Raise a glass of virtual champagne, it’s publication day! Mistress of the Court is out in UK paperback now.
There are plenty of exciting offers to kick off the launch. If you missed the Goodreads giveaway that closed today, do not fear. My publisher is offering a special pre-order price on the Kindle edition, which comes out on 25 September 2015. You can reserve yours now for just £1.99 ($3.10 US, $4.99 AUS). The price will go up after publication, so make sure you lock into this deal.
For UK readers, I’m delighted to announce I will be signing at Waterstones Bury St Edmunds on 8 August 2015 between 10:00 and 12:00 and Waterstones Colchester on 15 August 2015 between 12:00 and 13:00. The staff are wonderful and both shops are lovely, so please do come along and see us. If you can’t make it in person, they can take your reservation over the phone and post a signed copy to you.
Mistress of the Court will also be going on its own virtual blog tour with TLC. Watch this space for reviews and more!
Make haste, there are only a few days left to enter the Goodreads giveaway for Mistress of the Court! An amazing 20 copies are up for grabs for UK readers. Entries close on 4 August 2015, so get in quick!
Writing about real-life historical figures is difficult. Because if there’s one thing readers expect from a ‘character’, it’s consistency. Unfortunately, in the realm of the real world, things don’t always work like that. I’m sure we’ve all had an experience of a friend or colleague acting ‘out of character’. Real people are often contradictory – and this makes it extremely hard to craft them into a novel!
Beta-readers, critique partners and editors have often pulled me up on the ‘real-life’ elements of my novel. Actual quotes from correspondence have been marked as ‘sounding out of period’, so I have been obliged to change the ‘character’s’ own words. More recently, a reader was surprised by George II’s reaction to the news that he had become king. They didn’t think anyone would respond the way he did. I agree that George’s shout of, ‘That is one big lie!’ was an unusual response, but what can I do? More than one primary source quotes him – it just happened like that.
Similarly confusing is an episode involving George’s wife, Caroline. Caroline was a well-educated and intelligent woman with an inquisitive mind. She was interested in science and entertained ‘natural philosophers’ such as Isaac Newton to hear their ideas. Along with Lady Wortley Montagu, Caroline is credited with introducing the smallpox inoculation to Britain (this was different from Jenner’s later, safer vaccination).
Alongside her ideas of progress, Caroline had an earthy sense of humour. She was not ashamed to speak of sex or bodily functions. Nothing suggests she was ever squeamish. You would think that a Queen such as Caroline would be the first to turn to science in the case of her own illness. But in fact, when Caroline found an umbilical hernia after the birth of her last child, Louisa, she did . . . nothing.
Why exactly did Caroline not only ignore, but attempt to conceal, her illness? Lord Hervey states that she had ‘strong apprehensions of making her person distasteful to the king’. It is true that she exerted great sexual power of her husband. Moreover, George II was a man who showed impatience when others were ill. But I do not think we can blame him for this piece of folly on Caroline’s part. As we can see from George’s confession to Hervey, shortly before Caroline’s death from the hernia, he had actually been concerned and supportive.
The first symptoms I ever perceived of it were fourteen years ago, just after the Queen lay in of Louisa and she then told me . . that it was nothing more than what was common for almost every woman to have after a hard labour. . . it grew better and continued better afterwards for several years. When it grew worse again, I persuaded her to consult some surgeon, which she declined and was so uneasy . . . that I knew not how to press her . .. I again spoke to her, told her it was certainly a rupture and that she ran great risks in taking no care of it. . . [She] spoke so much more peevishly to me on this occasion than she had ever done in her life . . . every time I mentioned it, more and more hurt and angry
It is here I begin to suspect that Caroline, usual so astute, misjudged both the situation and her husband. While George was only concerned by the rupture she perceived that he was disgusted:
The Queen had received what he had said to her on the subject, upon his return from Hanover, as if she had reproached him with being grown wear of her person, and endeavouring to find blemishes in it that did not belong to her.
