Howe, Richard (DNB00)

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HOWE, RICHARD, Earl Howe (1726–1799), admiral of the fleet, born in London on 8 March 1725-6, was second son of Emanuel Scrope Howe, second viscount Howe in the peerage of Ireland, and of Mary Sophia Charlotte, daughter of the Baroness Kielmansegge, afterwards Countess of Darlington. Scrope Howe, first viscount Howe [q.v.], was his grandfather. In 1732 his father was appointed governor of Barbadoes, where he died in March 1735. It is stated by Mason that Richard Howe was sent, for the time, to school at Westminster. According to the Westminster school-lists, a boy of the name of How or Howe was there from 1731 to 1735, but no Christian name is given, and the identification is doubtful (information from Mr. G. F. Russell Barker). It is believed that he went to Eton in or about 1735. On 16 July 1739 he was entered on board the Pearl, then commanded by the Hon. Edward Legge [q.v.], but probably remained at Eton for another year. On 3 July 1740 he joined the Severn, to which Legge was moved, and accompanied Anson as he sailed from St. Helens on his voyage round the world [see Anson, George, Lord]. The Severn, however, got a very short way beyond Cape Horn, being driven back in a violent storm; and, after refitting at Rio de Janeiro, she returned to England, where she paid off, 24 June 1742. Sir John Barrow (Life of Earl Howe, p. 7) lays some stress on the severity of this initiation of young Howe to the naval service; but it appears that for him the hardships were reduced to the minimum, if we may accept the statement of a hostile witness many years afterwards, to the effect that during the voyage he messed with the captain, and lived in the captain's cabin (An Address to the Right Honourable the First Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, by an Officer, 1786, p. 29). On 17 Aug. 1742 he joined the Burford, with Captain Franklin Lushington, and went in her to the West Indies, where he was present at the attack on La Guayra on 18 Feb. 1742-3 [see Knowles, Sir Charles], when Lushington was mortally wounded. On 10 March Howe was moved by Knowles into his own ship, the Suffolk. On 10 July he was sent to the Eltham as an acting lieutenant; but on 8 Oct. again joined the Suffolk as midshipman. He passed his examination at Antigua on 24 May 1744, and on his certificate it is stated that 'he hath gone to sea upwards of eight years,' four of them in the Thames merchant ship, William Marchant, master. He may possibly have accompanied his father to the West Indies in 1732, and have had his name entered on the books of the ship in which they took their passage, but it is quite certain that he had no such service as was implied. The day after passing he was promoted by Knowles to be lieutenant of the Comet fireship, which came home, and was paid off in August 1745. Howe's commission as lieutenant was confirmed on the 8th; on the 12th he was appointed to the Royal George; and on 5 Nov. was promoted to command the Baltimore sloop employed in the North Sea and on the coast of Scotland. On 1 May 1746, the Baltimore, in company with the 20-gun frigate Greyhound and the Terror sloop, fell in, on the west coast of Scotland, with two large French privateers, frigates of 32 and 34 guns. A brisk action ensued, but the English ships were overmatched and were beaten off, the Baltimore being very roughly handled, and Howe himself severely wounded.

He had before this, 10 April 1746, been posted to the Triton, which he joined on his return to Portsmouth. In the following year he convoyed the trade to Lisbon, where he exchanged into the Ripon, bound for the Guinea coast, whence he crossed to Barbadoes and joined Knowles at Jamaica a few days after the action off Havana. On 29 Oct. 1748 he was appointed by Knowles as his flag-captain in the Cornwall, which, on the conclusion of the peace, he brought to England. In March 1750-1 he was appointed to the Glory of 44 guns, and again sent to the Guinea coast, where he found a very angry feeling existing between the English and Dutch settlements: the Dutch negroes, it was said, had attacked the English, and on both sides several prisoners had been made. Howe—not, it would appear, without a display of force induced the Dutch governor-general to conclude an agreement for the mutual restoration of the slaves, and the reference to Europe of the matters in dispute. He then, as before, crossed to Barbadoes and Jamaica, and arrived at Spithead on 22 April 1752. On 3 June he commissioned the Dolphin frigate, and for the next two years was employed in the Mediterranean, and more especially on the Barbary coast. On her return to England in August 1754 he resigned the command, and in the following January was appointed to the Dunkirk of 60 guns, one of the ships which sailed for North America with Boscawen in April [see Boscawen, Edward]. On 7 June they fell in with the French fleet off the mouth of the St. Lawrence, but the fog obscured it. The next morning three ships were still in sight, six or seven miles to leeward; the Dunkirk happened to be the nearest to them, and about noon came up with the sternmost of them, the Alcide of 64 guns. Her captain, the Chevalier Hocquart, refused Howe's request to shorten sail and wait for the admiral, and on a signal from the flagship, the Dunkirk opened fire. The Alcide was caught almost quite unprepared, and was speedily overpowered. The Torbay fortunately joined the Dunkirk in time to save Hocquart's credit and put an end to useless slaughter. One of the other French ships was also taken. The story goes that there were several ladies on the Alcide's deck when the Dunkirk hailed her; that on Hocquart's refusal to close the admiral, Howe warned him that he was going to fire, but granted a short delay in order that their safety might be provided for, and that Hocquart utilised this delay to make what preparation was then possible. Some preliminary conversation certainly took place, but the details of it, beyond the formal demand to wait on the admiral, have been very differently and loosely reported. The incident derives some importance from the fact of its being 'the first gun' which, according to the Duke de Mirepoix, would be considered equivalent to a declaration of war, and which, in point of fact, did proclaim the actual beginning. The date is here given from the Dunkirk's log.

