Author Guest Post: Catherine Curzon
Henrietta Howard: The Servant Mistress
In my new book, The Mistresses of George I & II: A Maypole and a Peevish Beast, I tell the stories of Melusine von der Schulenberg and Henrietta Howard, mistresses to George I and II respectively. Whilst Melusine and George I lived together as an unofficial man and wife, and Henrietta was not so fortunate. Though her relationship with George II brought with it protection from her violent spouse, it also meant that she had to be a servant to George’s wife, Caroline of Ansbach. And Caroline wasn’t about to let Henrietta get above her station.
As a Woman of the Bedchamber, Henrietta was required to help Caroline with her toilette. She knelt on the floor, a heavy bowl in her hands, as Caroline washed and picked her teeth, flicking the detritus into the bowl and, if Henrietta was lucky, hitting her mark. For years the women had got along splendidly, but once Henrietta became mistress to George, Caroline decided that she needed to be kept firmly in her place.
One day, as Caroline took her time over her washing, Henrietta finally reached her limit. When Caroline related the story to her favourite, Baron Hervey, she didn’t sugar coat what had happened at all.
“[Henrietta dared] to pick a quarrel with me about holding a basin in the ceremony of my dressing, and to tell me, with her little fierce eyes, and cheeks as red as your coat, that positively she would not do it; to which I made her no answer then in anger, but calmly, as I would have said to a naughty child, “Yes, my dear Howard, I am sure you will; indeed you will. Go, go! Fa for shame! Go, my good Howard; we will talk of this another time.
About a week after, when upon maturer deliberation she had done everything about the basin that I would have her, I told her I knew we should be good friends again; but could not help adding, in a little more serious voice, that I owned of all my servants I had least expected, as I had least deserved it, such treatment from her, when she knew I had held her up at a time when it was in my power, if I had pleased, any hour of the day, to let her drop through my fingers thus.”
As the mistress to a man who called her a deaf, peevish beast, and a servant to his capricious wife, Henrietta was trapped. Should she lose either position, she would be destitute and returned to the mercy of the husband who had treated her like his own personal slave. Once George and Caroline became king and queen, things got no better. This was no love match between mistress and monarch, but a relationship built on nothing more than tolerance. George needed a mistress to see off claims that he was his wife’s puppet, and Henrietta needed a protector to escape her husband.
In fact, George rarely did anything without Caroline’s say-so. He even wrote her long letters describing his sexual conquests, so eager was he for her approval. In Caroline’s eyes, Henrietta was the safest mistress he could have. She was entirely at the mercy of the queen, who never let her forget it, even though Caroline never gave any serious consideration to sacking her from her position. She simply liked to hold out the stick over her rival’s head, reminding her whenever she stepped out of line of the fate that awaited her should she leave the royal protection.
Whilst Melusine sold favours and titles to the highest bidder, Henrietta was a mistress in the most basic sense. She was condemned to spend hour after hour with the sullen king, enduring his bad temper and his barbs, because she had no other choice.
Yet Henrietta’s story is so much more than that of a browbeaten servant at the mercy of a king and queen. She clawed her way from penury to gentility, at one point selling everything other than her hair to fund the hope of a better life. Her adventures took her from rural Norfolk to a London slum, across the sea to Hanover and home to the palaces of England. Against all the odds, Henrietta Howard endured. It was my privilege to tell her remarkable story.
The Mistresses of George I & II is available to order here.