Lady Harriet Howard was born on 21 May 1806 and was the third daughter of George Howard, 6th Earl of Carlisle, and Lady Georgiana Cavendish.
On 28 May 1823, Harriet married her cousin George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, Earl Gower, who succeeded his father as second Duke of Sutherland in 1833. George was twenty years older than Harriet but their marriage was a happy one and they had four sons and seven daughters.
When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, Harriet was her first Mistress of the Robes and held the post whenever the Whigs were in power until the death of her husband. Harriet and Queen Victoria became close friends and the duchess was one of the few allowed near the queen after the death of Prince Albert. As a widow herself, the queen felt Harriet understood what she was going through.
Aided by her friendship with Queen Victoria and her family’s wealth, Harriet used her position to undertake many philanthropic causes and became a staunch anti-slavery supporter. Harriet and her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, helped to write a letter titled An Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women of Great Britain and Ireland to Their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America, a petition signed by 562,848 British women calling for an end to slavery. The petition was sent to the American abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe who formed a close friendship with both women and took advantage of their position to meet prominent politicians when she stayed in England.
The duchess’ last public appearance was at the Prince of Wales’ marriage in 1863 after which she was afflicted by an illness which gradually weakened her health until she died on 27 October 1868. She was interred in the mausoleum of the Dukes of Sutherland at Trentham.
Harriet’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, married George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, in 1844 and their son, John, would marry Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Louise, in 1871.