HOWELL, James (c.1594-1666), of the King's Manor, York; later of Westminster

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



Family and Education

b. c.1594, 2nd s. of Thomas Howell, rect. of Cynwil and Abernant, Carm. educ. Hereford Free sch.; Jesus, Oxf. 1610, BA 1613.1 unm. bur. 3 Nov. 1666.2 sig. Ja[mes] Howell.

Offices Held

Steward, Broad Street glassworks, London c.1615-16.3

Fellow, Jesus Coll. Oxf. ?1619.4

Member, (Sir John Digby*) 1st earl of Bristol’s embassy to Spain, 1622-4; sec. to ld. pres. Sunderland 1626/7-30, to 2nd earl of Leicester (Sir Robert Sidney*) 1632.5

?Clerk of PC 1642-3;6 historiographer royal 1661-d.


The second son of a Welsh clergyman, Howell, like many of his countrymen, went to Jesus College, Oxford, but instead of following his father and elder brother into the church he earned a living as tutor, secretary and man of letters. Most of the details of his life must be gathered from the pages of his most famous work, the Epistolae Ho-Elianae, first published in 1645, and enlarged in several subsequent editions. Although presented as an authentic selection from Howell’s correspondence, many of the letters are misdated, or describe events which took place years apart as if they were contemporaneous. Some of the letters, particularly the longer thematic essays in later editions, were doubtless composed specially for publication, while those dated to the period before 1637 contain observations which are simply too prescient to be authentic. Yet for all this, much of the broad narrative of the Epistolae can be confirmed from other sources, and it should not be lightly dismissed.7

Howell’s first employment was as steward of a glassworks in Broad Street, London owned by Sir Robert Mansell*, the brother of his former tutor. However, he confessed himself ‘too green for such a charge’, and in about 1616 he went abroad to investigate foreign manufacturing processes, and to send samples and workmen back to London. After a two-year tour of the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy he returned home and accepted Sir Eubule Thelwall’s* offer of a fellowship at his old college, although he asked ‘permission to reserve and lay it by as a good warm garment against rough weather’, and never took up residence. His hopes for a post as secretary to the Constantinople embassy failed to materialize, and instead he was engaged as tutor to John Savage*, whom he intended to take on tour abroad. This plan was abandoned, apparently because of his misgivings about the family’s Catholicism, and so in 1620-1 he toured the Continent in the company of his friend Richard Altham, a younger son of the late Exchequer baron Sir James Altham†.8

Howell probably returned to England in the autumn of 1621, then left for Madrid with ambassador (Sir John) Digby* the following year, employed to lobby for restitution of a Levant Company ship which had been impounded in Sardinia by the Spanish authorities. There is no record of his activities in the Company’s records, and he was presumably hired privately by his correspondent, the Company’s deputy governor, Nicholas Leate. In Madrid, Howell witnessed the negotiations for a Spanish Match in 1623, during which time his commercial aims were frustrated, first by the duke of Buckingham, who did not wish to see the marriage treaty crossed by any minor disputes, then by Olivares, out of spite at the failure of the Match. Returning home in the summer of 1624, Howell discovered that his ‘Digbified’ reputation made it difficult to secure employment from the duke’s supporters. In December 1625 Secretary Sir Edward Conway I*, mindful of Howell’s language skills, offered him a roving embassy in Italy, perhaps similar to the role later undertaken by Wat Montagu, but the proposal was apparently withdrawn because Howell asked for too much money. In his Epistolae Howell printed a memorandum he claimed to have sent Buckingham on the eve of the 1626 Parliament, which urged the duke to resign as lord admiral, one of his enemies’ chief demands. Even if penned at the time, this unwelcome advice can hardly have been delivered, as Howell had within the year entered the service of one of Buckingham’s clients, Emanuel Scrope, 1st earl of Sunderland and lord president of the Council in the North.9

While he complained that the stipend he received from Sunderland never matched his expectations, Howell clearly found life at York congenial, with comfortable lodgings, servants and a horse all paid for, and an ailing and undemanding master. In 1628 Sunderland procured Howell’s return to Parliament for Richmond. According to the Epistolae he wrote to thank the burgesses for preferring him before a far more influential candidate, Christopher Wandesford*, and undertook to follow the example of the town’s senior MP, (Sir) Talbot Bowes,

in anything that may concern the welfare of your town and the precincts thereof, either for redress of any grievance, or by proposing some new thing that may conduce to the further benefit and advantage thereof; and this I take to be the true duty of a parliamentary burgess, without roving at random to generals.

