After her husband's death in 1741, the Countess retired to Welbeck. Horace Walpole summed up her later life in a paragraph which occurs in a letter written by him to Richard Bentley: "The poor woman who is just dead passed her whole widowhood, except in doing ten thousand right and just things, in collecting and monumenting the portraits and reliques of all the great families from which she descended, and which centred in her. "1

This passage does not mention her principal diversion during the fourteen years of her widowhood, namely the alteration and improvement of her ancestral seat.

In most respects the Countess of Oxford differed from her great-great-great-grandmother, Bess of Hard-wick, Countess of Shrewsbury, but she resembled her in one particular, namely her love of building. An irrepressible desire to build proves that in this particular she was a spiritual (as she was in fact a lineal) descendant of "Building Bess," who is famous for having adorned her estates with stately mansions.

Several of her account books bear as their title : "Book of Accounts for Repairing, Beautifying and Ornamenting the Ancient Seat of the Cavendishe Family at Welbeck." These books show that she was engaged in the direction of these operations from 1741 until her death; and they also show that in this connection she expended between twenty-six and twenty-seven thousand pounds.2

She found the south front of the Abbey extending east as well as west of the main part of the house. The eastern portion she removed altogether,3 but she began to rebuild the wing to the west in 1743 (as an extant inscription indicates). A bust of her, sculptured after a portrait by Kneller, occupies a niche under the cupola of that wing,4 with her initials and the dates 1743 and 1749.

Several other portions of the Abbey are dated, and it is thus possible to follow the progress of her work.

The chimney-piece in the Entrance Hall is dated 1744, and on the 7th June in that year the Countess mentions it in a letter to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She speaks of it as "a Gothic Chimney Piece designed partly from a fine one at Bolsover, but composed of great variety of English, Scotch and Irish Marbles and alabaster, and not one bit of foreign in it." This was the work of the London sculptor, Thomas Carter.

The north end of the house bears her initials H.C H. O.M. (i.e., Henrietta Cavendish Holles Countess of Oxford and Mortimer), and the date 1749. In this part of the house Lady Oxford had her own special room, which Mrs. Delany (in a letter to Mrs. Dewes, 7th September, 1756) said was generally called "the little west drawing-room above stairs."5 In 1749, Henry Watson, carver, was paid £65 10s. for the marble chimney-piece in that room.

The initials of the Countess, with the date 1751, are also found on the chimney-piece in the Gothic Hall.6 That chimney-piece was made of Roche Abbey stone. It was executed by Christopher Richardson, carver, of Doncaster, and its cost was £44 2s.

The Countess entirely transformed the appearance of the house and its surroundings. Opposite to the west front, where the road now runs, there was a range of buildings consisting of stables, gateway, porter's lodge, etc. These buildings were designed by John Smithson in 1623, and the great stable was 118ft. long and 32ft high. This range of buildings is illustrated on the ninth of Diepenbeke's plates to the Duke of Newcastle's Horsemanship, 1658. The entire structure was taken down in 1752 and 1753, and an iron palisade was substituted. Before the demolition took place, the Countess had erected what was called the Riding House Stable in a parallel line with the Riding House, which had been built by John Smithson in 1623 for William Viscount Mansfield (afterwards Duke of Newcastle). The mason employed in erecting this new stable in 1751 was William Birch, and his charges amounted to £944 14s. 2d. This building was subsequently converted into the kitchen wing, and during the great war it was used as a Red Cross Hospital.

From time to time the Countess told Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of the progress she was making with her alterations, and on the 2nd July, 1744, Lady Mary says that she is persuaded that there is nothing more conducive to health than amusements. Therefore, she continues: " I think it extreme reasonable that you should take that of embellishing your paternal seat . . . Indeed it is a sort of duty to support a place which has been so long dignify'd and distinguish'd by your ancestors, and I believe all people that think seriously, or justly, will be of that opinion ; as for others, their censure ought to be wholly disregarded, as it is impossible to be avoided. There are many in the world incapable of any other sort of conversation except that of remarking the mistakes of others, and are very often so much mistaken themselves, they blame the most praiseworthy actions."


