Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Howard, Robert (1626-1698)

HOWARD, Sir ROBERT (1626–1698), dramatist, born in 1626, was the sixth son of Thomas Howard, first earl of Berkshire, by Elizabeth, daughter of William Cecil, lord Burghley, afterwards second earl of Exeter. His brothers Edward and James Howard are separately noticed. Wood states that he was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford; but Cole (Athenæ Cantabr.}, who has partly confused him with his uncle, also Sir Robert Howard [q.v.], suspects that he belonged to Magdalene College, Cambridge. At the outbreak of the civil wars he joined the royalists, and on 29 June 1644 he was knighted on the field near Newbury for his bravery in rescuing Lord Wilmot from the parliamentarians at the battle of Cropredy Bridge. Under the Commonwealth he suffered imprisonment at Windsor Castle. At the Restoration he was returned to parliament for Stockbridge, Hampshire; was made a knight of the Bath; became secretary to the commissioners of the treasury; and in 1677 he was filling the lucrative post, which he held till his death, of auditor of the exchequer. 'Many other places and boons he has had,' writes a hostile pamphleteer, 'but his w—— Uphill spends all, and now refuses to marry him' (A Seasonable Argument to persuade all the Grand Juries in England to petition for a new Parliament, 1677); his profits were sufficient, at all events, to enable him in 1680 to purchase the Ashtead estate in Surrey. On 9 April 1678 he impeached ‘Sir William Penn in the House of Lords for breaking bulk and taking away rich goods out of the East India prizes formerly taken by the Earl of Sandwich’ (Evelyn, Diary, ii. 229). On 4 Feb. 1678-9 he was returned M.P. for Castle Rising in Norfolk, which he continued to represent in every parliament, except that of 1685, until June 1698. Though a strong whig (cf. Pepys, 8 Dec. 1666), he was active in his efforts to induce parliament to vote money for Charles II, and incurred odium thereby. At the revolution he was admitted (February 1688-9) to the privy council. In June 1689 he introduced the debate on the case of Gates in the Commons. On 2 Jan. 1689-90 he added a clause to the whig bill for restoring the charters which had been surrendered in the late reign; it was directed against those who had been parties to such surrenders. Early in July 1690 he was one of the commissioners to inquire into the state of the fleet (Luttrell, ii. 74), and on 29 July he was appointed ‘to command all and singular the regiments and troops of militia horse which are or shall be drawn together under the command of John, Earl of Marlborough’ throughout England and Wales (Public Records, Home Office, Military Entry Book, vol. ii. ff. 142-3; Luttrell, ii. 88-9). On 26 Feb. 1692-3 he married Annabella Dives (aged 18), a maid of honour. She was his fourth wife; after Sir Robert's death she married the Rev. Edmund Martin, and died in 1728. Howard's first wife is supposed to have been an actress (cf. Evelyn, ii. 211), apparently Mrs. Uphill; his second wife was probably Lady Honora O'Brien, daughter of the Earl of Thomond, and widow of Sir Francis Inglefield. Howard died on 3 Sept. 1698 (‘aged near 80,’ says Luttrell), and was buried in Westminster Abbey. About 1684 he built for himself an elaborate house at Ashtead, and had the staircase painted by Verrio (ib. ii. 431). Evelyn sums up the estimation in which he was held, by Dryden as well as others (cf. ‘Defence of the Essay of Dramatic Poesy,’ in 2nd edit, of the Indian Emperor), when he describes him as ‘pretending to all manner of arts and sciences … not ill-natured, but insufferably boasting’ (ib. ii. 450). Shadwell ridiculed him under the character of Sir Positive At-All in ‘The Sullen Lovers,’ 1668 (ib.) Lady Vane, in the same play, was supposed to represent the mistress of Howard, who became his first wife. The author of the ‘Key to the Rehearsal’ states that Howard was the chief figure, Bilboa, in the first sketch of ‘The Rehearsal,’ 1664, but others identify Bilboa with D'Avenant. Contemptuous reference is made to his literary pretensions in the ‘Session of the Poets,’ which appears in ‘State Poems,’ 1699, pt. i. p. 206. His portrait was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Thomas Howard (1651-1701), his son and heir, probably by his second wife, succeeded to the Ashtead property, and was teller of the exchequer.[1] One of his daughters, Mary, born 28 Dec. 1653, was sent in her nineteenth year to Paris because she had attracted the notice of Charles II at a play. She became a Roman catholic, and entered the English convent of Poor Clares at Rouen, of which she became abbess in 1702; she died at Rouen 21 March 1735. Known as Mary of the Holy Cross, she wrote several works of devotion, one of which, ‘The Chief Points of Our Holy Ceremonies…,’ was published in 1726. Her life was written by Alban Butler (Gillow, Bibl. Dict. of the Eng. Cath., iii. 435).

