Chapter 7

‘These fools may ne’er agree’

THE QUARREL IN THE royal household spawned a rush of ballads, pamphlets, reports and gossip. News of it had quickly spread throughout the court, and it was now the most popular topic of conversation in taverns and coffee houses across London. The people were at turns astonished and amused by this extraordinary occurrence, and it did little to enhance the popularity or prestige of the House of Hanover. One contemporary verse ran:

        God grant the land may profit reap

        From all this silly pother,

        And send these fools may ne’er agree

        Till they are at Hanover.

The Jacobites seized upon the controversy as yet another example of the Hanoverians’ unsuitability for rule, and stirred up ill feeling across the country. The King’s ministers urged him to make peace with the Prince of Wales, but he would have none of it. The division between father and son had been widening for many years, and would not be easily healed.

Following their expulsion from court, the Prince and his wife sought temporary shelter in the home of his Chamberlain, Lord Grantham, on Albermarle Street, Piccadilly. It was humiliating for the royal couple to be thus forced to turn to a servant, and quite where they would go after that was still uncertain. Together with their household staff and Maids of Honour, many of whom were weeping, they made a sorry procession on that cold November night. A confidential report contained within the papers of Henry Bentinck, 1st Duke of Portland, described how the Princess, who was still recovering from the birth of her son, in ‘the utmost grief and disorder’ swooned several times. The Prince was equally distraught, and cried nonstop for two hours.1

Caroline remained in a fragile condition, miserable at being separated from her children, the three young princesses Anne, Amelia and Caroline, and the newborn prince, George William, who had literally been taken from her arms. She was also anxious about what the future now held for her and her husband, and urged the Prince to write another conciliatory letter to his father, apologising for any offence that he had caused by this ‘misunderstanding’. George grudgingly consented, but the ensuing dispatch had no effect: his father declared that he had had enough of the couple’s insincerity to make him vomit. He did relent a little, though, and sent word to the Princess that if she was prepared to leave her husband then she would be welcome to live with her children at St James’s. Caroline replied indignantly that her children were ‘not as a grain of sand compared to him’, and that she would stay with him at all costs. The sacrifice of leaving their children was, however, keenly felt by both the Prince and Princess. A few days after their expulsion, they returned in secret to St James’s and snatched a few moments with them. The King was furious when he found out and sent a severe reprimand to his son, warning him that in future he must apply for permission to visit – and that even then it was unlikely to be granted.2

Much as he might have wished to, George was unable to remove his son from the line of succession or deprive him of the £100,000 allowance that he received from the civil list. He therefore sought ways to humiliate him. The Prince and Princess were denied their guard of honour and other marks of distinction, and foreign ambassadors and envoys were advised that if they visited the couple, they would not be received at St James’s. The same went for all peers and peeresses, privy councillors and their wives, and other officials at court. Orders were also sent to all those who were employed in the service of both the King and the Prince that they must choose between them, and ladies whose husbands were in the King’s household were likewise to quit the Princess’s.3Henrietta had already made her choice, but those who had served in the royal household for many years were thrown into a great quandary. Among them was the Duchess of St Albans, who was forced to relinquish the most prestigious post in Caroline’s household so that her husband could continue in service to the King.

Worst of all, though, was George I’s insistence that the royal grandchildren must remain at St James’s. His stubbornness on this matter was to have fatal consequences. Deprived of his mother’s milk, the newborn prince’s fragile health began to falter. The King’s ministers urged him to relent, aware of the damage that would be done to his public profile if the child died. He eventually agreed that the Princess might attend her son, but found the thought of her presence at St James’s so repugnant that he sent the infant to Kensington. The little prince’s condition deteriorated rapidly in the damp confines of this palace, and he died the following day. He was buried in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey – and with him, it seemed, any hope of a reconciliation.

