King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman

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King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, mistress of King George II and regarded as a feminist thinker long before her time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1844138357

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Henrietta Howard, later Countess of Suffolk, is probably one of the least remembered of royal mistresses. Given that her royal lover was one of the least-remembered of British sovereigns, was not wicked or horrible enough to be that infamous and therefore that interesting, and was one of the much-maligned Hanoverians to boot, this is hardly surprising.

Born in 1688, she had an unpromising start in life. The daughter of a Norfolk landowner, she lost her father at an early age when he was killed in a duel. At 18 she married Charles, son of the Earl of Suffolk, a drunkard and womaniser who made her life sheer hell. In an age when even legal separation was frowned upon and divorce almost unthinkable, she managed to separate from him. The cost to her reputation, fortunately, was minimal. While husband and wife had lived in Hanover they had been appointed to the household of the Elector, who became King George I of Great Britain in 1714. From there it was but a short step to becoming mistress of the heir to the throne, later King George II, and Mistress of the Robes to Queen Caroline. One of the most remarkable aspects of her duties was when George and Caroline had chickenpox at the same time, and Henrietta had to sit between their beds (you read that right – they were not sharing a bed), reading them stories until they both fell asleep.

It was an odd relationship. Henrietta was discreet enough not to flaunt her relationship with the King, and in fact it appears that he only took her as a mistress as an appurtenance to his grandeur - in other words, it was the done thing. Though King George had his faults, he was genuinely in love with and perhaps slightly in awe of his wife. The situation between the Queen and her employee who was also her husband's lover was a delicate one, yet Caroline knew it was a case of better the devil you know. If her husband was to tire of Henrietta, the odds were that he would find somebody far less amenable.

Whether George and Henrietta ever had a child together or not, it is impossible to say. The author suggests that a boy whom everyone believed to be her brother's son may in fact have been hers, though the case is impossible to prove.

It comes as no surprise to find that this book is not simply a biography of Henrietta Howard, but also to a certain extent of the King and Queen, and at the same time a colourful account of court life and manners in the 18th century. Occasionally there are pages when the book's main subject almost threatens to disappear from view. Nevertheless this is a lively read, and Henrietta was a woman of some character. A victim of her husband's violence and adultery, she refused to act the part of a meek and mild little woman. In retrospect she has been hailed as something of a feminist thinker in that she refused to accept it all placidly, writing that women had superior sense, superior fortitude and reason to men. Though it was impossible for women to fight too strongly for their rights in those days, she was clearly a woman of spirit who would have been a force to be reckoned with in a later age.

And in a sense, it ended happily. Her estranged husband died, the King tired of her and took another mistress who, as the Queen feared, was a much less comfortable proposition. She left the court, settled comfortably at Marble Hill, Twickenham, and made a happy second marriage, surrounded by friends such as the poet Alexander Pope and the novelist Horace Walpole, son of the former Prime Minister. If anybody deserved a peaceful, trouble-free life in the end, she certainly did.

This is a colourful biography of its subject's life and times, and not the least of its virtues is the author's look at the position of women, seen as second-class citizens in the time, and the inferior treatment meted out to them. Above all it is a good story, sympathetically told.

Our thanks to Pimlico for sending a copy to Bookbag for review.

If you enjoyed this title, you might also enjoy Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer, or The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison.

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Buy King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman at


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