World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War: as reported by an Ambassador, 1863-1939 - Description

Papers of Sir Esme Howard, 1863-1939; an Introduction



Esme Howard (1863-1939) was one of the major British diplomatists of the early part of the twentieth century. He played a notable role as Britain's representative in the first effort at international territorial administration, as am envoy to neutral powers, as one of the key figures in the emergence of modern Poland after the First World War, and finally as ambassador to the United States. His career spanned the first part of the twentieth century, when British power was at its apogee. A member of one of Britain's greatest aristocratic families, Howard certainly inherited the ability to survive through both political and administrative changes. Howard was a professional, committed to a professional diplomatic service, and dubious of dilettante diplomats parachuted in at the highest levels. Howard's abilities led him to hold from 1913 to his retirement in 1930 a series of important posts, culminating in the Washington embassy, which allowed him an influential role.

Diplomatic careers are by their nature migratory, and the thread of continuity does not lie in the narrative of events in their various postings, but rather in the account of the over-arching problems faced in the multi-faceted foreign policy of a country. It was Howard's success in carrying out the latter that makes both his career and the collection of his papers so fascinating. His papers can be considered on three levels: the personal views and experiences of a diplomat in the service of his country; the nature of British relations with the countries to which Howard was posted; and the overall evolution of British foreign policy in the period of Howard's service.

Esme Howard was born at Greystoke Castle, Cumberland, to an Anglican branch of the Howard family whose head, the Duke of Norfolk, was the leading Roman Catholic layman in England. Howard throughout his life would retain a strong affection for the Lake District, and in later life would be active in preservation efforts in the Lake District, serving as president of the newly founded Friends of the Lake District in the 1930s (DHW 1/53).

Howard's start in the diplomatic world was at first uncertain. Educated at Harrow, he eschewed university preferring instead the 'grand tour' followed by entry to the Diplomatic Service in 1885, in order to have 'the advantage of getting young into Diplomacy'. Before going abroad he spent a brief period on the staff of his brother-in-law, the Earl of Carnarvon, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, where he saw at first hand the issues concerning the governance of Ireland (DHW 4/12). Diplomacy proved a choice of youthful frustrations: he had two overseas posting, to Rome as third secretary (1886-88)(DHW 1/9) and Berlin as private secretary to the ambassador Sir Edward Malet (1888-90) (DHW 1/10). In the latter post he witnessed the coronation of Wilhelm II and the dismissal of the chancellor, Prince Bismarck. Still under thirty years of age Howard resigned from the service in 1890 in a quest for adventure. His time away from diplomacy probably strengthened him in his future diplomatic career.

Howard travelled through North and South America, went off to South Africa to hunt for gold, travelled on the Amazon, and through the Caribbean (DHW 1/11). Eventually he acquired a rubber plantation in Tobago, which he would retain throughout his life. During his youthful adventures in South Africa he was influenced by the imperial vision of Cecil Rhodes, and he became an advocate of Imperial Preference in trade, and he would remain an advocate of close imperial relations. He served briefly as assistant private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Kimberley, in Rosebery's government of 1894-95. He volunteered for service during the Boer War, serving with the Imperial Yeomanry, in the Duke of Cambridge's Own, whose members waived their pay. Howard saw combat, was captured and subsequently escaped (DHW 1/14-15). He was awarded the Queen's South Africa Medal with four clasps.

Howard was possessed of a marked social conscience. He stood unsuccessfully for election to parliament in 1892 as the Liberal candidate, supporting Irish home rule, at Worcester. He would later recall that '?the Conservative papers did call me a ?Socialist Salvationist?.' (DHW 5/24). Years later his old friend, Lord Knutsford, would ask him 'Are you still a Socialist. You were once I remember.' (DHW 4/Personal/4). He would also work for the social inquirer Charles Booth on the survey Life and Labour of the People in London (DHW 1/40). Later in life, when addressing his fellow members in the Order of St. Francis in 1932, quoting from papal encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno of the previous year, 'Every effort should therefore be made that only a just share of the fruits of production be allowed to accumulate in the hands of the wealthy and that an ample sufficiency be supplied to the working man.' He left instructions that his funeral be conducted as simply as possible, using a farm cart rather than a hearse if possible (DHW/personal/73).

