HOWE, Richard, 4th Visct. Howe [I] (1726-99), of Langar, nr. Nottingham

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



23 May 1757 - 20 Apr. 1782

Family and Education

b. 19 Mar. 1726, 2nd surv. s. of Emanuel Scrope, 2nd Visct. Howe [I] M.P., bro. of George Augustus, 3rd Visct., Hon. William, and Hon. Thomas.  educ. Westminster 1732-3; Eton 1735-40.  m. 10 Mar. 1758, Mary, da. and coh. of Chiverton Hartopp of Welby, Leics., 3da.  suc. bro. as 4th Visct. 6 July 1758; cr. Visct. Howe [GB] 20 Apr. 1782; Earl Howe [GB] Aug. 1788; K.G. 2 June 1797.

Offices Held

Entered R.N. 1739; lt. 1745; capt. 1746; r.-adm. 1770; v.-adm. 1776; adm. 1782; adm. of the fleet 1796.

Ld. of Admiralty Apr. 1763-July 1765; P.C. 26 July 1765; treasurer of the navy July 1765-Apr. 1766, July 1766-Jan. 1770; naval c.-in-c. America Feb. 1776-July 1778; first ld. of Admiralty Jan.-Apr. 1783, Dec. 1783-July 1788.


During the seven years’ war Howe served on the expeditions to Rochfort, St. Malo, and Cherbourg; and fought with distinction at Quiberon Bay. His courage and powers of leadership won him high reputation in the navy. In 1757 he was returned to Parliament on the Admiralty interest at Dartmouth, and counted as a regular Government supporter. He was at sea when the peace preliminaries were debated, and his attitude to Bute’s Administration is not known. Under the Grenville Administration he took office as a lord of the Admiralty.

There was a strong vein of independence in Howe’s character; taciturn and reserved, he had no close political connexions. The politician he most admired was Pitt, the great war leader. He spoke frequently in the House, and was heard with respect. He supported the Opposition in the debate on general warrants of 17-18 Feb. 1764—‘Lord Howe’s speaking as well as leaving us had a bad effect’, wrote James Harris; but this was an isolated vote—he attended the meeting at Grenville’s house on 8 Jan. 1765 as one of the Government men of business. He was promoted by the Rockingham Administration treasurer of the navy; which he resigned at the end of April 1766, ‘declaring he could not cooperate unless Mr. Pitt was minister’.1

He was restored by Pitt in July 1766, and voted regularly with the Chatham and Grafton Administrations: on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, the nullum tempus bill, 17 Feb. 1768, and the Middlesex election. When Chatham returned to Opposition in January 1770, Howe resigned; but never recanted his vote on the Middlesex election, as did some followers of Chatham. On the royal marriage bill, March 1772, he was classed by Robinson as ‘doubtful’. On 9 Feb. 1773 he presented the petition of the naval captains on half-pay, but was classed in the King’s list of the division as a friend to Government; and similarly on 25 Feb. 1774, when he voted for making Grenville’s Election Act permanent.

Howe supported the Government’s punitive measures against the colonies; and described the bill to restrain the trade of New England ‘as the only moderate means of bringing the disobedient provinces to a sense of their duty without involving the Empire in all the horrors of a civil war’ (6 Mar. 1775). On 20 Nov. 1775 he declared in the House that ‘if it was left to his choice he certainly should decline to serve’ in the war; ‘but if he was commanded, it was his duty to obey and he could not refuse to serve’.2 In fact Government had already approached him about taking a command in America.

Two difficulties stood in the way of his accepting. He objected to Shuldham’s appointment to a separate command in the St. Lawrence.

Lord Howe looks upon this measure [North wrote to the King on 2 Feb. 17763] as materially disgraceful to him, and is very jealous of Lord Sandwich, thinking that he does not wish him well, and doubtful that he would not give him a proper support if he took the command of the fleet. The appointment of Lord Howe, which begun to get wind, had a very good effect in the public, but, if it is now laid aside, the consequences will be much worse than if it had never been in agitation.

The King persuaded Sandwich to agree to Howe’s wishes: his promotion was ante-dated, and he was appointed sole naval commander-in-chief in North American waters.

The second difficulty arose from the Government’s wish to send a commission to negotiate with the Americans. Howe insisted that he and his brother William (who was to command the army in America), should be appointed sole commissioners, and disagreed with Germain about their instructions. He wrote to Germain on 26 Mar. 1776:4

Lord Howe always flattered himself the intentions of Government were that he should be authorized upon his arrival to hold forth to the Americans, in the mildest though firmest manner, the most favourable terms that Government mean to grant, in order to induce them to lay down their arms and return to their duty.
But observing that a method directly the reverse is now ordered to be pursued, it is with infinite concern he finds himself obliged to confess that he is disqualified from engaging as a commissioner in the execution of instructions framed on that plan.

