The Countess of Suffolk

More than twenty years after the orphaned Henrietta Hobart had made her vows to the duplicitous, debauched Charles Howard, she was finally safe from his clutches. He had abused, enslaved, and ruined her, but she had emerged from the miserable marriage with something approaching a victory. Henrietta’s son, Henry, was by now a young man in his twenties who had enjoyed an education at Cambridge University and had become Member of Parliament for the Devonshire constituency of Bere Alston. He was as good as a stranger. Just as his father had sworn when they parted, Henry had been raised to loathe his mother. Henrietta’s hopes that her son might take it upon himself to seek her out had proven to be false. Instead, she would always be the woman who abandoned him for the promise of royal favour. The loss of her son’s love was an agony to Henrietta, but she was able to content herself with lavishing all her motherly affection on little John and Dorothy Hobart, the children of her brother, John. Dorothy was to become Henrietta’s pride and joy and she loved visiting her aunt at court. In her carefree, childish presence, Henrietta could forget her grumpy master and his wife.

By now Henrietta was a bona fide Georgian celebrity, whose most mundane activities were reported on widely in the press. Though she didn’t court publicity, she had certainly acquired a degree of notoriety. Even the matter of her falling from her horse was worthy not only of newsprint, but also of an official apology from the man who had supposedly caused her to fall.

“A Butcher of the Town of Windsor, who some Days ago rode hastily by Mrs. Howard first Woman of the Bedchamber to the Queen, in the Town of Kensington, and threw her from her Horse, hath, upon his asking Pardon of the Lady in a most submissive Manner, been forgiven.”145

Knowing what we do of Henrietta’s rather placid nature and her desire for little beyond a quiet, comfortable life, her forgiving the Windsor butcher hardly comes as a surprise.

Henrietta’s deafness was by now more severe than ever and the pains in her head were so bad that she eventually submitted to surgery. She summoned physician William Cheselden and he decided that the only thing for it was to bore into Henrietta’s jaw to operate on her eardrum. It was a scheme that Cheselden had championed for years, using human guinea pigs gathered from prison cells. Even in the eighteenth century, this got people talking.

“VARIOUS have been the reports and opinions of the town, concerning the operation to be performed by WILLIAM CHESELDEN, Esq; Surgeon to her Majesty, Fellow of the Royal Society, Surgeon and Lithotomist of St Thomas’s Hospital, on the ears of one [Charles] Rey, a Malefactor, condemned last Sessions to be executed at Tyburn, but graciously reprieved on account of this intended Experiment. Some are of the opinion, that this ingenious Gentleman concludes, that if perforating the Drum of the ear should be found to make a man deaf, who at present enjoys the sense of hearing, the same operation will bring a person to hear, who is deaf at present. Mr. WOOLSTON is singular in his sentiment. This learned and ingenious Gentleman takes the whole story to be allegorical, and supposes, that by an operation on the Drum, is meant no more than making a great noise, But I differ from him intirely [sic]: as I know Mr. CHESELDEN to be already too famous, to stand in need of beating a drum, or sounding a trumpet to proclaim his skill in Chirurgical Operations. Besides, a drum would be a very improper Allegory for so ingenious a Gentleman to make use of: it being not only noisy, but empty.”146

Though there were certainly those who believed that Cheselden was merely using Henrietta’s suffering to further his own fame, she was sufficiently convinced by the doctor’s reputation to submit to his knife. It’s hard to imagine exactly what sort of agony Henrietta must have endured during the operation and ultimately it was an unsuccessful endeavour. “The pain of the operation was almost insupportable,” she told her friend, Lady Hervey, “and the consequence was many weeks’ misery, and I am not yet free from pain”147. When the operation failed, the only thing surgeons could suggest was that Henrietta have her apparently useless ears amputated altogether. This time she declined their services. Her recovery from the failed operation was drawn out and agonising, and for a time she grew so ill that her condition even got a brief mention in the press.