In short, her own fears preyed upon her mind, and she started to hear things the King was not actually saying. You cannot help but pity Caroline. To think that her devoted husband of many years would fail to love her because of an illness shows a touching vulnerability. Most of her life she had been commanding and assured. She used to be so confident in George’s love that she turned a blind eye to any mistresses he took. As one of the closest courtiers of her last years, Lord Hervey was also puzzled. ‘People may think this weakness little of a piece with the greatness of the rest of her character,’ he wrote.
Perhaps Caroline, so used to playing the all-ruling Queen, did not like to be reminded that she was mortal. She tried to face the hernia down with the same resilience as she endured her gout. Pride kept her silent, and she found it impossible to accept weakness. The shame she felt about her condition was so acute, that she would rather die under the symptoms than let another person examine it. Even in her last days, she was furious that George wanted the doctors to look at the hernia:
He whispered to her that he was afraid her illness proceeded from a thing he had promised never to speak of again; but that now his duty to her called upon him to tell the physician all he knew and all he apprehended. She begged and entreated him . . . and spoke with more warmth and peevishness than she showed at any other minute during her whole illness.
As it turns out, Caroline was probably right to try and elude the doctors. Their botched attempts at a cure rather prolonged the suffering of her last days. You can read a grizzly account of the facts here, or my short story here.
In writing Mistress of the Court, I tried to explore Caroline’s feelings and the extraordinary, elaborate cover-up of her illness. You might enjoy this deleted scene, where she and George argue over the hernia.
It was even better than Caroline had hoped. Only a single lamp lit the corridor between her window and Henrietta’s chamber, but she recognised the ill-formed shape of Chesterfield. He was a smear on the glass, Henrietta another. They did not appear to embrace or go near the bed. That was a disappointment, but Caroline still had ammunition. The mere fact that Chesterfield was in Henrietta’s room when she asked to be left alone spoke volumes. George would not need more evidence than this one imperfect sighting.
Ladies stood beside the bed, ready to unlace Caroline’s mantua and deliver her into a nightgown. She kept them waiting. She was full of a bitter glee. Mrs Howard thought she had won, did she? Spreading her poisonous poem, turning George against Caroline’s advice. Begging cap in hand. Soon enough, the whore would see who held the winning cards. She was not mistress of this court yet.
When George’s footsteps finally sounded on the stairs, Caroline was disappointed to hear them stop outside her own door. On the one night she would have him go his mistress, he came to her! ‘Leave us,’ she told the ladies as George knocked on her door. ‘I will speak to the King alone before I sleep.’
The ladies retreated, leaving a single candle burning upon her dressing table. Yellow light danced across the wood, glinting off her silver brush and comb. She opened the door. In the shadows, George spread his arms, letting Caroline slump into his embrace. His body felt softer these days, cushioned by fat, with no hard muscle beneath.
‘You are tired tonight, my love,’ he breathed into her hair as he pushed her gently back into the room and closed the door behind him.
‘I am always tired. There is much on my mind. Anne talks only of marriage, Carrie gains weight every day and Emily is running wild.’ She paused, weighing his reaction, listening to his body. Gently, she slipped in the fatal words. ‘Then there is this business with Mrs Howard and her husband.’
He tensed beneath her hands. She buried her face in his velvet waistcoat and held her tongue, allowing him time to simmer.
‘Henrietta is not your concern,’ George said at last. ‘I have raised her allowance to pay off that dog Howard. She will not trouble you again.’ He put his hands on her shoulders and tilted her back to gaze into her face. ‘It vexed me to hear she approached you for money. I’ve made my displeasure very clear.’
She painted on a grateful smile, but it hurt her cheeks. How long would that woman suck at the King’s funds? Even leeches dropped off when they had drunk their fill. ‘I’m glad of it. You are very kind, my dear.’
George’s face softened under the candlelight. She swallowed, feeling the chemistry between them. It was still there, the fizz of desire, after all these years. Amorously, he ran a hand over her curves, shaping her breast, her waist. After unpinning her stomacher, his warm fingers strayed to her petticoat, where he tugged at the waistband, searching for the ties. Pain scorched through her belly. Caroline gasped. Winded by agony, she stumbled back and leant on the bedpost.
‘What is it?’
