HOWARD, William (c. 1631-94)

HOWARD, William (c. 1631–94)

suc. bro. 24 Aug. 1678 as 3rd Bar. HOWARD OF ESCRICK

First sat 7 Nov. 1678; last sat 6 Mar. 1689

MP Winchilsea 1660

b. c.1631, 2nd s. of Edward Howard, Bar. Howard of Escrick, and Mary Boteler, da. of John Boteler, Bar. Boteler of Brantfield; bro. of Thomas Howard, 2nd Bar. Howard of Escrick. educ. Corpus Christi, Camb. 1646; L. Inn 1648, called 1654. m. 21 July 1661, Frances (d. 19 Dec. 1716), da. of Sir James Bridgeman, kt. of Prestwich, Lancs. 4s. (3 d.v.p.), 2 da. (1 d.v.p.).1 d. c. 19 Apr. 1694.2

Associated with: Kensington, Mdx.,3 Tollesbury Hall, Essex,4 York (from 1689).5

Likenesses: wash drawing, G.P. Harding, Scottish NPG.

Long before he acquired his reputation for treachery and betrayal, William Howard had already made a name for himself by his nonconformist religion and his strident opposition to both Catholicism and the established Church, as well as for his quick wit, powers of persuasion, and unscrupulousness. In the early 1650s he had served as a trooper in Oliver Cromwell’s life-guard, but was purged from the troop in early 1656 because of his opposition to Cromwell’s government and his leading role in a group of radical Anabaptists who aimed for a republic.6 Howard offered Charles II the services of his Anabaptist congregation in any planned overthrow of Cromwell and, after a period of imprisonment in 1658, began to correspond regularly with the exiled court, passing on political news from the capital.7 Edward Hyde, later earl of Clarendon, described him at this time as ‘a person of very extraordinary parts, sharpness of wit, readiness and volubility of tongue, and yet an Anabaptist … he had sucked in the opinions that were most prevalent’.8 Gilbert Burnet, who became bishop of Salisbury after the revolution of 1688, was later to repeat much of this assessment: ‘He was a man of wit and learning, bold and poor, who had run through many parties in religion. … He set up in opposition to Cromwell, as a great commonwealth man … But he was always poor, and ready to engage in any thing that was bold’.9

During the third Dutch War Howard worked with Peter du Moulin in the service of the United Provinces, providing William of Orange with intelligence from England and working to build an anti-war party to overturn the Anglo-French alliance. He spent several months in the Tower for his espionage and was released to return to the United Provinces to act as a double agent.10 He returned to England again for good in October 1674, where, with the Dutch war over, he threw himself into further anti-court activities. By 1678 he was a member of the Green Ribbon Club and a lieutenant of Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, in the ‘country’ opposition.11

His elder brother Thomas Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Escrick, died without a male heir, on 24 Aug. 1678. William Howard was not immediately recognized as the heir because there was a suggestion that the late baron’s widow, Jane Drake, was pregnant, possibly with a posthumous male heir.12 On 6 Nov. 1678, with this question still apparently unresolved, the House heard William Howard’s petition setting out his claim to the title and requesting his writ of summons, arguing that:

his lordship, apprehending it to be his duty, as well as his privilege, to attend the service of this House, doth humbly acquaint their lordships, that he is waiting at the door; and prays that he may be admitted to his place as a member of this House, according to the ancient laws of this realm, to serve his majesty and the kingdom.

The House did not immediately allow him entrance, but ordered that a writ of summons be issued to him, apparently no longer willing to wait to see the outcome of the suspected pregnancy. He took his seat the following day and the Journal notes that the writ of summons he produced bore the date of 10 Oct., suggesting that it had been prepared before the beginning of the session.

Upon taking his seat Howard threw himself into the parliamentary proceedings and missed only four sitting days throughout the rest of the session. In the wake of the allegations of the Popish Plot he joined with his colleagues in the country party in promoting legislation against Catholics and to reduce the feared standing army. On 15 Nov. he voted in favour of the motion that the declaration against transubstantiation should be added to the oaths of allegiance and supremacy in the Test Bill; eight days later he represented the House in two conferences where the Lords’ amendments to exempt the servants of the queen and the duchess of York from the bill’s provisions were debated. On 22 Nov. he was also placed on a select committee to examine statutes to determine the number of days that an armed militia could be kept on foot in the country. He joined with the other members of the country party in a series of protests in late December, by which he registered his disagreement with the House’s amendment that the money raised by the Disbandment Bill should be placed in the exchequer instead of the Chamber of London (20 and 26 Dec.), and with its decision that Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby (later duke of Leeds), should not have to withdraw nor be committee after the articles of impeachment against him had been read (23 and 27 December).

