The letters of Caroline Howe in the British Library have for the first time revealed the private life of her brother, Adm. Richard Lord Howe, the hero of the Glorious First of June and commander-in-chief of the British fleet in America, 1776-1778. Howe has so baffled naval historians that Sam Willis labelled him “obsessively secretive” in his 2011 book on the Admiral’s greatest victory. Caroline Howe’s close friendship with Lady Georgiana Spencer, mother of the famous Duchess of Devonshire, has left a trove of personal correspondence in the Althorp Papers that has been ignored by naval historians too focussed on official dispatches. In The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women behind Britain’s Wars for America, the letters lift a curtain on the suspense of the Howe family on the home front in June 1794.
The Hon. Caroline Howe, like her brothers, Admiral Lord Howe and Gen. Sir William Howe, was a well-known figure in Georgian high society. Her mother, Charlotte Viscountess Howe, was called “aunt” at court, in acknowledgement of her illegitimate tie to Hanoverian monarchs. In 1759, while the brothers became heroes in the Seven Years’ War for their exploits at Quebec and off the coast of France at Quiberon Bay, the Howe women were busy at home in court and military circles promoting their men’s careers.
It was Caroline Howe who initiated secret negotiations with Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774 that aimed to prevent the American War of Independence. The talks resulted instead in her brothers’ appointments as joint commanders-in-chief in a war that has been called “Britain’s Vietnam.” They returned unvictorious in 1778, apparently bested by Virginia tobacco planter George Washington. In an early instance of “fake news” the brothers were accused of quasi-treasonous actions during their command, and were subjected to sustained attacks in the media similar to today’s tabloid press.
In May 1794, the nation was now at war with revolutionary France and its eyes were once again upon Admiral Howe, this time in command of the Channel Fleet, and charged with preventing the French fleet from escorting a shipment of American grain to alleviate the food shortages in Paris. It was not until May 28 that Howe sighted the French convoy. It would be four days before the enemy fleets, manoeuvring in the choppy Atlantic, were able to close and engage in an intense sea battle that quickly became a series of single combats between enemy ships. Richard Howe’s flagship HMS Queen Charlotte was in the thick of it, breaking through the French line and pounding the French flagship Montagne. In less than four hours, the French fleet withdrew, leaving the victorious British fleet with six ships captured and thousands of prisoners.
While the sea battle raged, London was unaware. On June 3, Caroline wrote anxiously, “No news of my brother, the wind has been for some days North East.” Three days later she reported a rumour that the French fleet had escaped her brother and safely reached Brest. She covered up her chagrin with society chit-chat.
But on the morning of June 10 she was “Half out of my senses, & wild with Joy” as news of her brother’s great victory finally reached London. Admiral Howe’s wife had been awakened hours earlier in her home in Hertfordshire by an excited naked servant crying “Glorious news, my lady.” She ordered the embarrassed servant to enter the room and leave the letter while she hid under the bedclothes.
Lady Howe still remembered the “ill-conduct” of the nation toward her husband in the American conflict, but now the Howes would see all of London rise up to praise him. Fireworks and illuminations lit up the city, the bells rang, and patriotic crowds roamed the streets in an open-air party. The French claimed that their grain shipment had reached port safely, but the British public didn’t care; they loved a great sea victory. Only the United States did not hoist its flag in honour of Admiral Howe.
Caroline Howe, surrounded by scores of congratulating visitors, wrote a simple expressive note to her brother “that I am happy I did not die in my scarlet illness,” a fever she had suffered two months earlier. She could not resist staying out until 2am to see London celebrating Howe valour once again. Richard, who never showed fear in battle, trembled with emotion on June 27 when King George III presented him with a diamond-hilted sword on the deck of the Queen Charlotte at Portsmouth. The first decisive blow against revolutionary France had been the crowning achievement of his long career.
Caroline Howe to Lady Georgiana Spencer, June 13, 1794, Althorp Papers, Add. Mss. 75644, British Library; Dorothy Margaret Stuart, Dearest Bess: The Life and Times of Lady Elizabeth Foster (London, 1955), 72.