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James Howell

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A 1641 engraving of Howell

James Howell (c. 1594c. 1666) was a Welsh writer and historian. 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.[1][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. 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 a prolific writer, and he is among the first writers to earn his living solely from writing in the English language.[citation needed] He was also the first writer of an epistolary novel, a novel of letters, in English (Familiar Letters).[citation needed]

To lexicography Howell contributed his quadrilingual Lexicon Tetraglotton in 1660.[3] This lexicon also contains a thematic dictionary in 52 sections, ranging from anatomy to cosmology. Howell's Proverbs, although separately printed,[4] was bound and sold with his Lexicon Tetraglotton. John Worthington, writing in his Diary in August 1661, recommended the separate republication of the Proverbs with its collection of British (i.e. Welsh) proverbs because the Lexicon itself "is not so desirable".[5][6]

Howell was imprisoned in Fleet Prison in 1643, ostensibly as an insolvent debtor, although his political criticisms in Dodona's Grove may have also played a part. Howell continued to write and publish from prison. He was released in 1651. He dedicated Some Sober Reflections (1656) to Cromwell, praising him for ending the Rump Parliament in 1653, obsequiously fawning over the Protector in the process, ending his dedication, "I rest in the lowliest posture of obedience."[7]

In 1650, Howell revised and expanded Cotgrave and Sherwood's French and English dictionary of 1632,[8] under the title A French-English Dictionary.[6] He added a 21-page French grammar to the work in 1650, but the title page did not advertise this grammar until the 1660 edition;[9] this grammar has often been mistakenly cited as a separate publication.[6][10]

He wrote A New English Grammar with notes on travel in Spain and Portugal "for the service of Her Majesty".[11][6]

Some modern historians of formal English consider Howell's New English Grammar a work of foreign language teaching and the first work of its kind in the English language.[citation needed]

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

Howell's Proverbs[4] contains the famous saying: "All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy".[12][13]

Principal literary works[edit]

Literary criticism of Howell's works[edit]

  • 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 (c. 1920).
  • Sanchez Sederi English Grammar.


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


  1. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Howell, James" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 838–839.
  2. ^ Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme, Thorndike Press,2006 (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
  3. ^ Howell, James (1660). Lexicon Tetraglotton, an English-French-Italian-Spanish Dictionary. London: Samuel Thomson. : Whereunto is Adjoined a Large Nomenclature of the Proper Terms (in All the Four) Belonging to Several Arts and Sciences, to Recreations, to Professions Both Liberal and Mechanick, &c. Divided Into Fiftie Two Sections; with Another Volume of the Choicest Proverbs in All the Said Toungs, (consisting of Divers Compleat Tomes)
  4. ^ a b Howell, James (1659). Paroimiographia. Proverbs, or, old Sayed Sawes & Adages in English (or the Saxon Toung) Italian, French and Spanish whereunto the British, for their great antiquity and weight are added. London: Samuel Thomson.
  5. ^ Worthington, John (1847). Crossley, James (ed.). The Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington. Vol. 1. Manchester: Chetham Society. pp. 349–350.
  6. ^ a b c d Lee, Sidney, ed. (1908). "James Howell". Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 10 (2 ed.). New York: Macmillan Company. p. 109.
  7. ^ Hansche, Maude Bingham (1902). The Formative Period of English Familiar Letter-writers and Their Contribution to the English Essay. Haskell. pp. 37–38. Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  8. ^ Cotgrave, Randle; Sherwood, Robert (1650). Howell, James (ed.). A French-English Dictionary. London: Richard Whitaker. Other editions followed in 1659, 1660, and 1673.
  9. ^ Cotgrave, Randle; Sherwood, Robert (1660). Howell, James (ed.). A French and English Dictionary. London: William Hunt. Together, with a large Grammar, and a Dialogue consisting of all Gallicismes, with additions of the most usefull and significant Proverbs, with other refinements according to Cardinall Richeleiu's late Academy.
  10. ^ Kippis, Andrew (1757). "James Howell". Biographia Britannica. Vol. 4. London: W. Meadows; J. Walthoe; T. Osborne & J. Shipton; D. Browne; and others. p. 2683.
  11. ^ Howell, James (1662). A New English Grammar. London: T. Williams; H. Brome; and H. Marsh. prescribing as certain rules as the language will bear, for forreners to learn English: there is also another grammar of the Spanish or Castilian Toung, with some special remarks upon the Portugues dialect, &c. whereunto is annexed a discours or dialog containing a perambulation of Spain and Portugal, which may serve for a direction how to travel through both Countreys, &c. Printed In English and Spanish on opposing pages.
  12. ^ This saying is found on page 12 of the section titled Proverbs, or Old Sayed-Sawes, and Adages in the English Toung.
  13. ^ "James Howell Quotes".
  14. ^ Arber, Edward, ed. (1869). Instructions for Forreine Travell, 1642: Collated with the Second Edition of 1650. English Reprints [no. 16]. London.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  15. ^ Alexander Giraffi [i.e., Alessandro Giraffi] (1650). An Exact Historie of the Late Revolutions in Naples; and of Their Monstrous Successes, Not to be Parallel'd by any Ancient or Modern History. Published by the Lord Alexander Giraffi in Italian; and (for the Rarenesse of the Subject) Rendred to English, by J[ames] H[owell] Esqr. Translated by James Howell. London: Printed by R. A. for R[ichard] Lowndes. OCLC 977911869.
  16. ^ Alexander Giraffi [i.e., Alessandro Giraffi] (1652). The Second Part of Massaniello, His Body Taken Out of the Town-ditch, and Solemnly Buried, with Epitaphs upon Him. A Continuation of the Tumult; the D[uke] of Guise Made Generalissimo; Taken Prisoner by Young Don John of Austria. The End of the Commotions. Translated by James Howell. London: Printed by A. M. for Abel Roper at the sign of the Sun, and T[homas] Dring at the George near St Dunstans Church in Fleetstreet. OCLC 606995422.
  17. ^ James Howell (1653). A German Diet: Or, The Ballance of Europe, Wherein the Power and Weaknes, Glory and Reproch, Vertues and Vices, Plenty and Want, Advantages and Defects, Antiquity and Modernes of All the Kingdoms and States of Christendom are Impartially Poiz'd. At a Solemn Convention of Som German Princes in Sundry Elaborat Orations Pro & Con. Made Fit for the Meridian of England. London: Printed for Humphrey Moseley, and are to be sold at his shop at the Prince‘s Armes in Saint Paul’s Church-yard. OCLC 12953114.

External links[edit]

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