Howard came to only 79 per cent of the sitting days of the first Exclusion Parliament’s principal session in spring 1679. In the weeks preceding the opening, Danby had forecast that Howard would oppose him in the House. Howard did indeed support the Commons’ expedient of a bill threatening Danby with attainder if he did not surrender himself, voting for the bill’s passage in the House on 14 April. On 5 Apr. he was also named to the committee for the bill requiring all clergymen of the Church of England to subscribe to the oaths and declaration, and the following day he entered his dissent from the resolution that John Sidway should be committed for his allegations against Peter Gunning, bishop of Ely. On 24 Apr. he was placed on another committee, to consider the answers of the five Catholic peers under impeachment. Throughout May he took the side of the Commons in the exchanges between the two houses about the trials of Danby and the Catholic lords. On 8 May 1679 he was named a reporter for the conference to discuss the impeachments’ procedure. He did not sign the protest that day against the House’s rejection of the Commons’ proposal for a joint committee of both Houses to discuss proper procedure for the trials, but two days later he did subscribe to another protest against the House’s continuing opposition to this motion, and he was a manager for two free conferences on 11 May where the two chambers continued to debate the issue.

In the last two weeks of the Parliament he was named to four select committees on legislation, including the bill to clear London and Westminster of papists. On 23 May he joined in the protest against the resolution that the Catholic lords should be tried before Danby. One of the Catholic peers was a kinsman, William Howard, Viscount Stafford, and on that day Howard of Escrick also received permission from the House to visit him, for one time only. Howard was also opposed to the motion that the bishops had a right to participate in these trials, despite their capital nature, and he signed protests against the House’s continuing adherence to this resolution on 13, 23, and 27 May.

Through his family’s estates in Essex, and his own manor of Tollesbury, Howard was able to exert influence in the Essex elections of August 1679, which saw the return of the country Members Col. Henry Mildmay and John Lamotte Honeywood. The author of a pamphlet on the Essex election places Howard, along with Ford Grey, 3rd Baron Grey of Warke (later earl of Tankerville), among the ‘Gentlemen of estates, and men of quality’ who were present at the polling vociferously supporting these candidates.13 In April 1681 a witness for the government claimed that he had been with Howard at Chelmsford for these elections and that Howard had encouraged him to shout out the slogan, ‘No bishops, no bishops’.14

During the long prorogations of Parliament of 1679–80 Howard was among the group of peers who frequently gathered at the Swan in Fish Street to discuss opposition strategy against the royal brothers and who attended trials to show their support for the reality of the Popish Plot allegations. He was a signatory of both the petition from 16 lords of 6 Dec. 1679 and the ‘Monster Petition’ from Southwark and Westminster of January 1680 calling for the immediate summoning of the suspended Parliament.15 He was also one of those who personally tried to present James, duke of York for recusancy at the court of king’s bench in the summer of 1680.16

Howard attended all but four of the Parliament’s sitting days when it did finally meet for business again in October 1680. He became an active member of the subcommittee for the Journal, signing his approval of its record for a number of days during the long prorogation. After the House ordered on 13 Nov. 1680 the deletion from the Journal of all records of the proceedings against Shaftesbury, George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham, and others in spring 1677, Howard helped to oversee and sign off on the erasure. He voted for the bill to exclude the duke of York, from the succession on 15 Nov. 1680 and subscribed to the protest against its rejection. Howard continued to promote an opposition and anti-Catholic agenda after the defeat of Exclusion. On 20 Nov. he was named to the committee to consider remodelling statutes on recusants so that Protestant nonconformists could be protected and he was specifically added to the committee for the bill for a Protestant ‘Association’ on 23 November.

Viscount Stafford, with his trial imminent, complained to the House of his treatment in prison, and on 18 Nov. Howard of Escrick and Charles Howard, earl of Carlisle, were assigned to visit him in the Tower in order to report on his petition. Two days later Howard gave an account to the House which cast doubt on Stafford’s claims that the lieutenant of the Tower had been ‘uncivil’ towards him. On 27 Nov. Howard was placed on the small committee of five members to meet with a committee of the Commons to adjust together the methods for Stafford’s trial; a few days later, on 7 Dec., he voted his kinsman guilty of treason. Almost immediately after this verdict had been delivered he and Carlisle moved to change Stafford’s sentence from execution to perpetual banishment. This motion having failed, they requested permission to visit Stafford again. James II later recorded that they were motivated by a desire ‘to get somewhat out of him against the duke of York. But the Lords would not allow them to see him alone, without a recorder present.’17

