RICHARD HOWE 1ST EARL 4TH VISCOUNT
1726-99. He was born on 8 March 1726 in Albemarle Street, London, the second son of Emanuel Scrope, 2nd Viscount Howe of Langar, Nottinghamshire, in the Irish peerage, and Maria Sophia Charlotte, daughter of the Baron and Baroness Kielmansegge who came to London from Hanover on the succession of the baroness’s half-brother to the English throne as King George I. One of ten children, Richard Howe was the brother of General Hon. Sir William Howe 1729-1814, and General Hon George Augustus, the 3rd Viscount Howe 1724-1758.
In 1732 he entered Westminster School whilst his father was governor of Barbados, and where he was educated under the headmaster, John Nicholl, whose future pupils included Edward Gibbon, Warren Hastings, William Cowper and Sir William Hamilton. Three years later, in the same year that his father died, he moved to Eton.
On 16 July 1739 he joined the Pearl 40, Captain the Hon. Edward Legge, serving off Portugal and then moved to the Severn 50 with Captain Legge in Anson’s planned circumnavigation of the globe, although this ship had to return to England when she failed to weather Cape Horn. On 17 August 1742 he joined the Burford 70, Captain Franklin Lushington, serving in the West Indies and first came to public notice when he burst into tears whilst describing to a court martial the death of his captain in battle at Caracas on 22 February 1743. On 10 March 1743 he joined the Suffolk 70, Captain Edward Pratten, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Sir Charles Knowles, progressing on 10 July to acting-lieutenant of the Eltham 40, Acting-Captain Richard Watkins, before returning to the Suffolk with his old rank of midshipman in October.
On 25 May 1744 he was commissioned lieutenant and he joined the fireship Comet, Commander Richard Spry, in which he returned to England to be paid off in August 1745,whereupon he was appointed on 12 August to the Royal George 100, Captain Thomas Harrison, flying the flag of Admiral Edward Vernon in the Downs.
On 5 November 1745 he was promoted commander of the sloop Baltimore 14, serving off Scotland and in the North Sea. Being in company with the frigate Greyhound 20, Captain Thomas Noel, and sloop Terror, Commander Robert Duff, he drove two French ships carrying troops and arms for the Young Pretender away from the west coast of Scotland, sustaining a severe wound to the head in the process.
On 10 April 1746 he was posted captain of the sloop Triton 20, and on arriving at Lisbon with a convoy he transferred in November to the Rippon 60, which he commanded off Africa from the following March under the orders of Captain Ormond Tomson of the Poole 44 before serving on the Jamaican station during 1748. Here, on 29 October 1748, he became flag captain to Rear-Admiral Charles Knowles in the Cornwall 80, and he returned with that ship to England at the end of the Spanish war, being paid off in July 1749.
Howe commissioned the new Glory 44 in March 1751, going out to West Africa in May as commander-in-chief, voyaging to the West Indies, and then returning on 22 April 1752 to England, whereupon he assumed the command of the yacht Mary, a position he held until the following summer. On 3 June 1752 he commissioned the new frigate Dolphin 20, sailing for the Mediterranean in October, and being entrusted with a mission to the Barbary Coast prior to returning to England in August 1754. In January of the following year he was appointed to another new vessel, the Dunkirk 60, and after the outbreak of war with the French in March he served in North America with Vice-Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen’s fleet. His seizure of the unprepared Alcide 64 in the St. Lawrence with the assistance of the Torbay 74, Captain Charles Colby, came with the first shots of the war.
In the summer of 1756 he commanded a small squadron in the defence of the Channel Islands, and after leaving that station at the end of the year he spent the following spring cruising in the Channel where he captured the privateer Nouvelle Saxonne on 28 May, and then assisted the Lancaster 66, Captain George Edgcombe, with the capture of the privateer Comte de Gramont on 9 June. On 2 July 1757 he transferred with his crew to the Magnanime 74, and in Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s attack on Rochefort during September he led the line and silenced the Aix batteries, reserving his fire until coming to at point-blank range beneath their walls. In May 1757 he was elected M.P. for Dartmouth, initially in the Government interest, a seat he held for twenty-five years. On the death of his elder brother, George Augustus, at the siege of Ticonderoga on 5 July 1758, he became the 4th Viscount Howe in the Irish Peerage.
