Hanover

Marble Hill

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_Howard

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

Caroline of Ansbach

As you may have seen from my Twitter feed, I’ve been invited to appear on a TV documentary about Hampton Court Palace (I understand this will be on PBS, although I don’t know when). What absolute bliss! A palace I love and a chance to witter away about the Georgians, all rolled into one! The only problem I could foresee was that most my research for the Hampton Court years revolved around Caroline of Ansbach and my great admiration for her. Although I adore her, and I hope you will all adore my novel about her when I come to write it, I was worried I might come across as a Caroline-obsessed weirdo. But when I spoke to the director, he too was fascinated by Caroline and wanted to hear my stories about her. So just what is it about this Georgian Queen that holds us in her thrall?

We’re not the first to be touched by her magic. She had a gift of inspiring the utmost devotion in her circle of close servants. This was an exclusive club you had to work hard to get into, but once you were there, Caroline would show you the human face behind the monarch. This was the Caroline who had to run from the room in tears when a woman begged her to save the life of a Jacobite rebel. And as for her husband, George II, he was besotted. He took mistresses for the sake of his male, Kingly pride, but always insisted they were not fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe. When arriving home after absences in Hanover, he would be quick to whisk his wife away to the bedroom, no matter who was looking. His grief on her death was profound and touching. He had a gem of a Queen and he knew it.

Caroline was not a conventional woman, nor a conventional Princess. She was orphaned at the age of only 13 and sent to live in Brandenburg with the elector Frederick and his wife Sophie Charlotte. This was the perfect place for the intelligent, quick young Princess to spread her wings. Sophie Charlotte was the aunt of Caroline’s future husband, George II. She entertained the great scholars and philosophers of the age, absorbing their knowledge and debating with them. Her husband, Frederick, loved fashion and splendour. No wonder Caroline learned to be fiercely intelligent with a keen sense of style. This court formed her at an impressionable age – but sadly, when Sophie Charlotte died, she was forced to return to the backwater of Ansbach.

Back home, she kept up her studies, concentrating on theology, philosophy and metaphysics. At some point – whether early on or shortly before her marriage is unclear -Caroline taught herself to write. Naturally, her self-taught hand was badly formed, causing George II to pronounce that she wrote ‘like a cat’, but you have to admire the ambition and tenacity that carried her through. Caroline certainly knew her own mind. Although she had no dowry at all, she refused a highly desirable offer of marriage because her prospective bridegroom was Catholic. Caroline herself was a devout Lutheran and there was no way she was converting.

The intelligent, lively Princess from Ansbach earned herself a glowing reputation. George II’s grandmother Sophia, who took the place of his absent mother, told him she was the loveliest Princess to be found. However, he was unwilling to plunge into a marriage without making his own decision. Disguising himself as a travelling count, he gathered his entourage and set out on a scouting mission to Ansbach.

Of course, the disguise didn’t fool a sharp young Princess like Caroline, but she played along. Her charms soon had George smitten. As George himself was far from interested in the “stuff and nonsense” Caroline liked, such as poetry, art, theology etc, it’s unlikely she captivated him with her scholarly conversation.  More prominent in the wooing, I imagine, were her graceful manner, long blonde hair and soon to be legendary bosom. Either way, he returned home with his head full of her and determined to marry.

Caroline knew exactly how to work her husband. Her influence was of such a subtle, manipulative nature that it was extremely hard to trace. She was careful to “say what she did not think, assent to what she did not believe and praise what she did not approve” so that George thought she agreed with all his opinions. She would then slowly, almost imperceptibly, change these views to her own. George, carried along with the gradual process, always believed he had come to the new conclusions all by himself. Caroline was strongly supported in her role by Walpole and Hervey, who shared her Whiggish viewpoint. She needed all the allies she could get, as George was determined not to be ruled by women like his father. When rumours flew about that he was governed by his wife, he would do everything in his power to contradict them. He would humiliate Caroline in front of the court, laughing at her ignorance or shouting down her opinions in one of his famous rages.  Astonishingly, Caroline always responded with sweetness and light. She flattered, she agreed and she let him think he had put her in her place. It was the same tactic she used when hearing of his mistresses – she encouraged him to tell her about them and keep her informed of every stage of the conquest, as if anything which brought him pleasure was the greatest delight to her. It couldn’t have been an easy course, but it was a brilliant one.  Through it she ensured George remained bound to her heart and soul.

