People of the bedchamber

People of the bedchamber

A fascinating cast of characters are featured in the exhibition
Only the most privileged courtiers would gain access to the real corridor of power – the royal bedchamber. Who negotiated the rules of court – and succeeded?

Find out more about some of the key characters - courtiers, mistresses, royal friends and confidantes - featured in the exhibition.

Sophia, Countess of Darlington
Lord Bothmer
Melusine von der Schulenburg
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
Lord Hervey
Molly Lepell

Mme. Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg- ‘Countess of Darlington’

Mme Sophia Von Kielmansegg was King George I’s German half-sister and his alleged mistress.
Horace Walpole’s description of Sophia leaves us in little doubt why the English nicknamed her ‘the elephant’:

‘fierce black rolling eyes, acres of chins, spread with crimsons, ocean of neck overflowed and was not distinguished from the lower part of her body, and no part restrained by stays’
George was known to like the larger lady, as Lord Chesterfield remarked: ‘No woman was amiss if she was but very willing, very fat and had great breasts’!

Sophia did wield considerable influence over George which perhaps explains why his daughter-in-law, Caroline Princess of Wales, could not stand Sophia, describing her as ‘a wicked woman’.

Lord Bothmer

Bothmer was a German Count and an experienced diplomat who played an important role in negotiating the Hanoverian succession.

After George became king, Bothmer became one of his principal ministers – renowned for his sage advice and loyalty.

George I and his son George II endured a notoriously rocky relationship. Bothmer was often sent in to negotiate with George’s son and daughter-in-law during their periods of hostility.

Bothmer was also socially ambitious and it was thought that he made a small fortune from his privileged position. However, he actually lived in relatively modest circumstances in London so perhaps did not make as much money as believed.

Madame Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg

Melusine was George I’s long term mistress who travelled with him from Hanover in 1714.

Her pliant and patient nature ensured she stayed in favour with the king and, in the absence of a Queen she was, according to one bedchamber lady, ‘in effect, as much Queen of England as ever any was’.

In contrast to ‘the elephant’, Melusine was very tall and thin which earned her the nickname the ‘Maypole’ by the English and ‘the Scarecrow’ by George’s mother.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

Sarah ChurchillSarah Churchill was the powerful wife of the great military commander, the Duke of Marlborough, and former Groom of the Stole to Queen Anne.

Sarah Churchill was a woman of extraordinary energy and brilliant intellect. She had a tumultuous court career. She fell out spectacularly with her former friend Queen Anne and was dismissed from court before being accepted again under the Hanoverians.

Sarah was too self-righteous to maintain a position at court through flattery and subterfuge, but her ambition and ability kept her near the centre of British political life for seventy years.

Lord Hervey

Lord Hervey was Queen Caroline’s Vice-Lord Chamberlain and close friend. He greatly admired the Queen. He also loved intrigue and in 1720, secretly married Caroline’s maid of honour Molly Lepell.
Lord Hervey was openly bisexual and proudly androgynous. He enjoyed provoking reactions by striking feminine attitudes and behaviours. Because of this he was the frequent target of salacious gossip and humour. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed that humankind was divided into three sexes: men, women, and Herveys.

Hervey’s dashing appearance was accentuated by his insistence on wearing copious amounts of white powder on his face – possibly to disguise an earlier disfigurement.

Molly Lepell

Molly LepellMolly was Maid of Honour to Caroline. She was nicknamed ‘the Schatz’, German for ‘treasure’.
She was renowned for her beauty, her elegant figure, her big grey 'soft and sprightly' eyes and her lustrous skin. Sprightly and fun-loving as well as being well educated and intelligent, Molly learnedto carefully disguised her learnedness at court.

She secretly married Lord Hervey in 1720. Married maids were forced to relinquish their positions, something Molly could not afford to do. After marriage, and perhaps as a result of her husband’s infidelities, Molly missed the chase and scandal of being pursued by men.

