De Grey, Henrietta Frances (1784–1848), Countess de Grey , political hostess and philanthropist, was born 22 June 1784 at Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, the fifth and last daughter and youngest of the ten children of William Willoughby Cole (1736–1803), 1st earl of Enniskillen, and his wife Anne, daughter of Galbraith Lowry of the neighbouring Castle Coole and only sister of Armar Lowry-Corry, 1st earl of Belmore. She was born into one of the leading families of the Irish ascendancy: her great-great-great-grandfather was Sir William Cole (qv) (d. 1653), the founder of the town of Enniskillen, and her family still retained extensive landholdings throughout Co. Fermanagh.
Her early correspondence demonstrates that she was well educated at home and could write persuasively from a young age. By 1802 she was attending the viceregal court at Dublin Castle, during the lord lieutenancy (1801–05) of Philip Yorke (qv), 3rd earl of Hardwicke, and, according to her mother, enjoyed the 'entertainment at the Castle to which Henrietta was always partial' (Enniskillen MSS, D/1702/12/3/6). Her father appointed her 'mistress of the house' (Enniskillen MSS, D/1702/12/3/8) at Florence Court because of her mother's illness that year. By the time her mother and father both died in 1803 she was a confident household manager.
In September 1803 she met Thomas Philip Weddell de Grey (qv), 3rd Baron Grantham and (from 1833) 2nd Earl de Grey, who was 'much struck by her' ('Memoirs of the Earl de Grey', p. 17). Grantham, son of Thomas Robinson, 2nd Baron Grantham, politician and statesman, proposed to her on 23 June 1805. Her brothers approved, as the Enniskillen estate had become indebted and Grantham was one of the wealthiest heirs and most well-connected bachelors in Britain at the time. Henrietta and Grantham married on 20 July 1805 at the estate of Henry Luttrell, 2nd earl of Carhampton, in Cobham, Surrey, and spent their honeymoon at Grantham's homes at Putney and the Newby estate.
Henrietta soon formed a very close bond with her husband, and their writings witness their strong mutual respect. They had five children, of whom only the first two daughters reached full maturity. Anne Florence, born on 20 August 1806, married George Augustus Frederick, Earl Cowper, and Mary Gertrude, born on 5 November 1809, married Captain Henry Vyner. The early deaths of her two sons and another daughter distressed her until the end of her life.
Her husband's upbringing by his politically outspoken and widowed mother and aunt meant that he respected the political ideas of women. As de Grey did not smoke and his wife preferred not to retire to a drawing room after dinner, Henrietta was deeply involved in male after-dinner political conversations in the library. In this atmosphere her political influence on senior politicians, with whom de Grey had connections, developed.
In particular, she began a deep, but platonic, friendship with Sir Robert Peel (qv), chief secretary for Ireland (1812–18)
and later prime minister (1834–5; 1841–6). His insights and the frustrations of
high office are revealed in their correspondence. He confided to her political and religious
opinions he did not share with his male colleagues. In 1815 their relationship was close
enough for her to chastise: 'why did you give up the Irish starch bill – am I not very
However, she opposed Peel's attempts to persuade her husband to become lord lieutenant of Ireland. De Grey, first president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, had built a splendid new house at Wrest Park, and from 1839 Henrietta enjoyed carrying out the philanthropic responsibilities of the estate owner's wife, and also entertaining her daughters and their families there. She protested that 'if we go to Ireland this great intimacy must be broken' (Peel Papers, Add. MSS, 40429).
Nevertheless, de Grey acceded to Peel's request in September 1841. As wife of the Irish lord lieutenant, she was firmly supportive of her husband; in contemporary newspapers and in de Grey's own diary she was frequently described, in reports of his activities, as being at his side. Remembering Hardwicke's court of her youth, in November 1841 she held the largest viceregal levee in Dublin since King George IV's visit in 1821, and continued to entertain on a splendid scale. The aim was to bring the different communities together and later to dissuade protestants from marching whilst Repeal 'monster meetings' were taking place. She encouraged philanthropy by example, and boosted employment in Ireland by suggesting public works, funded from the royal estates, in Phoenix Park and Dublin Castle, and schemes to promote infant industries in Dublin.
An examination of her correspondence shows she did not sympathise with Orange views and did not influence de Grey towards Orange opinions, as some contemporary newspapers alleged at the time. However she did influence his Church of Ireland appointments towards evangelical clergymen on the basis that they did more good.
In 1844, when de Grey became ill, she took over his political correspondence with Peel in late February, later negotiating de Grey's retirement and proposing Lord Heytesbury (qv), his eventual successor, as a candidate to replace him. After her husband's retirement, she remained supportive of the Peelite faction. Her diaries record her approval of Peel's policy to increase the Maynooth grant, although she had great reservations over whether Ireland would benefit from repealing the corn laws, arguing that the famine was caused by a 'scarcity of money' (Henrietta de Grey, 'Diary') instead of a food shortage.
By early 1848 her health started to decline. She died from cancer on 2 July 1848 at 4 St James's Square, London, with her husband by her side. She was buried in the de Grey mausoleum, Flitton, Bedfordshire, where she is commemorated with a tomb by the Roman catholic sculptor Terence Farrell (qv). She was outlived eleven years by her husband, who died on 14 November 1859 and was also buried in the de Grey mausoleum.
There are likenesses of Henrietta de Grey at Florence Court (oils, after T. Lawrence, 1815; miniature watercolours (2no.), E. E. Kendrick, c.1815–20), the National Portrait Gallery, London (engraving, R. A. Arlett, 1839), and National Library of Ireland (watercolour, W. Brocas).