Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles Harley + Lady Mary Montagu Wortley

Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles Harley

Lady Mary Montagu Wortley was a lifelong friend of Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles Harley (who was later Countess of Oxford and Mortimer), with their family estates just 10 miles apart.

In this online talk, Jo Willett, the author of The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu, will tell us all about these extraordinary women.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu grew up at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire and her amazing story follows her travels across Europe. She is a key name in the history of medicine and an important early feminist.

In a courageous and highly contentious move, Lady Mary was the first person in the West to inoculate someone against smallpox. Three hundred years ago, in April 1721, she took steps to protect her three-year-old daughter during a smallpox epidemic. By championing inoculation, Lady Mary paved the way for Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccination, which has prevented millions of deaths.

Lady Mary’s friend Lady Henrietta was the second of these three successive female heirs to the Welbeck estate. Women play an important part in Welbeck’s history, and this female line of inheritance is very unusual. Lady Henrietta’s daughter, Margaret, Duchess of Portland, was next in line. Duchess Margaret developed the largest natural history collection in the country. It is easy to see how Lady Mary’s achievements may have inspired her.

Read the transcript below

“Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles Harley were friends all their lives, and also they were distant cousins. They could both claim descent from the formidable Bess of Hardwick and they were brought up on neighbouring estates Mary at Thoresby, and Henrietta at Welbeck. Mary was born Lady Mary Pierrepont in 1689. Henrietta was born Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles in 1694, so five years younger than her friend. Mary’s mother died when she was three. There had been four children in close succession, and the mother died from post-birth complications.

Mary’s father, who soon became Duke of Kingston, was a very distant and forbidding figure. He discouraged education for his daughters, but Mary and her sister Frances sneaked into the library at Thoresby and educated themselves. Henrietta’s parents encouraged her to learn Latin, unlike Mary, but her mother and father were unhappily married. Her father accused her mother of being peevish. He died when she was 17 at Welbeck after a riding accident. Mary was the oldest of four children. She had two younger sisters and a brother, William, who would die of smallpox aged only 19. Henrietta, by contrast, was an only child.

Proposals of marriage

Both fell foul of the aristocratic system of arranged dynastic marriages which were usual at the time. Lady Mary knew as soon as she met him that she could never marry her father’s choice of suitor, the wonderfully named Clotworthy Skeffington. So, she agreed to elope with Edward Wortley Montagu in August 1712, despite knowing even then that she did not love him. Her father never forgave her, and they were estranged for the rest of his life.

Lady Henrietta rejected her first serious suitor because his breath stank of alcohol. Her mother then proposed that she marry Edward Lord Harley, later Lord Oxford. Edward made the mistake of giving Henrietta’s mother some property investment advice, which put her off him forever. But the marriage went ahead in August 1713. Henrietta was19. Mother and daughter were also then forever estranged.

Marrying Edwards

So both friends married Edwards. Mary’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, defined himself as a man of business, totally different from his wife. He was made ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, but his career as a diplomat did not go well. On returning, he built up his family mining business and died as one of the wealthiest men in the country. It was during his ambassadorship to Turkey, of course, that Mary came across the process of inoculation, or engraftment, used by the Turks to protect themselves from smallpox. She was the first person to try out inoculation in the West when she had her three-year-old daughter inoculated in Twickenham, 300 years ago, in 1721.

Henrietta’s husband Edward Harley Lord Oxford, was a great bibliophile and collector. He was notoriously bad with money, and when he died in 1741, leaving Henrietta in poor straits financially, a contemporary said “his lady brought him 500,000 pounds, four of which have been sacrificed to indolence good nature and want of worldly wisdom”.

Friends and family

At a time when large families were the norm, the two friends had relatively few children, which perhaps says something about their marriages. Mary had only one son, Edward and one daughter, Mary. Her daughter was plain by her mother’s account, but diligent. She married John Stuart, Earl of Bute, who went on to become prime minister. Edward her son, four years older than his sister, caused Mary endless heartache from running away to sea to marrying a washerwoman, to forever running up debts, to being imprisoned in Paris with his second bigamous wife, and then being imprisoned for extortion.

Henrietta had one daughter, Margaret Cavendish Harley, later Duchess of Portland, who would go on herself to be a significant figure in the history of Welbeck, inheriting it from her mother. Henrietta always called her Peggy. 10 years later, Henrietta gave birth to a son, but he only lived four days. Peggy and young Mary were friends just like their mothers.

Lady Mary Montagu Wortley and Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles Harley develop a close friendship

In 1731, the Wortley Montagu’s moved house to Cavendish Square. And so from then on, they were very close friends and neighbours of Henrietta and Edward’s in London. As a teenager, Mary’s daughter, young Mary confessed to her mother, that she never understood how Mary could be such a close friend to such a dull and stupid woman, as Henrietta. Apparently, her mother told her “Lady Oxford is not shining, but she has more in her than such giddy things as you and your companions can ever discern.”