It was only in 1903 that he resumed his diplomatic career, and would fill a series of increasingly important posts for the remainder of his career. This was a period of reform in the Foreign Office under such figures as Sir Charles (later Lord) Hardinge, Eyre Crowe, and William Tyrrell. There is correspondence from all of them in the collection. After a brief posting to Rome in 1902 he was given his first major assignment, on the troubled island of Crete. Howard served as Consul General on Crete (1903-06) during the early phase of Great Power condominium over the island. Notionally remaining under Ottoman sovereignty after a revolt by its Greek inhabitants in 1898, Crete had been placed under the control of the Great Powers, the first occasion when the major international states attempted to administer a territory both for the benefit of its inhabitants as well as in order to maintain international peace. As such it marks an important step in the development of international governance and foreshadows other such later international efforts.

Howard's papers from this period illuminate much about the politics surrounding events on the island, and in particular the politics surrounding the High Commissioner of the Powers, Prince George of Greece. As the new Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, wrote to Howard in 1906 'You have got an impossible job in Crete which might well depress anybody.'(Grey to Howard, 3 Apr. 1906 DHW 1/17/2). He was rewarded with the counsellorship at Washington (1906-08). Howard did not see Crete again until, in retirement, in 1931 while on a Mediterranean cruise he sailed by, commenting 'Delighted to see it again' (appointment diary, 1931 DHW 1/6), illustrating how diplomats move on from one set of issues to the next, often not returning to issues they have mastered.

The Washington posting would prove a vital apprenticeship to what would serve as the capstone of his career, service as ambassador to the United States 1924-30, one of the longest tenures of any British ambassador in that post to date. During this earlier posting he served under the remarkable James Bryce, forming a lasting relationship that would greatly influence Howard. He would eventually act as one of the witnesses to Bryce's will (DHW 6/8). Even after he left Washington he continued to hear news from America. As it happened his predecessor as Minister at Stockholm, his friend Cecil Spring-Rice, had been promoted to the Washington embassy and kept him abreast of affairs there (DHW 4/Personal/18).

There followed an ever more responsible series of appointments around the peripheries of the German empire, in Budapest as Consul General (1908-11), where he had to deal was aspects of the Bosnian annexation crisis, Berne as Minister (1911-13), and Stockholm as Minister(1913-19) where he was concerned with firstly the growing threat from Germany and then the consequences of the outbreak of hostilities. In Switzerland Howard was active, as he would be later in the United States, in public diplomacy, speaking throughout the country, and noting with relief that he had just been able to accomplish the task in all three of the country's main languages (DHW 5/15). Howard arrived in Sweden just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. He served there almost until the war's end, engaged primarily in the problems of blockade diplomacy. Here the most difficult issue was assuring the transit of supplies to Britain's ally Russia, which could always be disrupted by Sweden if Britain put undue pressure of Swedish firms trading with Germany. Howard also developed a friendship with the British born Crown Princess Margaret and on her death in 1920, in a note penned as if to her, Howard wrote, '?you were in my opinion the most effective agent of British propaganda?'(DHW 1/23). He also became friends with Dr. Axel Munthe, author of the famous work The Story of San Michele, and an intimate of the Swedish royal family (DHW 4/ Personal/28). His experience in two neutral countries, led him to question the concept of neutrality, as neutral states could still supply belligerents. In his autobiography he proposed solutions to the problems of neutral status. He was knighted for his services during the war, being made K.C.M.G in 1916, and in 1919 was further recognized with being made K.C.B.