She shook her head, unable to speak. Her vision flickered, split by undulating lines. In a moment, she would fall . . .
George moved behind her and dropped to his knees. Flicking up her heavy train, he rustled beneath it, unhooking first her petticoat and then her panniers. Relief swamped her as the weight fell away and landed on the floor with a hiss. The tender nub on her stomach throbbed like a pulse, but it was better without pressure on it.
George poked his head up. His face was red and his wig disheveled. ‘It’s that lump again, isn’t it?’
That lump. He had noticed, then. Caroline felt it on her body like a stain, a wretched fungus she could not uproot. ‘No,’ she lied. ‘It has nothing to do with that. I came over faint.’
Streaks of gold and black danced before her eyes; she realised they were full of tears. Her knees shook. After all that careful concealment, she had been exposed. He had seen the lump. Remembered it. What if he found her repulsive? What if she couldn’t make love to him, with the constant pain in her belly? She needed him in thrall to her. He was already suspicious of her guiding his policies. If he became weary of her person too, all her power was lost. A younger, able-bodied mistress would take her place.
George crawled out from beneath her skirts and stood. ‘You must consult a surgeon. It is a strange growth.’
Caroline felt disgusting, abhorrent. She twisted and turned from her shame like a child refusing food. ‘Nonsense! Nothing unusual. Many women acquire one after a hard labour.’
He shook his head. Shadows heightened the gravity in his face; the long nose and high cheekbones. ‘It is certainly a rupture. You run great risks, taking no care of it.’
A dark whisper told her he was right, but she couldn’t acknowledge it. She could not face her own body’s decay. ‘Oh, I see what this is!’ she cried, flinging away from him. Her unsupported skirts were too long and heavy; she tripped, causing a spurt of fresh pain. ‘You are tired of me. That ridiculous poem has turned you against me. You endeavour to find blemishes where there are none.’
‘Don’t be foolish. My concern is for your health – ’
‘So I am foolish now, too?’ Her voice quavered. ‘Well you need not stay with me if I am so ugly and stupid. Go and fawn over your mistress.’
‘Caroline . . .’
She pointed to the door, her throat raw with tears. ‘Go!’ she screamed.
Fury clouded his features. Picking up his hat, he cast her a glare and stomped from the room. He slammed the door, extinguishing her candle.
Caroline slumped to the floor. She knelt for a few moments, wetting the carpet with her tears. What had come over her? She feared losing George, yet here she was pushing him away. Awkwardly, she pulled off her mantua and threw a powdering gown over her shoulders. She would go after him and apologise. Where would he be? She stopped. Guilty pleasure stole up her spine. Henrietta’s apartments in Stone Gallery. He would want someone to shout at, and when he reached her rooms, he would find her ensconced with Lord Chesterfield . . .
Caroline pressed her face against her cool palms. Luck favoured her. The lump on her belly would soon pale into insignificance beside Henrietta’s sins.
Hodder and Stoughton must be my favourite publisher at the moment. Not only are they releasing books set in the Georgian era, but very good books at that! I’m currently reading Martine Bailey’s The Penny Heart and have just finished Antonia Hodgson’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Both are the authors’ second books, both dark and wonderful in different ways.
I read Hodgson’s debut The Devil in the Marshalsea last year and enjoyed it. The sensory details and grim reality of life for 18th century debtors were well captured. However, something was lacking for me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I read The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. It was pizazz, something extra that kept me turning the pages and holding my breath. And the good news is, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins has this in droves.
Hawkins, a kind-hearted but fatally flawed young man, has recently won his freedom and a new girlfriend. He should be happy, but gradually he begins to slip into the old habits that landed him in debtor’s prison in the first place. What starts off as a harmless adventure soon embroils him in the world of criminal gangs in St Giles and vicious wife beaters.
Finding the lives of his loved ones at risk, Hawkins tries to wriggle out of his troubles. Yet he only puts himself in further danger. Not only does he owe a debt to the Queen, he has been wrongly accused of murder.
The victim’s family all hide dangerous secrets. But will Hawkins be able to discover them before the law catches up with him? The twists and turns just keep coming – right until the last few pages.
