Who was Harriet, duchess of Sutherland?

Painting of the Duchess of Sutherland

Harriet Elizabeth Georgiana Leveson-Gower [nee Howard], duchess of Sutherland, was born on 21 May 1806 into the Howard family, earls of Carlisle, one of the great Whig families of the age. Her grandmother was the famous Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire and on 28 May 1823, Harriet extended her Whig connections and wealth by marrying George Granville Leveson-Gower, later the second duke of Sutherland. Described as ‘large, boisterous and charming’ Harriet became of the great society hostesses of the age, a close friend of Queen Victoria, a patron of good causes and a driving force in re-building the Sutherland properties, including Cliveden.

Political hostess

Harriet was one of the foremost political hostesses of the early Victorian era, and pioneered the country house weekend as a vehicle for political collaboration and debate. She was far more interested in politics than her husband, the second duke.

Her closest political friend was W. E. Gladstone, later Liberal prime minister. Their bond formed through shared views and ideals such as a religious perspective on public and political affairs, an interest in literature and concern that Queen Victoria was alienating the British public in her widowhood.

Courtier in chief

Harriet had strong views on the Queen’s behaviour after the death in 1861 of the Prince Consort, Albert, due to her position as the Queen’s friend and mistress of the robes. This role entailed attendance on the Queen on ceremonial occasions, and more informally.

Anti-slavery and other Whig causes

Harriet held strong religious principles, and funnelled these into a number of political and charitable causes, giving substantially throughout her life.

She was most famous for her championing of the cause of anti-slavery in the United states of America, in 1853 hosting the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, when she visited Britain.

More controversially, she also publically supported the Italian patriot Garibaldi, hosting him when he visited Britain in 1863, despite the disapproval of the Queen.

Builder of dreams

In marrying into the Sutherland family, western Europe’s largest landowners at this time, Harriet had immense resources at her command. She was the driving force behind a significant re-building and refurbishment programme along the Sutherland properties, including the purchase in 1849 of Cliveden and its re-building after a fire.

Influence and legacy

Harriet was one of the most influential women of her age in London and elite society, with the ear of both the political establishment and the Queen. She used that influence primarily for the good, supporting liberal causes and patronising many charities.

She also knew how to spend money for the aggrandisement of her family, and she came under criticism for this, particularly when her wealth was compared to the poverty of the family’s many tenants in the north of Scotland, the legacy of which rumbles on today in the form of land reform legislation.

Lady Harriet Elizabeth Georgiana Howard, Countess Gower, later Duchess of Sutherland, attributed to Anne Mee, c.1828

Harriet in our collections 

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