Henrietta Howard overcame personal adversity to become an extraordinary figure in Georgian court society, King George II’s mistress, and a member of a dynamic circle of writers, poets and politicians.
- Lived: 1689–1767
- Field: Patron of the arts
- Key achievement: Building Marble Hill, which became a hub for London’s cultural, intellectual and political elite.
A disastrous match
Henrietta Howard was born in 1689 into a titled and respected family, the Hobarts of Blickling Hall in Norfolk. However, her early life was far from easy. By the time she was 12 she had lost her father in a duel and her mother to illness, and the family was burdened with mounting debts. In the hope of finding some security, in 1706 she married Charles Howard, the youngest son of the 5th Earl of Suffolk.
This was a disastrous match, as a contemporary observed: ‘Thus they loved, thus they married, and thus they hated each other for the rest of their lives.’ Charles was described as ‘ill-tempered, obstinate, drunken, extravagant, brutal’, and soon squandered what money the couple had on drinking, gambling and whoring. Henrietta was left in fear of creditors and, as she noted in one letter, for her own safety.
Although trapped in an abusive marriage and plunged into poverty, Henrietta refused to accept her dire circumstances. She raised funds to travel with Charles to the Hanoverian court, in the hope of currying favour with the dynasty which would inherit the throne of Great Britain on Queen Anne’s death. Her plan was a success.
Courtier and King’s Mistress
On the accession of the Elector of Hanover as George I of Great Britain in August 1714, Henrietta returned to England and was made Woman of the Bedchamber to Caroline, Princess of Wales. Soon afterwards she also became mistress to the Prince of Wales (later George II). Her dual roles of mistress and servant were not always easy to reconcile, requiring great tact and diplomacy.
Described by her contemporaries as handsome, witty and intelligent, Henrietta attracted the attention not only of the king but also of many notable writers, politicians and courtiers. In particular, she enjoyed lively correspondence with such literary luminaries as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay.
Marble Hill House
During her time at court Henrietta began to build Marble Hill House on the banks of the River Thames. The villa is a textbook example of Palladian architecture, the increasingly fashionable building style inspired by the Italian architect Palladio (1508–80) and based on classical principles. It was set in an ‘Arcadian’ landscape, inspired by idealised representations of the gardens of ancient Greece and Rome.
The building of Marble Hill was almost certainly made possible after a large gift of stock, jewels, plate, mahogany and furniture to Henrietta from the Prince of Wales in 1723. He had stipulated that the gift was to be free from any interference from her estranged husband.
Marble Hill became a centre for Henrietta’s influential cultural, intellectual and political circle. Here she entertained friends on a scale which was said to rival the royal court. As Pope wrote in 1735: ‘There is a greater court now at Marble-hill than at Kensington, and God knows when it will end.’
After 20 years of service and after falling out of favour with George II, Henrietta retired from her role at court.
No longer a mistress and widowed in 1733, Henrietta took a second chance on marriage when, in 1735, she married the politician George Berkeley. Surviving letters between the couple reveal that this was a loving and caring relationship. Together, Henrietta and George visited friends on the continent and remodelled and extended parts of Marble Hill. The house also became home to Henrietta’s niece, nephew and later her great-niece.
Although mainly known as George II’s mistress, Henrietta was clearly a remarkable woman in her own right. Her ability to navigate the vicissitudes of life is testament to her tenacity, intelligence and resourcefulness. Marble Hill not only embodies her legacy as a patron of architecture and landscape gardening, but also stands as testament to a woman who fought hard for her independence and security.
Top image: Portrait of Henrietta Howard by Charles Jervas, c.1724, which hangs at Marble Hill
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