The Merry Widow

“Last Friday died at Bath the Earl of Suffolk.”154

And just like that, with one throwaway line in a newspaper, the world learned of the end of the man who had tormented Henrietta Howard for decades. Charles Howard died as he had lived, heavily in debt, and those debts now passed on to his son, Henry, 10th Earl of Suffolk. Audley End needed a sound financial brain to manage it and Charles, who was singularly talented at throwing away cash, had not been the man to do that. Young Henry, on the other hand, had inherited his mother’s good head for finances. The 10th Earl of Suffolk would prove to be the custodian that Audley End needed and he managed to coax the great house back into profitability, perhaps thanks to the hard-headed approach that he also employed with his mother, who he refused to acknowledge. She wasn’t even present when he married Sarah Inwen, a wealthy brewer’s daughter, on 13 May 1735. In some ways Henry certainly took after his late father, because Sarah’s family fortune made her a very attractive proposition indeed.

Henrietta knew better than to expect any reconciliation with her son, but there was another source of delight in her life now. George Berkeley had become a closer friend than ever, a man she exchanged playful letters with, and to whom she was not indebted in any way. He was tender and teasing, enquiring after jokey court gossip before seeking Henrietta’s assurance that she was in good health and spirits. When George asked after her head and face, perhaps a reference not only to her ongoing headaches but also to Cheselden’s brutal operation, Henrietta told him, “I think the less that is said of either is the better; they are neither pleasant nor profitable to others nor the owner.”155 We might imagine, however, that George Berkeley was minded to disagree with that particular sentiment. Though at odds with Walpole’s powerful faction he sought neither advancement nor influence through his friendship with the king’s mistress, but instead delighted in her company for its own sake. His attentions, combined with frequent visits from her niece, Dorothy, only increased Henrietta’s longing for retirement. It wasn’t long before her friends noticed the burgeoning friendship too.

“I have made your compliments to my friend; but I am not sure that she approves this regular correspondence; as she was always a much better, so she was always a much stricter woman than I am.”156

Henrietta signed off the letter with a flirtatious admonishment that, “I was surprised at your ill-breeding, to send a letter without an envelope.”157 One might almost imagine she was enjoying playing the coquette after decades in the sensible Swiss cantons.

Whether Queen Caroline liked it or not, Henrietta decided to spend the late summer and early autumn of 1734 in Bath, where she revelled in the company of her oldest friends. The healing properties of the spa town were just what she needed to help with the recurrent headaches which had begun to blight her again. In Bath she could relax and indulge herself in society circles, even though she continued to maintain that allimportant air of neutral good humour that had served her so well. She also cooked up a plan to capitalise on the presence of many of the king’s natural political enemies as well as his gossipy daughter, Princess Amelia.

Henrietta courted the company of George Augustus’ most loathed opponents, including Lord Bolingbroke, who had benefitted from Melusine’s favour years earlier. She made sure that Princess Amelia heard of her eyebrow-raising social circle too, certain that she wouldn’t be able to resist sharing the gossip with the king. It was all groundwork for her eventual retirement. Everyone knew that George Augustus was tired of his mistress, it wouldn’t take much to convince him to give her the heave-ho. George Augustus’ nightly meetings with Henrietta had dwindled away to almost nothing whilst Lady Bristol, whose room was next door to Henrietta’s, reported that she often heard the couple engaged in tense exchanges that ended with the king telling his mistress, “That is none of your business, madam; you have nothing to do with that.”

The trip to Bath felt like a natural turning point for their relationship. It was certainly an overture to the final curtain and with valuable time to think, Henrietta resolved upon securing the one thing she had wanted for years: retirement.

When Henrietta returned to the court, she was surprised to find that the king had grown cooler than ever towards her. His disinterest seemed far too pointed to be a simple response to Princess Amelia’s gossip and Henrietta began to fear that the ruse she had worked in Bath, when she mingled with George Augustus’ opponents to further encourage him to end their relationship, had backfired. After her return from her trip to the spa town, the king barely spoke to or acknowledged Henrietta at all, which left her in a panic. Though she desperately wanted to leave the queen’s service and the king’s bed, she had to do so on good terms. That meant finding out exactly what had happened during her absence. Henrietta had no choice but to ask George Augustus what was troubling him, but she was careful to be appropriately submissive when she wrote to enquire what she had done to deserve his coolness.

