduous journey, he took his temper out on her with violence. ‘When I came to Hanover and hoped to enjoy some respit from my troubles, I found ye uneasiness of yr Temper, render’d me void of almost a moments rest.’ He also resumed his old habits, apparently set on establishing the same reputation in Hanover that had besmirched him in London. To Henrietta’s utter dismay, he succeeded, and before long his activities were ‘so visible as to be remark’d by all our acquaintances’.22 She had to act quickly before the name of Howard was rendered unacceptable at the palace of Herrenhausen.
Henrietta went at once to apply for an introduction to the Electress. When this was granted, she summoned all her resolve and endeavoured to make herself as engaging as possible to the ‘heiress of Great Britain’. Sophia was delighted with this new arrival at court. That Henrietta was English and of noble status certainly helped pave the way to her favour. But it was her pleasant, amiable manner and cultivated intellect that set her apart from the many other English adventurers who crowded the state rooms at the palace. In comparing her character to a book, a contemporary observed that it was ‘a compleat treatise on subjects moral, instructive, and entertaining, perfectly well digested and connected, the stile is admirable, the reasoning clear & strong’.23 Mrs Howard was certainly far superior in intellect and conversation to the Hanoverian ladies at court, and before long she had become a welcome guest in Sophia’s apartments.
Henrietta’s success in impressing the Electress proved that she had the makings of an excellent courtier. She had used just the right amount of artfulness and flattery to secure Sophia’s good opinion, and had successfully concealed her real motives in doing so. She later confessed to a friend that she had found the Electress’s conversation ‘extremely light and without any gravity’. But her flattery had not been entirely false. She seemed to genuinely like the Electress, and enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with such a lively and sociable woman. She was also impressed by Sophia’s skill in languages, and recounted how she had seen her ‘keep up a conversation with four or five persons of different languages who spoke only their own, at the same time, & when she wanted to speak to them all together, she spoke Latin’.24
Henrietta soon became all but a lady-in-waiting to the Electress, and as such entered fully into the various diversions of court life at Herrenhausen. Whenever possible, Sophia entertained her English visitors personally. She frequently gave dinner parties at the palace, and these occasions were certainly more lively when she was present than when the English visitors were treated to the company of the Elector alone. Lord Johnstone, who was among the guests, described the entertainments to his friend the Earl of Oxford: ‘The gaiety and diversion of the court consist entirely in a regular promenade that is made every evening in the orangery and garden of Heerenhuysen and lasts for 2 or 3 hours, in which the old Electress, who is near 84, performs a miracle, fatiguing all the company with walking after her without in the least incommoding herself.’25
Another English visitor was the poet and playwright John Gay, who was at that time struggling to make a name for himself in England. At twenty-eight, Gay was one of a group of like-minded young authors and wits in London who had recently formed the Scriblerus Club. The other members included Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Arbuthnot, Queen Anne’s physician. The club had political as well as literary interests, and its members were staunch supporters of Lord Bolingbroke, the Tory peer who was wrestling for power with the Earl of Oxford. Gay dedicated The Shepherd’s Week to him; this was published in April 1714 and was undoubtedly one of his best works so far. Shortly afterwards he was appointed secretary to the Earl of Clarendon, a Tory envoy hoping to win support for his party in Hanover, and the pair arrived there in June 1714.
Gay soon became a regular fixture at the Electoral palace, and wrote to a friend back in England: ‘I go every night to court at Herenhausen, the Place & Gardens more than answer’d my expectations.’ He immediately won favour with the Princess, who was charmed by his liveliness and wit, and in particular by the poems that he wrote for her. He confided to his friend: ‘the Princess hath now ask’d me for my Poem, and I am obliged to make Presents to 3 or 4 Ladys besides’. One of these ladies was Henrietta, who was delighted with her new companion at court, and the pair established a firm and lasting friendship. Gay’s enthusiasm for the Hanoverian court was less enduring, however, and within a few weeks of his arrival he was complaining: ‘We have not much variety of Diversions, what we did yesterday & to day we shall do to morrow, which is, go to court and walk in the Gardens at Heernhausen.’26
As Henrietta’s circle of acquaintance grew, her position at court became increasingly prominent. Electress Sophia delighted in having her nearby at the nightly dinners and receptions, and loved to exchange gossip about the assembled guests. One evening, at a court ball, Henrietta was standing behind the Electress’s chair when, pointing to Madame Schulenburg, who was within earshot, Sophia cried: ‘Look at that Mawkin, and think of her as being my son’s passion!’27 Henrietta was mortified by the Electress’s lack of discretion, until she remembered that the object of her derision could not speak English.
Electress Sophia was not the only one who was charmed by the young English noblewoman, for Henrietta also succeeded in winning the favour of the Electoral Princess. In her, Caroline found a much-needed outlet for her intellectual interests. She had soon learned to suppress these in front of her husband, who could not abide intellectual discussion, so she was overjoyed at being able to converse freely with Mrs Howard. When the latter expressed an admiration (possibly diplomatic rather than real) for the teachings of Leibniz, Caroline was enraptured, and promptly appointed her one of her ‘dames du palais’. Henrietta’s joy was complete when, shortly afterwards, Electress Sophia promised that she would make her a Woman of the Bedchamber should she live to be Queen of England. There was, moreover, an understanding that if she died before succeeding to the English throne, her grandson’s wife, Caroline, would honour this promise.