During the summer of 1756 Howe, still in the Dunkirk, commanded a squadron of small vessels appointed for the defence of the Channel Islands, which the French were preparing to attack. They had already occupied the island of Chaussey, but on Howe's arrival agreed to withdraw to the mainland, and their forces were sent back to Brest. Howe was thus able to distribute his squadron, and, while keeping an effective watch on the islands, to cruise against the enemy's privateers and commerce in the entrance to the Channel till the end of the year, when he returned to Plymouth to refit. During the spring of 1757 he was again cruising in the Channel; in May he was elected member of parliament for Dartmouth, which he represented in successive parliaments till 1782, when he was called to the upper house; and on 2 July he turned over, with his whole ship's company, to the Magnanime of 74 guns, which had been captured from the French in 1748, and was, at this time, by far the finest vessel of her class in the English navy. In her he took part in the abortive expedition against Rochefort [see Hawke, Edward, Lord], and being appointed to lead in against the battery on the island of Aix, reduced it almost unaided. The soldier officers decided to attempt nothing further, and the fleet returned to England.

In 1758 minor expeditions against the French coast were resolved on, and the command of the covering squadron was given to Howe, much to the annoyance of Hawke. His complaint, however, was against the admiralty, not against Howe, with whom he seems to have continued on friendly terms. The Magnanime being considered too large for the particular service, Howe moved into the 64-gun ship Essex, on board which he hoisted a distinguishing pennant, having under his orders, what with 50-gun ships, frigates and sloops, store-ships and transports, a fleet of upwards of 150 sail. It was resolved in the first instance to attack St. Malo, and the expedition, consisting of some 15,000 men of all arms, under the command of the Duke of Marlborough and Lord George Sackville [see Germain, George, Viscount Sackville], was put on shore in Cancale Bay on 5-6 June, but after burning the ships in the harbour and on the stocks, rebarked on the llth. From St. Malo the expedition moved backwards along the coast into Caen Bay. The weather prevented an immediate landing, and the general proposed to attempt Cherbourg. There also the weather was bad, and Marlborough impatiently requested Howe to return to St. Helens, where, accordingly, the squadron and its convoy anchored on 1 July. Howe is said to have been disgusted with the costly farce, and to have conceived a most unfavourable opinion of the generals, especially of Sackville, which he took no pains to conceal. According to Walpole, 'they agreed so ill, that one day Lord George, putting several questions to Howe and receiving no answer, said, " Mr. Howe, don't you hear me ? I have asked you several questions." Howe replied, " I don't love questions" ' (Memoirs of the Reign of George II, iii. 125n.) After the two generals were put on shore, the command of the troops was entrusted to Lieutenant-general Bligh [see Bligh, Edward]. Prince Edward, second son of Frederick, prince of Wales, who now entered the navy, was sent on board the Essex under Howe's care, and, indeed, at Howe's charge. 'He came,' Howe wrote many years afterwards in a private letter, 'not only without bed and linen almost of every kind, but I paid also for his uniform clothes, which I provided for him, with all other necessaries, at Portsmouth' (Barrow, p. 58). The expedition sailed on 1 Aug.; on the 6th it was before Cherbourg, and the bombs began to play on the town; the next day the troops were landed some little distance to the west, and the place was occupied without opposition. Howe then brought the fleet into the roadstead, and co-operated with Bligh in burning the ships, overturning the piers, demolishing the forts and magazines, and destroying the ordnance and ammunition. For near fifty years no further attempt was made to convert Cherbourg into a naval port. It was then resolved to attack St. Malo, and after some delay caused by boisterous weather, the fleet anchored in St. Lunaire Bay on 3 Sept; the next day the troops were landed. The weather then set in stormy, and Howe moved the fleet into the bay of St. Cas, where it was sheltered from the westerly gale. But on shore the council of war resolved that nothing could be done, except get back to the ships as quickly as possible. The country was meantime roused, the local militia and armed peasants assembled, together with six thousand regular soldiers. These harassed the English on the march, and fell on the rearguard as they attempted to embark. The loss was great, and as, under the heavy fire from the French field-pieces, the boats hesitated to approach the shore, it would have been greater, but for the personal efforts of Howe, who was everywhere present encouraging his men. There was no doubt gross mismanagement, but amid much recrimination, Howe, whose conduct was highly commended, even by the land officers, was held guiltless (Hist.MSS. Comm.9th Rep. pt.iii.p.73); but it is untrue that 'the slaughter among the seamen was very great.' The Essex had one man killed and one wounded; in the whole squadron the loss was nine killed and twenty wounded (Howe to Clevland, 12 Sept.)