While the narrative is an enjoyable murder mystery in its own right, it is interspersed with present tense ‘snapshots’ of Hawkins in a cart on his way to Tyburn. For me, these little glimpses made the book extra special. They were immediate and extremely well written, driving the narrative forward and providing a hauntingly accurate account of the last journey made by so many to the ‘Tyburn tree’.
Another clever interruption to the narrative were the ‘press-cuttings’ of Hawkins’ case. We see a ballad written about his crimes and a court record of his trial. These snippets evoked the flavour of the time perfectly and came across as very authentic.
Amidst some heart-pounding action scenes and forays into the slums of St Giles, we also get a glimpse of life at the highest rank of society. I have to confess, I was a little nervous to read the parts where Queen Caroline and the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, featured in the book. I’m a bit of a hard customer to please when it comes to two historic figures I hold so dear. But not only was the depiction accurate, Hodgson’s portrayal of Queen Caroline was, to my mind, spot on. I even managed to guess which of the princesses Hawkins was talking to, merely from her speech, which shows what a good job was made of researching the family, despite their comparatively small bearing on the main action.
While Hawkins is not exactly my type of hero, I found myself rooting for the well-drawn characters and eager to return to the their world. A highly recommended book.
I’m very pleased to announce that I now have a date for the second book in my Hanoverian series, Mistress of the Court. The good folk at Myrmidon books will be sending it out into the world on 4 August 2015!
I thought I’d be slightly less excited about the publication of my second book than I was about the first, but this is not the case. As you’ve probably seen from my numerous posts about them, Henrietta Howard and Caroline of Ansbach have become extremely dear to me. I simply can’t wait to introduce them to you in fictionalised form. It seems a very long time ago I was talking about Caroline’s rooms in Hampton Court on television. I feel like I’ve taken a huge journey with these ‘characters’ already, but it’s far from over!
To further whet your appetite, here’s the blurb for the book. Roll on August!
Orphaned and trapped in an abusive marriage, Henrietta Howard has little left to lose. She stakes everything on a new life in Hanover with its royal family, the heirs to the British throne. Henrietta’s beauty and intelligence soon win her the friendship of clever Princess Caroline and her mercurial husband Prince George. But as time passes, it becomes clear that friendship is the last thing on the hot-blooded young prince’s mind. Dare Henrietta give into his advances and anger her violent husband? Dare she refuse?
Whatever George’s shortcomings, Princess Caroline is determined to make the family a success. Yet the feud between her husband and his obstinate father threatens all she has worked for. As England erupts in Jacobite riots, her family falls apart. She vows to save the country for her children – even if it costs her pride and her marriage.
Set in the turbulent years of the Hanoverian accession, Mistress of the Court tells the story of two remarkable women at the centre of George II’s reign.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s no denying it: the Hanoverian kings were an odd bunch. But while this makes them fascinating to study, it also makes them difficult to write. I recently attended a talk by Tracy Borman, in which she described George IV as the ‘most normal’ amongst the Hanoverian monarchs. When the ‘normal’ one is a vain fantasist addicted to drink and opium, you know you have a problem.
It is amazing just how readily these kings lend themselves to farce. Now, while I like a little bit of comedy in my novels, I also want people to take the characters seriously as human beings. When working on George III for Queen of Bedlam, I had to prize away the image of a tyrant passed down in American legend and the anecdotes of his madness, such as the one where he shook hands with a tree (this didn’t actually happen, but many people still believe it did). Fortunately, George III had so many good qualities and such tragically bad health that it was not hard to redeem him. But what of his predecessor, George II?
I have to admit that George II has been my greatest challenge yet. Many of his failings were just so . . . funny. At the time of his reign, he was the subject of intense satire. Every contemporary account has some comic element; his short temper, his obsession with lists or his boring conversation. It was important to me that I got this peppery character across and made use of the comedy, but I was not content with letting him become a mere caricature. As I considered him through the eyes of his women, he began to change.