During 1758, whilst Captain Jervis Porter acted for him in command of the Magnanime, Howe raised a broad pennant aboard the Essex 64, Captain Richard Dorrill, and in command of some one hundred and fifty sundry vessels including 50-gun ships and frigates he was sent to co-operate with the Army in attacks on the French Coast. His initial efforts against St. Malo and Cherbourg were made with the assistance of the lacklustre Lord George Sackville, the future Lord Germain, and were largely fruitless, but his effectiveness improved once this general was discarded and over the ensuing months he greatly enhanced his reputation. One of his greatest achievements was in reducing the port of Cherbourg to a mere ruin in August, and such was the devastation caused that it was not rebuilt for another thirty years. A further attack on St. Malo was repulsed, although Howe’s bravery and leadership prevented the loss of a great many lives. As well as serving aboard the Essex he briefly flew his broad pennant aboard the Pallas 36, Captain Archibald Cleveland, in August.
In 1759, having returned to the Magnanime, he led Hawke’s fleet into the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November alongside four other vessels, and he earned great praise for this bold and professional approach into dangerous waters. His assault on the Héros 74, sailing to within pistol shot before opening fire, caused one French survivor to comment that he had been involved in a massacre than an engagement. The Magnanime was then largely instrumental in the sinking of another vessel, the Thésée 74. To reward his many successes Howe was appointed a colonel of marines on 4 February 1760, and in the same year Captain Robert Hughes acted for him aboard the Magnanime. Continuing with the grand fleet, in 1761 he flew his broad pennant in the Basque Roads with Charles Saxton acting as his flag-captain in the early part of the following year, and then he undertook a largely symbolic role as flag captain to Rear-Admiral Prince Edward Augustus, the Duke of York, aboard the Princess Amelia 80 from July 1762.
In April 1763 he was appointed a lord of the Admiralty under Lord Sandwich, and in August 1765 was promoted treasurer of the navy, a potentially lucrative post which in his true honest fashion he failed to make the best use of. He also became a privy counsellor on the 26 July 1765. On 18 October 1770 he was promoted rear-admiral, leaving his post as treasurer when the Duke of Grafton resigned his position and being appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean during the disagreement with Spain. His flag was intended for the Barfleur 98, Captain Andrew Snape Hamond, but in the event the dispute was settled and he was not required to go to sea. In 1773 he brought a motion to the House of Commons advocating an increase in captain’s half-pay, and on 3 February 1776 he was promoted vice-admiral.
In February 1776 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the North America station as he was known to be on good terms with the rebellious Americans, and in particular Benjamin Franklin whom he admired greatly and thought was willing to negotiate. Having left Spithead on 12 May he sailed firstly to Boston, thence to Halifax, and finally joined his brother General Sir William Howe at New York on 12 July 1776. In the interim the two Howes had been appointed peace commissioners on 3 May and they were expected to reach a conciliatory arrangement with the rebels, but arriving after the Declaration of Independence they met with the Congress in September and were unable to achieve a breakthrough. Having come to the conclusion that they had spent too much time with negotiations in the face of sheer belligerence the Howes were thereby obliged to take the war to the Americans.
