Henrietta Howard by James Heath
Henrietta Howard by James Heath

George II’s longest-serving (and longest-suffering) mistress was famed for her submission and gentle behaviour. She was one of the few women who could listen to the king’s tirades and retain her tranquility. Her manners set a pattern for modesty, discretion and obedience. As one contemporary observed, she acted ‘as if she had never seen any ill nature, and had been bred among lambs and turtle-doves.’ Such a character may not strike you as an early champion of women’s rights, but in fact Henrietta held a number of views that were, for her time, bordering on the radical.

If you look at Henrietta’s formative years, it is easy to see why she came to the conclusion that women had ‘superior sense, superior fortitude and reason.’ Her father, Sir Henry Hobart, whilst much beloved by his wife and family, was an extravagant and hot-headed man. Tracy Borman describes him with a ‘quick temper and dictatorial manner’. Eight years the senior of Henrietta’s mother Elizabeth Maynard, he ran through her dowry of £10,000 at a rapid rate and left the estate heavily in debt. There were also rumours that he had deprived Elizabeth of her rightful income. Sir Henry’s tempestuous life ended when, incensed over a slander, he challenged his neighbour to a duel. He was skewered on a sword, leaving his wife and eight children with his bills.

Sir Henry did have a son and heir, but the boy was too young at the time of his death to take up the reins of management. A series of shocking deaths over the next few years left only Henrietta, her brother and two sisters remaining from the initial family of ten. As the eldest survivor Henrietta, a girl, had to take charge.

Blickling Hall - Henrietta's childhood home
Blickling Hall – Henrietta’s childhood home

It is interesting to see that even at this early age of sixteen, Henrietta was aware that she needed to use men to get what she wanted. She needed security and a husband to help her care for her younger siblings. She must have been thrilled when, in less than a year, she managed to secure an offer of marriage from a distant relation, Charles Howard. As the third son of the 5th Earl of Suffolk with a distinguished military career, he seemed like an excellent catch. But Henrietta’s youth and inexperience had failed to see his true character: ‘wrong-headed, ill-tempered, obstinate, extravagant and brutal.’ He sold his commission soon after their marriage and frittered the £700 away on drink, gaming and women. To make matters worse, he decided to sue the young brother Henrietta had tried so hard to protect. This must have been enormously distressing for poor Henrietta, who was by that time on the verge of giving birth to her first child.

We know of the terrible life Henrietta led between 1706 and 1713 thanks to a raging letter she wrote to Charles in 1728, listing all her wrongs. She was frequently starving, abandoned for weeks on end with no idea where he was, and ejected from lodgings where he did not pay the rent. This would have been bad enough, but Charles was also physically violent towards his wife. She describes ‘dreadful scenes…which humanity would force the most barbarous to commiserate.’ A neighbour confirmed that she treated Charles with ‘constant awe…scarce even daring to speak to him’.

Henrietta did, however, defy Charles in one essential way: she sold all their belongings without his knowledge and purchased two tickets to Hanover. Her object was to secure a post in the household of the Hanoverian royal family, who were next in line to the British throne. Happily, she succeeded.  Under the auspices of Princess Caroline, she began to see a very different model of marriage from her own.

Caroline
Caroline

I’ve written at length in other blog posts about the balance of power between Caroline and George II. Here, it is only necessary to say that any feminist views Henrietta nurtured must have received encouragement from observing the relationship. She saw how expertly a clever woman could manage her husband without seeming to. In fact, Caroline’s tactics of apparent submission and gentle agreement were exactly those Henrietta would use when she herself became George’s lover.

In my last post, I explained why I think Henrietta did have some genuine affection for George. But it cannot be doubted that she also used him for protection from her brutal husband  – and money. She also made use of other men at the court, whether it was to raise her political status, provoke her royal lover or help her with building projects. In later years, Swift and Pope wrote of her as if they had been mistreated by a femme fatale. Whatever the truth about her flirtations, I find Henrietta’s views on love very interesting. In her court career, she was faced with ludicrous love letters by an elderly admirer, the Earl of Peterborough (and they are TEDIOUS, believe me). With the help of her great friend John Gay, she replied by expressing her opinions on the subject of courtship. Although she aimed many good-humoured jests at her own sex, the  picture that emerges is a woman who expects to be addressed as an equal, rational creature rather than a swooning stereotype. My favourite excerpts from these letters are show below

 If you will allow a woman ever to think, I must beg your lordship to give me leave to tell you what I think of your letters… I fancy the man who first treated the ladies with that celestial complaisance used it in contempt of their understandings… But perhaps you will ask me, if a woman be neither like angel nor devil, what is she like? I answer that the only thing that is like a woman is – another woman… The most agreeable compliment to a woman is to persuade her she is a very fine woman. No reasonable woman desires more… I think every man is in the wrong who talks to a woman of dying for her; the only women that can have received a benefit from such a protestation are the widows.

Henrietta’s beliefs were to be put to the test in the winter of 1717. The great Christening quarrel split the royal household apart. She was faced with the choice of either staying with her son and abusive husband, who served George I, or following Prince George and Princess Caroline into exile. Never before had she been given the opportunity to break away from the terror of her marriage. She longed to escape, yet she knew it would bring disgrace and separation from her son. It was an agonising decision which she wrote about at length, trying to establish whether she could keep her own honour free from her husband’s taint, and listing the many wives she knew who were made miserable through ‘man’s tyranick (sic) power.’ ‘Self preservation is the first law of human nature,’ she wrote, ‘are married women then the only part of human nature that must not follow it?’ In the end, she did follow that law of nature and took the brave step to leave.