Public sympathy was now firmly with the Prince and Princess of Wales. Grieving for their son, they had the additional burden of knowing that they would have to find a new residence. It was neither convenient nor appropriate for them to stay in the house of a servant for long, and although Lord Grantham had done everything possible to make them comfortable, their circumstances were ‘much straitened’ from what they had been at St James’s. So cramped was their accommodation, in fact, that they were obliged to sleep in the same room – a highly unusual circumstance for a couple of royal blood. This meant that the Princess’s ladies would have to see the Prince in a state of undress in order to attend their mistress. Horace Walpole recounts that one evening, when both George and Caroline were ill with chickenpox, Henrietta sat in between their beds and read them to sleep. Such discomforts apart, Lord Grantham’s house was also unsuitable for receiving officials and distinguished guests, and before long their court began to dwindle. ‘Many waited on them at their first going to Lord Grantham’s,’ it was reported, ‘but few since.’4

The Prince therefore started to look for a suitable alternative, and soon afterwards took Savile House, a handsome – if rather small – mansion in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square), and ordered the removal of his effects from St James’s. The size of the house meant that it, too, represented only a temporary base. Fortunately, however, the building adjoining it, Leicester House, was also vacant, and the Prince was able to secure it for the sum of £6,000. He and the Princess duly moved there on 25 March 1718, accompanied by their households.

The distinguished history of Leicester House made it a fitting residence for the royal couple. It had been built by James I’s famous ambassador, Lord Leicester, in the early seventeenth century. In 1662 it had had its first royal tenant, in the form of George II’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, and then played host to Peter the Great on his visit to England. It was a spacious two-storey house, fronted by a large courtyard and situated on the north side of Leicester Fields. Inside, it boasted a fine staircase and a series of handsome reception rooms, ideal for entertaining the couple’s guests.

Before long, Leicester House had become a magnet for members of London’s most fashionable society. At all hours of the day and night, the courtyard was crowded with coaches and sedan chairs, lords and ladies in sumptuous costumes and powdered wigs, and all manner of servants, footmen, bearers and stablemen. Disaffected Whigs and Tories also flocked there, eager to further their political ambitions by showing allegiance to the Prince. ‘The most promising of the young Lords and Gentlemen of that party [the Whigs], & the prettiest & liveliest of the young Ladies formed the new court of the Prince and Princess of Wales,’ recounted Horace Walpole.5

The Prince and Princess entertained even more lavishly than during their regency at Hampton Court. As well as drawing rooms every morning, there were receptions, balls and assemblies three times a week. On the rare occasions that no formal entertainments were held, the couple showed themselves at the theatre, opera or other public place, always surrounded by a magnificent suite of lords and ladies. London’s social scene was more vibrant than it had been since the accession of the Hanoverians. ‘As for the gay part of town, you would find it much more flourishing than you left it,’ Lord Chesterfield told a friend. ‘Balls, assemblies and masquerades have taken the place of dull, formal visiting-days.’6

In cultivating such a brilliant court, the Prince and Princess were effectively throwing down a gauntlet to the King in the battle for public opinion. He was quick to respond. With a substantial effort, he forced himself to abandon his natural reserve and threw open the doors of St James’s for drawing rooms, balls and assemblies several times a week. Anxious to attract a good attendance, he extended the invitation to anyone who was well enough dressed to be admitted by the footmen guarding the doors, and also opened up the road through St James’s Park to ‘all coaches without distinction’.7 When he moved to Hampton Court for the summer, he ordered that the festivities must eclipse those of the previous year. He held assemblies every evening, balls twice a week, and even endured the ordeal of dining in public every day.

But for all of George I’s efforts, his court did not even come close to rivalling that of his son. One regular at St James’s noted with some despondency: ‘[I] went to court but there were so few people the King did not come out so I went home.’ Even Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a stalwart supporter of the King, complained about the monotony of his entertainments, which she said comprised ‘a perpetual round of hearing the same scandal, and seeing the same follies acted over and over’.8

Eventually the King tired of the pretence, and in May 1719 he set off once more for Hanover, leaving the few English noblemen and women who had not already deserted his court to make their way to Leicester House. The Prince was triumphant, and he and his wife launched themselves into the task of entertaining London society with even more vigour than before. During the summer months they repaired with their court to Richmond Lodge, which the Prince had acquired at around the same time as their London residence.

Rebuilt ten years earlier, the Lodge was an elegant country retreat set in the beautiful landscape of the Old Deer Park in Richmond, to the south of the present-day Royal Botanic Gardens. Bordered on one side by the River Thames and situated amidst some of the best hunting ground in England, the Lodge’s main attraction was undoubtedly its location, particularly as it was also only eight miles from London. It had previously been owned by King William III, who had lavishly furnished the interior with damask curtains, velvet beds and rich mahogany panelling, much of which still remained. But the house had only ever been intended as a hunting lodge, and despite the enlargements carried out by its subsequent owner, James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde, it was still rather small for a royal residence. Accommodation for members of the household was therefore in short supply, and most were paid ‘lodging money’ for whatever shelter they could find. A terrace of four houses was later built on Richmond Green for Caroline’s Maids of Honour, but in the meantime they were obliged to take their chances with the rest. As a Woman of the Bedchamber, Henrietta fared rather better, for it was essential that she had ready access to her mistress, so she was one of the lucky few who took up residence with the royal couple in the Lodge itself.