“I ask, Sir, but what your meanest, your guiltiest, subject can claim. A malefactor cannot suffer till his accusers prove their charge. No power, no greatness can screen in this case the informers; they must give evidence or the accused is acquitted; the guilt of falsehood falls (as it truly ought) on the heads of the accusers. Is it, then, too much for me to ask, and after the attachment I have had for your Majesty for twenty years? or [sic] can I expect less from your justice, your honour, or your former goodness shown to me than to know for what I now suffer the loss of your favour and the honour I had of having some share in your friendship?”158

Henrietta then went to the queen and, over a long and difficult conversation, asked Caroline what might possibly have happened to change the atmosphere so much at the palace. She also sought the queen’s permission to retire from her duties. Caroline, however, either could not or would not offer her any insight. Instead, she told Henrietta that it was nothing but her imagination playing tricks. “I am your friend, your best friend,” the queen assured her, no doubt with all the sincerity of a spider soothing its lunch. “Oh my dear Lady Suffolk, you do not know how differently, when you are out [retired from court], people will behave.”

Henrietta was desperate and though Caroline was unmoving, so too was her servant. Eventually the queen secured Henrietta’s promise that she would take a week to consider if retirement was what she really wanted. No doubt Caroline intended to spend that same week convincing George Augustus that he should show Henrietta some warmth to keep her in the royal bosom. All she had achieved really was to delay the inevitable.

When the queen went to her husband and told him that Henrietta had tried to retire but that she had been able to temporarily prevent it, his response was far from grateful. Instead of thanking Caroline for keeping his long-serving mistress close by, George Augustus bellowed, “What the devil did you mean by trying to make an old, dull, deaf, peevish beast stay and plague me when I had so good an opportunity of getting rid of her?”159. It was the last thing Caroline had expected to hear and it was proof, if she really needed it, that the status quo could no longer be preserved. Henrietta Howard was released from the royal household with her reputation intact, though she never discovered the cause of the king’s sudden coolness. When she departed in November 1734, Henrietta left a letter for George Augustus that showed she had retained her good grace against all the odds.

“To have constantly done my duty in those places her Majesty has honoured me with, and to prove to you with duty the most sincere, the most tender friendship (pardon this expression) attended with the highest sense of gratitude for the honour of your esteem has been my business for twenty years past […] The years to come must be employed in the painful wish to forget you and my friend; but no fears can ever make me forget you as my king, as no usage can prevent my warmest wishes for your happiness or put an end to that profound duty, respect and submission.”160

With that, to the great surprise of the chattering classes, Lady Suffolk left the royal court. “Her going from Court was the silliest thing she could do,”161 Queen Caroline told Lord Hervey, but one suspects that Henrietta would happily have begged to differ. Armed with the key to Marble Hill and a £2,000 pension paid by the king, she packed her bags for good.

“I have been a slave twenty years without ever receiving a reason for any one thing I ever was obliged to do,” Henrietta wrote, “I have now a mind to take the pleasure, once in my life, of absolute power”162. Free at last of her husband, her patron, and her queen, she wanted to taste everything that the world had to offer.

As for George Augustus, his bed wasn’t empty for long. During a trip to Hanover he entered into an intrigue with Amalie von Wallmoden, the niece of Melusine von der Schulenberg. She was two decades his junior and by 1736 had become the mother of a son by King George II. Amalie was everything Caroline feared, and she would continue as George Augustus’ mistress until his death more than twenty years later. Created Countess of Yarmouth in recognition of her loyal service to the crown, Amalie proved to have far more staying power than Henrietta Howard ever did. If anyone had cause to mourn Henrietta’s departure, it was Queen Caroline.

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