Marble Hill

The lovely Palladian villa of Marble Hill at Twickenham is place of refuge and escape. Maria Fitzherbert retreated there when her lover, the future George IV, decided he was going to ditch her and marry Caroline of Brunswick instead. Legends tell of him riding up and down the road nearby on the night before his wedding, tormented with indecision. We also have the account that a mutual friend rode to Marble Hill and informed Maria when George had actually gone through with the marriage ceremony. Upon hearing the news, she fainted away. But it wasn’t just Maria who fled to Marble Hill. Before her time, the house was a sanctuary for a Hanoverian mistress who led, to make a massive understatement, a difficult life. Her name was Henrietta Howard.

I was lucky enough to take part in Historic Royal Palaces’ study day on 2 May 2013, which was all about Henrietta. It’s simply wonderful that a whole day was devoted to finding out more about this truly admirable woman. We were treated to an overview of Henrietta’s life from Tracy Borman, author of King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant. I can thoroughly recommend the book, which Tracy clearly poured much love and research into. She delivered an excellent talk and held a question and answer session afterwards, where I was able to find out how Henrietta dyed her hair blond (horse urine. Nice). As Tracy explained, not much was known about Henrietta until she undertook to write her biography. We knew she was a mistress of George II and built Marble Hill, but other details were lacking. Thank goodness Tracy decided to find out more, because what we uncover is a complicated and resourceful woman who it’s hard not to love.

Henrietta grew up as a minor aristocrat, part of the Hobart family at Blickling Hall. Tudor fans will know this is the house where Anne Boleyn was probably born. But despite her privileged start, Henrietta was doomed by the extravagance of her spend-thrift, dominating father. His death in a rash duel threw the family upon hard times. In the next few years, Henrietta’s mother and all her elder siblings were to follow her father to the grave – leaving the impoverished Henrietta responsible for the family.

Luckily, Henrietta had a connection to the Earl and Countess of Suffolk, who welcomed her into their home. But what seemed like a safe haven turned out to be a gilded trap.  It was while staying with the Earl and Countess that she met their youngest son, Charles. Young and in need of stability, she was won over by the handsome soldier. Henrietta married Charles aged just 19. It was to prove a dreadful mistake.

Charles was a drunken, gambling, cheating husband. He was also mentally and physically abusive. Only one child was born of this ill-made union: a son, Henry. Though Henrietta adored her boy, she struggled to raise him. Often going without food, fleeing from mean dwelling to mean dwelling, she had to assume the name of Mrs Smiths to dodge her husband’s creditors. There were years when he abandoned her altogether. Most women would have given up. But not Henrietta. By selling all she had, and frequently starving herself, she managed to raise the money to take herself and Charles to Hanover. Here, she hoped to win favour at the court and ingratiate herself with the next King of England. You might ask why she took such a terrible husband with her on this venture. Sadly for Henrietta, it was his noble name of Howard that was the key to the inner sanctum of royalty.


Henrietta soon won the friendship of Princess Caroline and secured a position in her household. Charles, somehow got himself a job under King George I. The pair were still stuck together, but at least they had income and a roof over their heads. Just as Henrietta had planned, they were able to come back to England when George ascended the throne, jewels in the new and sparkling court.

It was only during the fateful years of 1717 and 1718 that Henrietta finally escaped the clutches of her husband. The establishments of King George and the Prince and Princess of Wales dramatically split over a young prince’s Christening. Servants were forced to chose a side and Henrietta was swift to attach herself to Caroline – leaving the fuming Charles behind with the old King. Tragically, Henrietta’s decision meant she had to leave her son darling in Charles’ “care”. The boy was raised to hate her.

About this time, Henrietta’s close friendship with the Prince of Wales turned into something more. She became mistress to the future George II – although it was by no means a passionate or romantic love story! George was short-tempered, brutally frank and given to long, boring conversations. It was sense, not emotion, that lured Henrietta into his bed. But while the new position earned Henrietta money and status, it also soured her relationship with George’s wife, Caroline. Henrietta soon found herself the object of jealous spite and longed to flee the court.

