Jean Plaidy

Courting Her Highness


Then the attention of Lady Marlborough was called to her impecunious relations, the Hills, she looked upon the entire subject as a trivial inconvenience, although later—much later—she came to realize that it was one of the most—perhaps the most—important moments of her brilliant career.

In the first place it was meant to be an insult, but one which she had brushed aside as she would a tiresome gnat at a picnic party.

The occasion had been the birthday of the Princess Anne, and on that day Her Highness’s complete attention had been given to her son, the young Duke of Gloucester. Anne’s preoccupation with that boy, although understandable, for he was the only one of her children who had survived after countless pregnancies—at least Lady Marlborough had lost count, for there must have been a dozen to date—was a source of irritation. Before the boy’s birth, Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough, had become accustomed to demanding the whole of the Princess’s attention, and the friendship between them was the wonder and speculation of all at Court; when they were together Anne and Sarah were Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman respectively, because Anne wished there to be no formality to mar their absolute intimacy. But since the boy had been born, although the friendship had not diminished, Anne’s first love was for her son, and when she went on and on about “my boy” Sarah felt as though she could scream.

Thus it had been at the birthday celebrations; the boy was to have a formal introduction to the Court, and for the occasion Anne had ordered that a special costume be made for him; and she had had the absurd idea of decking him out in her own jewels. Anne herself did not greatly care for ceremonial occasions; she was far more comfortable reclining on her couch, with a cup of chocolate in her hand or a dish of sweetmeats beside her, entertaining herself with the cards or gossip. But she wanted “my boy” as she, to Sarah’s exasperation, constantly referred to him, to look magnificent.

Poor little wretch! thought Sarah, who delighted in applying terms of contempt to persons in high places. He needed to be adorned. When she compared him with her own handsome son—John after his father—who was a few years older than the young Duke, she wanted to crow with triumph. In fact it was all she could do to prevent herself calling Anne’s attention to the difference in the two boys. When she brought young John to Court, as she intended to quite soon, Anne would see for herself what a difference there was between the two.

But young Gloucester, in spite of his infirmity, was a bright boy. He was alert, extremely intelligent, and the doctors said that the fact that he suffered from water on the brain, far from harming his mind, made it more alert; and so it seemed. He was old for his years; sharp of wits, and to see him drilling the ninety boys in the park whom he called his army, was one of the sights of the Court. All the same, his head was too big for his body and he could not walk straight unless two attendants were close beside him. He was the delight and terror of his parents’ life—and no wonder.

There he was on this occasion in a coat of blue velvet, the button-holes of which were encrusted with diamonds; and about his small person were his mother’s jewels. Over his shoulder was the blue ribbon of the Garter which Sarah could never look on without bitterness; she had so wanted the Garter for her dear Marl, her husband, who, she believed, was possessed of genius and could rule the country if he only had a chance. Therefore to see the small figure boasting that he was already a Knight of the Garter was a maddening sight; but when she looked at the white periwig, which added a touch of absurdity, and thought of that huge head beneath it, she was thankful that even if Marlborough had been denied the Garter, even if Dutch William was keeping him in the shadows, at least she had a healthy family; and it was only a matter of waiting for the end of William before, with Anne’s coming to the throne, they were given what they deserved.

In the royal nursery young Gloucester had displayed the jewel which the King had given him; it was St. George on horseback set with diamonds, a magnificent piece; and it was certainly not William’s custom to be so generous. But like everyone else at Court he had an affection for the little boy who, with his charming eccentricities, had even been able to break through the King’s reserve.

“His Majesty gave me this,” he said, “when he bestowed the Garter on me. He put on the Garter with his own hands which I assure you is most unusual. It is because he holds me in such regard. Am I not fortunate. But I shall repay His Majesty. Look here, Mamma, this is the note I am sending him.”

Anne had taken the note and Sarah, with the boy’s governess, Lady Fitzharding, had looked over her shoulder as she read:

“I, Your Majesty’s most dutiful subject, had rather lose my life in Your Majesty’s cause than in any man’s else, and I hope it will not be long ere you conquer France. We, your Majesty’s subjects, will stand by you while we have a drop of blood.