No sooner had the Prince and Princess of Wales moved to their new summer retreat than Richmond became one of the most fashionable places to live outside London. ‘This town and the country adjacent encrease daily in buildings,’ Daniel Defoe observed in hisTour Thro’ . . . Great Britain, ‘many noble houses for the accommodation of such, being lately rais’d and more in prospect.’9 The spa waters of Richmond were suddenly discovered to have miraculous healing qualities, and a pump room was swiftly built to serve the crowds of well-bred ladies and gentlemen who now flocked there, along with an assembly room, ornamental gardens and a lavish new theatre on the Green.

For the royal party, the chief pleasure during the day was hunting, a pastime to which the Prince was greatly addicted. The Princess usually watched from the safety of her chaise, but her ladies did not escape so lightly and were fully expected to take part. Henrietta wrote to her friend John Gay: ‘We hunt with great noice, and violence, and have every day a very tolerable chance to have a neck broke.’10 The evenings were passed with supper parties, cards or music, with the occasional visit to the theatre, and the gaiety that prevailed was reminiscent of that first summer at Hampton Court.

For the ladies and gentlemen of the royal households, this was truly the best of times, and for none more so than Henrietta. She threw herself with almost reckless abandon into the wide range of diversions that were on offer, and was reported to have lost £100 at the card tables during the first few weeks of her stay. On the evenings when there was no formal entertainment, the brightest stars of the court all flocked to the intimate supper parties she held in her rooms, and these soon became legendary. ‘The apartment of the bedchamber woman in waiting became the fashionable evening rendezvous of the most distinguished Wits & Beauties,’ recounted her friend Horace Walpole.11

Some of the acquaintances she had made at Hampton Court two years before now became her close confidants. Principal among them was Alexander Pope, who was soon a regular visitor to both Leicester House and Richmond Lodge. Henrietta possessed all the qualities that Pope most admired in a woman. She had a lively wit and intellect, and was always eager to hear his latest poetry and prose. Pope was also drawn to women who had endured hardship, and he was aware of what Henrietta had suffered at the hands of her husband since they had last met. The combination of her quiet strength and vulnerability invoked his compassion and admiration in equal measure.

Of all her friends, Pope was the most genuine. As a Roman Catholic, he was barred from public office and therefore did not seek advancement at court through her influence; rather, he frequented it because he enjoyed being at the heart of fashionable society. He had also set himself firmly against the royal family by sneering at them in his poems and satires. If anything, this served to increase his appeal for Henrietta, who secretly shared much of his disdain.

Pope’s affection for her soon found expression in verse. ‘I know a reasonable woman, Handsome and witty, yet a friend,’ he wrote in his poem ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’. ‘Not warp’d by passion, awed by rumour, Nor grave through pride, or gay through folly; An equal mixture of good humour And sensible soft melancholy.’ The last line proves that, unlike many of Henrietta’s other acquaintances at court, Pope was not fooled by her cheerful disposition. He knew that it disguised a deeper unhappiness, caused by the cruel treatment that she had received from her husband and by the separation from her son. He referred to it again in a letter to a friend, in which he said that there was ‘an air of sadness about her which grieves me’, and went on to declare how much he admired the way she put her own unhappiness to one side for the sake of her companions: ‘I have a sort of Quarrel to Mrs H[oward] for not loving Herself so well as she does her Friends: For those she makes happy, but not Herself.’12

For her part, Henrietta delighted in Pope’s company. Trusting few at court, she found a welcome release in being able to confide in him. The same was true for Pope, who described her to another of the ladies at court as ‘the most trusty of Friends’.13 Henrietta was also greatly diverted by her friend’s witty conversation and irreverent verse. One of his most amusing poems was written as if from his beloved dog, Bounce, to Henrietta’s lapdog, Fop:

   We Country Dogs love nobler Sport,

   And scorn the Pranks of Dogs at court.

   Fye, naughty Fop! where e’er you come

   To fart and piss about the Room,

   To Lay your Head in every Lap,

   And, when they think not of you – snap!

