Friday, December 4, 2009

Tart of the Week: Henrietta Baroness Luxborough

Born into the lap of luxury, Henrietta St John was the adoring half-sister of Henry, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, the politician whom she claimed made a "half-scholar" of her. She grew up among the glamour of the beau monde and her brother's circle which included, Alexander Pope and Voltaire. Unlike many aristocratic ladies, Henrietta didn't marry in her teens and enjoyed her twenties, gossiping with her bff, the future Duchess of Somerset, spending half her time in London, and gardening.

Of course, marriage ruined everything.

In 1727 Henrietta found herself in a married to a businessman, Robert Knight. He was rude and crude and his job forced them to live mostly in Paris. Paris probably didn't bother Henrietta so much (her mother was French) as being far away from her friends and family did. Not to mention, she didn't care for her husband's crowd who only talked of money instead of the cultured topics of her brother's circle. Despite her miserable marriage, Henrietta had a son and daughter whom she loved dearly. But it was only a matter of time before she cracked.

In 1736 Henrietta was the talk of the town for an affair. It's unclear who exactly she conducted it with, some gossiped a doctor, others a tutor, and the more romantic notion is a poet since Henrietta herself was one. No matter whose bed Henrietta hopped in, her husband was furious and banished her to his remote estate, Barrells (sometimes 'Barrels') to "moulder and die." He chose not to divorce her and left her a meager annuity so that she would be forced to live like a prisoner. She couldn't visit London and she wasn't allowed any contact with her children. What's a girl to do?

Henrietta got vengeance in the simplest of ways: by enjoying her life despite her husband's attempts to cut her off from the world. Barrells was meant to be her soul-crushing prison but she was able to transform it into her own personal "Arcadia." She finally had a chance to get back into gardening and dove into the hobby to distract herself. She took up writing to friends, sometimes in poetic stanzas. She called herself a "farmeress" and delighted in her home which turned out to be just what Marie Antoinette tried to achieve with her Petit Trianon. Visitors began to venture to the middle of nowhere to see Henrietta's humble retreat. Not everyone was impressed, for whatever reason Horace Walpole liked to bitch about Henrietta calling her "lusty" and making snide remarks about her hair. Her home even became a literary center, a gathering place for the educated minds she so loved to mingle with since childhood.

For the most part Henrietta lived her life quietly. When her children grew up they were free to visit her and mother was finally reunited with children. Henrietta died in 1756, her husband would outlive her by many years, finally dying in 1772. Barrells would go to the eldest son he had with his long-time mistress.


  1. Ha! Quelle coincidence! I was reading Henrietta's correspondence with Lady Hertford (D of Somerset) last night in a bio of Lady Hertford. Quite a sad tale.

    Henrietta was well and truly banished. In addition to having no contact with her children, she and her close female buddies were absolutely forbidden to have any contact. It was only years later that Lady Hertford got up the courage to initiate a clandestine correspondence.

    As for Horace. "For whatever reason..." Well, aside from Horace Walpole's general bitchiness, could be because Bolingbroke and Horace's father were mortal enemies for decades from the time they were bright young things during the later years of Queen Anne.

    Walpole vehemently opposed George I's pardon of Bolingbroke - it took 7 years of complex, expensive bribes and maneuvers over and around Robert Walpole's objections to get it approved by King and Parliament, and even then, Walpole made sure Bolingbroke on his return to England wouldn't be able to return to public life. Bolingbroke got back his property but was kept from sitting in the House of Lords for the rest of his life, which meant he couldn't challenge Walpole directly -- something for which Walpole was deeply resented by Bolingbroke and his friends and allies. And from the view of the Walpole partisans, Bolingbroke was the devil incarnate - the charismatic, seductive, unscrupulous, treasonous, godless, highly vocal leader of the anti-Walpole opposition (trying to be cat-herder of an assortment of Tories and opposition Whigs) for most of Walpole's reign. -the major thorn in Walpole's side.

    What surprises me -- given Horace's network of connections and how much his crowd hated the Bolingbroke crowd and would thrill to any nasty bit of gossip they could promote -- is that Horace wasn't able to dig up the dirt on what really occasioned Henrietta's banishment. The St John family seems to have been deeply divided about whether Henrietta should be blamed and punished. Bolingbroke was always immensely supportive of her and tried to mitigate her husband's treatment of her -- her lack of financial resources, her isolation, etc. But their sister-in-law (wife of Lord St John, Henrietta's older brother and Bolingboke's half-brother) seems to have been Henrietta's implacable enemy. Even so, the St Johns and the Knights do seem to have been fiercely united about the need to keep the truth of Henrietta's "crimes" thoroughly buried. And it appears they succeeded.

    btw -- what's the source of the lovely portrait?

  2. Hang on a sec...he banished her and yet: "Barrells would go to the eldest son he had with his long time mistress."

    Hypocrite! Typical 18th century "stud". Grrrrr...

  3. Wouldn't you like to have known Henrietta, to have been one of her clandestine correspondents? Which artist did the painting please? Katherine Louise

  4. PS Thank you dunnettreader for all the luscious details!

  5. Yes, thanks dunnettreader! Henrietta looks lovely. Must say, a lot of the tarts' stories put me off marriage.

  6. in short, she was well rid of that boring and small-minded hubby of hers!
    she sounds like an amazing woman.

  7. Th portrait was by Charles d'Agar in 1745

  8. Most interesting as usual, Heather:)Talk about a way to spoil a girl's fun- poor Henrietta.

    I really love the portrait of her-the shine of the fabric is superb. Thanks:)