By the death of his elder brother, killed at Ticonderoga on 5 July 1758, Howe succeeded to the title as fourth viscount, and to the family estates; he had till then been mainly dependent on his pay. In 1759 he took part, in the Magnanime, in the blockade of Brest under Hawke. In the brilliant swoop on the French fleet as it attempted to shelter itself in Quiberon Bay on 20 Nov., the Magnanime was the leading ship, and after a sharp'engagement with the Formidable,whose fire she silenced, attacked the Thésée, which was sunk, though whether from the Magnanime's fire, or swamped through her lower deck ports, is doubtful. During 1760 and Howe continued in the Magnanime attached to the grand fleet in the Bay of Biscay and for some time as commodore in was landed for the capture of Philadelphia. It was afterwards occupied, during October and November, in clearing the passage up Basque roads. In 1762, on Prince Edward, then Duke of York and rear-admiral, hoisting his flag on board the Princess Amelia, Howe, at his special request, was appointed his flag-captain (22 June). The Princess Amelia was paid off at the peace, and Howe accepted a seat at the admiralty under Lord Sandwich, and afterwards under Lord Egmont, until August 1765, when he was appointed treasurer of the navy, an office then held to be extremely lucrative, from the large sums of money passing through his hands, and of which he had the use, sometimes for several years (Parliamentary Papers, 1731-1800, vol. x. Fourth Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into fees…at Public Offices). The practice was sanctioned by custom, but it is implied that Howe considered it irregular, and refused toprofit by it, and that 'the balance was regularly brought up' (Barrow, p.77). He resigned the office on his promotion to the rank of rear-admiral, on 18 Oct. 1770, and in the following month, consequent on the dispute with Spain concerning the Falkland Islands [see Farmer, George], was appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean. The appointment was, however, annulled on the Spanish quarrel being peacefully settled.

On 7 Dec. 1775 Howe was promoted to be vice-admiral; in the following February he was appointed commander-in-chief in North America, and received a commission, jointly with his younger brother, General Sir William Howe, who was already there in command of the army, 'to treat with the revolted Americans, and to take measures for the restoration of peace with the colonies.' Already, in 1774, Howe had made the acquaintance of Franklin, then residing in London, and had often conversed with him on the colonists' grievances. It was therefore supposed that he was peculiarly fit to bear a conciliatory message. But he did not arrive in America till after the declaration of independence on 4 July 1776, from which congress would not go back and which he could not accept. Official negotiation was consequently impossible, while both Franklin and Washington refused private discussion. It only remained to prosecute the war; but as the colonists had no fleet, the work of the navy was limited to supporting and cooperating with the army in the reduction of Long Island and of New York in August and September 1776; and again, in the summer of 1777, in the expedition up Chesapeake Bay to the Head of Elk, where the army was landed for the capture of Philadelphia. It was afterwords occupied, during October and November, in clearing the passage up the Delaware, which the Americans had obstructed by so-called 'chevaux de frise,' frames of solid timber bristling with iron spikes, devised, it was said, by Franklin. These, flanked by heavy batteries on shore, proved formidable obstacles, and the work of removing them was one of both difficulty and danger (Beatson, v. 125,261-73). The water-way once opened, the store-ships and transports moved up to Philadelphia, and lay alongside the quays till the evacuation of the city in the following June. Howe, with several of the men-of-war, also remained at Philadelphia till, on news of the probability of war with France, he ordered the ships to collect off the mouth of the Delaware; and, after transporting the troops across the river, he, with the shipping, returned to Sandy Hook, where he learned that the Toulon fleet had sailed under the command of M. d'Estaing, and that Vice-admiral John Byron [q.v.] was on his way to join him with strong reinforcement. On 5 July he had intelligence of the French fleet on the coast of Virginia; on the 11th it came in sight and took up a position about four miles off.