George’s wife Caroline was a clever woman who undoubtedly used her beauty to manipulate him. In her last years, she endured cruel insults and humiliation from him. But I found that some elements of George and Caroline’s relationship could have come straight from a romance novel. At their first meeting, George was in disguise. He visited her court posing as a travelling count – rather like the games Henry VIII used to play, but with much more success. He was able to observe Caroline and decide she was the wife for him. Despite taking many mistresses over the course of his life, George never really lost his devotion to Caroline. He wrote her beautiful love letters and was inconsolable when she died. One account says that all the queens had to be removed from his deck of cards to save him from bursting into tears. He asked to be buried beside her with the side of his coffin removed, so that their ashes might mingle. These actions do not tie up with the coarse, unfeeling man that history has traditionally presented to us.
Then we have Henrietta Howard, George’s long-serving mistress. It is generally agreed that George and Henrietta shared a highly cynical relationship; she needed his money, he needed a mistress for his masculine pride. But I think there may have been a little more to it than that. George was famous for being a miserly king, yet he gave Henrietta many gifts, long after he was supposedly tiring of her. One present was a whopping £11,500 in the stocks. This was specifically designed to free Henrietta from dependence on her abusive husband – a special contract was drawn up to specify that he could not touch it. Thanks to George’s foresight, Henrietta was able to build Marble Hill, her home for the rest of her life.
Henrietta’s awful husband continued to plague her for money, but miraculously her allowance increased by just the sum he was demanding each year. Since it is recorded by Hervey that Caroline turned down all Henrietta’s requests for pecuniary aid, we are safe to assume that the extra money came from George. It would have been easy for him to leave Henrietta to her fate and take up with a new mistress, but he didn’t. In fact, even when she left him in disgrace, she still received a court pension.
None of this ties up with the comical George II so often portrayed. While we usually see a king that no woman could tolerate, let alone love, the real man seems to have inspired some affection in return. Caroline may have relied on him mainly for power, but during a time of crisis she preferred to sacrifice her children rather than leave him. In her own words, they were not worth ‘a grain of sand’ in comparison to her husband. To Henrietta, George was ‘dearer than my own brother’. And while we must allow for some court sycophancy, the last letter she wrote to him suggests that real feeling had once been there. She writes of ‘the honour of [his] esteem’ and how it had made ‘the happiness of my life’. She ends mournfully, ‘The years to come must be employed in the painful task to forget you as my friend; but no years can ever make me forget you as my King.’
So was there something about women that softened George? I found my own key to his character in this portrait.
Isn’t it beautiful? It’s not difficult to see who the favourite child is. The son and heir is lovingly held in his mother’s arms and clings to her in return. The daughter is somewhat in the shadows, a little apart from the group. Well, this little boy is George II and the woman is his mother Sophia Dorothea.
George was close to his mother, resembling her in feature and quick feelings. But his world was torn apart when, at the age of nine, his parents separated for good. Caught in adultery, his mother was banished to the Castle of Ahlden and never saw him again. Her portraits were taken down; he was not allowed to mention her. His father mocked him for his grief; the only comfort left was his grandmother. I don’t think we can underestimate how fundamentally this episode would have affected a child. It could offer an explanation for both his gruff behaviour and his softer attitude toward some women. Is it too much of a leap to conjecture that he saw his mother in Henrietta Howard, another desperately unhappy young wife? Was Caroline, with her firm advice and unswerving loyalty, the maternal figure he yearned to replace?
While the legends of George trying to swim across a moat to reach his mother have been proved false, I think the spirit of the story is very true. He certainly intended to free Sophia Dorothea and make her Regent of Hanover if she outlived his father. Sadly, this did not happen. Mother and son were kept apart by less than a year; she died at the end of 1726, he gained his throne too late in June 1727.
Interestingly, George’s mother crops up in my research again a few years after her decease. Once more she seems to herald a change to her son’s behaviour. On a trip to Herrenhausen, George stumbled across his mother’s personal papers. He evidently found something he did not like there. Perhaps he had always believed her innocent of adultery and had a nasty shock. Whatever it was, it shattered his image of her. He never spoke of his mother again.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that his behaviour toward Henrietta and Caroline deteriorated after this trip. However, I think that George’s discovery about his mother may have had a direct impact on his relationship with the woman he clung to for reassurance, and the woman he was trying in some small degree to save.