On 7 Jan. 1681 Howard joined in the protests against the decisions not to proceed in holding divisions on the commitment or even suspension of Chief Justice Scroggs.18 Parliament was dissolved three days later, with the announcement that the following one would be held in Oxford. Howard was one of the 16 peers who on 25 Jan. 1681 presented a petition requesting the king to convene Parliament at Westminster instead.19 Nevertheless, he was present for four days of the Oxford Parliament, where on 24 Mar. he strongly opposed the consideration of Danby’s petition for bail.20

The Oxford Parliament also brought to a head Howard’s shadowy relationship with the court agent, turned Whig informer, Edward Fitzharris. In 1680 Fitzharris had been acting as an intermediary between the needy Howard and the court, in the person of his chief contact there, the duchess of Portsmouth. He had taken Howard to visit Portsmouth on several occasions and she even brought the king to talk to the peer on two or three occasions, at which the king offered him a place in a ‘new frame of his ministry’ once an agreement with the Whigs could be reached.21 In early 1681 Fitzharris was accused of authoring a treasonous pamphlet, The True Englishman, which he had planned to plant on leading Whigs in order to gain government reward. To save himself, Fitzharris then claimed that he could provide evidence for the Whigs against Danby and other members of the court. Both the court and the Whigs now had an interest in controlling Fitzharris’ testimony and the method of his prosecution and interrogation became an issue in the Parliament. Howard did not join his fellow Whigs in signing the protest of 26 Mar. 1681 against the House’s insistence that Fitzharris be tried by common law instead of by impeachment and there were rumours in the weeks after the dissolution that Howard had somehow been ‘turned over to the court side’.22 He was present at the hearings of Fitzharris’ case in king’s bench in early May and at the trial on 9 June, where he was called upon as a witness for the defence.23

After his conviction, Fitzharris persuaded his wife and her maid to claim that Howard himself was the author of The True Englishman. On 11 June Howard was apprehended and committed to the Tower, and his papers were searched, during which an allegedly treasonous pamphlet was found. Burnet recorded his involvement in these events:

The report of Lord Howard’s being charged with this was over the whole town a day before any warrant was sent out against him; which made it appear, that the court had a mind to give him time to go out of the way. He came to me, and solemnly vowed he was not at all concerned in that matter: so I advised him not to stir from home. … I had no liking to the man’s temper: yet he insinuated himself so into me, that without being rude to him, it was not possible to avoid him. He was a man of a pleasant conversation: but he railed so indecently both at the king and the clergy, that I was very uneasy in his company.24

Narcissus Luttrell commented that ‘some scruple not to think this a sham, and only an accusation to draw in others’. The indictment against Howard was returned ignoramus by a Middlesex grand jury on 21 June, but another grand jury found it a true bill. His contemporaries, including the usually moderate Luttrell, saw the heavy hand of the government in this attempt to prosecute a prominent Whig lord by any means necessary.25 On 2 July Howard was joined in the Tower by Shaftesbury, and from that point their cases became closely linked, both in the government’s plans and in the public imagination. The two peers worked together to petition for bail by writ of habeas corpus on 21 October. The writ was granted on 28 Nov., when Grey of Warke, Henry Herbert, 4th Baron Herbert of Chirbury, Anthony Grey, 11th earl of Kent, and Gilbert Holles, 3rd earl of Clare, stood as sureties. The two peers were finally discharged on 13 Feb. 1682, after the prosecution case against them had collapsed.26

Howard remained at the heart of conspiracies against the royal brothers throughout 1682–3. In July 1683 he recounted in detail his role in October and November 1682 as a mediator between an anxious and angry Shaftesbury, feverishly preparing for an immediate rising in London, and his colleagues James Scott, duke of Monmouth, and William Russell, styled Lord Russell, whom Shaftesbury accused of dithering in performing their roles in fomenting risings in Cheshire and the south-west. Both Howard himself and Grey, in his confession of June 1685, stated that, after the death of Shaftesbury in January 1683, a new group consisting of Howard, Monmouth, Russell, Arthur Capell, earl of Essex, John Hampden, and Algernon Sydney – the so-called Council of Six – was formed to plan further insurrections against the government in England and Scotland.27 According to Grey, Monmouth had confided to him his mistrust of Howard, whom he thought ‘was zealous for no government but that under which he could get most’.