Of course, a man like Charles Howard did not give up easily. Over the next eleven years, he would continue to threaten and torment her. Not only did he deny any access to their son, he secured a warrant to legally kidnap her, even making an attempt to break into the palace and seize her. He blackmailed, he enlisted the views of bishops, he referred to the law. You can tell what a horrendous man he was by the fact that his own brother Edward died leaving all his money to Henrietta – not Charles. And in true form, Charles tried to go against the deceased’s wishes. When Edward passed away on 22 June, Charles ‘took possession of body and goods, and was not prevailed upon till yesterday (28 June) to resign the former for burial’.

Naturally, Henrietta wanted to free herself from association with this man. She felt that being mistress to a prince did not demean her honour half as much as marriage to such a wretch. But her options were severely limited. Divorce was so unusual that it would need an Act of Parliament – an expense far beyond her means. Legal separation was only possible if the wife could prove adultery and life-threatening cruelty. Henrietta had certainly endured both, but had kept it well hidden from the world. Not to be deterred, she took the astonishing step of suing for a private deed of separation. Such deeds were extremely rare and would have been viewed with censure. At first, Charles resisted all negotiation. It was then that Henrietta penned her furious letter demanding justice. ‘You have called me named and have threatened to kick me and break my neck,’ she complained. ‘I have often laid abed with you when I have been under apprehensions of your doing me a mischief.’ She made it very clear that she felt the failure of the marriage was his fault:‘the marriage duty, which I have performed and you have violated…you who have made marriage an instrument of cruelty.’ It was money, rather than a sense of shame, that softened Charles in the end. However, one way or the other, Henrietta achieved her aim of independence at the beginning of 1729.

Four years later, her freedom was secured. Her husband and lifelong tormentor finally died. But there is another twist to the tale. Rather than relishing the single life she had worked so hard to obtain, Henrietta threw herself into the protection of another man just two years later. Caroline thought it an unaccountable piece of folly. But you have only to read the tender correspondence between Henrietta and her second husband, George Berkeley, to see why she acted as she did. Berkeley was everything Charles had not been: intelligent, humorous and kind. He did not scruple to marry the prince’s ‘damaged goods’ and gave up his own home to live with her at her precious house of Marble Hill. He cared for her when she was ill, he missed her when she was away. He helped her to raise her nephew and niece, Dorothy Hobart, who may actually have been Henrietta’s illegitimate child. Berkeley understood the secret strength of the woman he was marrying and accepted her views. The pair often engaged in a playful war of the sexes. ‘The actions of women are too inconsiderable to draw consequences from them: thus I know your pride and arrogance in power makes all you men reason,’ Henrietta wrote to him. ‘But I do not despair to see some of my sex vindicate us, and make a figure that will make some of you tremble.’ The pair were exquisitely happy until Berkeley’s death 11 years later.

Marble Hill
Marble Hill

But Henrietta’s fight for troubled women did not end with the happy resolution of her own story. Her niece beloved Dorothy fell in love with a soldier considered unsuitable by her family. In despair of receiving permission to marry, they pair eloped. When they were finally discovered (unmarried), Henrietta took an interesting course of action. She continued to urge Dorothy to save her own future and stay away from the man. In a society that would condemn a woman for running away with a suitor and not marrying him, Henrietta’s advice is unusual. It almost echoes the progressive Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice when Lydia elopes with Wickham: ‘And they must marry! Yet he is such a man!’.  As it turned out, Dorothy was entangled far deeper than suspected and could not take her aunt’s advice  – she was with child. She made the marriage, but fortunately it turned out to be a very happy one.

The same could not be said of the last woman Henrietta tried to save. I have written a little before about Lady Mary Coke, who was forced into a miserable marriage. Mary’s husband was every bit as cruel as Charles and, I suspect, mentally disturbed. Mary complained that he ‘tore my ruffle all to pieces and told me I deserved to be assassinated.’ Henrietta acted as friend and adviser to the distressed Mary, even finding her legal aid and trying to get her a separation. Sadly, Mary was not quite as brave as Henrietta. She hesitated to take the radical step and was discovered. Her punishment was imprisonment in her room without food.

The fact that this treatment of Lady Mary was still considered legal really highlights what Henrietta and her contemporaries were up against. For one, I admire the spirit that kept Henrietta true to herself through a life of hardship. Her ‘feminism’, however primitive, was truly brave and, I think, remarkable for its time.

2 Comments on Henrietta Howard – Unlikely Feminist

  1. Jo Manning
    03/09/2014 at 5:26 pm (3 years ago)

    Excellent post! Yes, it was the rule that Georgian women did not have many options. See my bio of Grace Dalrymple Elliott for another such tale of a clever woman using all her wit, wiles, and beauty to survive in a male-dominated society, My Lady Scandalous.

  2. Bekki
    06/11/2014 at 1:15 pm (2 years ago)

    An excellent post, Henrietta does seem like she was a very brave and enchanting woman, it’s no wonder George II was so enamoured with her.