Looking through the eyes of a little boy caught in a family crisis, I hope I have managed to make George into a more three-dimensional and believable character. But I am conscious that in doing so, I have come down rather hard on the father he despised, George I. Rest assured that George I will get his own humanising treatment – watch this space!
The Hanoverian dynasty boasts two Queen Carolines, both remarkable in their own way. Trust me when I say you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of either of them. The second Queen Caroline, estranged wife of George IV, would probably spread vicious rumours about you then burn your effigy in the form of a wax doll. But this blog post concerns the first Queen Caroline, consort to George II. She was more to be feared, due to her superior intelligence and endless patience. Like a hunting cat, she knew how long to lie in wait, and when to pounce.
Despite her overall good-nature, revenge was Caroline’s specialty. She punished her father-in-law, George I, for stealing her children by making a lively court and winning the hearts of his subjects away from him. She managed to have Lord Chesterfield, who mocked her in private, banished to the Hague on an ambassadorial mission by telling her husband he was having an affair with his mistress. When Caroline’s daughter Anne became so haughty that she kept a servant reading by her bed until the unfortunate woman fell asleep on her feet, Caroline gave Anne a taste of her own medicine. Caroline made Anne read by her own bed until the girl wept to sit down.
In my work in progress, Mistress of the Court, Henrietta Howard finds out just how cold Caroline’s shoulder is. As both a Woman of the Bedchamber and mistress to Caroline’s husband, Henrietta was a woman the queen wanted to keep firmly in her place. When Henrietta started to get above herself, Caroline insisted that she kneel to her in the morning to present a basin of washing water. It is testament to how devastating Caroline’s manner could be that the famously cool and controlled Henrietta lost her temper on this occasion, refusing to kneel. But Caroline, ever poised, laughed at her and treated her like a child. Predictably, the queen got her way in the end.
Indeed, Caroline had much practice at keeping her cool. Her King was a fiery man, stubborn in his opinions and wary of being influenced. Lord Hervey records how many times the King shouted at Caroline and put her down in public. Yet Caroline “could work him by degrees to any point where she had a mind to drive him…with great caution; for he was never to be led but by invisible reins”. She had a knack of agreeing with the King’s opinions at first, then “made him imagine any change she wrought in them to be an afterthought of his own”. A skill all us wives must envy! However, Hervey acknowledged all this required “a superiority of understanding, thorough knowledge of his temper and much patience of her own”.
As a sensible queen, Caroline knew when to let go of a grudge.She famously supported Sir Robert Walpole as First Minister, despite the fact he’d betrayed her in the past and called her “a fat bitch”. Hervey records that Caroline believed “wise princes always made their resentment yield to their prudence, and their passion to their interest; and that enmity as well as friendship in royal breasts should always give way to policy”.
The incident I particularly wanted to share was Lord Stair’s remonstrance to Queen Caroline on the Excise Bill. The Bill, proposed by Sir Robert Walpole, caused great unrest. Initially intended to put an end to wholesale smuggling and lower the land tax by converting customs on tobacco and wine into excises, the Excise Bill soon became a byword for tyranny. Gossip and general ignorance made people fearful Excise officers would burst into their houses and loot. Lord Stair begged an interview with Caroline to inform her of the public view.
Now, I’ve read many accounts of lords speaking to Caroline, begging favours and remonstrating with policy. But reading Lord Stair’s words made my mouth hang open. He was so disrespectful and warm I expected Caroline to finally lose her temper. Knowing her pride and her character, all I could think as I read was, “Why would you say that to her?” and “Oh God, what is she going to do to him?” Here are some of Lord Stair’s most inflammatory sentences.
Your Majesty knows nothing of this man [Walpole] but what he tells you himself…His power being thus universally dreaded, and his measures universally disliked, and your Majesty being thought his protectress; give me leave to say, Madam, the odium incurred by his oppressions and injustice is not entirely confined to his own person. If your Majesty thinks the English so degenerated, and the minds of the people so enslaved, as to receive chains without struggling against those who endeavour to fasten them…you are right to persevere in the maintenance of this project. That [Walpole] governs your Majesty nobody doubts, and very few scruple to say. No greater proof can be given of the infinite sway this man has usurped over you, Madam…for what cannot that man persuade you to, who can make you, Madam, love a Campbell [Lord Isla and his brother the Duke of Argyle]?