The final part of this statement was doubtless interpolated as a criticism of the Long Parliament, but the sentiments of the rest of the letter were entirely conventional, and there is independent evidence that Wandesford was indeed rejected at Richmond in 1628.10

Howell left no mark on the records of his only Parliament, although when his master was named as a recusant officeholder by Sir Thomas Hoby* in June 1628 he claimed in the Epistolae to have produced a certificate of conformity and quashed the presentment. In fact Sunderland’s name remained on the petition presented to the king on 24 June.11 Howell considered transferring his allegiance when Sunderland resigned the presidency of the North to Lord Wentworth (Sir Thomas Wentworth*) in December 1628, and as a valedictory reward his master interceded with Wentworth to obtain him a reversion as attorney-general of the North. Yet Wentworth intended this post for his confidant George Radcliffe*, and Howell was quickly pressured into selling his patent for £100, considerably less than the £300 he had hoped for.12

Howell retired to London with Sunderland, but the latter’s death in 1630 left him without a patron, and in 1632 he went on embassy to Denmark as secretary to the earl of Leicester, acting as intermediary and translator.13 For most of the following decade he found only casual work: in 1635-6 he kept Wentworth (by then serving as lord deputy of Ireland) informed about foreign affairs, and he later went to Dublin, where he failed to secure a clerkship of the Irish Privy Council. He also journeyed to Edinburgh, presumably on the lord deputy’s behalf, and on several occasions he delivered dispatches to France. Meanwhile, he had his first literary success with the publication of Dodona’s Grove, an eulogy of his friend Ben Jonson, in 1640, which was quickly translated into French.14 He was equally capable of turning his hand to polemic, sending an advice tract to secretary of state (Sir) John Coke* in 1638, and publishing pamphlets from the early 1640s. In the summer of 1642 he claimed to have been sworn in as a clerk of the Privy Council at York, but he returned the following year to London. There he was arrested and committed to the Fleet, perhaps for debt rather than royalism, as there is no evidence that any delinquency proceedings were taken against him.15

Howell’s imprisonment forced him to live by his wits, producing a string of pamphlets, increasingly elaborate editions of the Epistolae, and later, after his release in 1649, an edition of the works of his friend Sir Robert Cotton* (1651) and an English-French-Spanish-Italian grammar (1659). In the later 1650s he supported the protectoral regime, liaising regularly with Bulstrode Whitelocke*, then a commissioner for the Great Seal, but he rushed into print with equal alacrity to welcome the Restoration, and pestered the new king to confirm him as clerk to the Privy Council, or to offer him some equivalent position.16 The post of Historiographer Royal was created for him, although he did not live to enjoy it for long, as he was buried at the Temple Church on 3 Nov. 1666. In his will he provided £30 for a monument, and shared the remainder of his estate among his family, naming his nephew Henry Howell as executor. None of his family subsequently sat in Parliament.17

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Al. Ox.
  • 2. Temple Church (Harl. Soc. reg. n.s. i), 37.
  • 3. J. Howell, Epistolae Ho-Elianae (1727), pp. 19-21.
  • 4. Ibid. 85.
  • 5. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 121-69, 194-8; Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 34.
  • 6. CSP Dom. 1660-1, p. 12.
  • 7. A. Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation, 218-26.
  • 8. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 19-20, 84-6, 90-1. Their passport was dated 1621: APC, 1619-21, p. 253.
  • 9. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 121-71, 186-8, 192-5. For the original of Howell’s letter to Conway, see CSP Dom. Addenda, 1625-49, p. 77.
  • 10. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 198-200; Hutton Corresp. ed. J. Raine (Surtees Soc. xvii), 315-17; Wentworth Pprs. ed. J.P. Cooper (Cam. Soc. ser. 4. xii), 278-9.
  • 11. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 215-16; CD 1628, iii. 63; iv. 324, 446, 457.
  • 12. Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 48, 50; Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 220, 226-7.
  • 13. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 230-1, 242-7; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, vi. 12-38.
  • 14. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 257-8, 272, 274, 276-7, 282-5; Strafforde Letters, i. 376-522; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, vi. 320.
  • 15. HMC Cowper, ii. 176; Epistolae Ho-Elianae, 284-6.
  • 16. K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 245-7; Whitelocke Diary ed. R. Spalding, 393, 413, 485, 492, 508; CSP Dom. 1660-1, pp. 12, 288; 1661-2, p. 37.
  • 17. Temple Church, 37; PROB 11/323, f. 172.