The fleet in North America consisted of the flagship Eagle 64 and some 50 gun ships but no 74’s as Lord Sandwich at the Admiralty was wary of a French attack at home. The captain of the fleet was Roger Curtis, and Howe’s flag-captain was Henry Duncan. Furious that governmental interference had diverted a strong squadron under Commodore Sir Peter Parker and four thousand troops commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton to make an ultimately futile attack on the port of Charleston on 28 June, Howe nevertheless co-operated successfully with his brother in the reduction of Long Island and New York campaign from July-October 1776, in the course of which his flagship survived a novel submersible attack on 6 September. During the following winter he displayed the intractable, scrupulous side of his character in dealing with a degree of insubordination from the Rhode Island based captains over the court-martial of Lieutenant John Duckworth, who had negligently caused the deaths of five men on the 18 January 1777. That summer he conveyed his brother’s army to the Head of the Elk, disembarking on the 25 August 1777 and returning to the Delaware to command the clearance of that waterway. Philadelphia was then captured by his brother and the Delaware River was opened up to the sea, but on hearing that a superior French fleet was crossing the Atlantic Howe took the larger of his vessels back to New York in December, and Philadelphia was evacuated in the following June.
In the meantime a new peace committee had been set up and Howe along with his brother tendered his resignation on 23 November 1777, bitter at have been seemingly deposed and having not enjoyed support from the government. The resignations were accepted on 24 February 1778, but with the caveat that the Admiralty hoped Howe would no longer feel resignation necessary. Before his replacement could be effected his brilliant dispositions and powers of leadership repelled the Comte d’Estaing’s fleet of twice his number off Sandy Hook in July 1778. When the French sailed for Rhode Island he followed them, arriving on 9 August but refusing to give battle as he did not want to fight on his enemy’s terms. A violent gale dispersed the fleets but not before Howe’s 50-gun ships harried d’Estaing’s bigger ships back to Boston. After returning to Sandy Hook Howe went back to Boston on 31 August but by now the French fleet was in total disarray and it was with some satisfaction that he was able to leave America on 25 September. After avoiding three French sail of the line in the Channel the Eagle arrived at Portsmouth on 25 October and Howe struck his flag five days later.
For the next three years he lived at Porters Lodge, near St. Albans, whilst he and his brother defended themselves against claims that they had not prosecuted the war to the best of their abilities. Howe refused to serve without the removal of both Sandwich from the Admiralty and of Lord Germain who was by now the secretary of state for the colonies, even turning down the opportunity to replace Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel in command of the grand fleet. The king considered the possibility of his favourite admiral replacing Lord Sandwich in order to unify the fleet following the fallout from the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778, but Howe would not countenance it without the approval of his North American campaign, his elevation to the peerage, and the discussion of the withdrawal of offensive forces from North America. In February 1779 a meeting with the prime minister Lord North took place following the king’s authorisation that Howe could be approached, but on the 19th Howe seconded Admiral Hugh Pigot in a motion demanding that the king dismiss the government’s man in the Battle of Ushant dispute, Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, and from then on he largely supported the Whig opposition. Between January and July 1779 there was much debate in the Houses of Parliament over the Howes’ North American campaign, and in a speech he made on 8 March Howe accused the government of distributing false pamphlets denigrating him and his brother. Without a doubt the administration considered the Howes to be excellent and convenient scapegoats. After reiterating that he had wanted to leave the post of commander-in-chief earlier but could not do so with the French aboard, Howe demanded an enquiry into his conduct. The most determined of his opponents was the ridiculous Commodore George Johnstone, who stated that Lord Howe’s conduct at New York was worthy of reproach. Howe thereafter largely remained silent and rejected several attempts by Catherine the Great to enlist him into the Russian service. In addition to his professional concerns he also had personal reasons for despising the Lord North administration, having been promised the position of lieutenant-general of the marines by the prime minister in 1775, only for North to forget and award the role to Sir Hugh Palliser. Additionally he had been promised the position of treasurer of the navy in 1777, but it was found that this could not be offered such a post whilst he was serving in North America.
Following the resignation of Lord North’s administration Lord Howe was appointed commander-in-chief in the Channel on 2 April 1782, which post, together with the conferring of the position of lieutenant-general of the Ordnance on his brother, was his price for serving. On 8 April 1782 he was promoted admiral of the blue, and he hoisted his flag on the 20th at Spithead aboard the Victory 100, Captain Henry Duncan, and with Commodore John Leveson-Gower as captain of the fleet. The same day he was elevated to the House of Lords as Viscount Howe of Langar in the English peerage.