But Henrietta could not yet feel secure. There was still a chance that political events in England might take a different turn and deprive the Hanoverians of their inheritance. The Jacobite faction was growing in strength, and the prospect that it offered of placing a British rather than a German-born king on the throne was an enticing one. As late as December 1713, Princess Caroline had written to her friend Leibniz: ‘You do well to send me your good wishes for the throne of England, which are sorely needed just now, for in spite of all the favourable rumours you mention, affairs there seem to be going from bad to worse.’28
Moreover, it was not enough for Henrietta alone to secure an appointment: to be sure of success her errant husband would also have to find favour. Henrietta did everything she could to help by recommending him to the Electress and Caroline, earnestly hoping that they had not already learned of his unsavoury reputation. But it was the male members of the Hanoverian family who Charles would have to impress, because it was in their households that he would need to find employment. This was made even more difficult by the fact that, unlike his mother, the Elector had no love of the English and disapproved of their presence at his court. Against all the odds, Charles succeeded in winning him over. Perhaps his vulgarity appealed to George Louis, who had no time for the niceties of polite conversation and court etiquette. Or perhaps his wife’s efforts had reaped some reward. Whatever the case, Charles was able to secure the promise of an appointment in the royal household as soon as the Hanoverians took up residence in England.
Their task accomplished, the Howards became a regular feature of the court. As Henrietta’s intimacy with Caroline grew, so did her acquaintance with the Princess’s husband, George Augustus. The Electoral Prince approved of his wife’s companion. She displayed all the qualities that he admired in a woman: modesty, discretion and – above all – obedience. As Lady Mary Wortley Montagu shrewdly observed: ‘[he] judged of the merit of all people by their ready submission to his orders’.29 The Prince was also drawn to Henrietta’s physical charms. Now aged twenty-five, she had blossomed into an attractive woman. The fashionably pale skin that others had to attain with cosmetics was hers by nature. Her fine features were perfectly framed by her long hair, which fell in soft curls down her back, and her figure (although less ample than Caroline’s) was slim and elegant. But it was her presence, just as much as her appearance, that made her alluring. Softly spoken, she chose her words carefully and was exceptionally discreet. Her eyes seemed to betray a secret pleasure or amusement, and the fact that she rarely revealed her private thoughts and feelings gave her an enigmatic quality.
Henrietta’s main charm for the Prince, however, was the patient interest she showed in his tedious conversation. He would spend hours regaling her with minute descriptions of the military campaigns in which he had fought, or reciting the intricacies of European royal genealogy. A woman of keen intellect like Henrietta could not have found any genuine pleasure in such monotonous subjects, but she was shrewd enough to flatter the Prince’s vanity by appearing fascinated. Caroline was apparently content to allow their acquaintance to develop, no doubt glad to be relieved of the tedium of her husband’s company for an hour or so each day. The Electress was equally approving, and was said to have remarked: ‘It will improve his English.’30
There was some speculation among the courtiers who observed Mrs Howard’s friendship with the Prince as to whether it went beyond the platonic. George was a highly sexed young man and had already taken several mistresses since his marriage. Speculation aside, however, there is little else to suggest that Henrietta and George had begun a physical affair at this stage. It is unlikely that a woman who had hitherto proved a model of such decency and propriety as to border on the prudish would so easily have surrendered her virtue. This would in any case have risked, rather than enhanced, her new-found favour at the Hanoverian court. A prince could more easily cast aside a mistress whom he had tired of than a respectable and suppliant companion whose friendship both he and his wife valued highly. Henrietta was already too skilled a courtier to jeopardise the prize that she had so nearly won by entering on such a reckless course.
Reports of Queen Anne’s deteriorating condition were now arriving at Herrenhausen on an almost daily basis. But the health of her successor-in-waiting was also beginning to fail. The Electress feared that her cherished ambition to be Queen of England would be snatched from her by death, and confided to Leibniz: ‘She [Queen Anne] will have to hurry up with her dying if I am to be Queen.’31 The eyes of the world were now on the two aged matriarchs, and speculation was rife as to which of them would die first. Despite her advanced years, Sophia seemed the more likely to outlive her rival. She had enjoyed excellent health, and her mind was as sound as ever. As she herself had once commented, ‘creaking wagons go far’. However, it was whilst displaying this excellent constitution and taking one of her accustomed brisk walks in the grounds of the palace, on 19 June 1714, that Sophia suddenly collapsed, having suffered what appeared to be a massive stroke. Caroline rushed to her side, but the Electress died in her arms a few moments later.
The Electress’s death again threw the Hanoverians and their English dependants into uncertainty. According to the 1701 Act of Settlement, the Elector would now succeed as heir to the English throne, but this rested on Queen Anne’s approval, and she had a well-known distaste for her distant German relatives. She also had little choice, for none of her children had survived into adulthood, and it would have been inconceivable to revoke her Protestant dynasty in favour of the Jacobites. If Anne had to accept a Hanoverian succession, however, she steadfastly resisted suggestions that the Electoral family should visit her in England, saying that it would be akin to seeing her coffin before she was dead. She had taken a violent dislike to George Louis when he had come to pay his court to her many years before with the intention of strengthening their alliance through marriage, and had swiftly nipped any such proposals in the bud. Yet with the prospect of a Jacobite succession being no more appealing to her than that of a boorish Hanoverian, she eventually agreed formally to name the Elector as her heir.
Electress Sophia had missed out on being Queen of England by the narrowest of margins, for just a few short weeks after her death, Queen Anne herself lay dying. As her life hung in the balance, anticipation at Hanover reached fever pitch, and almost hourly updates of the Queen’s condition were dispatched from the English court. On 31 July, the Earl of Oxford reported: ‘This day, about 10 o’clock, it was apprehended her Majesty was just expiring, but by the strength of her nature, she recovered out of that fit. There is so little hope of her recovery that an express is this day sent to the court of Hanover to desire his Electoral Highness immediately to come to England. It is thought by the physicians that she cannot live many days.’32 The physicians were right. Less than twenty-four hours later, the Queen was dead. Henrietta’s fate was now irrevocably tied to Britain’s new Hanoverian royal family.