When Henrietta went to the Howards for help, it is likely that the desperate young woman would have accepted virtually any offer they might have made. She was in dire straits, worn down by the seemingly endless round of bereavements and the grind of life at Blickling Hall. Protected from the worst of her father’s spending excesses by her mother, Henrietta’s life had once been idyllic. Now it was drudgery.
In the care of the Howards though, Henrietta could forget her cares for a while and enjoy a more laid-back pace of life. Both at Gunnersbury House and Audley End, their palatial residence near Saffron Walden, the elderly Earl Henry Howard and his wife, Mary, lived the sort of life that only substantial wealth could bring. Henry had been widowed twice before he married Mary and had managed to achieve a rather unusual hattrick in that all three of his wives were named Mary. The first of the Marys, Mary Stewart, had borne her husband three sons, each of whom would eventually take their turn as the holder of the title, Earl of Suffolk. They were Henry, born in 1670, Edward, born in 1672, and Charles, born in 1675.103
Before he had reached 30 years old, Charles Howard had already achieved the rank of Captain in Lord Echlin’s Regiment of Dragoons and sat in the Irish House of Commons. His military career was solid rather than glittering, and he won the praise of his peers and climbed the ranks at a respectable pace. Respectable was the last word one would use to describe his private life. The Earl of Chesterfield dismissed him as “sour, dull and sullen,”104 but perhaps we should defer to Baron Hervey, that incorrigible chronicler of George II’s court, for Charles’ most searing character reference. Hervey always spoke as he found, and he described Charles Howard not as a battlefield hero or some sort of dashing young noble, but as the “wrong-headed, ill tempered, obstinate, drunken, extravagant, brutal younger brother of the Earl of Suffolk’s family.”105 Henrietta would see all of these unenviable qualities over the years of their marriage.
Though Hervey could be guilty of a waspishness that bordered on brutal, in the case of Charles Howard he could not be accused of doing the man a disservice. Charles was a violent womaniser with twin addictions to alcohol and gambling. He drank and whored his way through his allowance and army pay, but when the need arose, he could turn on a devastatingly disarming charm. Perhaps it was this charm that blinded 16-year-old Henrietta to his flaws when he arrived at Gunnersbury and found her living under the roof of his elderly father and his glamourous stepmother. Henrietta was young, intelligent, and no doubt breathing a sigh of relief that the Howards had rescued her from Blickling Hall, where her siblings remained under the care of the household staff. At 16, she was also ripe for marriage. Henrietta had begun her education in how to be a gentlewoman at an early age and ably combined all the qualities necessary in a society wife. At Blickling Hall the pickings for a bridegroom would be spare indeed but with the Earl and Countess of Suffolk to guide her through society, the field of candidates might reliably be expected to far exceed that available in Norfolk.
Whoever won Henrietta’s hand could look forward to receiving a very handsome dowry as well as an inheritance from her immensely wealthy great-grandfather, Sir John Maynard, that was being held in trust until she married. No doubt Henrietta had plans of her own when it came to her siblings, and a good marriage to a rich husband could do wonders for their prospects too. It was vital that she marry and marry well.
To the Earl and Countess, the orphaned Henrietta might well have seemed heaven-sent to take the youngest, most troublesome Howard son off their hands. How the romance came to be is lost to history but we can be sure that Charles Howard certainly turned up his charm to the maximum and toned down the side of him that threw good money after bad at the gaming tables or roared drunk around the cities, pursuing women and trouble with equal ardour. Sheltered, worn-down by cares beyond her years, and ready for a comfortable life, Henrietta was bowled over by the worldly older man, and the Howards were happy to encourage the romance. After all, a marriage would mean that Charles would become someone else’s problem and when he did, he’d scoop up all that money that was being held in trust for the day Henrietta tied the knot. Before long, the match was made and Henrietta was preparing for life as Mrs Charles Howard, little knowing what she was getting herself into.
Although Henrietta was orphaned, she wasn’t entirely alone in the world. One of her uncles practised law and, luckily for the young bride-to-be, he took the matter of his late brother’s finances far more seriously than he did that of his late brother’s children. He drew up a marriage settlement that protected most of Henrietta’s money from her avaricious husband. It also guaranteed her an income for her personal expenses from the interest on a sum of £6,000 that was held in trust. Charles had no legal right to either the lump sum or the interest it earned, though he would bully and coerce Henrietta into handing her money over to him throughout their marriage. Legally though, he had no claim on the cash and should his wife die – or perhaps meet with an unfortunate accident – the money would still not be given to Charles. Instead, it would be held in trust until the couple’s children reached adulthood.
The happy couple were wed on 2 March 1706 at St Benet Paul’s Wharf, the official church of the College of Arms. Soon afterwards Charles sold off his army commission for £700, a sum that no doubt slipped through his fingers as readily as grains of sand. Henrietta’s honeymoon period swiftly came to an abrupt end.