On his visits to Mrs Howard’s apartments, Pope was often accompanied by Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough and Monmouth. The Earl’s military, political and diplomatic careers had won him many honours, but he had always refused to bow to convention. He had joined the navy at the age of twenty, but had disagreed with the strategies followed in the war against Spain, so had promptly built his own ship – a forty-six-gun privateer that he named Loyal Mordaunt. This almost caused a diplomatic incident, because the Spanish feared that he would use it to attack their fleet and complained to Charles II, who ordered Peterborough to remain on dry land. The Earl had actively opposed Charles’s successor, James II, and had been instrumental in paving the way for William of Orange to seize the crown in 1688. But his notoriously volatile behaviour made the new queen suspicious. ‘Lord Monmouth is mad,’ she confided in private, ‘and his wife who is madder, governs him.’ This wife was Carey Fraizer, whom Peterborough had been obliged to marry hastily and in secret after getting her pregnant.

The Earl had returned to favour at court after the accession of Queen Anne, and had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of her fleet in the war against Spain. He had subsequently been employed in various diplomatic missions on the Continent. But his unpredictable behaviour had made the British government nervous, and he had been recalled in 1714. ‘It was impossible that a man with so much Wit as he shew’d, cou’d be fit to command an Army, or do any other Business,’ observed Pope. The new Hanoverian King evidently shared his opinion, for Peterborough was instructed not to appear at court.

Following the split in the royal family, however, he became a regular guest at Leicester House. Now aged sixty, this ‘rusty hero and roué’ was still one of the liveliest gallants at court. His high spirits were matched by fast living, and he was as fond of drinking and gambling as of flattery and flirtation. On one occasion, he had driven his horses so hard that his coach had overturned, injuring him seriously enough to make him ‘spit blood’. His friends had been so concerned for him that they had daily expected to hear news of his death, and were astonished when he made a rapid recovery. ‘He outrode it, or outdrank it, or something, and is come home lustier than ever,’ marvelled one of them. Peterborough’s extraordinary energy and restlessness still led him on many overseas ventures, and he seemed to be forever flitting between the Hague and Vienna, Madrid and Copenhagen, or similarly far-flung places. Swift once said of him that he must know ‘every prince in Europe’s face’, and that he ‘Flies like a squib from place to place, And travels not, but runs a race.’14

Peterborough was an instant hit at court. His witty conversation and irrepressible flirtatiousness delighted the Princess’s ladies. Horace Walpole described him as ‘one of those men of careless wit and negligent grace who scatter a thousand bon-mots and idle verses’. None of the ladies received more attention from him than Mrs Howard. A self-confessed ‘superanuated gallant’, he was some thirty-one years her senior, but displayed the energy of a teenager as he laid siege to her affections with flattery, verse and letters. The latter ran to dozens of pages and were filled with wildly romantic sentiments. ‘Your eyes were not more fatall to me the first Time I saw them, then my own have been false to my heart ever since,’ he wrote, ‘if I have not told you a thousand times yt I dye for you, this I might speak with truth to the Lady who has seized my soul.’

Apparently consumed by love, the Earl claimed that he trembled every time he came near the object of his affections: ‘the first moments I approach her I can hardly speak; and I feel myself the greatest fool in nature nere the woeman in the world who has the most witt’.15 He continued this theme in his ‘Song’ to her:

When she comes in my way – the motion, the pain,

The leapings, the achings, return all again . . .

O wonderful creature! A woman of reason!

Never grave out of pride, never gay out of season;

When so easy to guess who this angel should be,

Would one think Mrs Howard ne’er dreamt it was she?

The ‘cruell mistresse’ of Peterborough’s heart countered his protestations with good-humoured scorn. His ‘Song’ she dismissed as ‘the ridiculous cant of love’, and the insincerity of his apparent devotion was exposed by her frank good sense. ‘That you might mistake love in others I grant you, but I wonder how you could mistake it in yourself,’ she chided. ‘Consider, my lord, you have but one heart, and then consider whether you have a right to dispose of it, is there not a lady at Paris who is convinced that nobody has it but herself? Did you not bequeath it to another lady at Turin? At Venice you disposed of it to six or seven, and you again parted with it at Naples and in Sicily. I believe, my Lord,’ she concluded, ‘that one who disposes of his heart in so profuse a manner is like a juggler, who seems to fling away a piece of money but still has it in his own keeping.’16

