Mistress to a King

As Henrietta and James Welwood waited to see if Charles would consent to a separation, and if so what his no doubt exorbitant terms would be, a veritable earthquake rattled the royal court. During his trip home to Hanover in June 1727, King George I had died. With that, the son he’d never got on with succeeded to the throne. George Augustus and his party were still at Richmond Lodge when news of the king’s death reached them, but they packed up with all haste and made for London. Any hopes Henrietta might have entertained of finally moving into her Marble Hill sanctuary were dashed by the succession and she would have been all too aware of that fact. A king needed a mistress and that mistress was Henrietta Howard. Of course, this king’s mistress was also a servant, and that meant that she had a queen to kowtow to. When George Augustus was crowned, Henrietta was there to tend to Caroline in a gown of scarlet and silver with lavish trimming, her hair dressed with silver ribbon. She was still a servant above all else.

“Mrs. Howard and Mrs. Neale, two of her Majesty’s Bed-Chamber Women, are to walk in the Procession at the approaching Coronation.”142

If Henrietta’s company had been in demand among ambitious courtiers at Leicester House, once the new king and his household repaired to the city, she found herself more popular than ever. Everybody wanted an audience with the king’s mistress, whose nightly meetings with the new monarch made her the hottest of properties. Unlike Melusine, Henrietta wasn’t so keen to sell titles and favours to the highest bidder and instead of glorying in her newfound power, the increased stress began to tell upon her as her headaches grew worse. When she did try to influence George II on behalf of her friends, Caroline was quick to smack Henrietta down, reminding her time and again that there was only one queen at the court of St James’s.

Never was Henrietta’s lack of power more obvious that in the unfortunate case of her friends, John Gay and Jonathan Swift. Henrietta was immensely fond of Gay, a long-serving courtier who had so far received no official recognition for his loyalty, and she asked George Augustus if he could find a paid role for him in the household. George Augustus, we might assume, discussed the matter with Caroline and Gay was duly offered the far from glamorous and very poorly paid position of Gentleman Usher to the infant Princess Louisa. Gay and Henrietta were both stung by this veiled insult, and he gave up his attendance at court, recognising now that there was to be no special favour for him.

Swift had always been a rather more acerbic friend of Henrietta’s and when he saw his own hopes of advancement dashed too, he reacted bitterly. Though Gay held no personal resentment towards Henrietta, Swift laid the blame for his disappointment firmly at her feet. She was a selfish, grasping good-for-nothing, he decided, and it was a long time before he softened towards her again. He penned a bitter poem entitled A Pastoral Dialogue between Richmond Lodge and Marble Hill, in which he imagined the royal residence and that of the monarch’s mistress lamenting their inevitable fall from favour now the old king was dead and his son had succeeded to the throne. The ever-acerbic Swift took the opportunity to savage his former friend and her singular lack of success in offering him a lucrative court situation.

“Quoth Marble Hill, right well I ween,

Your mistress now is grown a queen:

You’ll find it soon by woeful proof;

She’ll come no more beneath your roof.


My house was built but for a show,

My lady’s empty pockets know;

And now she will not have a shilling,

To raise the stairs, or build the ceiling;

For all the courtly madams round

Now pay four shillings in the pound;

‘Tis come to what I always thought:

My dame is hardly worth a groat.

Had you and I been courtiers born,

We should not thus have lain forlorn:

For those we dextrous courtiers call,

Can rise upon their masters’ fall.

But we, unlucky and unwise,

Must fall because our masters rise.”

In fact, things were far from glamorous for Henrietta Howard, who Swift’s poem mocked as a gold-digging glory seeker. She was moved into the gloomy apartments that Melusine had previously inhabited at St James Palace but found her new surroundings so damp that a constant crop of mushrooms grew between the floorboards. It was hardly the glittering life one might expect for a king’s supposed favourite.

As the mushrooms flourished, so too did Queen Caroline’s power over her husband’s mistress. As Princess of Wales she had always relished her dominance and now, as queen, it was greater than ever. With Walpole ever at her side, the lady and the politician effectively had the country sewn up, and Henrietta’s circle of political opponents and office-seekers presented a threat to the queen’s power. She watched the comings and goings with growing suspicion, torn now between her desire to keep a familiar and unthreatening mistress close and by her need to ensure that nothing could undermine her own influence over her husband. Yet Caroline still held the card that might keep Henrietta in check: it was she who kept Charles Howard from seizing his wife.