There was also a more human, earthy side to Caroline to add to this picture of the sainted wife. She was devoutly religious, but she also revelled in the risqué humour of Lord Hervey, who was known to take both male and female lovers. Her court was bright and lively, full of naughty, flirtatious maids of honour who danced at masquerades and giggled during sermons. She was also not above some petty jealousy towards George’s mistress Henrietta Howard. Although I like Henrietta and feel sorry for her, I can understand the emotions which led Caroline to remind her of her place. She had always been fond of Henrietta until she started sleeping with her husband.  When the affair started, Caroline never openly reproached, but gave Henrietta more menial tasks to do and insisted she hold her wash basin on bended knee. I rather like this glint of a jealous woman showing through the veneer of a perfect Queen.

Since George I’s wife was imprisoned in a German castle for her infidelity, Caroline took on the role of Queen long before it was her actual title. She led the fashions and added some much needed gaiety to George I’s court. It is worth noting that in some of the early squabbles between George I and George II, the elder George remained tolerant of her while he hated her husband. Sadly, this was all to change. Following a huge row over the Christening of the couple’s son – another George – Caroline was separated from her children. George I did offer to let her come back and live with them if she would abandon her husband – but this was a thing she would never agree to. It took the death of the poor baby George to reunite the family. I doubt if Caroline ever forgave her father in law for separating her from her child before he died. She had already lost a son, and nearly died herself in giving birth to him. This was yet another blow.

Caroline the mother is a bit of a mystery. Her daughters praised both her and George II as wonderful parents and pined to return to them when they were separated. William, Duke of Cumberland (later to be known as Butcher), was clearly spoilt by his mother, receiving the beautiful Cumberland suite of rooms at Hampton Court palace, all carefully redecorated for him in fashionable blue mohair. But what about poor Frederick, her eldest, who she had been forced to leave in Hanover when she came to Britain? This child she completely detested, calling him “the greatest ass that ever lived”. Her venom towards him is extremely hard to reconcile with her behaviour towards her other children.  Of course, she disapproved of his rakish behaviour when he came to England and knew he was close to George I, but these are hardly strong enough factors to turn a mother against her firstborn son. I can only imagine it was his interference in opposition politics which really got her goat. Caroline loved power, and anyone who threatened hers was an instant enemy.

Another great thing about Caroline was her cleanliness. We have accounts of how she cleaned her teeth with a sponge on a stick and various references to her constant bathing, which earned her the name “clean Caroline.” She would sit in a bath lined with linen, on a little stool, clothed in shift. Ewers of hot water would be brought to her and little soapy concoctions whipped up out of rose water and orange water.  Her bathroom at Hampton Court Palace still retains a decidedly floral and spicy scent, helping you to imagine those bathtimes long ago. No doubt, her servants would think her slightly mad. Everyone knew bathing could be dangerous to your health. But a Queen will have her whims…

Caroline predeceased her husband in 1737 in a truly tragic way. She knew death was coming, because she had been hiding the cause of it for a long time. An umbilical rupture, endured at the birth of her last child, was slowly killing her, along with the gout to which she was a martyr. But why did she keep walking with gout, instead of letting William wheel her around in her merlin chair? Why didn’t she tell someone about the rupture? The answer was simple and definitive of Caroline: George. George hated anything to do with illness – hated even more the fuss that went with it. A perfect wife to the end, Caroline refused to trouble him with her agony. It is almost too sad for words. As you can imagine, George was inconsolable when he found out the truth. He spent hours lying on the death-bed beside her, assuring her she was the best woman who ever lived. He remonstrated against her constant plea that he would marry again. And then, in true Caroline style, when the hour of death was upon her, she ordered the candles extinguished so that he wouldn’t have to suffer the horror of watching her die. A truly courageous end for a remarkable Queen.

I think you can see why I’m so eager to start my novel about Caroline and her life. She is one of my heroines in a writing sense and a personal sense. But for now I am concentrating on one of her ancestors – another Caroline – who was less subtle, less clean but no less remarkable in her way.