Despite Mrs Howard’s firm dismissal of Peterborough’s romantic declarations, there was inevitable speculation at court that their acquaintance had deepened into intimacy. There is very little evidence to support this, however. Indeed, if there was ever so much as a suggestion of indecency in the Earl’s intentions, he was met with a severe reprimand from Henrietta, and she lost all of the good humour with which she countered his more harmless flirtations. ‘Can so much goodnesse be angry to such a degree as not to forgive a fault [that] can never be repeated?’ pleaded Peterborough on one such occasion. ‘Should the person who has robb’d me of my sences, be mercilessly severe to a mistaken expression?’17

In fact, for all his apparent devotion to Mrs Howard, Peterborough’s real affection lay in an entirely different quarter. Around the time that he had first started to frequent Leicester House, he had met and fallen in love with Anastasia Robinson, a singer at the King’s Theatre. His love for her was genuine and enduring, and he married her some years later. It was therefore fortunate that Henrietta never took his romantic declarations seriously.

The poet John Gay was another rival for Mrs Howard’s attentions at court. A sociable and convivial man, he had an insatiable curiosity and lust for life, and was adored by his many friends. Gay’s ballads and verse may have been of a more playful nature than Pope’s, but he still enjoyed some notable successes, including The Shepherd’s Week, The Wife of Bath, and his most famous work, The Beggar’s Opera. The Fables that he had written for the royal children made him a welcome guest at court. Ever since his first encounter with the Hanoverians during his visit to Herrenhausen in 1714, he had been angling for an official post in the royal household. This was probably one of his motivations in cultivating Henrietta’s acquaintance, as she was now rising to prominence at court, but he soon came to like her for herself, and their friendship was to continue long after it became obvious that she would be unable to help him.

Like Pope and Peterborough, Gay became a frequent visitor to Leicester House and Richmond Lodge, and when his travels took him away from court, he and Mrs Howard maintained a humorous and affectionate correspondence. In September 1719, he went to the Continent for a few weeks, and wrote to her from there: ‘I have been looking every where since I came into France to find out some object that might take you from my thoughts, that my journey might seem less tedious, but since nothing could do it in England, I can much less expect it [in] France.’18

The poet and the courtier sharpened their wits on each other, and each helped to develop the other’s literary talents. As a friend to some of the greatest writers of the age, Henrietta amassed a correspondence that reads like a who’s who of Georgian England. Five large volumes of the letters that she received from the likes of Pope, Swift and Gay are among the manuscripts preserved within the British Library. These also contain the many drafts of letters that Henrietta sent in reply. They are scattered with crossings-out and half-finished sentences as she strove continually to improve her already engaging prose, and behind the hurried scrawl that races across the page, one can almost sense her frustration as she tried to attain the perfect phrase or retort. ‘You will find that a woman’s pen is not so ready as her tongue,’ she once told Peterborough, ‘for most women speak before they think, and I find it necessary to think before I write.’

The Earl was in fact one of her most challenging correspondents, for she was keen to dampen his elaborate professions of love with suitably acerbic replies. For this, she called upon her friend John Gay for assistance, and in return provided him with inspiration for his plays. ‘I have some thoughts of giving you a few loose Hints for a satyr,’ she wrote to him one summer at Richmond, ‘and if you manage it right (and not indulge that foolish good nature of yours) I dont question but I shall see you in good employment before Christmas.’19

Although Gay was four years older than Henrietta, he had a helpless, almost childlike quality that appealed to her maternal instincts, and he came to rely on her sensible advice and patient affection. In contrast to many of his rather more feckless friends, who indulged and even encouraged his waywardness, Henrietta was a steadying influence on him. When he professed to be in love with an unsuitable young woman, she told him: ‘I can no more aprove of your having a passion for that, then I did of your turning Parson.’ She was constantly urging temperance and moderation when Gay’s appetite for fine food and strong wine got the better of him. She even concerned herself with the suitability of his clothes, chiding him for going about ‘so thinly Clad’ in the middle of November.20