In 1685 Grey was at pains to disassociate himself from Howard, stating that he had refused to attend meetings where Howard would be present, ‘of whom I could have no good opinion; though they had thought fit to trust him with their lives’.28 Both Burnet and Thomas Bruce, 2nd earl of Ailesbury, suggest that Russell and Essex were also initially reluctant to take Howard into their counsels; Burnet credited Algernon Sydney, who was Howard’s greatest protector when he was in the Tower (‘for that lord hated both the king and monarchy, as much as [Sydney] did’), with easing his entry into their group. Burnet also claimed that it was Howard who, by an elaborate ploy, first got Sydney to converse with Monmouth, even though Sydney had initially spoken very slightingly of the young man and his pretensions. Howard’s own views of Monmouth were probably similar, but he saw his utility for a republican agenda and put forward the idea that a prince with a flawed title would be more dependent on, and obedient to, the will of the people than one with a more solid claim.29

Howard also confessed that he had been in consults with Robert West, Thomas Walcot, and other of the more radical conspirators where ‘some dark hints were given me … of striking at the head, of shortening the work by removing two persons’. In July 1683 he claimed that he had never been informed of any further details, but Burnet recounted a perhaps apocryphal anecdote where Howard was present with West, Robert Ferguson, and John Rumsey when they were discussing plans to execute the king and York in the royal playhouse, to which suggestion Howard replied ‘he liked that best, for then they would die in their calling’. Burnet commented that ‘This was so like his way of talk that it was easily believed, though [Howard] always denied it’. When information of the plot to kill the brothers began to emerge in June 1683, Howard repudiated it

in his spiteful way with so much scorn, that I [Burnet] really thought he knew of nothing, and by consequence I believed there was not truth in all these discoveries. … and with eyes and hands lifted to heaven, he vowed to me, that he knew of no plot, and that he believed nothing of it.30

Despite these denials, he was implicated in Robert West’s confession of 26 June and was arrested in his house in Kensington on 9 July 1683, after having hidden in his chimney for four hours. Immediately upon his arrest he begged for an ‘expedient’ whereby ‘he may do his majesty service and take care of his own preservation’ and ‘fell acrying’, telling the details of the plans for insurrection in late 1682.31 He thus served as the government’s principal witness in the trials of his fellow members of the Council of Six.

Only four days after his own capture, Howard was the principal witness at Russell’s trial. In the trial of Algernon Sydney he was the only witness, thus forcing the prosecution to make use of Sydney’s manuscript writings as the second witness necessary to convict him of treason. Burnet was particularly outraged by Howard’s role in Sydney’s death after the care that Sydney had taken of Howard and his family during his imprisonment: ‘None but a monster of ingratitude could have made him the return that he did’.32 Similarly, in the case of John Hampden, Howard provided the only evidence for the prosecution, which constrained the government to limit itself to the lesser charge of misdemeanour, by which Hampden was landed with an onerous and unpayable fine of £40,000.33 Howard was thus held responsible for the judicial deaths of Russell, Sydney, and even, indirectly, Essex – all of whom came to be regarded as Whig martyrs. When Monmouth reconciled with his father in 1684, the royal brothers were both keen to claim that the young man, the last remaining member of the Council of Six, had confirmed the details of Howard’s testimony, an allegation that the duke quickly and eagerly denied.34 Howard’s name became a byword for treachery, both among the Whigs whom he betrayed so signally and unscrupulously and the Tories who cynically made use of his cowardice and self-interest. Charles II himself remarked that Howard ‘was so ill a man that he would not hang the worst dog he had on his evidence’.35

Howard’s disgrace made him dependent on the favour of the Stuart brothers whom he had once opposed so fiercely and he dutifully attended every single session of James II’s Parliament in 1685 until its hurried adjournment at the time of Monmouth’s landing, although he did not attend the Parliament at all when it reconvened briefly in November. In this Parliament Howard not surprisingly kept a low profile: his activity was confined to his nomination to 13 select committees. In January 1686 he had to submit to the ‘drudgery of swearing’ in court once again, as he was called as a witness for the prosecution in the trial of Henry Booth, 2nd Baron Delamer (later earl of Warrington), who was accused of involvement in Monmouth’s rebellion. Howard seriously weakened the government’s case as he made clear from the start of his testimony that he could provide no evidence against Delamer in particular but only information about the plans for insurrection in 1682 in general:

I am called not to be an evidence against my Lord Delamer, but against myself; that is, to repeat what I have often delivered at several trials in the courts of justice, and which I must always repeat, with shame and confusion for my guilt, as I cannot but always reflect upon it with sorrow and horror.