In secret, Henrietta planned and saved for Marble Hill. She was intimately involved in every detail of the design. This place was her dream, her safe haven after a life of torment. But getting there was difficult. Charles threatened to abduct her if she left royal protection. Henrietta was trapped for years, until Charles finally did her one good service: he left her a widow. Now her life of freedom in Marble Hill could begin. The study group were lucky enough to have a private tour of this stunning building.

Supper and gambling took place here

In all things, Henrietta seemed to defy convention. Not only did she manage to formally separate from her husband (something practically unheard of in those times) she took a masculine approach to her building. The Palladian style was considered a logical, mathematical, and thereby male province. Henrietta took the basic concepts and made them her own.  The superbly balanced rooms should have been left with with minimal decoration. However, Henrietta thumbed her nose at this rule of style and cluttered shelves with her collections of blue and white china porcelain.

I was surprised by the small rooms and narrow doorways in the house. How, one wonders, did Henrietta get through them in her skirts? She must have turned sideways! We started the tour downstairs, taking in the coolly elegant hall. Now relatively empty, it would have been crowded with people and gaming tables.  Next, there was a beautiful little breakfast parlor – too cramped for much company, but you can imagine Henrietta sitting their sipping tea. But my favourite place on the bottom floor was the magnificent room hung with fashionable India paper (and not just because there were coffee and biscuits waiting for me there. This room cost Henrietta a fortune to have installed (and English heritage a fortune to restore!).  The hand-painted paper would have been imported from China by the East India company and stuck to a silk canvas with a mixture of flour and water.  A painfully slow, highly skilled task to accomplish. Apparently, Henrietta quarreled with the workmen over the bill. It seems her famously meek and gentle temper had frayed by the time she finally escaped court life!

The India paper

Once we mounted the mahogany staircase, we found ourselves in the entertaining rooms. The first floor – the piano nobile –  was where the parties took place. Right at the centre is the Great Room: a  masterpiece of white panelling and gilt detail. You can just imagine the literary Georgian circles in which Henrietta moved (she was friends with people such as John Gay, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope) flocking to this beautiful chamber. Today, the Great Room contains the house’s treasures: some of the few remaining items of furniture that belonged to Henrietta.

On the same floor we found the bedrooms of Henrietta and George Berkeley, her second husband. Berkeley had been Henrietta’s friend for some time before their marriage, and many believe they had a secret romance while still living under the roof of George II. Ironically, it was Berkeley, not her royal lover, who turned out to be Henrietta’s Prince Charming. Soon after leaving court, Henrietta scandalised society by marrying him in a private ceremony. Henrietta’s new husband was was younger than her and riddled with gout. Although contemporary gossips mocked the match, Henrietta was to finally find the happiness she so deserved.  The couple were deeply devoted to one another.

The Great Room

Interestingly,  the bedrooms were not considered “private” in Marble Hill. The entire house was made for entertaining. This is clear from the vi

10 Comments on Marble Hill

  1. Cyndi
    11/05/2013 at 4:01 am (4 years ago)

    Wonderful article about someone I knew little about apart from the mentions in the few books about george II and caroline. I’m a true admirer of queen caroline! She’s someone I would love to spend a day with, or go back in time as a fly on the wall! I always thought that the relationship between heneritta and caroline was cordial, under the circumstances of course. However, you write that there was friction….I love learning something new:) it makes far more sense for there to have been friction between these two women.
    I love the pictures. As I looked at the second one, I thought as you did, “how did the women get through the door with those wide dresses”. I’m jealous that you get to go to these places! I live in the states, and would give my 16 year old away to visit hamptom court and kew palace…kidding of course, I think? I will put the book mentioned at the beginning of the article on my “book wish list”. Oh, about the book, good queen charlotte. I’m close to being half way through it, and its not very objective so far. I did enjoy the beginning where it discusses charlottes early life. I’ll let you know when its over whether its worth going back and reading the whole the book. Again, thanks for the work you put into this blog, and your books. The american georgians thank you….

