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