Howard’s testimony in Delamer’s trial was, as he promised, ‘a very long story that had no relation to the present cause’. Predictably, the peers sitting in judgment against Delamer had little choice but to acquit him.36

Contemporary observers in 1687–8 consistently considered Howard as one of those lords likely to support James’s attempt to repeal the Test Act and penal laws. This unexpected conclusion reflects Howard’s compromised position and dependence on James II’s continuing tolerance. His role in the Revolution is unknown; it is most likely that he took no action at all. He first sat in the Convention on 28 Jan. 1689 and on the following day he voted against the motion for a regency. He then voted on 6 Feb. to agree with the Commons that James II had abdicated and that the throne was vacant.37 He was present for only 16 sittings in total until he left on 6 Mar. 1689, never to return to the House. He did register his proxy with his kinsman Francis Howard, 5th Baron Howard of Effingham, on 18 Jan. 1692 and again, for the succeeding session, on 30 Dec. 1692. He lived on for some years in obscurity in York, close to some of his remaining Yorkshire manors (his father had sold many of the manors, including Escrick itself).38 He died in late April 1694, apparently intestate, and there is not even evidence of a grant of administration.39 The title and estate was inherited by his only surviving son, Charles Howard, 4th Baron Howard of Escrick, who was to lead an equally scandalous and notorious life.


  • 1 Surr. Arch. Coll. x. 288–92.
  • 2 Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 300.
  • 3 CSP Dom. 1663-4, p. 45; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 265.
  • 4 Morant, Hist. and Antiq. of Essex, i. 402-3.
  • 5 Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 300.
  • 6 C. Firth and G. Davies, Regimental History of Cromwell’s Army, i. 53–54.
  • 7 Thurloe, State Pprs, v. 393; CCSP, iv. 73, 139, 191, 258, 518, 544, 571, 592.
  • 8 Clarendon, Rebellion, vi. 66–78.
  • 9 Burnet, ii. 55.
  • 10 Ibid. ii. 55–56; K.H.D. Haley, William of Orange and the English Opposition, 64–83 ; CSP Dom. 1672, pp. 284, 285; 1672–3, pp. 625, 629, 631.
  • 11 M. Zook, Radical Whigs and Conspirational Politics, 198.
  • 12 Chatsworth, Devonshire Collection, Group 1/A, newsletter c. Nov. 1678.
  • 13 Essex’s Excellency (1679).
  • 14 CSP Dom. 1680–1, p. 232; HP Commons, 1660–90, i. 229.
  • 15 CSP Dom. 1679–80, pp. 290–1, 296; Hatton Corresp. i. 206, 207–10, 215; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 172; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 561; HMC Hastings, iv. 302; Haley, Shaftesbury, 563.
  • 16 Add. 75363, Sir T. Thynne to Halifax, 26 June, 1 July 1680.
  • 17 Macpherson, Orig. Pprs. i. 110.
  • 18 Bodl. Carte 81, ff. 656–7.
  • 19 Vox Patriae (1681), pp. 6–7.
  • 20 HMC 14th Rep. IX, 426.
  • 21 Burnet, ii. 288.
  • 22 Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 77, 89; Bodl. Carte 222, f. 290; Add. 75366, (dowager) Lady Sunderland to Lady Burlington, 12 May 1681.
  • 23 Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 79–82, 95–98; Castle Ashby mss, 1092, newsletter, 9 June 1681.
  • 24 Burnet, ii. 288.
  • 25 Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 97–99, 101–2; Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, ii. 279–80; Burnet, ii. 288–9; Verney ms mic M636/35, Dr W. Denton to Sir R. Verney, 23 June 1681.
  • 26 Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 106, 111, 137, 147–8, 164–5; Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, ii. 294; Castle Ashby mss, 1092, newsletter of 6 Oct. 1681; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vi. 144–5.
  • 27 State Trials, ix. 430–7; T. Sprat, Copies of the Informations and Original Papers Relating to the Proof of the Horrid Conspiracy against the Late King (1685), 67–73.
  • 28 Grey, Secret History of the Rye House Plot, 42–45, 49.
  • 29 Burnet, ii. 352–3; Ailesbury Mems. 73.
  • 30 Burnet, ii. 359–60, 364–5.
  • 31 Ibid. ii. 371–3; Haley, Shaftesbury, 714–15; State Trials, ix. 430–7.
  • 32 State Trials, ix. 602–12, 849–52; Burnet, ii. 289, 375–8, 405–9; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 268, 289–91.
  • 33 State Trials, ix. 1065–73; Burnet, ii. 416.
  • 34 Burnet, ii. 412–13.
  • 35 Greaves, Secrets of the Kingdom, 195.
  • 36 State Trials, xi. 531–7; Timberland, i. 319.
  • 37 Morrice, Entring Bk. iv. 504.
  • 38 VCH Yorks. E. Riding, iii. 20, 122.
  • 39 Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 300.