Caroline’s response was superb. She stopped him at one point to remind him he was talking to the King’s wife, and when Lord Stair dwelt upon his conscience she laughed and said “Ah, my lord, do not speak to me of conscience, you make me faint!” She then responded with:
Surely, my lord, you think you are either talking to a child or one that doats… You have made so very free with me personally in this conference, my lord, that I hope you will think I am entitled to speak my mind with very little reserve to you… I am no more to be imposed upon by your professions than I am to be terrified by your threats.
Caroline then demolished both his arguments and the reasons he had given for them, delivering a thrust to Lord Stair’s honour by turning his accusation of betraying the country back on him.
Remember the Peerage Bill, my lord. Who then betrayed the interest of their constituents?The English Lords in passing that Bill were only guilty of tyranny, but every Scotch Lord was guilty of the last treachery; and whether you were one of the sixteen traitors, your own memory, I believe, will serve to tell you without the assistance of mine.
Caroline then laid waste to Lord Stair’s pretensions of political intelligence by stating he got his system of politics from the newspaper The Craftsman and his sentiments from Lord Bolingbroke and Lord Carteret “two worthless men…the greatest liars and knaves in any country”. The queen finished her devastating response with word of advice:
If you are a friend to the King, detach yourself from his enemies; if you are a friend to truth, take your intelligence for the future from those who deal in it; if you are a friend to honest, do not heard with those who disclaim it.
I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly want Queen Caroline on my side in an argument!
When writing about the courts of the Hanoverian monarchs, I often come across women whose lives would make fascinating stories all on their own. In the course of my career, I hope to branch out and give these lovely ladies a novel for themselves. The one uppermost in my mind at present is Molly Lepell, later Lady Hervey. The darling of George II’s court, wife to a handsome wit, she seemed to have it all. But if you scratch beneath the beautiful surface, you find a very different story.
Right from her birth in 1700, Molly was placed in the role of courtier. Her father was Nicholas Wedig Lepell, who had come over to England with Queen Anne’s husband Prince George of Denmark. Mr Lepell, although partial to King James II, managed to survive the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and stay with the court all the way to the end of the Stuart reign, having won the highly prized favour of Queen Anne’s bosom pal, Sarah Churchill. The friendship of this important lady, along with Lepell’s German blood, ensured that when George I came to the throne in 1714, Molly secured a place in the royal household as Maid of Honour to the Princess of Wales, Caroline.
Nowhere could be more exciting to a teenage girl than Caroline’s witty, fashionable court. The Maids of Honour were known trouble makers, waking up in the night to rattle on windows, involving themselves in endless scandal and even flirting with the young men of the court throughout divine service, forcing Caroline to build a screen over their pew! Although they were all young and beautiful, the two stars were Molly and her friend Mary Bellenden. Molly’s court nickname was the Schatz, which is German from Treasure. Thanks to their friendship with poets such as John Gay and Alexander Pope, Molly and Mary were immortalized in verse at this time, described as the perfect nymphs. Indeed, Molly was once suspected of being mistress and spy to George I, although these claims are largely unfounded.
Beneath the gaiety, Molly was prone to bouts of depression. But it seemed she had put lonely times behind her when, in April 1720, she secretly married John Hervey, second son of the Earl of Bristol. Femininely pretty, full of wit and ability, Hervey was considered the perfect match for such a beautiful star of the court. The couple told their families but did not formally announce the wedding until October of the same year, presumably in fear of royal anger.
At first the couple were very much in love, embarrassing other courtiers with their affection. Lord Bristol wrote to tell Molly that his son “loves you so much above himself”. However, the marriage was not to be everything Molly hoped.
