Regular readers will know that I spend a lot of time at Marble Hill House where Henrietta Howard lived from 1734 until her death in 1767. Marble Hill became the centre of a circle of some of the leading writers of the day, including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay, who wrote the Beggars’ Opera.

John Gay’s portrait hangs in Marble Hill alongside a painting of King George II and one of the Duchess of Queensbury.

A tale of political mischief-making links the three paintings and a musical that I went to see last week.

Following the success of The Beggar’s Opera in 1728, John Gay wrote a sequel, Polly. However, Walpole, the prime minister, was scandalised by the satirical attacks on him in The Beggar’s Opera and persuaded the Lord Chamberlain to ban Polly as a filthy and libellous work. Gay responded by having the play published by subscription in 1729, an exercise that proved very popular.

Of course, subscribing to the play was a way of expressing disapproval of the Prime Minister.

The Duchess of Queensbury (a close friend of Henrietta Howard) was a member of the Court and no fan of Walpole. She also had a wicked sense of humour. She approached the king (who had appointed Walpole) and asked him to subscribe. George (who was not terribly bright) did so.

When Queen Caroline (the brains of the outfit) found out, she was furious. The Duchess was exiled from the court. She doesn’t seem to have cared. She moved into a house just across the river from Marble Hill and she and Henrietta Howard remained great friends.

There’s a video version of this post on TikTok:

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All this took place about 60 years before we first meet James Burke fighting in the West Indies (in Burke in the Land of Silver). In many ways, the world of Henrietta Howard was very different from the world of James Burke but anyone with an interest in the Long 18th Century (yes. historians really call it that) might well enjoy James Burke. Why not give him a go?

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