Blickling to-day is one of the loveliest old houses in Norfolk. From whatever point it is viewed, it presents a long line of mellow red brick, of deep, stone-mullioned windows, and tall gables and chimney-stacks; and all round it glow beautiful gardens, with great blocks of old yews providing the shadow, and a distant lake giving the high light.
Here Anne Boleyn lived, and here, nearly two hundred years later, another famous beauty was born. The exact year is unknown, but it was about 1688 that Sir Henry Hobart was gladdened by the birth of his eldest daughter, who was christened Henrietta.
Perhaps it was due to her fatherless condition that, at a very early age, Henrietta was allowed to marry a younger son and a man of very unpleasing character. This was the Honourable Charles Howard, third son of the fifth Earl of Suffolk. The Howards had all the traditions of a great family; they were a branch of the Norfolk Howards, and many of them had been distinguished for their loyalty to the Stuarts. A cousin of Charles Howard was Dryden's wife.
But a man's family greatness is poor consolation to his wife for his personal failings. Charles Howard was violent-tempered and coarse-minded, and his marriage to the lovely young girl was largely prompted by the fact that, while he was penniless, she had a small income.
He seems to have been a worthless sort of fellow, and a trimmer of sails. When the Hanoverian succession became probable, he dragged his wife off to Hanover in order to be beforehand in making a good impression. Such a journey in those days was very formidable; it entailed enormous expense and a great deal of discomfort.
Life in a German Court was formal, but not without interest, and Mrs. Howard was a welcome addition to it. Her beauty and charm soon won her numerous friends, and the Howards gave many entertainments. Few can have guessed to what stress they were reduced by poverty. Howard had spent every penny of hers that he could touch, and on one occasion, when they were giving a dinner party, the beautiful young wife had to sell her hair in order to pay for the entertainment.
She was a close friend of the Electress Sophia, and also of the Electoral Princess, Caroline of Anspach. Her qualities and looks were alike mild and grave, and she retained the charm of both to the end of her long life. Although not brilliant intellectually, she had all the virtues, and yet was not dull or priggish. She never swerved in loyalty to her friends, and this, according to Walpole, "preserved uncommon respect to her to the end of her life." It was, indeed, a sufficiently rare quality.
When George I. ascended the English throne, of course Howard came to England, hoping, and not in vain, to reap the reward of his carefully sown seed. He was made Groom to the King, and Mrs. Howard became one of the Women of the Bedchamber to Caroline, now Princess of Wales.
All this was very satisfactory; but human beings seldom stay in one position for long on the stage of life, and the change was in this case provided by the Prince of Wales, who began to pay marked attention to Mrs. Howard.
Immediately this lady became the centre of an admiring crowd, who praised her beauty and her wit far beyond what they deserved, in the hope of pleasing the prince through her, and told malicious tales of her in private.
About her beauty many conflicting reports have come down to us; but it is a remarkable thing that very few celebrated beauties are ever allowed great beauty or remarkable wit by famous memoir-writers. Perhaps this arises from the fact that such writers are so often wits themselves, and have adopted a t h or ou g hly critical attitude towards life. In that lies their value as contemporary historians of social detail.
But there can be little doubt that Mrs. Howard was very beautiful. She was of medium height, of very fair complexion, with quantities of the finest light brown hair. Her eyes were a soft, dreamy blue, and her features regular. She dressed with great taste and much simplicity, and her face was sweet and tranquil. She has been called one of the most attractive women of her time; even women holding posts at Court praised her. That is saying much, for in such circumstances jealousy and envy are easily aroused, and Mrs. Howard's position was provocative of both - she was a close friend of the Princess of Wales, and was beloved by the gay and gallant prince.
Her private life would have been very miserable had she not been of a placid, peace-loving nature. ' The personification of sweet-tempered mediocrity," her charm was strong, although it could not be analysed. Walpole loved to talk with her, even when she was old and very deaf.
The beautiful and accomplished Mrs. Howard, afterwards Countess of Suffolk, the intimate and beloved friend of George II. and Caroline of Anspach. From the picture in the poet Pope's collection, bought at Martha Blunt's sale by the Countess, and by her presented to Horace Walpole
In 1725 we find her very deaf; she was thirty-seven, and not particularly brilliant intellectually. Yet she was still loved by the roving prince, after fifteen years of unbroken devotion. Her friends numbered Pope, Swift, and Gay, and many another brilliant literary man.
Opinion differed as to her relations with George II. She took her honours so quictly, or, as it has been finely phrased, " so discreetly did she conduct her indiscretions" that many believed her friendship with the King was platonic throughout; and the Queen kept her in favour, which seemed to support this view. But the benefits the King showered on her were so substantial that perhaps no platonic friendship has ever been so largely-rewarded. At any rate, Mrs. Howard's companionship was to him " rest after toil, port after stormy seas." Amid the glitter and hollowness of the Georgian Court she retained her quietness and her purity, and, above all, the restful atmosphere with which she was surrounded. .She was a good woman, and George, although he frequently slighted and snubbed her in public, sought her society for twenty years.
Queen Caro-line, it is said, sanctioned the intimacy because she considered that if her husband did not love Mrs. Howard, he would love someone else, who might have been a far more serious rival. At any rate, for twenty years Mrs. Howard retained her position with the King, although she had but small influence over his actions. However, he created her brother Earl of Buckingham, and gave her 12,000 towards the building of her villa at Richmond; visited her every evening at nine o'clock, and only ceased to do this in 1729, when their long friendship gradually came to an end.
Mr. Howard for a while played the injured husband; but his feelings subsided conveniently when King George II., on his accession, settled on him an annuity of 1,200 a year. In 1731 he became Earl of Suffolk, and his wife was given the post of Groom of the Stole to the Queen, with a salary of 800 a year.
When the earl died, and was succeeded by his only child, a son, his widow gave up this post. This was only two years after his accession to the title. In 1735 Lady Suffolk married the Honourable George Berkeley, partly, it was said, to close down for ever the gossip of her friendship with the King.
She died in 1767, at an advanced age, adored to the end, and perhaps one of the gentlest beauties who was ever beloved by a king.