For all Gay’s waywardness, he did occasionally offer Henrietta some sound advice of his own. He had been a frequenter of courts long enough to know how fickle, unstable and even dangerous they could be, and he counselled his friend on the qualities that were required to survive in such an arena. ‘I have long wish’d to be able to put in practice that valuable worldly qualification of being insincere,’ he wrote. ‘Another observation I have made upon Courtiers, is, that if you have any friendship with any particular one you must be entirely govern’d by his friendships and resentments not your own . . . as men of Dignity believe one thing one day, and another the next, so you must daily change your faith and opinion. Therefore the method to please these wonderfull and mighty men, is never to declare in the morning what you believe ’till your friend has declar’d what he believes, for one mistake this way is utter destruction.’ Gay made use of the word ‘friendship’ several times in this letter, but qualified it by saying: ‘I know that I speak improperly for it has never been allow’d a court term.’21 He would have done well to follow his own advice, but he was too bent on the pursuit of pleasure to give sufficient attention to his advancement at court. As a consequence, he was never to gain the privileged position there that he had hankered after for so long.

Mrs Howard’s literary set at court was completed by Lord Chesterfield. Their friendship had flourished since the first summer at Hampton Court, and the fact that they both served in the royal household gave them a common bond, as well as ample opportunity to see each other. Their lively conversations were supplemented by a host of witty letters. Like Pope, Chesterfield lavished attention on Henrietta’s dogs (even though he was wary of them), as well as on the lady herself. He wrote to her newborn puppy Marquise, expressing his pleasure on its ‘happy delivery’, and adding mischievously: ‘I begg of you not to be at all concerned at any insinuations that may be thrown out, that your issue does not bear that resemblance to the Father, which it ought.’ He also accused Henrietta of treating her dogs like children, which was probably only half in jest, for he knew well that she missed her son desperately.22

In between entertaining her friends and undertaking the many duties to which she was bound by the Princess, Henrietta had barely a moment to herself during the years at Leicester House and Richmond Lodge. ‘I was and am in such a continual hurry,’ she told Gay, ‘that I don’t know what I writ to Mr Pope yesterday, or what I write to you now.’23 Pope himself was astonished by the frantic pace at which she and her fellow ladies at court were obliged to live. His description of their bewildering schedule provides an amusing insight into life in the Georgian court. ‘Mrs Bellenden & Mrs Lepell took me into protection . . . & gave me a Dinner, with something I liked better, an opportunity of Conversation with Mrs Howard. We all agreed that the life of a Maid of Honour was of all things the most miserable; & wished that every Woman who envyd it had a Specimen of it. To eat Westphalia Ham in a morning, ride over Hedges & ditches on borrowed Hacks, come home in the heat of the day with a Feavor, & what is worse a 100 times, a red Mark in the forehead with a Beaver hatt; all this may qualify them to make excellent Wives for Fox-hunters, & bear abundance of ruddy-complexion’d Children. As soon as they can wipe off the Sweat of the day, they must simper an hour, & catch cold, in the Princess’s apartments; from thence To Dinner, with what appetite they may – And after that, til midnight, walk, work, or think, which they please?’24

The frenetic pace of court life, with all its attendant pleasures and entertainments, was a world away from Henrietta’s former life with Charles Howard. But she seemed to adapt to it admirably, and less than a year after the Prince and Princess had moved to Leicester House, she had become one of its brightest stars. That she had done so in a court renowned for its fickleness and volatility makes her achievement all the more impressive. ‘Persons who have been us’d to Courts cannot be greatly surpris’d at any sudden change of favor, or at seeing those who lean’d against the Throne yesterday, beneath the Footstool to day,’ remarked one contemporary. ‘Every thing rolls on here in the usual manner, the same contriving, undermining and caballing at the back-stairs, the great ones hurrying back and forward, and the little ones crynging after,’ observed another.

Those who ran the gauntlet of its intrigues, plots, backbiting and factions had to be prepared to live their lives in the open, for there were very few secrets at court. ‘Whatever you say or do at court, you may depend upon it, will be known,’ Chesterfield counselled his son, ‘the business of most of those who crowd levees and antechambers being to repeat all that they see or hear, according as they are inclined to the persons concerned, or according to the wishes of those to whom they hope to make their court. Great caution is therefore necessary.’25

Principal among the qualities required to survive at court was the art of dissimulation. ‘Nothing in courts is exactly as it appears to be,’ Lord Chesterfield warned his son. ‘Those who now smile upon and embrace, would affront and stab each other if manners did not interpose.’ Henrietta had quickly come to terms with this and had tempered her behaviour accordingly. In private, however, she confessed that she found such insincerity profoundly distasteful. ‘We seldome see a man the more favour’d or esteemed for his plain-dealing,’ she lamented. ‘The long disuse of it in courts has put it on the same footing with ill manners and ill breeding.’ To her credit, rather than openly expressing opinions that she did not believe, for the most part she simply maintained a neutral silence. With her natural reserve and discretion, this was perhaps easier for her than it would have been for many others.26

