She was destined to become the mistress of a King, the toast of the royal court and the owner of a handsome Palladian mansion set in 72 acres of prime Thames riverside. That lay ahead.
Henrietta Howard was born in 1689 into a titled and respected family, the Hobarts of Blickling Hall in Norfolk. By the age of 12 she had lost her father in a duel and her mother to illness leaving her family burdened with mounting debts. As a way of finding some way out of this financial impasse in 1706 she married Charles Howard, the youngest son of the 5th Earl of Suffolk. That was a big mistake. As one commentator had it… “Charles was abusive, obstinate, drunken, extravagant and brutal”, and happy to squander what little money the couple did have on drinking, gambling and whoring. With debtors snapping at her heels and only a sweet temper and pleasant manners to her advantage Henrietta came to London and introduced herself to the court. Soon she became Lady of the Bedchamber and Groom of the Stole to the Princess of Wales. Horace Walpole said she was an attractive woman… “extremely fair, with the finest light brown hair, remarkably genteel, and always dressed with taste and simplicity.” Alexander Pope wrote of her that “she was surely formed without a spot”. Separated from her licentious husband the intelligent and resourceful Henrietta soon became the mistress of Prince George. According to Lord Hervey the prince paid her £2000 a year, which increased to £3,200 when he became King in 1727. It was during this time that Henrietta started work on the construction of Marble Hill House - or Marble Hall as it was known then - and the layout of an ornamental garden helped by a large gift of stock, jewels, plate, mahogany and furniture from George in 1723. The house was to become one of the finest examples of Georgian Palladian architecture in the land. In his ‘Memorials’ the Rev. R.S Cobbett wrote;
“The intention of the builders was evidentially to make the rooms on the first floor of the most imposing proportions, and to affect this the height of the lower and upper storeys has been somewhat unduly sacrificed. The staircase is made entirely of finely carved mahogany and some of the floors are of the same wood.”
According to a popular story of the time it was this mahogany that nearly caused a war between England and Spain. Anxious to help his mistress Prince George asked a sea captain who was voyaging to the West Indies if he would go to Honduras and cut some of the best mahogany trees that he could find. This the captain did, forgetting to ask permission of the Spanish who were governing the country at the time. When they heard about this theft Spain presented an angry remonstrance to the British Government with resulted in correspondence so heated it nearly led to war.
Widowed from Charles Howard in 1733 and no longer mistress to King George II Henrietta took a second chance on marriage when, in 1735, she married the politician George Berkeley. It was a loving and caring relationship. Together they extended parts of Marble Hill making it a centre for the influential and intellectual ‘Twickenham Set’. Here Henrietta entertained friends like Horace Walpole, John Gay and Alexander Pope on a scale which was said to rival the royal court. As Pope wrote in 1735:
‘There is a greater court now at Marble Hill than at Kensington, and God knows when it will end.’
Over the passing years the fortunes of Marble Hill House and its surrounding park have fluctuated with the changing fortunes of its owners. The house and estate were finally saved from development by an Act of Parliament in 1902 and Marble Hill has been a public park ever since. However since the 1980s it has seen little investment. Opening times for the historic house are limited, while the park’s original character has been lost. Now, with the award of a grant of over £4m by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund from the Parks for People Programme, English Heritage plans to do justice to both house and park through a series of £6m improvements. under the challenge - ‘Marble Hill Revived’. Plans include:
- Conserve and re-present Marble Hill House and open it to the public, for free, five days a week for seven months a year
- Open up more areas in the park and create new habitats to improve the park’s biodiversity
- Improve the sports pitches and changing facilities
- Refurbish the existing café
- Create a new play area for children.
FOR THIS - HENRIETTA AND HER MANY ADMIRERS NEED HELP FROM LOCAL VOLUNTEERS
The ‘Marble Hill Revived’ project starts on Thursday 21st February 2019 from 10.00am to 4.00pm. The first step is to enrich the park’s biodiversity by enhancing the hedgerows and planting saplings to create a more diverse hedge habitat to benefit insects and birds.
No gardening skills required as full guidance will be given. Just come along anytime during the day. Tea and coffee are provided but please bring your lunch, wear sturdy boots, old clothes and a waterproof coat just in case.
Local businesses are invited to join a similar project on Thursday 28th February. For more information or to sign up ring Sophie on 07860 878462 or E Mail:- firstname.lastname@example.org
I knew a thing that's most uncommon (Envy be silent and attend!) I knew a reasonable woman, Handsome and witty, yet a friend
“On a certain lady at court”: Alexander Pope (an appreciation of Henrietta Howard.)
– from Martyn Day