During the Channel fleet’s April – August campaign he sailed to the Texel in May with a division of the fleet to watch over the Dutch fleet, thereafter joining Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt off Brest. When news came through in July that the Franco/Spanish fleet of thirty-two ships had come out of Cadiz and taken the Newfoundland convoy he left the Texel in order to defend the expected Jamaica convoy, which he successfully brought in after skilfully avoiding the allies near the Scilly Isles, their strength having risen to thirty-six as opposed to his twenty-five. He arrived back at Spithead on 14 August to refit but on the 29th lost the Royal George, which sunk with great loss of life including that of the brilliant Kempenfelt, and this double catastrophe meant that with few enough ships already to prosecute his intentions, he was under extreme pressure.
On 11 September he sailed to relieve Gibraltar with thirty-four ships-of-the-line and a convoy of one hundred and thirty-seven vessels. The passage was very slow and it was not until 8 October that he was off Cape St. Vincent. Gibraltar was relieved on 18 October and after a minor action off Cape Spartel the allied fleet of forty-eight sail withdrew to Cadiz. Thus when Howe returned to St. Helens on 14 November it was to a hero’s welcome celebrating his brilliant strategy, and he received a hand-written letter from the King of Prussia himself, praising his conduct. Even so, on 20 October he felt obliged to challenge Lord Hervey of the Raisonnable 64 to a duel after this officer had taken exception to some perceived sleight and had stated that the fleet could have destroyed the allies if had been led properly. Sensibly Hervey apologised when the two men met at the ground.
After the peace in 1783 Howe became first lord of the admiralty in the Earl of Shelburne’s administration, serving from 28 January until the Fox/North government assumed power on 16 April, and then from 31 December 1783 until July 1788 under William Pitt’s administration. Amongst his varied duties he personally intervened in March 1783 to prevent a mutiny abpoard the frigate Janus 44, Captain William Henry King O’Hara, which had been ordered to sail for North America by his predecessor when the war-weary crew were expecting to be paid off. In May 1788 he demanded the dismissal of Captain Isaac Coffin following this officer’s court-martial for keeping false musters, but the verdict was overturned on an appeal to the King and the judiciary. He was created Earl Howe and Baron Howe of Langar at the insistence of the King at the end of this term in 1788. During his period in office he faced a great deal of parliamentary and printed opposition for his attempted reforms, the reduction of personnel to a peace footing, and technical improvements. Pitt did little to support him and they disagreed over the prime minister’s ideas on economies planned for the navy. Howe was also castigated for his rigid refusal to grant personal favours, and although Pitt rarely asked for these, his friends bombarded Howe but he would do nothing for them, except on grounds of merit, claiming that for each posting there were twenty possible candidates. Consequently Howe lost a great deal of popularity amongst his service contemporaries and it was with little regret on either side that on 16 July 1788 he resigned over the issue of the superannuating of admirals.
During the disagreement with Spain over Nookta Sound in 1790 he was appointed commander-in-chief in the Channel once more, although he actually assumed command after the fleet had been commissioned by his second-in-command, Admiral the Hon. Samuel Barrington. Additionally he was granted the privilege of raising his flag as the temporary admiral of the fleet, a very high honour indeed. When he did join the fleet it was aboard the Queen Charlotte 100, with Captain Sir Roger Curtis as his flag-captain, and Rear-Admiral Hon. John Leveson-Gower as his captain of the fleet, although by August Curtis had assumed the role of captain of the fleet with Captain Hugh Christian acting as the Queen Charlotte’s flag-captain. On 1 August Howe left Torbay with thirty-one sail of the line and cruised from Ushant to the Scilly Isles in readiness for any Spanish invasion before dropping anchor at Spithead on 14 September when it became clear that the Spanish had returned to Cadiz. In December he struck his flag.