“Mrs. Howard, one of the Maids of Honour to her Majesty, is dangerously ill.”148

Thankfully Henrietta recovered, though the pain would continue for a long time as her deafness grew ever more severe. The world was changing, and Henrietta was growing older. She was now part of the furniture at court and nobody could miss the king’s declining interest in her. Instead of nightly meetings with his middle-aged mistress, George Augustus much preferred to consort with the new generation of young and outgoing maids of honour. Their relationship, never particularly passionate and certainly never particularly loving, was now one of mutual toleration and bickering. It had become in some ways rather like a dull and loveless marriage, but as long as the queen wanted it to continue, then continue it must. Until fate intervened.

“On Tuesday Night died the Right Hon. Edward Howard, Earl of Suffolk and Bindon, and Baron Howard of Walden in the County of Essex; he is succeeded in Honour and Estate by his Brother, Charles Howard, now Earl of Suffolk and Bindon, who was a Groom of the Bed-Chamber to the late King, and whose Countess was one of the Bed-Chamber Women to her present Majesty till yesterday, when her Ladyship resign’d that Place.”149

Edward Howard, 8th Earl of Suffolk, died on 22 June 1731, and his brother, the dissolute Charles, succeeded to the title as 9th Earl. Though the couple were by now separated, Henrietta still acquired the title of Countess of Suffolk at her husband’s succession. The legal battle between the two brothers over Audley End had driven a vast wedge between them and the late earl took his final revenge from beyond the grave. Having no heirs of her own, he left what money he still possessed after the legal bills had been settled to his sister-in-law, Henrietta Howard, the new Countess of Suffolk. The 8th Earl wisely made Henrietta’s friends the Duke of Argyll and Lord Ilay, his trustees, certain that they would see off any challenge from Charles when he made his inevitable attempt to seize her £3,000 inheritance.

The title of Countess of Suffolk brought with it benefits that Henrietta knew would make her life far more comfortable. Chief among them was a change in the role she occupied in the royal household, for no countess could possibly be expected to toil on her knees as a Woman of the Bedchamber. Now Caroline had two choices. First, and Henrietta’s preferred option, was that she be relived of her duties and allowed to enter into a private life with the blessing of the queen. The second, which Caroline favoured, was to retain Henrietta’s services, but promote her to a more senior position. No doubt Henrietta prayed for the former, but Caroline chose the latter. She offered Henrietta a choice between the roles of Lady of the Bedchamber or Mistress of the Robes. The latter was the most senior role in the queen’s gift and a position that was currently held by the less experienced Duchess of Dorset. Henrietta accepted the more prestigious, easier role, and wrote to John Gay to share not only her triumphs, but her worries too.

“I shall let you know that I have kissed hands for the place of Mistress of the Robes. Her Majesty did me the honour to give me the choice of Lady of the Bedchamber, or that, which I find so much more agreeable to me, that I did not take one moment to consider of it. The Duchess of Dorset resigned it for me; and every thing [sic] as yet promises more happiness for the latter part of my life than I have yet had a prospect of. Seven nights’ quiet sleep, and seven easy days have almost worked a miracle upon me; for if I cannot say I am perfectly well, yet it is certain even my pain is more supportable than it was. I shall now often visit Marble Hill; my time is become very much my own, and I shall see it without the dread of being obliged to sell it to answer the engagement I had put myself under to avoid a greater evil. Mr. H[oward] took possession of body and goods, and was not prevailed upon till yesterday to resign the former for burial. Poor Lord Suffolk took so much care in the will he made, that the best lawyers say it must stand good. I am persuaded it will be tried to the uttermost.”150

Henrietta’s new role was a world away from that which she had occupied before. Now the queen’s hygiene and tooth picking were no longer any of her concern. Instead her job was to care for Caroline’s wardrobe and lay out her clothes and jewels for the day, which was hardly an arduous task. Now her husband was the earl, there was no longer any requirement for Henrietta to pay him the £1,200 that had been agreed to when they separated either, so that money could now go straight into her own coffers. The one thing that Henrietta couldn’t get used to was the fact that her friends now began to address her formally as a countess. Eventually she chided John Gay with a good-natured threat that, “If you do not leave off ladyship, [I] shall make you go supperless to bed.”151

