James Howell from Dodona's Grove (1641)
by Abraham Bosse

James Howell (c. 1594 – 1666) was a 17th-century Anglo-Welsh historian and writer[1] who is in many ways a representative figure of his age. The son of a Welsh clergyman, he was for much of his life in the shadow of his elder brother Thomas Howell, who became Lord Bishop of Bristol.[2]


In 1613 he gained his B.A. from Jesus College, Oxford – he was to be elected to a fellowship at Jesus College in 1623, but he was never formally admitted and his place was taken by another in 1626. Until he was 13, he was schooled in Hereford. He went to Oxford at the age of 19.


After graduation, he had a variety of employments, as an administrator for a glass manufacturer, and in the often combined roles of secretary and instructor to several noble families. As factory agent and negotiator he traveled widely in Europe and learned to speak several languages, apparently with great facility. He also met and befriended numerous literary figures, among them Ben Jonson and Kenelm Digby. Paramount amongst his priorities was however royal, or at least aristocratic patronage.

On the eve of the English Civil War, he finally gained a secretaryship of the Privy Council, which according to one eminent critic, was "very close to the type of appointment that he had sought for 20 years". The conflict meant that he never took up the position, and at about the same time, he wrote his first book, or "maiden Fancy", Dodona's Grove, which represented the history of England and Europe through the allegorical framework of a typology of trees. It is worth noting that he started to publish at this time of ferment although he was already well established as a writer of what we would know today as 'newsletters' but were then known as 'tracts' or 'pamphlets'.

He was the first writer to earn his living solely from writing in the English language. He was also the first writer of an epistolary novel, a novel of letters, in English ("Familiar Letters"). His "Lexicon Tetragloton" was not a dictionary in four languages, as its name would suggest, but in six; a dictionary of Latin vernacular (Romance language) proverbs. It is a highly respected work in the Portuguese and Spanish languages as well, quite apart from his native Welsh. He was a prolific writer. His "New English Grammar" is also considered, by modern historians of formal English, as a work of foreign language teaching and as the first work of its kind in the English language.

Engraved titlepage of the 1645 edition of James Howell's Epistolae HoElianae Familiar Letters Domestic & Forren, engraving by William Marshall.

He had a family tree parallel to the Herbert family of Swansea, Earl of Pembroke descendant of Nest and Hywel Dda of Wales. Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) son of Nest, was a historiographer royal five hundred years before and on a journey of conquest to Ireland, the story of which is one of the finest works of literature in the Welsh language. James Howell may also have been closely linked, by family, to Thomas Howell, a 16th-century love poet who was probably his grandfather and who served the first Earl (see above) in a clerical capacity. While he corresponded with a certain Earl of Pembroke in his own Epistolae Ho-Elianae and was great friends with Ben Jonson, his literary 'father', he himself does not make mention of this family tie. His line of descent was from Dafydd Gam.

Thomas Howell (born about 1538), who is thought to have hailed from Dunster, Somerset, with roots in Caerfyrddyn, may have been one of the gentry encouraged to learn Latin at the time. Howell's Proverbs (1659), contains probably his most famous quote; All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.[3]

Principal literary worksEdit

  • Howell, James. Dendrologia, Dodona's Grove, or the Vocall Forest.(Part 2) Allegory. 1640.
  • England's Teares for the present Warres (addendum to some editions Dodona's grove)
  • Familiar Letters or Epistolae Ho-Elianae. 1645-50.
  • Instructions for Forraine Travell. 1642; Arber, Edward, ed. (1869). Instructions for forreine travell, 1642: collated with the second edition of 1650. London.
  • Louis XIII. 1646
  • A Perfect Description of the Country of Scotland 1649
  • The Vision, or, A Dialog between the Soul and the Bodie : fancied in a morning-dream. 1651.
  • Londonopolis: An Historical Discourse or Perlustration of the City of London. 1657
  • Lexicon Tetraglotton. 1660.
  • Paramoigraphy (Proverbs). 1659.
  • Parley of Beasts
  • Preheminence and Pedigree of Parliament 1677
  • Translation: Beginning, Continuance and Decay of Estates.(from French)
  • Discourse of Dunkirk 1664
  • Sober Inspections.
  • Observations. Finett (JH Editor)
  • St.Paul's Late Progress
  • A Survay of the Signorie of Venice
  • The German diet on the Balance of Europe (1653)
  • A New English Grammar prescribing certain Rules as the language will bear for Foreigners to learn English
  • History of the late revolution in the Kingdom of Naples
  • Perambulation of Spain and Portugal
  • The last will and testament of the late renowned Cardinal Mazarini, deceased February 27, 1660 together with some historical remarques of his life. Translation JH.
  • The Venice Looking Glass

Literary criticismEdit

  • Daniel Woolf : Constancy and Ambition in the work of James Howell
  • Javier Escribano : Proverbios,Refránes Y Traducción (Lexicon Tetraglotton)
  • Paul Seaward: (1988) A Restoration Publicist:James Howell and the Earl of Clarendon, 1661-6
  • W H Vann's Catalogue of Howell works (c1920)
  • Sanchez Sederi English Grammar


The memorial to James Howell in the Temple Church for which he paid himself, as mentioned in his will of 1666, was destroyed in World War II.


  1. ^ Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme, Thorndike Press,2006 (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
  2. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Howell, James" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 838–839.
  3. ^ http://www.famousquotesandauthors.com/authors/james_howell_quotes.html

External linksEdit

Preceded by
Office created
English Historiographer Royal
Succeeded by
John Dryden