‘If Lord Howe would give up being a commissioner’, the King wrote to North on 13 Apr.,5 ‘I should think it better for himself as well as the service.’ But Howe was insistent, and Wedderburn intervened with Germain in his favour, 24 Apr. 1776:6

I am persuaded Lord Howe will have the commission for this reason if there were no other, because at this moment ... no other person has been thought of. I believe, too, that he wishes to have it ... Except the point of being sole commissioner, in which he has prevailed, every other point that he has contended for affords some reasons for relying on his honour in the discharge of it, for he would not be very anxious about the terms of his instructions if he did not mean to be guided by them ... If Lord Howe means to execute as far as he can the intentions of Government, it is the best measure to place confidence in him.

Howe arrived in America after the Declaration of Independence had been signed, which vitiated all prospect of his success as commissioner. There was some criticism of his inactivity as naval commander, but success at sea would not have ended the American war. He gained no éclat from his command, and it was no surprise that he asked to be recalled with his brother.

Howe returned to England in October 1778, and joined with his brother in a demand for an inquiry into their conduct in America. In December 1778, when it was proposed to appoint Sandwich secretary of state, Howe was suggested for first lord of the Admiralty. It ‘seems much for the advantage of my service’, the King wrote to North on 12 Dec.; and on 28 Dec., with reference to the inquiry: ‘It would remove all that altercation which, if he is not during the recess satisfied, will take up the time of Parliament from business more useful.’ On 19 Jan. 1779 North wrote to the King:

Lord Clarendon told Lord North yesterday at court that Lord Howe’s most earnest wish was to see some military preferment or distinction conferred upon his brother, which might mark that his Majesty did not disapprove of his services. He added that such a promotion would he believes put all ideas of inquiry out of his head as well as his brother’s.7

On 4 Feb. North was authorized to offer Howe the Admiralty. ‘I must expect’, wrote the King, ‘an explicit declaration that he will zealously concur in prosecuting the war in all the quarters of the globe.’ North had a conversation of two and a half hours with Howe that evening, but the result was unsatisfactory. ‘I think I clearly see he means to decline’, wrote the King to Weymouth on 6 Feb. Howe named ‘four circumstances which he thought necessary to enable him to be of use to his Majesty’s service’.8 What these were is not stated but it is probable that they included the dismissal of Germain and the abandonment of offensive warfare in America. After a further long conversation with North on 8 Feb., Howe definitely declined.

Howe had not hitherto intervened in the dispute between Keppel and Palliser, although on 16 Dec. 1778 he had given some indication of his opinion when he seconded the bill to allow Keppel’s court martial to be held on shore. On 19 Feb. 1779 he came out into the open, and seconded Admiral Pigot’s motion for an address to the King to dismiss Palliser. Yet at the end of February the Admiralty was again offered to him, and again rejected.9 On 3 Mar. he spoke for Fox’s motion on Keppel, and on 8 Mar. made an important contribution to the debate on Fox’s motion of censure against the Admiralty. The Admiralty’s measures, he said, were ‘weak, incapable, and if longer permitted or pursued must terminate in the destruction of the naval power of this country’. He protested that ‘he was deceived into his command, that he was deceived while he retained it, that, tired and disgusted, he desired permission to resign’; and declared he would not serve again while the present ministers were in office.10 ‘Lord Howe may now be ranked in Opposition’, wrote the King to North on 9 Mar.11

Howe voted regularly with Opposition until the fall of North. He aided his brother in the conduct of the inquiry into their command in America, and his speeches in the House were nearly all on naval questions. At the general election of 1780 Arthur Holdsworth, hitherto Government manager at Dartmouth but now in control on his own account, returned Howe against the wish of Government. The tone of Howe’s speeches against the Admiralty became increasingly bitter, but he continued to remain aloof from both Opposition parties. On 6 Feb. 1782 he

urged that the navy could not have been worse managed than it had been under the present commission; but still, if the first commissioner should be replaced in consequence of a vote of censure passed by the House, he did not see by whom he should be replaced.

He ended his speech by stressing ‘the necessity of union’.12

When the Rockingham Administration was formed in March 1782 Howe was created a British peer and appointed commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet. His greatest naval triumphs were yet to come—his relief of Gibraltar in 1783, and his victory on ‘the glorious first of June’ in 1794. Though generally reckoned unsuccessful as an administrator, he ranks with Anson, Hawke, and Rodney as one of the greatest seamen of the century.

Howe died 5 Aug. 1799.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, ii. 231.
  • 2. Almon, i. 291; iii. 200.
  • 3. Fortescue, iii. 335-6.
  • 4. HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 26.
  • 5. Fortescue, iii. 351.
  • 6. HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 29.
  • 7. Fortescue, iv. 231, 239, 261.
  • 8. Ibid. 267-8.
  • 9. Ibid. 293.
  • 10. Almon, xii. 76-78.
  • 11. Fortescue, iv. 302.
  • 12. Debrett, v. 427.