He next hoisted it aboard the Queen Charlotte 100 in May 1793 when he took command of the Channel fleet upon the King’s personal insistence at the start of the French Revolutionary War, having been asked to undertake this office on 1 February, and again being temporarily granted the flag of the admiral of the fleet. Although the better ships went to Vice-Admiral Lord Hood’s Mediterranean fleet, Howe was able to secure his favourites Sir Roger Curtis, Hugh Christian, James Bowen, Robert Barlow and Edward Codrington as captain of the fleet, flag captain, master of the fleet, captain of his repeating frigate and signal lieutenant respectively. Howe was not a believer in the system of blockade and felt that frigates and detached squadrons should watch the Channel whilst he kept the fleet prepared for action at Torbay. Despite the fact that he was accused of skulking in the Devonshire anchorage he cruised in the Channel from 14 July with seventeen sail of the line, falling in with French seventeen of the line on 31 July but being unable to bring about an action. He cruised again from October to December with twenty-two sail of the line but on 18 November was once more unable to bring a French squadron to action.
In the following April, subsequent to a refit at Portsmouth, the fleet sailed from St Helens on 2 May with thirty-four sail-of-the-line in search of the French fleet of Villaret-Joyeuse and more importantly the American grain convoy. Two weeks later he learned that the French were at sea and by the end of May was able to bring them to battle. He gained his famous victory at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, where his fleet of twenty-five ships captured six, sunk one and dismasted ten of the French fleet of twenty-six ships under Rear-Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse. The latter had left Brest in order to form an escort for the grain convoy which did enter port successfully, re-opening the debate on whether open blockade was the best policy.
On 13 June Howe returned to Portsmouth with his prizes and two weeks later was visited by the King, the Queen and three princesses who presented him with a diamond-hilted sword. Some ill-feeling was generated when he was repeatedly requested by Lord Chatham, who was not a friend of his, to provide a list of those officers proving meritorious of honours. When he did present the list he specifically mentioned that it was incomplete, but nevertheless the government proceeded to issue gold medals to all those on the list, leaving an everlasting slur on those omitted. Howe himself was personally slighted by Prime Minister Pitt and his brother Chatham who indicated that the king’s intention to make him a Knight of the Garter would not be in the public interest, and that he would be better to accept their offer of a marquisette, an offer he coolly refused. Fortunately the king was totally devoted to Howe and eventually awarded him the garter on 2 June 1797.
On 22 August he sailed from St Helens with thirty-seven sail-of-the-line, once more cruising in his favourite stretch of water from Ushant to the Scilly Isles, but by 21 September he was back at Torbay. A further sortie to sea from 9-29 November ended with the fleet returning to Spithead where it remained for the winter before departing once more on 14 February 1795 with forty-two sail of the line, including five Portuguese, in escort of the East and West India convoys, returning to Spithead after seeing them on their way. In the spring Howe, who had been suffering badly from gout, asked to be relieved but was prevailed to go to sea once more when it was known that the French had broken out from Brest. In the event a gale drove them back to port and Howe took to the waters of Bath to temper his gout. Admiral Lord Bridport now became temporary commander of the Channel fleet, a difficult position for both men which culminated in Howe claiming that his subordinate did not show him the proper deference, and stating to his flag-captain Curtis that if he ever did return to sea again he would refuse to serve with Bridport. The rift was not surprising as a degree of animosity had existed between the two officers ever since Howe’s spell at the Admiralty.
On the death of Admiral Hon. John Forbes on the 10 March 1796 Howe was created admiral of the fleet and general of marines, and in the following month he presided at the court-martial of Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis who had been accused of refusing to shift his flag into a frigate for passage out to the Leeward Islands. In 1797 he performed his last official service in bringing the mutinous seamen back to duty at Spithead following their insurrection on 16 April, for along with the king he was the only man the seamen trusted. Still suffering badly from gout he was carried everywhere by his devoted men and rowed from ship to ship so that aboard each he could read out the King’s Pardon. Shortly afterwards he saw his flag come down for the last time, and noticeably he was not allowed to repeat his ship visits at the Nore Mutiny, which was perhaps an indication that the Admiralty did not approve of his conduct at Spithead. Certainly many officers, including Lord Bridport, thought that he was wrong to agree to the demands by many crews that their erstwhile officers not be allowed to return to their commands. Nevertheless he was awarded the Order of the Garter on 2 June.