Howe had meantime been busy stationing his small force to the best advantage. He in person examined the soundings and studied the set of currents at different times of the tide. A line of seven ships was anchored, with springs on their cables, across the channel, and was supported at the southern end by a battery on the island, and at the northern by three smaller ships commanding the bar. The rest of his force formed a reserve. D'Estaing's force was vastly superior, not so much in number as in the size of his ships; but the English position was strong, and d'Estaing was easily persuaded that there was not sufficient depth of water for his large ships. After lying off Shrewsbury inlet for eleven days he weighed anchor on 22 July and came off the entrance of the channel, but after some hours of apparent indecision, stood away to the southward. His departure was just in time to allow a safe entrance to the scattered reinforcement which came to Howe within the next few days. So strengthened, Howe put to sea, hoping to defend Rhode Island. He was off the entrance to the harbour on 9 Aug., but D'Estaing had occupied it two days before, and on the 10th came out with his whole fleet as though to give battle, which Howe, with a very inferior force, was unwilling to accept. The fleets remained in presence of each other till the evening of the 11th, when they were blown asunder in a violent gale. The French were completely dispersed and many of their ships wholly or partially dismasted, in which state some of them, and especially d'Estaing's flagship, the Languedoc of 80 guns, were very roughly handled by English 50-gun ships. By the 20th d'Estaing had gathered together his shattered fleet, but, after appearing again off Rhode Island, went to Boston to refit. Thither Howe followed him, after hastily refitting at Sandy Hook; but, finding the French ships dismantled, and evidently without any immediate thought of going to sea, he went back to Sandy Hook. Availing himself of the admiralty's permission to resign the command, he turned the squadron over to Rear-admiral Gambier, to await Byron's arrival, and sailed for England on 25 Sept. He had asked to be relieved as early as 23 Nov. 1777, and the admiralty had sent him the required permission on 24 Feb., at the same time expressing a hope in complimentary terms 'that he would find no occasion to avail himself of it.' He arrived at Portsmouth on 25 Oct. 1778, and struck his flag on the 30th.

His discontent seems to have been largely due to the appointment of a new commission to negotiate with the colonists; the two Howes were, indeed, named as members of it, but junior to the Earl of Carlisle [see Howard, Frederick, fifth Earl of Carlisle], with whom they declined to act (cf. Barrow, p. 103). He knew, too, that the war had been mismanaged by the interference of an incompetent minister; that the navy had been starved; and he believed that he was to be made the ministerial scapegoat. His promotion to be vice-admiral of the red had, he moreover considered, been unduly delayed. His suspicions of the bad faith of the ministry were soon confirmed at home. His conduct, he said in the House of Commons on 8 March 1779, had been arraigned in pamphlets and newspapers, written, in many instances, by persons in the confidence of ministers. He challenged the most searching inquiry into his conduct; he said that he had been deceived into his command; that, tired and disgusted, he would have returned as soon as he obtained leave, but he could not think of doing so while a superior enemy remained in the American seas; and that he seized the first opportunity after Byron's arrival had given a decided superiority to British arms, he finally declined 'any future service so long as the present ministers remained in office.' For the next three years, though attending occasionally in the House of Commons, he resided principally at Porter's Lodge, a country seat near St. Albans, which he had purchased after the conclusion of the seven years' war.

The change of ministry in the spring of 1782 called him again into active service. On 2 April he was appointed commander-in-chief in the Channel; on the 8th was promoted to be admiral of the blue; and on the 20th was created a peer of Great Britain by his former title in the peerage of Ireland, Viscount Howe of Langar in Nottinghamshire. It was also on the 20th that he hoisted his flag on board the Victory at Spit-head, and, being presently joined by Barrington [see Barrington, Samuel], he proceeded to the North Sea, where for some weeks he was employed in keeping watch over the Dutch in the Texel. In June he was recalled to the Channel by the news of the allied French and Spanish fleet, numbering forty sail of the line, having come north from Cadiz, and having on the way captured a great part of the trade for Newfoundland. A rich convoy was expected from Jamaica, and it became Howe's duty, with only twenty-two ships, to clear the way for this and to keep the Channel open. The real object of the allies was, no doubt, to prevent the relief of Gibraltar. But the jealousies between the admirals led, towards the end of July, to the retirement of their powerful fleet to Cadiz.