Anne had smiled and looked from Barbara Fitzharding to Sarah. Besottedly, thought Sarah. It was true the boy was precocious—but he was a child. And when he offered his soldiers—boys of his own age with toy muskets and swords to the King—it was a joke and nothing more. But even grim William gravely accepted these offers and came to Kensington to review the small troops. Perhaps, thought Sarah sardonically, this was not so foolish as it seemed; for it was only on such occasions, with the crowd looking on, that he managed to raise a cheer for himself.

“I am sure the King will be delighted,” Anne had said.

“Doubtless he will think I am a little too fine,” mused Gloucester thoughtfully. “But my loyalty may help to divert his impatience with my finery.”

The Princess Anne had rolled her eyes in ecstasy. Was there ever such a boy! What wit! What observation! What a King he would make when his turn came!

When he had left them they had had to listen to accounts—heard many times before—of his wit and wisdom. Sarah was impatient, but Barbara Fitzharding was almost as besotted as the Princess; and there they had sat, like two old goodies, talking about this wonderful boy.

It was later when Sarah and Barbara were together, that Sarah gave way to her impatience.

“I do not think the King cared for all that display,” she commented, a smile which was almost a sneer turning up a corner of her mouth.

“He is, I believe, truly fond of his nephew,” Barbara replied. “And he is not fond of many people.”

“There are his good friends, Bentinck and Keppel—Bentinck the faithful and Keppel the handsome—and of course his mistress.”

Sarah looked slyly at Barbara, for it was her sister, Elizabeth Villiers, who had been William’s mistress almost since the beginning of his marriage to the time of the Queen’s death. The Queen had left a letter which had been opened after her death reproaching William and asking him to discontinue the liaison, and which had so shaken the King that he had left Elizabeth alone for a long time. Sarah believed, though, that the relationship had been resumed—very secretively; and Barbara, a spy reporting everything to her sister who passed it on to William, would know if this were so.

“He is so very ill these days,” said Barbara. “I doubt whether he has the time or energy for diversions.”

“His gentlemen friends remain at his side. I hear they enjoy themselves on Hollands Gin in the Hampton Banqueting House. He still finds time—and energy—to indulge his Dutchmen.”

“But he is looking more frail every week.”

“That is why it was a mistake to dress Gloucester up in all that finery. It was almost proclaiming him Prince of Wales before his mother is Queen.”

“I wonder,” said Barbara with a hint of sarcasm, “that you did not warn his mother since she would most assuredly listen to you.”

“I did warn her.”

“And she disobeyed?” Veiled insolence! Sarah had never liked Barbara Fitzharding since the days when as young Barbara Villiers she had lived with the circle of girls, Sarah among them, who had been brought up by Barbara’s mother, with the young Princesses Anne and Mary in Richmond Palace.

“She is so besotted about that boy.”

“He is her son.”

“He is being pampered. I would not let one of mine be indulged as he is.”

Was this a reflection on Barbara’s governess-ship? Barbara disliked Sarah Churchill—who at Court did not?—and although she might rule the Princess Anne’s household, Barbara was not going to allow her to interfere in that of the Duke of Gloucester.

“He is by no means indulged. He merely happens to be an extremely intelligent boy. In fact, I have never known one more intelligent.”

“Have you not? I must invite you to St. Albans one day and you shall meet my children.”

Barbara laughed. “Everything you have must naturally be better than other people’s.”

“Must always be? What do you mean by that? My children are strong, healthy, intelligent, which is not to be wondered at. Compare their father with that … oaf … I can call him nothing else … who goes around babbling ‘Est-il possible?’ to everything that is said to him! Prince George of Denmark! I call him Old Est-il-Possible! And when I do everyone knows to whom I refer.”

“One would think you were the royal Princess—Her Highness, your servant,” said Barbara. “You ought to take care, Sarah Churchill. You should think back to the days when you first joined us at Richmond. You were fortunate, were you not, to find a place there? It was the greatest good luck … for you. You must admit that you were not of the same social order as the rest of us. We were noble and you …”