In retirement he remained clear in mind, if not body, and he died at his house in Grafton Street, Piccadilly, on 5 August 1799, after being advised to try electricity to drive the gout from his body – unfortunately it was driven straight to his head. He was buried in the family vault at Langar, Nottinghamshire and whilst his earldom became extinct his barony was acceded to by his eldest daughter.
He married Mary, the daughter of Colonel Chiverton Hartopp of Welby, Leicestershire on 10 March 1758 and had three daughters, one of whom, Sophia Charlotte married Penn Assheton Curzon, the heir to Viscount Curzon, in 1787, another, Mary, was at court, and the youngest married Lord Altamont. His wife died on 9 August 1800 at the age of sixty-eight.
He was the MP for Dartmouth from May 1757 until 1782, and although he was not affiliated to any political group he was an admirer of William Pitt the Elder, the 1st Earl of Chatham. Prior to his appointment to the chief command in America Howe declared that if able to chose he would not fight, but that if his duty demanded he would do so.
Due to his mother’s royal connections Howe was able to move in the highest of social circles, and he was in effect a cousin of George III who considered him his favourite and called him ‘Earl Richard’. Howe in turn was a great advocate of the king, describing him ‘upon any occasion a man very much above courting popularity, highly honourable and dependable.’
Howe was tall and dark with heavy eyebrows, his features being strongly marked. His expression was harsh and foreboding, he was shy, awkward, difficult, taciturn, unfeeling, and ungracious in manner. Stern and severe, even Spartan, he was difficult to get to know and inarticulate, and he never smiled without good reason. Horace Walpole who disliked him described him as being as ‘unshakeable and as silent as a rock’, and when he did speak in Parliament his ambiguous speeches were scarcely comprehensible, although he was heard with respect. Howe was nevertheless very deep, being intelligent and unable to fool, and he did not favour opinions unless they were firmly backed up with sound judgement. He openly admitted that he was a poor socialiser and host, unlike his brother, General Howe who gambled, drank, whored, and generally failed to take responsibility. However, although his shyness caused an unpopularity amongst many officers to such an extent that they did not drink to his health, his friends found him liberal, kind and gentle. He was a perfectionist who hated slackness although it was often said that his ships and fleets lacked discipline. Howe carried a signal book in action, when he lost his shyness and became more heated, even youthful at the thought of battle. His instructions were invariably long-winded and laborious but were understood by his officers.
Courageous, he was favourably viewed by both Jervis and Nelson, and was a friend of Lord Hood. ‘Lord Howe wore blue breeches, and I love to follow his example, even in my dress’ said the former. ‘The great immortal Lord Howe – first and greatest sea officer the world has ever produced.’ In turn he was hated by Lord Sandwich, whilst Howe disliked Lord Bridport and thought the future Admiral Lord Barham impossible.
A kind officer who put extreme trust in anyone, even a midshipman, whom he liked, Howe could be good humoured and was rarely jolted, although if his anger was aroused it could be violent. He considered himself unfortunate in not having a son, and he made up for this disappointment by patronising various younger officers such as Curtis, Christian and Codrington. He was adored by his men, not least for giving the sick and wounded rations from his own stocks. He also donated his not inconsiderable share of the Glorious First of June prize-money to the wounded, and he liked to use the word ‘fellow’.
A most thoughtful tactician, although Rodney had broken the line at the Battle of the Saintes it was Howe who perfected the ploy at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, using the incision to get to leeward of the French and hold them to battle. These were melee tactics that he had adopted from the lamented Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. In the service he was known as ‘Lord Torbay’ because of the loose blockade he operated over Brest. In 1776 Howe instituted a reformed signal book, far in advance of it’s time.