On 15 Aug. Howe anchored at Spithead, when the fleet was ordered to refit with all possible haste. While refitting, the loss of the Royal George occurred [see Durham, Sir Philip C.H.C.; Kempenfelt, Richard] on 29 Aug. On 11 Sept. the fleet sailed for Gibraltar; it consisted of thirty-four ships of the line, besides frigates and smaller vessels; and, what with transports, store-ships, and private traders, numbered altogether 183 sail. The passage was tedious; it was not till 8 Oct. that the fleet was off Cape St. Vincent, and the next day Howe learned that the allied fleet of some fifty ships of the line was; at anchor off Algeciras. By noon of the llth the relieving fleet was in the Straits, the transports and store-ships leading, the ships of war following in three divisions, ready to draw into line of battle. Cordova, in command of the allied fleet, made no attempt to interrupt them; but only four of the storeships got to anchor off Gibraltar ; the others, careless of orders and the force of the current, were carried to the eastward into the Mediterranean. Howe followed them; but to bring them back was a work of difficulty, which the enemy might have rendered impossible. Howe had only thirty- three ships of the line; Cordova had forty-six, and, had he brought the English to action, must have prevented the relief of the fortress. On the 13th he got under way; but, refusing to engage and neglecting to maintain his position between the English fleet and the Rock, he allowed Howe to get to the westward of him, so that when, on the 16th, the wind came round to the east, the convoy was able to slip in at pleasure, while the ships of war, lying to the east of the bay, guarded against any interruption. By the 19th the stores and troops had been landed; when Cordova appeared at the eastern entrance of the Straits, Howe was at liberty to take searoom to the westward, and, by hugging the African shore, let the empty transports get clear away. On the next morning, 20 Oct., the wind was northerly, both fleets in line of battle, the allies some five leagues to windward: they had the advantage of both numbers and position; and with the African shore at no great distance to leeward, the English could not have avoided action if it had been resolutely offered. But though by sunset Cordova's fleet approached the English, he would not attempt a sustained attack. A distant fire was continued in a desultory manner for about four hours, when the combatants separated, and the next day the allies passed out of sight on their way to Cadiz, leaving Howe free to pursue his homeward voyage. He anchored at St. Helens on 14 Nov. This relief of Gibraltar, in presence of a fleet enormously superior in numbers, called forth general commendation. The king of Prussia wrote in his own hand expressing his admiration, and Frenchmen and Spaniards acknowledged that they had been outwitted. Few were aware of the real weakness of the Spanish fleet, which had forced on Cordova a timid policy; and, though the French officers complained bitterly of the inefficiency of their allies, their reports were not made public (cf. Chevalier, i. 184); but Chevalier, though well acquainted with them, still considers the operation as one of the finest in the whole war, and as worthy of praise as a victory (ib. p. 358). It was, beyond question, a very brilliant achievement; but we now understand the Spanish share in it. Against a French fleet of equal numbers, commanded by a Suffren or a Guichen, Howe's task would have been incomparably more difficult. As it was, Lord Hervey,the captain of the Raisonnable, being, it is said, in a bad humour at having been sent out of England just at that time, published a letter reflecting on Howe's conduct on 20 Oct. If we had been led,' he wrote, 'with the same spirit with which we should have followed, it would have been a glorious day for England.' On this, Howe sent him a challenge; but the duel did not take place, for, though the parties met, Hervey made a full retractation on the ground (Barrow, p. 421).

In January 1783 Howe was appointed first lord of the admiralty, and, though in April he gave place to Koppel, he was reinstated in the office in December, and held it till July 1788, when he was succeeded by the Earl of Chatham. The period of his administration was not a time of organising fleets, but of reducing establishments. The navy was on a war footing, and the reduction could not be accomplished without injury to private interests or disappointment to personal expectations. Howe was bitterly attacked in parliament and in print. In one pamphlet, more than usually spiteful, he was described as 'a man universally acknowledged to be unfeeling in his nature, ungracious in his manner, and who, upon all occasions, discovers a wonderful attachment to the dictates of his own perverse, impenetrable disposition' (An Address to the Right Honourable the First Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty upon the visible decreasing Spirit, Splendour, and Discipline of the Navy, by an Officer, 1787). The reforms in dockyard administration and the technical improvements which Howe introduced (cf. Derrick, Memoirs of the Royal Navy, pp. 178-87) brought new enemies into the field (cf. An Address to the Right Honourable the First Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty upon the pernicious Mode of Coppering the Bottoms of King's Ships in time of Peace, 1786). Howe felt that he was not fairly supported by Pitt, and obtained permission to resign (Barrow, pp. 191-2). As an acknowledgment of his services, he was created Earl Howe and Baron Howe of Langar, with a remainder of the barony to his eldest daughter (19 Aug. 1788).

In May 1790, on the occasion of the dispute with Spain relative to Nootka Sound, Howe was appointed to the command of the fleet in the Channel. He was at this time the senior admiral of the white, and on joining the Queen Charlotte was ordered to hoist the union-flag at the main, with the temporary rank of admiral of the fleet, in compliment, it would seem, not only to himself but also to the six exceptionally distinguished flag-officers placed under his orders. In August it was reported that the Spanish fleet was at sea, and for a month Howe cruised between Ushant and Scilly, with thirty-five sail of the line, which he exercised continually, both in naval evolutions and in the new code of signals, which he had been elaborating for several years. On 14 Sept. the fleet returned to Spithead, and on the accommodation of the differences with Spain, most of the ships were paid off. Howe himself struck his flag in December. On the death of Lord Rodney, May 1792, he was appointed vice-admiral of England, and on 1 Feb. 1793 was again ordered to take command of the Channel fleet, with, as before, the temporary rank of admiral of the fleet. It was not, however, till the end of May that the fleet was actually formed, and that Howe hoisted the union-flag on board the Queen Charlotte. During the rest of the year the fleet was pretty constantly at sea, though frequently obliged by stress of weather to take shelter in Torbay. Once or twice Howe sighted small squadrons of the French, but at a distance which permitted their easy escape. Scurrilous writers represented him as spending his time in dodging in and out of Torbay. One epigram, after reciting how Caesar had taken three words to relate his brave deeds, concluded—

Howe sua nunc brevius verbo complectitur uno,
  Et ' vidi ' nobis omnia gesta refert.

