Every novel has its minor characters. Sometimes, they can be even more interesting than the protagonist. In fiction these ‘bit part’ characters can create spin offs, but in fact-based historical fiction they are real people with rich lives of their own. Today I want to consider the life of Henry Howard, who features in my story about his mother, Henrietta, titled Mistress of the Court.
On New Year’s day 1707, Henrietta Howard gave birth to a son. First child and heir to his father, Charles, who was in turn the son of an Earl, you would think his future would be bright. Unfortunately, the boy was to live a confusing and emotionally traumatic life.
Named for his maternal grandfather, the young Henry Howard arrived in a family already at odds with one another. His father Charles was in the process of suing Henrietta’s brother over her dowry. Money was short, and so was the love between the two parents. From Henrietta’s writings, we know that Charles was a drunkard, gambler and abusive husband. When his lawsuit failed, the family were left more in debt than ever. Depositing Henrietta and the infant Henry in ‘mean lodgings’ in Berkshire, Charles returned to London to live his life unencumbered by their presence.
This abandonment lasted some two years. Henry was deprived of a father for the earliest part of his life – and any form of financial aid from that father. Even when Henrietta, finally at her wits end, set off in search of Charles, the family did not enjoy a happy reunion. They boarded with Charles’ brother at Audley End house for a year and a half. However, Charles was again frequently absent, deserting mother and child for months on end. They were finally expelled from Audley End for failing to pay the rent. It is testimony to Charles’s bad behaviour that he was evicted by his own brother.
If this constant movement and upheaval was confusing for the young Henry, it was about to get worse. He was dragged across the roughest parts of London under the assumed surname of Smith to avoid his father’s debtors. Every so often, his father would run away under fear of arrest and leave him with his mother. Unsurprisingly, mother and child grew close. Henry was Henrietta’s only comfort and gave her the affection she did not receive from Charles. They were both ‘under the pressure and smart of hunger’ most of the time.
In Mistress of the Court, Henrietta travels to Hanover in order to make money and a future for her son. While this probably was her main motivation for going abroad, it is distressing to think that she must have further traumatised Henry by depriving him of his only friend. She only raised enough money for herself and Charles to go to the Hanoverian court and woo the next monarch. Henry was left behind, though it is not clear with whom.
My knowledge of Henry’s life comes solely from Tracy Boreman’s excellent biography of Henrietta and Henrietta’s published correspondence. I have not seen any letters Henry wrote about his childhood, if indeed any survive. But it is hard to conceive that he was not deeply affected by these strange early years of his life. He had been passed from pillar to post like a package, half-starved through most of his formative years. He was a frequent witness to the abusive relationship between his parents. At the age of barely seven, he was abandoned by them both for just over a year. Little wonder he appears as a strange and rather prickly child in my book.
Prospects improved for Henry with the death of Queen Anne in 1714. His parents arrived back in England shortly before the coronation of George I and were granted places at court. However, their new lodgings in St James’s palace were not as grand as they sound. It was a horrid place, rife with damp and the necessity of sharing chamber pots between families. One wonders if Henry was altogether pleased to be reunited with his parents under these circumstances.
The domestic situation certainly did not ease up. Henrietta and Charles were constantly coming to blows. He disapproved of her clothes and her friends. He was annoyed that her service to the Princess of Wales interrupted her attendance on him. Henrietta confessed to getting out of bed several times a night for fear he would kill her. Not precisely an ideal environment for a child under 10 to grow up in.
Things finally came to head with the split of the royal household in 1718. Henry’s parents worked for different factions of the court and were both unwilling to give up their roles. After a furious row, Henrietta stormed out without even stopping to take her belongings. Charles sent a bitter letter after her, saying he no longer considered her to be his wife.
In Mistress of the Court, I have Henrietta separated from her son unwittingly. But the sad truth is that she actually made the decision to leave him. It was certainly not something she did lightly. Her writings show she agonised over the choice and genuinely feared for her life if she stayed with Charles. But what a blow it must have been for Henry, just eleven years old! It was a breach of trust that he would never forgive.
Henrietta was in fact, extremely naive about her son. At first she thought Charles would allow her to visit him – an illusion which he quickly dispelled. She then remained convinced that Henry would take her side, despite her actions. She was determined not to pressure him but ‘leave all to his natural inclinations’. What she actually did was leave him to the insidious ways of Charles. And Charles, accordingly, was raising the child to despise his mother.
This was all the easier when Henrietta became mistress to the Prince of Wales. While it was necessary for her survival, you can imagine how it looked to Henry. He probably thought his mother had deserted him to run off with her lover. And though it was far from the truth, Charles would have encouraged the idea. Charles wrote to tell Henrietta that their son was forced to ‘hear the reproaches of your public defiance to me, and what the world will interpret as the occasion of it.’
Henrietta was only able to obtain sketchy details of her son’s life over the next few years. She discovered he was at a school near Salisbury and sent her cousin to visit, but he was removed to a private school before she arrived. In 1720, he attended Magdalene College at Cambridge. His studies were followed up at an academy in Paris. Henrietta’s friend Lord Peterborough sent his son to the same academy, hoping to glean some further information. It does not seem he was successful. Whether in or out his father’s company, Henry made no effort to contact his mother.
It appeared that Charles was right when he wrote that ‘No artifice or temptation . . . will every prevail with [Henry] to desert me.’ This is surprising, considering Charles’ behaviour through Henry’s childhood. Henrietta was certainly shocked, and disbelieving. ‘I wish to God [Henry] was of a riper age to be judge between us,’ she wrote. ‘I am not willing to suppose he will long neglect a parent who has not forfeited the duty he owes her.’ Nor was she alone in her hopes. From Alexander Pope’s letter of 1727, we can see that Henry was not treated particularly well by his father:
And yet, as to the last thing that troubles you (the odd useage of Mr H towards his son) I would fain hope some good may be derived from it. It may turn him to a reflection, that possibly his mother may be yet worse used than himself; and make him think of some means to comfort himself in comforting her.
It was not to be. Henrietta legally separated from Charles in 1728. This proceeding was highly usual at the time, considered as something only resorted to by ‘blasphemous, trouble-making’ women. Henry would have felt humiliated by this public end to his parents’ marriage, and the wide spread gossip of his mother’s infidelity.
This separation was the final nail in the coffin of the mother/child relationship. Charles died just five years later in 1733, but still Henry made no contact. In fact, Henrietta appeared afraid of seeing him. Lord Bathhurst could only convince her to visit by assuring her that ‘my castle is not molested by your son.’
Henry became Earl of Suffolk upon Charles’ death and enjoyed some success in his life. He was elected. Member of Parliament for Bere Alston and married a wealthy heiress, Sarah Inwen, on 13 May 1735. Her dowry cleared Audley End house of its debts. It was the kind of shrewd action Henrietta herself would take.
Sadly, Henry’s life was not destined to be long. He had no children and died in 1745, aged just 39 years old. I like to think his young widow was deeply in love for him, for she left it a good seven years before remarrying. She became the second wife of Lucius Cary, 7th Viscount of Falkland, though still remained childless.
It is so sad to consider that Henry’s short and tragic life is completely of a piece with the miserable, tempestuous marriage that created him. The one good thing to come of the union, he did not survive long enough to carry on the bloodline or find reconciliation with his mother. We can only imagine Henrietta’s feelings when she lost her son, some twenty-two years before her own death. But I hope that at least, in his earldom and his marriage, Henry was able to find some of the happiness that eluded his early days.