As 1727 drew to a close, Henrietta finally received advice from her lawyers that Charles Howard’s warrant from the Lord Chief Justice held no sway. Unless Henrietta herself consented to be taken into his custody, he could not seize her by force. Charles didn’t agree and he stormed into the palace grounds and demanded that Henrietta be surrendered to him. Instead, he was chucked out on his ear.

On another occasion, Charles sought an audience with Caroline at which he warned her that he would drag Henrietta away using any means necessary. The bullying Charles, however, had reckoned without the doughty new queen. Caroline might have her faults, but she would never allow herself to be pushed around. Caroline later related the whole affair to Baron Hervey, who was no friend of Henrietta’s, but certainly no friend of Charles’ either.

“Mr. Howard came to her Majesty, and said he would take his wife out of her Majesty’s coach if he met her in it, she had bid him “do it if he dare;” “though,” said she, “I was horribly afraid of him (for we were tête-à-tête) all the while I was thus playing the bully. What added to my fear upon this occasion,” said the Queen, “was that, I knew him to be so brutal, as well as a little mad, and seldom quite sober, so I did not think it impossible but that he might throw me out of [the] window. […] Then I told him that my resolution was positively neither to force his wife to go to him if she had no mind to it, nor to keep her if she had. He then said he would complain to the King; upon which [I] said the King had nothing to do with my servants, and for that reason he might save himself that trouble, as I was sure the King would give him no answer but that it was none of his business to concern himself with my family.”143

Caroline had seen Charles off for now, but things had reached a head. Though Henrietta resisted the advice of her legal representatives to seek a divorce on the grounds of cruelty and abandonment, it was painfully apparent that something needed to be done to keep her husband legally at bay. Fortunately for Henrietta, the death of George I had robbed Charles of his security and of the support of the monarch who had been so happy to stir the pot of marital discord. Unsurprisingly, George II elected not to reappoint his father’s troublesome retainer. For the first time, there was a real chink in Charles’ armour.

Charles was still bound by the settlement reached over Audley End to pay £1,200 per year to his brother but that sum, unsurprisingly, remained routinely unpaid. James Welwood now took Henrietta’s plight on and began to draw up an agreement of separation, but his unexpected death seemed for a time to have thwarted Henrietta’s hopes. Happily for her, Thomas Trevor, 1st Baron Trevor, stepped into the breach. Lord Trevor was a distinguished legal mind who had fallen from favour under George I, but had been made Lord Privy Seal by George II. Together, Henrietta and Lord Trevor concocted a plan whereby he would ask Caroline to pay Charles £1,200 per year to retain the services of his wife. It was an odd proposition and one that failed miserably. In fact, all it managed to do was inflame the queen’s annoyance towards Henrietta even further.

“That old fool My Lord Trevor came to me from Mrs. Howard,” the queen told Hervey, “And proposed for me to give 1200/. a-year to Mr. Howard to let his wife stay with me; but as I thought I had done full enough, and that it was a little too much not only to keep the King’s guenipes” (in English trulls) “under my roof, but to pay them too, I pleaded poverty to my good Lord Trevor, and said I would do anything to keep so good a servant as Mrs. Howard about me, but that for the 1200/. a-year, I really could not afford it.”144

With no other avenue open to them, Lord Trevor and Henrietta approached the king. He grudgingly agreed to increase Henrietta’s allowance by £1,200, which she would then pay directly to her husband. This agreement didn’t bother Caroline as long as she didn’t have to fund it herself and it would continue for as long as Charles’ brother lived. When accepting the agreement, both parties confirmed that in paying the sum, Henrietta had effectively bought herself an official separation. The subsequent arrangement ensured that neither spouse could pursue the other for any monies beyond the £1,200 and that Henrietta would be free to live how and where she so desired, without any fear that her husband might try to detain her. Charles readily consented. For the first time in more than two decades, Henrietta Howard could feel almost free again.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!