With his ships strained by continual bad weather, Howe returned to port in the middle of December, confirmed in the opinion which he had long held probably from the time of the arduous service off Brest in 1759 that the keeping the fleet at sea for the purpose of watching an enemy lying snugly in port was a mistake (Barrow, p.216; cf. Parl. Hist. 3 March 1779, xx. 202). Hawke before him, as St. Vincent and Nelson afterwards, held a different opinion, and naval strategists are still divided on the question.

It was not till the middle of April 1794 that the ships were refitted and again assembled at St. Helens: on 2 May they, numbering thirty-two sail of the line, put to sea. Howe, for the first time since the beginning of the century, reverted to the seventeenth-century practice of organising the fleet in three squadrons and their divisions under the distinguishing colours, appointing the several admirals to wear the corresponding flag, irrespective of the mast or colour to which they were entitled by their commission (Naval Chronicle, i.28). This may have been suggested by the unusual number of seven admirals in one fleet, and also by the coincidence of the commanders in the second and third posts being respectively admirals of the white and of the blue. Off the Lizard six of the ships were detached to the southward in charge of convoy, and Howe, with the remaining twenty-six, cruised on the parallel of Ushant, looking out for a fleet of provision ships coming to Brest from America. To protect these the French fleet put to sea on the 16th, under the command of Rear-admiral Villaret-Joyeuse and the delegate of the Convention, Jean Bon Saint-André, who appears to have been except in the details of manoeuvring the fleet the true commander-in-chief (cf. Chevalier, ii. 127, 131). On the 19th their sailing was reported to Howe, but it was not till the morning of the 28th that the two fleets came in sight of each other. The English were dead to leeward; but by the evening their van was up with the enemy's rear, and a partial action ensued, in which the three-decked ship Révolutionnaire, which closed the French line, was cut off and very severely handled. Completely dismasted, with four hundred men killed or wounded, she struck her colours. Night, however, was closing in; Howe signalled the ships to take their place in the line; and the Révolutionnaire made good her escape, and eventually got into Rochefort. The Audacious, with which she had been most closely engaged,was also dismasted, and being unable to rejoin the fleet bore up for Plymouth.

On the morning of 29 May the English were still to leeward, and Howe, unable to bring on a general action, resolved to force his way through the enemy's line. A partial engagement again followed, and three of the French ships, having sustained some damage, fell to leeward, were surrounded by the English, and were in imminent danger of being captured. To protect them, Villaret-Joyeuse bore up with his whole fleet, and in so doing yielded the weather-gage to the English.

During the next two days fogs, the necessity of repairing damages, and the distance to which the French had withdrawn, prevented Howe from pushing his advantage; but by the morning of 1 June he had ranged his fleet in line of battle on the enemy's weather beam, and about four miles distant. He made the signal for each ship to steer for the ship opposite to her, to pass under her stern, and, hauling to the wind, to engage her on the lee side. The signal was only partially understood or acted on. Many, however, obeyed the signal and the admiral's example. A few minutes before ten the Queen Charlotte passed under the stern of the French flagship the Montagne [see Bowen, James, 1751-1835], and at a distance of only a few feet poured in her broadside with terrible effect. As she hauled to the wind to engage to leeward, the 80-gun ship Jacobin blocked the way. She thrust herself in between the two, and for some minutes the struggle was very severe. Within a quarter of an hour the Queen Charlotte lost her fore top-mast, and the Montagne escaped with her stern and quarter stove in, many of her guns dismounted, and three hundred of her men killed or wounded, but with her masts and rigging comparatively intact. The picture of the battle by Loutherbourg, now in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, wrongly shows the Queen Charlotte on the Montagne's lee bow. 'If we could have got the old ship into that position,' Bowen is reported to have said on seeing the picture, 'we must have taken the French admiral.'

At the same time as the Montagne, the Jacobin also made sail, and Howe, seeing other French ships doing the same, made the signal for a general chase. The battle was virtually won within twenty minutes from the time of the Queen Charlotte's passing through the French line, and by noon all concerted resistance was at an end. The afternoon was passed in overwhelming and taking possession of the beaten ships. Seven were made prizes, of which one, the Vengeur, afterwards sank with a great part of her men still onboard [see Harvey, John 1740–1794]. That five or six more were not captured was ascribed to the undue caution of the captain of the fleet, Sir Roger Curtis [q.v.], upon whom devolved the command at the critical moment, Howe being worn out by years and the exertions of the previous days (Barrow,pp.251,253–8, and Codrington's manuscript notes, Bourchier, i.27). But though this lapse detracted on cooler consideration from the brilliance of the victory, popular enthusiasm ran very high, specially when Howe, with the greater part of the fleet, towed the six prizes into Spithead on 13 June. In numerical force the two fleets had been fairly equal, and what little disparity there was was in favour of the enemy; and of other differences no account was taken.