Young Mary’s criticisms are a bit harsh. Henrietta was known for being charming and empathetic and having a great capacity for friendship. But people knew Mary for her exceptional sparkling social circle and her great intellect so I can understand the criticism. But there was one particular reason for Lady Henrietta’s continued support of her friend. Lady Mary fell out, spectacularly poisonously, with her erstwhile friend, the writer, Alexander Pope. Lady Henrietta remained steadfastly loyal to her. This is despite the fact that Henrietta’s husband Edward blamed Mary and endorsed Pope.

War of words with Alexander Pope

Mary and Pope’s mutual hatred expressed itself in their writing. At one point, Mary co-wrote a poem which was particularly excoriating in its criticism of Pope, and probably published against the author’s intentions. It was co-written by Mary and her friend Lord John Hervey but many at the time thought that Mary was its sole author. A newspaper advert for its publication said it was by a lady. Edward, Henrietta’s husband, was one of the people who believed it was Mary’s work alone and went around telling everyone so. But Henrietta would not be swayed by this. The falling out with Pope was so difficult for Mary, that whenever she went to dine at the Oxford’s house, she had to check first that Pope would definitely not be there.

In 1736 Lady Mary, now in her 40s, fell head over heels in love with an Italian half her age, Francesco Algarotti. He arrived in London from Paris and was immediately heralded by the whole of London society. Mary properly invited him to her house in Twickenham to show him an ancient stone tablet that she and Wortley had brought back from Troy, during their Turkish travels. Algarotti definitely went to visit Pope’s villa in Twickenham, but Mary obviously wouldn’t have been there. And also he went to the Oxford’s library, where Henrietta may well have invited Mary to join them.

And after soon that, I’m sure Algarotti seduced Mary. Mary kept her very intense feelings secret from her friend, and from everyone else. But in 1739, she set off to mainland Europe, hoping to start a new life in Venice, living there with Algarotti as a lover. But she pretended to everyone she was simply travelling for her health.

Contempt for worthless people

She would go on to live in Italy and France and Switzerland for the next 23 years, even though she never did get to cohabit with the elusive Algarotti. Edward Lord Oxford, Henrietta’s husband died in 1741. He left his wife relatively short of funds, so she moved back to Welbeck and began the substantial task of restoring the house for future generations.

Alexander Pope died in May 1744. Mary, who was in Italy, only learned of it that August. Henrietta wrote, admitting that she hadn’t wanted to tell her friend about it in case it upset her “knowing the contempt you have for worthless people”. During this time, with Henrietta at Welbeck and Mary in Italy, their letters became increasingly important to both of them and the friendship deepened. Mary was quite lonely at this time, and she really lived for the arrival of her letters from England. Henrietta wrote to Mary on the 3rd of February 1745: “If constancy faithfulness and affection merit friendship, I have a just claim to the continuance of the happiness of yours as long as I live in this world”.

And for her part, Mary wrote to Henrietta: “It is no compliment, but a plain truth when I say that Your Ladyship is the only true friend I ever had in my life”.

A bit of an exaggeration as Lady Mary did have lots of friends, but she was making a point. Mary sometimes admitted to her friend that she would have liked to return home to England, but Henrietta wrote that back regretting that this was not possible with ease. She never knew about Algarotti, but she understood that her friend’s exile was inevitable and that her marriage was at an end.


Both friends spent their time restoring things at this point. The transformation that Henrietta was putting into train at Welbeck cost her between 26 and 27,000 pounds. On the right is Welbeck as it looked in 1743. Mary, by contrast, was living in a tiny village south of the North Italian city of Brescia. By now, Mary had fallen under the coercive control of a con man, named Count Ugolino Palazzi. She spent much of her time creating a garden on a plot of land, which he tricked her into thinking she bought from him. So yet again, the two friends had parallel lives and the image on the left is of Mary’s plan for her Italian garden.

Henrietta died in 1755. She left her old friend a bequest in her will – four hundred sequins which is about £30,000 today. Mary hit upon the idea of commissioning a ring with Henrietta’s legacy, to remember her by. At this time Palazzi saw yet another opportunity to extort money from the gullible Mary. He persuaded her would have the money sent to England on her behalf. Of course, he did no such thing and the money disappeared. He’d been deceiving her and defrauding her for about 10 years by now, but the disappearance of this ring money was the significant factor in making Mary wake up to the truth.

Return to England

She did finally escape Palazzi’s clutches, and she settled in Venice and Padua for a few years. Eventually, once her husband Wortley had died, she returned, arriving back in January 1762, knowing that she had breast cancer, and didn’t have long to live. It’s unclear whether she ever retrieved the ring that she had made with Henrietta’s legacy or whether she just commissioned another one. But however, it came about when Mary herself died seven years after Henrietta in August 1762 she bequeathed to Henrietta’s daughter Peggy, none other than a diamond ring.”


Jo Willett

Jo Willett

Jo Willett is a well-known and accomplished independent TV producer. She has worked on several successful comedy and drama shows, beginning her career on a then-new soap opera called Eastenders before moving on to executive produce shows like Pie in the Sky, Love Hurts, and the reboot of Birds of a Feather. She earned a BAFTA for A Rather English Marriage and an Emmy for Dirty Tricks.

Jo has recently started a second career writing historical biographies. Her first book, The pioneering life of Mary Wortley Montagu, was published in March 2021.