Although she had little fortune, Molly managed to win over Hervey’s devoted father, Lord Bristol. The two remained close until his death. She did not succeed in the same way with Hervey’s fractious mother. Before long the two were arguing like Billingsgate fishwives, though one is tempted to side with Molly in every squabble. Lady Bristol was, by all accounts, a most unreasonable woman. Hervey once described his mother as being like Mount Vesuvius, throwing out fire and rubbish.
The two ladies argued about the upbringing of Molly’s children. Molly was forced to send her first son, George, to the Hervey estate of Ickworth to be with his over-protective grandmother long before she was recovered enough from childbirth to make the journey with him. It isn’t surprising that, with a throb of possessiveness, Molly wanted to at least have some influence over her first daughter by calling her Lepell. Lady Bristol objected strongly – she was the girl’s godmother, and should be her namesake. At last Molly carried her point and managed to call her daughter Lepell, but it was a hard won victory and left a taint of bitterness.
Before long, Hervey’s health problems drew him to Europe. Rather than taking his devoted wife with him, he chose as a companion Mr Stephen Fox. Hervey had a long standing close relationship with both Fox brothers, but his relationship with “Ste” rapidly turned into something more. It is hard to tell whether Molly knew her husband had fallen in love with another man, but I believe she did. It is immensely to her credit that, despite the jealousy she must have felt, she remained on good terms with the Fox brothers even after their common link, Hervey, had passed away. It is tragic to see Molly’s needy correspondence from this time, as she writes to Stephen to beg for news that Hervey will not send her. After a long entreaty for information about the state of his health, she finishes by telling Stephen, “I beg my lord mayn’t know about this letter”. Indeed, in his voluminous correspondence, Hervey barely refers to his wife at all, as if she was a thing of no consequence.
Back in England, marooned in Ickworth with her husband’s family, Molly had few comforts. Her friends all accused her of taking on her husband’s affected mannerisms. If they had known the whole story, they might’ve realised Molly’s attempts to be witty and scathing like Hervey were a desperate woman’s tactics to win back his love. Books were her only companions in the long days she spent nursing Hervey’s sickly sisters. “My spirits,” she wrote to Henrietta Howard, “which, as you know were once very good, are so much impaired that I question if even Hampton Court breakfasts could recover them or revive the Schatz, who is extinguished in a fatigued nurse, a grieved sister and a melancholy wife.”
The death of Hervey’s elder brother, Carr, in 1723 made Molly Lady, rather than Mrs Hervey, and her husband heir to the title and estate. Despite this, and the fact that Hervey became Vice-Chamberlain to Queen Caroline in 1727, Molly didn’t get much chance to return to court and find out if Hampton Court suppers could indeed revive the Schatz. She spent some time in her husband’s chambers when he was in London and visited court to greet Prince Frederick from Hanover in 1728. But after playing second fiddle to Stephen Fox for so long, it became clear that she was now expected to come second best to her former mistress, Queen Caroline. Whenever there was an emotional void in Hervey’s life, he didn’t turn to his waiting and ready wife – he found someone else.
To top it all off, Hervey continued to take mistresses, such as Anne Vane, and other male lovers. It is hardly surprising that Molly grew to resent him, finding solace instead in gossip at Bath, fashionable saloons and her children. As the end of Hervey’s life approached, their marriage deteriorated rapidly. Molly was at Ickworth trying to nurse her husband in his final days, but he refused to have her near him. As a further slap in the face, he cut her out of his will, leaving all the money to her younger children “born in wedlock”. This implies Molly had been unfaithful to him (and I for one wouldn’t blame her!) but there is no gossip or evidence from the period I have found yet to suggest a lover. Could it be that it was all in the ill and crotchety Hervey’s drugged mind? Either way, he also sought to separate Molly from her youngest daughter Carolina, who he wanted to be raised by a Mrs Horner. Luckily for Molly, sense prevailed and Mrs Horner refused to obey Hervey’s will.
Considering all of this, it must have been some relief for Molly when her once beloved husband finally passed away on 5 August, 1743. She was to outlive her spouse by 28 years, although she never married again – once bitten, twice shy, I presume! Molly spent her widowhood traveling, gossiping, flirting and caring for her wayward children.