On 20 June the king, with the queen and three of the princesses, went to Portsmouth, and in royal procession rowed out to Spithead. There he visited Howe on board the Queen Charlotte, presented him with a diamond-hilted sword, and signified his intention of conferring on him the order of the Garter. The incident was painted by H. P. Briggs in an almost burlesque picture now in the Painted Hall. Gold chains were given to all the admirals. Graves and Hood were created peers on the Irish establishment. One circumstance alone marred the general happiness. Howe, in his original despatch, published in the 'Gazette' of 10 June, had not mentioned any officers by name except the captain of the fleet and the captain of the Queen Charlotte. On arriving at Spithead he was desired by the admiralty to send in 'a detail of the meritorious services of individuals.' A few days later the order was repeated. On the 19th he wrote privately to Lord Chatham, deprecating the proposed selection, which he feared 'might be followed by disagreeable consequences.' But on the order being again repeated, he sent off a list on the 20th made up hastily, adding a note to the effect that it was incomplete. Howe had directed the several flag-officers to send in the names of those who had distinguished themselves, and they, supposing the required list to be a mere useless form, filled it up in a modest, perfunctory, or careless manner, and many notable names were omitted [see Caldwell, Sir Benjamin; Collingwood, Cuthbert, Lord]. The list was, however, not only gazetted, but the honours which the king freely bestowed were regulated by it; and Howe was accused of having cast an unmerited slur on the reputation of his comrades in arms.

It is said by Sir Edward Codrington (Barrow, manuscript note, pp.250, 264) that Howe and the Earl of Chatham were on bad terms, and that Howe's recommendations for promotion were not attended to. A more direct slight was offered by Chatham's brother, the prime minister, who represented to Howe that it would be for the advantage of the public service that he should forego the king's promise of the Garter. As a compensation he offered him a marquisate, on his own responsibility, but this Howe coldly declined (ib. p.262). The king, however, conferred the Garter upon him 2 June 1797.

On 22 Aug. Howe sailed from St. Helens with a fleet of thirty-seven ships of the line, and cruised between Ushant and Scilly till the end of October, when he was driven by stress of weather into Torbay. On 9 Nov. he again put to sea, and on the 29th returned to Spithead. The state of his health made him wish to be relieved from the command, but yielding to the king's wishes he retained it, on being allowed to be absent on leave during the winter. In the spring of 1795, on the news of the French fleet being out, he again hoisted his flag on board the Queen Charlotte, and put to sea in quest of it; but returned, on the news of its having gone back to Brest, much damaged in a gale. He continued nominally in command for two years longer, but was during most of the time at Bath, the fleet being actually commanded by Lord Bridport [see Hood, Alexander, Viscount Bridport]. Howe, as Bridport's senior and nominal commander-in-chief, expected a degree of deference which Bridport did not pay, and the neglect offended Howe, who attributed the ill-feeling which sprang up to incidents which had occurred more than seven years before, while he was at the admiralty. He wrote to Curtis on 24 Oct. 1795, that if he resumed 'the command at sea' he would refuse to serve with Bridport (Barrow, pp. 416-7).

In March 1796, on the death of Admiral Forbes [see Forbes, John, 1714-1796], Howe was promoted to be admiral of the fleet, and at the same time appointed general of marines. He unwillingly resigned the office of vice-admiral of England, which (he held) was superior to all other naval rank except that of lord high admiral (Barrow, p. 311). In April 1796 Howe was ordered to Portsmouth to preside at the court-martial on Vice-admiral Cornwallis [see Cornwallis, Sir William]. It was his last actual service, though he was still compelled by the king's solicitations to retain the nominal command. The position was anomalous, and seems not only to have given rise to the bad feeling between himself and Bridport, but to be largely responsible for the serious occurrences of the spring of 1797. In the first days of March, Howe, while at Bath, received petitions from the crews of several of the ships at Spithead, praying for ' his interposition with the admiralty' in favour of the seamen being granted an increase of pay and rations, and a provision for their wives and families. As the handwriting of three of these petitions was clearly the same, Howe conceived them to be fictitious, and as Sir Peter Parker, the port admiral, and Lord Bridport concurred in this opinion, no notice was taken of them, further than a representation to that effect to Lord Spencer, then first lord of the admiralty. But on 15 April the seamen broke out into open mutiny, and though then persuaded to return to their duty, the mutiny again broke out on 7 May. Apparently at the particular desire of the king, the admiralty then begged Howe to go to Portsmouth and see what was to be done, although a few days before he had sent in his final resignation, and it had been accepted. Accordingly, on 11 May, he visited the ships and heard the demands of the men; on the following days the differences were arranged, the mutineers accepted Howe's assurances, and on the 16th the fleet put to sea (Howe to Duke of Portland, 16 May 1797, in Barrow, p. 341).