Lady Oxford exacted precise and scrupulous obedience from her servants. It appears that on one occasion a servant, in excess of anxiety and zeal, had without authority summoned a physician to attend the Countess who was so displeased by this officious proceeding that she strictly forbade her servants ever to do anything of the kind again.

An emergency, however, arose which showed the Countess the unwisdom of allowing her attendants no discretion in such a case; for in November, 1744, she had a sudden attack of fever and pleurisy. Her servants were frightened, but they were so "punctual" to her former orders that they dared not attempt to get her any relief. "They wished for my life," the Countess tells Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, but "I was totally deprived of my senses sixteen hours, (which) made me incapable of giving orders." Fortunately, there was a guest at Welbeck at the time, namely Anastasia Robinson, Countess of Peterborough, who, as soon as she knew Lady Oxford's condition, took the responsibility of sending for Dr. Bourn, of Chesterfield, and George Mason, apothecary, of Worksop. Their prescriptions had the desired effect, and Lady Oxford was restored to health. "Lady Peterborough's being with me, I believe, was a providence," she said.


This characteristic is well illustrated by her relations with her nearest neighbour, Edward Howard, ninth Duke of Norfolk, the owner of Worksop Manor. In 1741, it was reported to the Countess that this Duke was making encroachments on the Common to the prejudice of her farm at Sloswicks, and that he was denying her right of way through his Park. The Countess intended to maintain her rights, and said to her Agent: "Though I do not love disputes, I shall never relinquish my property, or fail to assert my rights on all occasions." The Duke of Norfolk was convinced that he had right on his side, and affirmed that it was his property that was invaded by the Countess. In 1744, when it seemed likely that there would be litigation on the subject, the trustees of the Countess wisely and strongly advised that the dispute should be settled by the arbitration of two gentlemen of the county, each party appointing one. Robert Harley, one of the trustees, expressed the opinion that if the Countess was successful in a lawsuit, the thing recovered would not be worth the fiftieth part of the charge. The Countess greatly disliked the vexatious and un-neighbourly attitude of the Duke towards her, but she viewed the prospect of costly litigation with the utmost aversion, and she wished that "a priest or lawyer could be found that could reasonably influence him." His Grace, however, was not conciliatory ; he declined to do anything in prejudice of his right and property, and was of opinion that it would be best to determine the boundaries between the two estates by legal methods. The Countess became more and more uneasy at the prolongation of the dispute, and at last resolved to end it. She accordingly wrote the following letter to her pertinacious neighbour:

Welbeck, 26th October, 1753.
My Lord Duke,
I have a great desire to live and leave my family after me (as much as in me lieth) free from all contest and disputes, and particularly with you and your family who are so near neighbours And for an instance of my earnest desire of it, and to preserve a perpetual friendship and good understanding betwixt us and our families hereafter, I am determined (if Your Grace will not determine it yourself betwixt us) to resign all my right, property and claim to the piece of ground in contest between us, and for establishing the friendship as above I resign it, and also my right and claim to the road through Your Grace's Park.
I am,
Your Grace's obedient servant,


Dean Swift was greatly concerned at the little she ate, and he expresses his concern in several of his letters. For example, writing to her husband, 28th April, 1730, he says: "I hope my Lady Oxford eats more than she did when I was a witness to her starving."


One of the hobbies of the Countess was the collecting of Snuff-boxes. They were dispersed at the Sale of the Portland Museum in 1786. Horace Walpole (in a letter to Thomas Walpole the younger, 8th April, 1786) said that there were hundreds of them, and he thought they would "sell for little more than the weight of the gold." He continues: "I once asked the Duchess to let me see them; and, after two drawersful, I begged to see no more; they were so ugly."


The Countess did not take a keen interest in political questions, and apparently she was like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who wrote to her (21st July, 1745): "I think less of politicks than most people, yet cannot be entirely insensible of the misfortunes of my country." She contented herself with using her territorial influence in the way then customary. This appears from several extant letters. For instance, in 1747 the third Duke of Devonshire wrote to her, asking her to support his son, Lord Hartington, and Sir Nathaniel Curzon, in their candidature for the county of Derby. On the 3rd July, the Countess wrote: "I had the honour of your Grace's letter dated the 1st of this instant last night, and have this morning sent to my steward of my estate in Derbyshire to take care all my tenants shall vote as Your Grace desires."