    • lauradpurcell
      11/05/2013 at 2:38 pm (4 years ago)

      I have a girl crush on Queen Caroline! My next Hanoverian Mothers post will be about her. The relationship with Caroline and Henrietta was deeply complex, which is why it will be such a pleasure to write. They were friends, and Caroline certainly protected Henrietta against her husband on more than one occasion. But at the end of the day, Caroline would let no one encroach on her power and liked to put her husband’s mistress firmly in her place. She was particularly jealous of Henrietta’s literary reputation, which she wanted for herself.

      I will try and post as much about my visits to palaces and stately homes as possible so you don’t have to sell your child :)

  2. Cyndi
    13/05/2013 at 12:24 am (4 years ago)

    Thanks! My son will be pleased to know that he can stay with us:) I really do appreciate the articles and pictures that you put on your blog.

  3. Kayla
    25/05/2013 at 9:42 pm (4 years ago)

    I really cannot sympathize that much with these rather cruel, shallow women. What’s Henrietta’s claim to fame, sleeping around to enrich herself? She’s rather a low-minded, selfish woman, and Queen Caroline was somewhat of a vicious, abusive mother. Very unnatural to her own children.

    • lauradpurcell
      26/05/2013 at 9:24 am (4 years ago)

      Kayla I really think you should read Tracy Borman’s book and find out more about Henrietta. Far from being shallow, she was considered the centre of honesty and fairness in a squabbling court. She didn’t ‘sleep around’ and is in fact the worst paid mistress in royal history. Moreover, to reject the Prince’s advances would risk ejection from court and a return to the husband who had literally beat her within an inch of her life. As for Caroline, you will see in my next Hanoverian mothers post that she was actually considered an excellent parent, except to Frederick, and there are many compelling theories about why that may be. To understand Georgian mothers we need to put aside our modern attitudes and realise women were expected to love their husbands more than their kids- unlike today where they are frowned upon for putting anything before their child. They also had to accept children were their husband’s property – or in Caroline’s case her father-in-law’s. It certainly isn’t as clear cut as you think.

      • Kayla
        01/06/2013 at 1:07 am (4 years ago)

        Well, I’m not seeing it as “clear cut”, it’s just that I believe the truly stellar women of history are those that were truly noble, didn’t get their recognition from how they related to a man.
        Caroline was beyond cruel and unnatural to her son, and that is inexcusable.

  4. Cyndi
    28/05/2013 at 3:19 am (4 years ago)

    Hey laura! Well, i finally finished the ‘the good queen charlotte’. As you know, the beginning is fantastic. The details of her earlier life were good. I found the book to gloss over charlotte’s negative qualities. There was no mention of the negative aspects of her relationship with her daughters. I felt the book dealt more with her relationship with her ladies, politicians etc. However, there were some great nuggets of information on charlotte that I didn’t know, and isn’t that what a book is suppose to do? You should read the whole book when you get the opportunity.
    I too think that caroline was a good mother with the exception of frederick, but leaving him behind was not her decision. When I look at caroline’s relationship with her children it was open and relatively normal, from what I know. Caroline was not possessive and smothering like victoria was with her children. I’m sorry, but I think of her as being a hanoverian monarch. Well nothing needs to be said about the “unruly queen caroline” mothering skills. However, like modern day mothers, there can be good and bad aspects of all mothers….

    • lauradpurcell
      28/05/2013 at 8:04 am (4 years ago)

      Great, thanks for letting me know! Will definitely read it now :) I agree, Caroline was nearly as much of a ruler as George and had a few Regencies where she handled the country alone. Great woman! Spoke to Lucy Worsley at a talk the other day and she said Caroline was her favourite Hanoverian.

  5. Cyndi
    31/05/2013 at 4:34 am (4 years ago)

    I really enjoy lucy worsleys work! I would love to have her job, which I’m sure she hears all the time. Oh, I look forward to seeing you on pbs this summer!

1Pingbacks & Trackbacks on Marble Hill