HOWARD, Sir Robert (c.1598-1653), of Audley End, Essex and Clun Castle, Salop

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



1640 (Apr.)
1640 (Nov.) - 6 Sept. 1642
1644 (Oxf. Parl.)

Family and Education

b. c. Jan. 1598, 5th s. but 3rd surv. of Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk (d.1626) and 2nd w. Catherine, da. of Sir Henry Knyvet† of Charlton, Wilts.; bro. of Theophilus*, Sir Thomas*, Henry*, Sir William*, Sir Edward II*. m. 1648, Katherine, da. of Henry, 1st Lord Bergavenny (Sir Henry Neville II*) 3s., 1da.; 1s. illegit. by Frances, da. of Sir Edward Coke*, w. of John, Visct. Purbeck.1 cr. KB 3 Nov. 1616;2 suc. bro. Sir Charles 1622.3 d. 22 Apr. 1653.4

Offices Held

Patentee, k.b. fines 1617-26.5

J.p. Salop 1622-?5, 1629-42;6 commr. subsidy, Salop 1641, Poll Tax 1641, assessment 1642, array 1642.7

Col. dragoons (roy.), Salop 1642-6; gov. Bridgnorth, Salop 1645-6.8


Despite his august lineage, Howard was a younger son with no realistic expectations of landed inheritance during his early years. However, the influence of his father, lord treasurer Suffolk, secured him a knighthood of the Bath, and a lucrative patent for collection of fines in King’s Bench, while in 1617 he was tipped as a prospective match for Sir Edward Coke’s* younger daughter, Frances. Suffolk’s disgrace in July 1618 constituted a major setback for his younger sons, who gave further offence by their cheerful demeanour at Court when the king fell sick some months later. However, Sir Robert’s prospects were transformed by the death of his brother Sir Charles in 1622, whereupon he inherited the lordship of Clun in south-west Shropshire, a property entailed upon Suffolk’s younger sons by their great-uncle Henry Howard, earl of Northampton.9

The Clun estate included the manor of Bishop’s Castle, purchased by Northampton in 1609, and Sir Robert represented the borough in the Commons from 1624;10 he was never a very active Member, and left no trace on the records of the 1624 or 1625 sessions. However, the cover of parliamentary privilege proved useful early in 1625, when he was accused of adultery with Frances Coke, by then the unhappy wife of the duke of Buckingham’s deranged younger brother John, Viscount Purbeck. In October 1624 Lady Purbeck bore a son, christened Robert Wright, and while her feeble-minded husband claimed paternity, Howard, her intimate companion, was widely suspected as the father, despite his mother’s claim that he was impotent. At Buckingham’s instigation, Howard and Lady Purbeck were committed to the custody of (separate) London aldermen, and an inquiry uncovered ample evidence of an illicit relationship.11

Howard’s family secured his release on bail after the conclusion of the investigation, but a trial was quickly arranged before High Commission. Howard, appearing on 5 Mar., refused to take the ex officio oath routinely tendered to witnesses before the court, and was committed close prisoner in the Fleet. He declined the oath a second time on 10 Mar., when the commissioners belatedly discovered that they could not fine him, leaving them with no threat beyond ‘the rusty sword of the church, excommunication’. To add to the commissioners’ discomfiture, he claimed parliamentary privilege: with the Commons due to meet only five days later for a brief prorogation session, lord keeper Williams agreed to his release, pending proof of his status. However, when the court reconvened on 17 Mar., the Chancery certificate of his return was dismissed by Williams and lord president Manchester (Sir Henry Montagu*) as ‘of no worth, being no record’, and consequently he was censured for contumacy. His excommunication was published at Paul’s Cross on 20 March.12

Howard was released following his excommunication, and though technically an outcast, he was returned for Bishop’s Castle once again only a month later. With war, plague and a new monarch to divert attention, the Commons overlooked his failed privilege claim on this occasion, but the 1626 Parliament, with Buckingham in its sights from the outset, viewed his cause as a convenient source of embarrassment for the duke. Sir John Monson raised the issue on 17 Feb., when John Selden not only showed from precedent that privilege issues arising in one Parliament could be investigated by another, but also observed that Howard’s status as an excommunicate made the entire House liable to the penalties of lesser excommunication for keeping his company. The case was referred to committee, and Howard was excused from the corporate communion arranged for 19 February. Meanwhile, the House underlined its hostility to ecclesiastical jurisdiction by scheduling a first reading for a bill to abolish the ex officio oath. Selden’s report of 21 Mar. persuaded the House to grant Howard privilege, while MPs who had sat upon High Commission when it passed sentence against him were ordered to explain themselves. This examination took place on 29 Apr. and 3 May, when the commissioners’ registrar was instructed to raze the proceedings against Howard from his records, an order which was accomplished before the dissolution.13