When Henrietta had written to Gay and speculated that her husband would do all he could to challenge his late brother’s will, she had proven that even after more than a decade of separation, she still knew her spouse well. Charles did indeed pursue Henrietta for the money her brother-inlaw had left to her. In fact, he would do so fruitlessly for the scant years that remained of his life. Henrietta had been expecting nothing less and was happy to leave the legal tangles up to her representatives whilst she settled into a slower pace of life as the Mistress of the Robes. Now she was no longer required to be in constant attendance on the queen, she could spend more time than ever before at Marble Hill, making it into the nest she had always longed for.

The house later became the home of Maria Fitzherbert, secret wife of George IV, and it is a place that has caught the imaginations of many. More than a century after Henrietta’s death, Marble Hill came onto the property market and one commentator summed up the mystique and glamour that had attached itself to Henrietta’s beloved home over the years.

“It was designed by Lord Burlington and Lord Pembroke for Henrietta Howard, who became Countess of Suffolk. This was in the reign of George the Second, who contributed twelve thousand pounds towards the building. Mahogany was used for the floors of the principal rooms and in the grand staircase. According to Cobbett, it was Pope who superintended the layout out of the gardens, while Dean Swift stocked the cellars. The former remain to testify to the taste of the great poet, but the contents of the huge cellars have long ago disappeared, and we in this later day have only the gout to remind us of the great drinking capacity of our forefathers. I have passed the grand old house many a time when on the river. It stands nearly hidden by great trees, but there is a terrace coming down to the water’s edge, where doubtless in the old days of the house’s prosperity many a gaily bewigged gallant handed the ladies, ravishing in hoops, furbelows, powdered hair and patches, into his boat and bade the waterman row to Kew or Richmond.”152

Intrigue and romance aside, all Henrietta really wanted was the freedom to make her own way. Over the years her true friends at court had dwindled in number as they married and left the queen’s service, but Marble Hill offered a second chance. Now she was spending more time at Twickenham, her social circle there began to grow accordingly and chief among her friends was Lady Elizabeth Germain. Known to all as Betty, Lady Elizabeth had been maid of honour to Queen Anne so knew all about serving a sometimes-capricious mistress. She and Henrietta were soon fast friends, but little suspected that they would one day be closer still. Henrietta, the widowed mistress of a king who could by now barely tolerate her presence, might be expected to have given up on romance. Romance, however, had not given up on her.

Betty’s brother was George Berkeley, a politician who had once been loyal to Robert Walpole but had since allied himself with Walpole’s opponents, incurring the wrath of the powerful politician and his cronies. Since 1723 he had been Master Keeper and Governor of St Katharine’s Hospital in London. He was a little younger than Henrietta and as good company as her late husband had been bad. She soon counted him among her close friends and when their mutual confidant John Gay died in 1732, a heartbroken Henrietta personally asked George Berkeley to serve as one of Gay’s pall bearers. It was proof of the high regard in which she held him.

George and Henrietta’s friendship was strictly platonic at the outset, but there is evidence that they became close quickly. George interested himself in Henrietta’s welfare in a way that neither her husband nor the king ever had. When he wrote to a friend regarding Henrietta’s decision to take the trip to Bath that precluded her eventual retirement from court, it was clear that he had her welfare on his mind.

“I believe the secret of this journey is, that she has a mind to get out of her lodgings at Kensington, which being at least three feet underground, are at this time of the year vary damp and unwholesome, especially to her ill health, not in a very strong constitution; besides showing she will not be such a slave to the court as she has been, having never been six weeks in the whole absent from it in twenty year’s service.”153

George’s concern for Henrietta’s wellbeing was an indication of her how close they had quietly become. It was also her first step towards a new life.

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