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James Howell, son of the vicarage.

by Major FRANCIS JONES, C.V.O., T.D., D.L., F.S.A.,
Wales Herald of Arms Extraordinary

Three hundred and thirteen years have gone by since the death of James Howell, Historiographer Royal to Charles II, and author of the ever popular "Familiar Letters". Generally speaking, little of his other activities seems known to those who quote his name. Nevertheless, he was a remarkable man, equally at home in the Courts of Europe as in the lodgings of scholars, secretary to embassies, secret agent, a royalist who boldly told Cromwell that the monarchy must be restored, author, pioneer of spelling reform of the English language, and one of the earliest writers to make a livelihood from literature and journalism.

James Howell, fourth child of the Revd Thomas Howell, vicar of Abernant and Cynwil in Carmarthenshire, was born about the year 1594. He received his early education at Hereford Free School under "a learned though lashing master" as he feelingly describes him, and proceeded to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1610 where he graduated three years later. He spoke of his college days with affection, and to him Oxford was always "my dearly honoured Mother".

His description of himself as "a pure cadet, not born to land, lease, home, or office", and having no "other patrimony or support but my breeding", illustrates the difficulties of a younger son. However, his "breeding", attractive personality, and capacity for mastering languages, more than compensated for the lack of inherited possessions.

After leaving Oxford, Howell was appointed steward of a glassware manufactory, and in 1616 went to the Continent on behalf of his firm. He travelled through Holland, France, Spain, and Italy, studying methods of glass-making and securing the services of expert workmen. He learnt to speak and write the languages of the countries he visited, an accomplishment that was to stand him in good stead in future years.

On his return to London, about 1621, he decided to seek a post where his linguistic talents, could be employed to greater advantage. For a short time he was a tutor in the family of Lord Savage, and during 1622 accompanied Lord Altham's son on a tour in France.

Towards the end of 1622, Howell was commissioned to go to Spain to obtain satisfaction for the illegal seizure of a richly-laden vessel belonging to the Turkey Company. His audiences with the King and Ministers of State proceeded satisfactorily, until the cancellation of the "Spanish match" between the Prince of Wales and the Infanta prejudiced all chances of a final arrangement. He was at Madrid when the Prince was presenting his suit, and became friendly with members of his Household.

In 1624 he secured the post of Secretary to Lord Scrope (afterwards Earl of Sunderland), Lord President of the North, and took up residence at York. Through his master's influence, he was elected Member of Parliament for Richmond in Yorkshire, but his excursion into politics was of brief duration.

On Sunderland's death in 1630 he found himself without regular employment, but succeeded in securing temporary posts. In 1632 he was Secretary of an embassy to Denmark, and during his sojourn at the Danish Court secured privileges for an English trading company. In 1635 he spent some time at Orleans on state business, and after 1639 acted as a secret agent for Strafford, then Lord Deputy of Ireland.

In 1640 Howell turned his energies to creative writing. Despite his bustling life he had maintained an interest in literature and knew many leading writers of the time. He was especially friendly with Ben Jonson, to whom he presented Dr Davies's Welsh Grammar, together with a poem of his own composition in praise of the book. One letter he sent to Jonson contained "a choice story" he had heard in France, "for you to put upon your loom and make a curious web of". When the poet died Howell composed an elegy on him.

Between 1640 and 1666, he published over 60 books, pamphlets, and numerous poems and letters. Many were composed in the Fleet where he was imprisoned for his loyalty from 1643 to 1651. A stout Royalist, he wrote tracts advocating the restoration of the monarchy, even in Cromwell's heyday. His "Instructions for Forreine Travel", dedicated to Prince Charles, seems to have been prophetic in its dedication. Subjects like Royal Marriages of Great Britain, History of Louis XIII, Account of the Low Countries, Venice, Naples, and Spain, reveal his knowledge of continental states. He compiled dictionaries and grammars of foreign languages, and made numerous translations from Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish authors. He wished to reform English spelling along phonetic lines, and advocated the elimination of redundant letters, like the final vowel in "done", and the removal of "u" from words like "honour".

None of his works is more popular than Epistolae Hoelianae, the "Familiar Letters", an intimate stream of contemporary gossip which continue to delight the reader even after the passing of three hundred years. They show his literary style at its best, light and aphoristic, and containing a wealth of descriptive and anecdotal material. Among people to whom he addressed letters were his brother Dr Thomas Howell, Bishop of Bristol, Dr Field, Bishop of Llandaff and afterwards of St Davids, Sir Kenelm Digby, Lord Herbert of Chirbury, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Conway, the mercurial Sir Sackville Crow (of Westmead, Laugharne), and the Earl of Pembroke with whom he claimed distant kinship based on a tenuous link in the higher reaches of his family tree, visible only to a Welshman of strong genealogical passions.

He touches on all manner of topics ancient prophesies, the Inquisition, Algerian pirates, Continental morals, foibles of kings, battles, miracles, scandals, the Grand Turk, plagues, churches, heralds, and Welsh mountain ponies. He advises us against litigation "Law is a shrewd pick-purse". English ale is an elixir, apparently, "While Englishmen drank only ale they were strong, brawny, able men, and could draw an arrow an ell long". He describes a letter on the beverages of various nations as "a dry discourse upon a fluent subject". He appreciated the power of the pen, and told Jonson, "The fangs of the bear and the tusks of the wild boar do not bite worse and make deeper gashes than a goose-quill sometimes". It seems he had a message for Monmouthshire folk, when he describes Hugh Penry, who had married his sister, as "one of the best husbands in all the thirteen shires of Wales".

Experience had taught him patience "Though princes's guerdons come slow, yet they come sure". He found no reason to revise this view. Following the Restoration, Howell received, for his loyalty, a gift of 200 from the King who also appointed him Historiographer Royal with a salary of 100 a year. These favours, and the money he derived from writing, enabled him to spend the remainder of his days in ease and comfort.

James Howell died in London, and was buried on 3 November 1666 in the Temple church where a fine monument was raised to perpetuate his memory. The tomb was badly damaged by Hitler's bombs in May 1941. His name lives on.
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