All applicants for support could not receive an answer of this kind, and an instance of the return of a negative answer occurred in 1753, when Sir Walter Blackett asked her to support Lancelot Allgood, one of the sitting members for co. Northumberland, who was threatened with opposition. On the 6th July, the Countess wrote: "I have received the favour of your letter, but send this to acquaint you that I am pre-engaged as to my interest in the county of Northumberland at the ensuing General Election." On the 15th, Sir Walter thanked her for her letter, and said that Mr. Allgood found that so many had pre-engaged themselves that he had "prudently declined any further contest."

On another occasion, she said: "Although I shall resent it from every tenant who disobeys me, yet I will not permit Mr. Tylor or any body on my account to bring me in Election bills."


In March, 1753, one of her trustees, James West, informed her that it was suggested that Parliament should, for £10,000, purchase the manuscripts that had been collected by her father-in-law and her husband. The Countess at once sent the letter to her daughter, the Duchess of Portland, desiring that she and the Duke would consider what answer should be returned, and authorizing them to act for her. In the following month the Duchess informed the Speaker of the House of Commons that the sum named was much below the value of the collection, yet she would "not bargain with the public." It was her father's wish and her mother's intention that the collection should be kept intact, and that it should be made available for the public use. Therefore, the offer would be accepted. Though nominally a sale, it was recognized as being a great public benefaction, and the Duke of Portland and his successors were empowered to appoint two Family Trustees of the British Museum.


For many years the trustees of her estates were Robert Harley, a kinsman of her husband, and James West, the antiquary and Member of Parliament. With the latter she was not altogether satisfied, as may be gathered from the following extract from a letter which she wrote to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 6th January, 1749-50: "I discharged two of the most flagrant bad Agents, receivers of the largest estates belonging to me, and I have placed two good ones in stead of them which were indulged by the trustees, particularly Mr. West, the tool of a court, whose avarice increases with his grandeur and riches, and his speaking truth—such a rarity must not be expected. I have not quarrelled with him, but restrained his power."

The trustees made no charge for expenses in connection with their execution of the trust, and on the 2nd February, 1754, the Countess told Robert Harley she would like to make him a proper requital, if he would tell her the amount of her indebtedness. He made the following answer to her letter:

Lincoln's Inn, Feb. 7, 1754.
I received the honour of your Ladyship's letter of the 2d instant. It is now almost 17 years since your Ladyship desired me to be your Trustee ; in which period of time I have endeavoured to the uttmost of my power to act for your Ladyship's interest; and if, in the multiplicity of business that has passed through my hands in that time, I have succeeded to your satisfaction, and for your service, the ends I had in view are answered, and shall allways think my time well employed when it is usefull to your Ladyship and your family.

Though your Ladyship's generosity to all who serve you is well known, a view to profit was not my motive to undertake and execute this employment. I can make no demand, but hope your Ladyship will approve of the long and hearty services of,
Your Ladyship's most Obedient Humble Servant,

The Countess thanked him for his letter, for all his "ready and kind endeavours" in her service, and for his good advice which had been to her "great satisfaction." She told him that she had already bequeathed to him a legacy of £1,200, and that she should make an additional codicil to her will, leaving him £800 more.

(1) Mrs. Paget Toynbee's edition of Walpole's Letters, iii. 448. The date there assigned to the letter is August, 1756.
(2) Mrs. Delany was not speaking by the books when she wrote to Mrs. Dewes, 7 September, 1756: "the alterations Lady Oxford made in this place cost above forty thousand pounds."
(3) It was standing in 1750, when Ignatius Stanley made a plan of Welbeck.
(4) This wing bears the following inscription: "This Wing injured by fire Oct. v. MDCCCC was reconstructed by William Arthur Duke of Portland, K.G., MDCCCCII."
(5) Now called the North Closet.
(6) Writing to Lord Titchfield, 2 June, 1750, the Countess says: "The Hall when done will be very magnificent and beautiful. Excuse my vanity."