It was by thus distancing herself from the intrigues of court that Henrietta achieved success. The modesty and discretion that she had displayed in her early days at court increasingly set her apart from the scores of giddy, gossiping, fickle ladies and gentlemen who frequented Leicester House. Some courtiers resented her for it, but most were full of respect. The commendations of her good character are numerous. Her cousin, Margaret Bradshaw, proudly declared that ‘all ye court are fond of her, she being allways redy to do a good turn & selldom speaks ill of any one’. Her friends said the same. ‘I believe and as far as I am capable of judging know her to be a wise discret honest & sincere courtier who will promise no farther than she can perform and will always perform what she does promise,’ wrote one. Pope, who never stinted in his praise, told a friend who was about to meet her: ‘What you’ll most wonder at is, she is considerable at court, yet no Party-woman, and lives in court, yet wou’d be easy and make you easy.’ In another letter, he claimed that Mrs Howard could ‘teach two Countryfolks sincerity’. Even Swift, who later wrote a damning portrait of her, admitted: ‘Mr Pope hath always been an advocate for your sincerity, and even I in the character I gave you of your self, allowed you as much of that Virtue as could be expected in a Lady, a Courtier and a Favorite.’27

While some expressed frustration that Mrs Howard was ‘as close as a stopped bottle’, her discretion won the trust and admiration of her fellow ladies at court. Mary Bellenden, a flirtatious and wayward Maid of Honour who had much to conceal, was certainly glad of it, and told her: ‘I intirely confide in you upon all occasions, & believe you as I doe ye Gospel.’ Henrietta no doubt owed much of her discretion to the years of having to endure her husband’s drunkenness, violence and womanising while presenting a respectable demeanour to the outside world. Some courtiers mistook this for a want of feeling, but Pope knew the truth and once told her: ‘You, that I know feel even to Delicacy, upon several triffling occasions.’ Another close friend, Horace Walpole, later commented: ‘her patience and good breeding makes her for ever sink and conceal what she feels’. Even Lord Hervey, who disliked her, recognised that her apparent passivity hid a multitude of sorrows, and remarked: ‘few people who felt so sensibly could have suffered so patiently’.28

Mrs Howard’s calm, dispassionate manner may have had an additional cause. She frequently complained of pains in her head, and some time in her late twenties or early thirties, she began to lose her hearing. The two conditions could have been related, although it is just as likely that the headaches were due to emotional rather than neurological causes. The constant fear that her husband would make fresh trouble, together with the pressures of her service to the Princess, must have made her life at court stressful at times. Her deafness would not have helped the situation, as it would have forced her to concentrate hard in order to understand any of the conversations going on around her.

In 1727, when she was aged thirty-eight, she told Swift, who suffered from the same affliction, that she had ‘a bad head, and deaf ears’, and that these were ‘two misfortunes I have labour’d under several Years’. Six years earlier, Mary Bellenden (by then Mrs Campbell) blamed Henrietta’s failure to relay a message on either ‘your memory or your ears’.29 Pope affectionately referred to his friend’s disability in ‘On a Certain Lady at Court’:

        ‘Has she no faults, then (Envy says), sir?’

        Yes, she has one, I must aver:

        When all the world conspires to praise her,

        The woman’s deaf, and does not hear.

To be hard of hearing in a world that fed on gossip, intrigue and scandal was clearly a great disadvantage, and Henrietta resorted to the most extreme measures to try to cure it. One surgeon even persuaded her to have her jaw bored, which in the days before anaesthetic must have been an agonising procedure. She took a long time to recover, and later admitted: ‘that pain of the opperation was almost insuportable and the Consequence was many weeks of missery and I am not yet free from pain’. This was enough to destroy her faith in the medical profession, and when, two years later, another surgeon offered to test his theory on her that since the ear was of no use in hearing, it should be removed, she politely declined.30

The extent to which Mrs Howard’s deafness lay behind her apparent neutrality and discretion cannot be known for certain. Whatever was the case, these qualities now won her an admirer who was to change the course of her life for ever.

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