Howard’s questionable status as a member of the 1626 Parliament precluded any significant activity on his part. On 4 Mar. he was named to attend a conference with the Lords about the Commons’ summoning of Buckingham to explain his actions over the detention of the French ship the St. Peter of Le Havre, which had caused a diplomatic incident. He later gave evidence about the duke’s purchase of the mastership of the horse from his brother, the 1st earl of Berkshire (Sir Thomas Howard*), but otherwise lay low during the session, pending a decision on his privilege case. His father’s death shortly before the dissolution does not appear to have affected his fortunes. In 1628 he was one of a delegation sent to the Lords about a general fast (21 Mar.), and was named to the committee for the Neville jointure bill (17 May). He was also given notice to attend the committee stage of the bill to annex the title baron of Clun to the earldom of Arundel (11 June).14 During the 1629 session he was involved in a conventional privilege case, as a result of which a protection he had granted was revoked.15

Lady Purbeck fared rather less well than her paramour, being fined 500 marks and sentenced to do public penance in November 1627, but she escaped from confinement to avoid the humiliation. Her plea for parliamentary privilege was rejected by the House of Lords in 1628, but her penance was not enforced, and she retired to the country, spending some time in Shropshire with Howard.16 When she returned to London after her father’s death in 1634, Archbishop Laud had the pair detained, and while Lady Purbeck quickly absconded to France, Howard only secured his freedom after promising never to see his lover again, under pain of a bond of £2,000. He spent much of 1636 visiting his eldest brother Theophilus*, then lord warden of the Cinque Ports, at Dover, which aroused official suspicions, but although the king made his disapproval clear, nothing could be proved. In the following year it was reported that he had converted to Catholicism, and was likely to follow his lady into exile.17

Parliamentary privilege enabled Howard to remain in England unmolested from 1640, when he was returned to the Short and Long Parliaments for Bishop’s Castle. In 1641 the Lords voted him £1,000 in compensation for his treatment by High Commission, but he was expelled from the Commons for his activities as a commissioner of array on 6 Sept. 1642. He served as a royalist colonel, maintaining a spirited defence of Bridgnorth, the last royalist garrison in Shropshire, which he surrendered on 26 Apr. 1646. He chose to compound for his estates rather than go into exile, and his fine was set at £1,475; in February 1651, having paid half, he was granted a reduction of £530, but he did not pay the balance until after the battle of Worcester had extinguished hopes of a royalist revival. He married towards the end of his life, and had several children before his death on 22 Apr. 1653. After the Restoration the Clun estate was broken up, and none of his legitimate descendants sat in Parliament, though his illegitimate son Robert (Wright) Danvers alias Villiers was returned twice, in 1659 and 1660.18

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Top. and Gen. i. 470; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), x. 44-5.
  • 2. Shaw, Knights of Eng. i. 159.
  • 3. C142/475/130.
  • 4. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), x. 45.
  • 5. C66/2092/8.
  • 6. C231/4, f. 147, 231/5, p. 21.
  • 7. SR, v. 88, 107, 155; Northants. RO, FH133.
  • 8. Bodl. Blakeway 18, ff. 103-4; CCC, 1292-3.
  • 9. C66/2092/8; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 88-90, 230; C142/475/130.
  • 10. E401/2412; C54/1995/1.
  • 11. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 599, 601; CSP Dom. 1623-5, pp. 472-4, 478-9; T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, ii. 498; G. Goodman, Court of Jas. I, ii. 376-8; Holles Letters ed. P.R. Seddon (Thoroton Soc. rec. ser. xxxv), 299, 301.
  • 12. Harl. 7000, ff. 172-4; Chamberlain Letters, ii. 605, 607-8; Procs. 1626, ii. 328-9; iii. 141-2; Stuart Royal Procs. ed. J.F. Larkin and P.L. Hughes, i. 633.
  • 13. Procs. 1626, ii. 60-5, 68, 328-34; iii. 99-105, 141-5, 148-52, 414, 445; Cent. Kent. Stud. U269/1/CP12; C115/108/8633.
  • 14. Procs. 1626, ii. 195; iii. 123, 128, 133, 135; CD 1628, ii. 42; iii. 447; iv. 236.
  • 15. HLRO, main pprs. 21 Feb. 1629.
  • 16. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, i. 296; Holles Letters, 375; Lords Procs. 1628, v. 171, 358, 361, 727; Barrington Fam. Letters ed. A. Searle (Cam. Soc. ser. 4. xxviii), 236, 239.
  • 17. PC2/44, f. 228; 2/46, f. 153v; 2/47, f. 9v; Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 390, 423, 426, 434, 447; ii. 73; Birch, Chas. I, ii. 260, 268.
  • 18. LJ, iv. 106, 113-14, 117; xi. 549, 554; CJ, ii. 755a; Bodl. Blakeway 18, ff. 39v, 103-4; CCC, 1292-3; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), x. 44-5.