‘Bright Venus yet never sat bedded,
So perfect a beau and a belle,
As when Hervey the handsome was wedded,
to the beautiful Molly Lepell,
- Chesterfield and Pulteney

Image credits

Henrietta Howard
Dudley Ryder
Lord Chesterfield
John Gay
John Arbuthnot

Henrietta Howard

Henrietta HowardHenrietta Howard, later Countess of Suffolk, was the long-term mistress and confidante of King George II.  Born into the distinguished noble family of Hobart in 1689, she made a disastrous marriage to Charles Howard which plunged her into poverty and disgrace. Ever resourceful, Henrietta rescued the couple’s fortunes by undertaking an expedition to Hanover in 1714 to ingratiate herself with the future royal family. The audacious plan worked, and she was appointed Woman of the Bedchamber to Caroline, Princess of Wales. 

Henrietta soon became a star of the court. Renowned for her intellect and wit, she counted some of the greatest literary figures of the age as her closest friends.  'I know a reasonable woman, Handsome and witty, yet a friend,' wrote Alexander Pope in his poem On A Certain Lady at Court. Jonathan Swift based one of his characters in Gulliver’s Travels on her, and she was said to have advised John Gay on a satire he wrote about the court.

George, Prince of Wales, took Mrs Howard as his mistress in around 1718. It was an affair borne not of passion but of convenience. George was passionately in love with his wife, but he believed that a mistress was a ‘necessary appurtenance to his grandeur as a prince.’ 

Despite its lack of passion – or even affection – the affair would last for almost twenty years, becoming one of the longest in royal history. Henrietta relieved the tedium of her life at court by listening to the gossip of her friends and fellow servants. Renowned for her discretion, she was nicknamed ‘The Swiss’, and could be trusted with even the most scandalous tales. One of her confidantes was Molly Lepell.

Henrietta became increasingly desperate to escape her life at court, though, and when she was embroiled in a political scandal in 1734, she finally had her opportunity. She retired to Marble Hill, the beautiful Thames-side house she had built in Twickenham several years before, and married – for love – the amiable and accomplished George Berkeley. Together they established their home as such a glittering social centre that it even rivalled the court itself. 

- Tracy Borman, author of Henrietta Howard: King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant

Dudley Ryder

Dudley Ryder was an aspiring law student when George I came to the throne. He eventually rose to a position of power as Lord Chief Justice but early in his career he frequented court, sometimes unsuccessfully, in an attempt to gain power and patronage.

Dudley did not possess the ease and grace that were required of a good courtier and instead placed great emphasis on ensuring he had the right clothes and manners. He thought himself awkward in his movements and was highly critical of his excessive gaiety when he was dancing.

Lord Chesterfield

Chesterfield was one of Prince George’s Gentlemen of the Bedchamber. He was a shrewd observer of society and a stickler for good conduct, deportment and etiquette. He held several important positions at court and was eager to make a mark in politics and society, and as a patron of the arts. He also made a lucrative marriage with the king’s unacknowledged daughter by his mistress Madame Schulenburg.

Despite his skill as a social climber, Chesterfield was not blessed in the looks department. Lord Hervey described him ‘as disagreeable as it was possible for a human figure to be without being deformed… He was very short, disproportioned, thick and clumsily made; had a broad, rough-featured ugly face, with black teeth, and a head big enough for a polyphemus’.

Although not a handsome man, Chesterfield’s intellect and humour more than made up for this. Dr Johnson described him as ‘lord among wits’ and even Hervey admitted that he had ‘more conversable entertaining table-wit than any man of his time’.

John Gay

John GayJohn Gay was a poet and playwright who became part of the court literati. He spent most of his youth ingratiating himself with wealthy patrons and attempting to obtain a place at court in the hope of finding some financial security. He shamelessly flattered Queen Caroline and her courtiers.
Gay became good friends with Henrietta Howard who chided him for his futile search for a court office. She encouraged him to exercise his true talents as a writer, ‘Your head is your best friend,’ she told him.

John Gay liked the easy and pleasurable life. By his own admission, he was fat and disliked exercise.
‘Plump as a partridge was I known,
And soft as silk my skin;
My cheeks as fat as butter grown […]’

Dr John Arbuthnot

John ArbuthnotDr Arbuthnot was the eminent former physician to Queen Anne and a political writer. He was also a great mathematician. Upon Anne’s death he remained at court although he assumed the role of political writer rather than Doctor in his later years. His humanity was praised by Swift who wrote, ‘He has more wit than we all have and his humanity is equal to his wit’. At court was he good friends with Molly Lepell and Henrietta Howard.

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