Howard is chiefly remembered as the author of ‘The Committee’ and as the brother-in-law of Dryden. His first work was a collection of ‘Poems,’ 1660, 8vo (2nd ed. 1696), which Scott justly pronounced to be ‘productions of a most freezing mediocrity’ (Scott, Dryden, 1821, xi. 6). Dryden prefixed a copy of commendatory verses; he was then living with Henry Herringham, Howard's publisher. In 1665 Howard published ‘Foure New Plays,’ 1 vol., fol.—‘Surprisal’ and ‘Committee’ (comedies), ‘Vestal Virgin’ and ‘Indian Queen’ (tragedies). Evelyn was present at a performance of the ‘Committee’ on 27 Nov. 1662, and calls it a ridiculous play, but adds that ‘this mimic Lacy acted the Irish footman to admiration,’ a reference to the character of Teague, which was suggested by one of Howard's own servants (C. Howard, Anecd. of some of the Howard Family, p.111). Pepys saw the piece at the Theatre Royal on 12 June 1663, and describes it as ‘a merry but indifferent play,’ but, like Evelyn, commends Lacy's acting. It is the best of Howard's plays, and long held the stage. An adaptation (by T. Knight), under the title of ‘The Honest Thieves,’ was acted at Covent Garden on 9 May 1797, and became a stock play. The ‘Vestal Virgin’ was fitted with two fifth acts; it was intended for a tragedy, but might be turned into a comedy (after the manner of Suckling's ‘Aglaura’). In the ‘Indian Queen,’ a tragedy in heroic verse, Howard was assisted by Dryden. The applause it received was largely due to the scenery and dresses. Evelyn records that the scenery was ‘the richest ever seen in England, or perhaps elsewhere upon a public stage’ (Memoirs, 5 Feb. 1664). Howard does not mention that Dryden was concerned in the authorship; but Dryden, in the preface to the ‘Indian Emperor’— which was designed as a sequel to the ‘Indian Queen’— states that he wrote part of the earlier play. In the dedicatory epistle before the 'Rival Ladies,' 1664, Dryden had contended that rhyme is more suitable than blank verse for dramatic purposes. Howard (whose blank verse is execrable) opposed this view in the preface to 'Foure New Plays;' Dryden replied in the 'Essay of Dramatic Poesy,' 1668; Howard retorted somewhat superciliously in the preface to his 'Great Favourite; or the Duke of Lerma; a Tragedy,' 1668, 4to; and Dryden had the last word in a politely ironical 'Defence of an Essay,' &c. (which he subsequently cancelled), prefixed to the second edition of the ' Indian Emperor,' 1668 [see Dryden, John]. In 1668 Howard dedicated to Buckingham 'The Duel of the Staggs; a Poem,' 4to, which was satirised by Lord Buckhurst in a poem entitled 'The Duel of the Crabs' (cf. State Poems,1699,pt. i. p.201).

The five plays mentioned above were collected in 1692, fol., and again in 1722, 12mo; a sixth, 'The Blind Lady,' was printed with the 'Poems;' the 'Conquest of China by the Tartars,' a tragedy, which Dryden expressed the intention of altering at a cost of 'six weeks' study,' was never published (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. v. 225, 281). Howard's prose writings are 'Reign of King Richard II,' 1681, 8vo; 'Account of the State of his Majesties Revenue,' 1681, fol.; 'Historical Observations on the Reigns of Edward I, II, III, and Richard II,' 1689, 4to; 'Reigns of Edward and Richard II,' 1690, 12mo; and 'History of Religion, by a Person of Quality,' 1694, 8vo.

[Ashtead and its Howard Possessors(privately printed), 1873; Langbaine's Dram. Poets, with Oldys's MS. Annotations; Wood's Athenæ, ed. Bliss; Macaulay's Hist.; Pepys's Diary; Evelyn's Diary; Luttrell's Brief Relation; Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, p. 226; Cibber's Lives; Jacob's Poet. Reg.; Baker's Biog. Dram., ed. Jones; Scott's Dryden, 1821; Genest's Account of the English Stage.]

A. H. B.

  1. ‘A paper written by Thomas Howard, giving genealogical details of the family of Sir Robert, is inserted in MS. Ashmole , f. 193, in the Bodleian (Notes and Queries., clxxvii. 7).’