This negotiation was Howe's last official act, though in his retirement he continued to take the keenest interest in naval affairs. His mind remained perfectly clear, though his body was disabled by attacks of gout. In the summer of 1799, in the absence of his regular medical adviser, he was persuaded to try 'electricity,' then spoken of as a universal remedy. This, it was believed, drove the gout to the head, and with fatal effect; he died on 5 Aug. 1799. He was buried in the family vault at Langar, where there is a monument to his memory; another and more splendid monument by Flaxman was erected at the public expense in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Notwithstanding Howe's very high reputation, both among his contemporaries and his successors, he can scarcely be considered a tactician of the first order, though in perfecting and refining the code of signals he left a powerful instrument to the younger officers (cf. Nelson to Howe, 8 Jan, 1799, in Nicolas, Nelson Despatches, iii. 230). He was abreast of his age, but scarcely in advance of it, and even on 1 June 1794 he got no further than forcing an unwilling enemy to close action with equal numbers; the victory was mainly won by the individual superiority of the English ships (cf. Chevalier, ii. 146-9). As to his personal character, his courage and his taciturnity were almost proverbial; he was happily described by Walpole as 'undaunted as a rock and as silent.' His features were strongly marked, and their expression harsh and forbidding; his manner was shy, awkward, and ungracious, but his friends found him liberal, kind, and gentle. On the other hand, those whose claims, not always well founded, he was unable or unwilling to satisfy, maintained that he was 'haughty, morose, hard-hearted, and inflexible.' But by general consent he is allowed to have been temperate, gentle, and indulgent to the men under his command, who, on their part, adored him, whether as captain or admiral, and appreciated his grim peculiarities. 'I think we shall have the fight to-day,' one is reported to have said on the morning of 1 June; 'Black Dick has been smiling.' The confidence which he had acquired was fully shown in the negotiations with the mutineers at Spithead. It has been said that he was lax in his discipline; it may be that he trusted more to personal influence than to system; but no mutiny or even discontent ever occurred in any ship or squadron under his command. The mutinous and disorderly conduct of the crew of the Queen Charlotte (Brenton, Naval History, i. 414) after his virtual retirement is distinctly attributed by Sir Edward Codrington to the mistaken interference of Sir Roger Curtis (Barrow, manuscript note, p. 301).

Howe married, on 10 March 1758, Mary, daughter of Colonel Chiverton Hartop of Welby in Leicestershire, and by her had issue three daughters. To the eldest of these, Sophia Charlotte, married in 1787 to Penn Assheton Curzon, the barony descended, the English viscounty and earldom becoming extinct on Howe's death. The Irish titles passed to his brother, Sir William Howe,who died without issue in 1814. Lady Howe's son, Richard William Penn Curzon, born in 1796, succeeded his paternal grandfather as second Viscount Curzon in March 1820, assumed the name of Howe on 7 July 1821, and on 15 July 1821 was created Earl Howe. On the death of his mother, 3 Dec. 1835, he also succeeded to the barony. A portrait of Howe by Gainsborough is in the possession of the Trinity House; another, by Gainsborough, and a third, anonymous, belong to the family. A fourth, by Singleton, is in the National Portrait Gallery.

[The standard Life of Howe by Sir John Barrow is meagre and inaccurate; the most valuable part of it consists of extracts from Howe's correspondence, but these are given unsatisfactorily, generally without either date or name. A copy of Barrow's Life of Howe, enriched with manuscript notes by Sir Edward Codrington, is in the British Museum (C. 45, d. 27), bequeathed by Codrington's daughter, Lady Bourchier. As Codrington was acting as signal lieutenant on board the Queen Charlotte during May and June 1794, his personal evidence is of high authority; but some of the notes, written on second-hand information, are not to be depended on. An article in the Quarterly Review (lxii. 1), based on Barrow's Life, is, on the whole, very fair; better indeed than the book itself. The other memoirs of Howe are untrustworthy in details. They are: British Magazine and Review, June 1783; Naval Chronicle,i.1;Charnock's Biog.Nav.v. 457; Ralfe's Nav. Biog.i. 83. Mason's Life of Howe, far from good, but written from personal,though not intimate, knowledge of Howe, does not altogether deserve Barrow's sneer(p.76);Bourchier's Life of Codrington (vol.i. chap,i.) reproduces the substance of many of the manuscript notes referred to above, with fuller details. Other sources of information are: official correspondence and other documents in the Public Record Office; Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs; James's Naval History; Chevalier's la Marine fraçaise(i.) pendant la guerre de l'Indépendance américaine, and (ii.) sous la première République. The pamphlets relating to the several periods of Howe's career are numerous;some of these have been mentioned in the text; another, hostile,though not so abusive, is A Letter to the Right Honourable Lord Viscount H—e on his naval conduct in the American War (1779),with which may be compared the more favourable Candid and Impartial Narrative of the Transactions of the Fleet under the Command of Lord Howe … by an Officer then serving in the Fleet (1779).]

J. K. L.