From Stockholm Howard went to the Paris Peace Conference, the most depressing experience of his diplomatic career. As a professional he suffered the frustration of watching the prime minister Lloyd George in his efforts to side-step the Foreign Office. Howard was assigned to responsibilities dealing with Northern Europe, including Poland and Russia. In this capacity he came to know the young E.H. Carr, the future historian of Soviet Russia, then a junior Foreign Office official (DHW 1/45). During this period he spent six weeks in Poland with the Inter-Allied Special Commission. He was so moved by the postwar plight of the refugees in Poland he appealed for aid in the press (Manchester Guardian, 7 Apr. 1919). Howard's pro-Polish views did not fit well with Lloyd George's and many of the prime minister's other advisers, and Howard's efforts had little impact.

Despite these frustrations Howard was promoted to his first embassy, at Madrid, and sworn of the Privy Council. In Spain he witnessed the 1923 coup that led to the establishment of the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. As at Stockholm Howard also established good relations with members of the royal family, in particular the British born Queen Victorian Eugenie (Ena).

At his various postings Howard had to deal with the vagaries of diplomatic accommodation. While at Berne new accommodation was acquired, against his advice, as it was too noisy being on a tram line. He had found a better place for £10,500, but the government would only pay £9,000 (DHW 5/15). Later he would be responsible for arranging the construction of the splendid ambassador's residence at Washington by Lutyens, though he left before it was completed. He encountered far greater challenges, however, when he arrived in Madrid, drafting a letter to Hardinge, the permanent under-secretary, that opens with the line, 'Not having had any reply to my letter of 5th January, may I again draw your attention to the deposit of high explosives in the Embassy cellar?' and goes on to observe that should, '?anything untoward were to occur, I should like to mention that, though my life is insured, His Majesty's Embassy is not and that while to rebuild the house might be an advantage for my successor, it would be of small consolation to the Treasury or even, if my feeling are to be considered in the matter, to me.' (DHW 9/37.2). He never sent the letter to Hardinge. Howard in fact was in the habit of writing letters he never posted, as a way of blowing off steam. In one of these it is possible to sense his frustration with foreign policy under Lloyd George, 'Under you leadership we never know in what direction we may be heading next?. You were always ready to listen & to be deflected from your course by the first reporter who caught your ear?.so no one knew in what camp you would be found next.' (DHW 1/23).

His posting to Madrid was followed, to his own surprise, with appointment to be the ambassador to the United States. His success in that role was marked by, on his retirement, his being elevated to the peerage as Lord Howard of Penrith. This was the only peerage granted to an ambassador (who had not been permanent under-secretary) in the interwar period.

In retirement Howard remained active, and had the advantage of a seat in the House of Lords. He also had the luxury of now avoiding undesirable tasks, such as efforts to have him serve of the Russian Debts Committee (DHW 4/Personal/5). Howard was also more than once of use as an informal diplomatic channel. In 1927 the exiled Queen of Spain, Victoria Eugenie, used Howard as an intermediary with the Vatican to try to obtain a separation from King Alfonso XIII (DHW 9/23.3). In 1933 the Finnish General Mannerheim consulted Howard to see about the suitability of a proposed appointee to London (DHW 8/10). He also found time to write a two volume autobiography, The Theatre of Life (1935-36). As with many such memoirs it gives little of substance away, and is probably over long. His son Hubert, worked in publishing in New York, and assisted in its publication. He has been the subject of one scholarly biography, B. J. C. McKercher, Esme Howard: a diplomatic biography (1989). He otherwise spent as much time as possible in Italy, and his favourite hobby was book-binding.

Howard's religion is a key element in his persona. Brought up in an Anglican branch of the otherwise notable leading English Roman Catholic family, he converted to Catholicism at the time of his marriage. In 1898 he married Isabella Giustiniani Bandini, from a noble Italian family (and they always communicated in Italian). He family was very much part of the 'black' Roman aristocracy, which sought the restoration of the Papal States. This would give Howard entrée to the innermost circles of the Papacy, including the influential Cardinal Merry de Val, who was instrumental in Hoard's conversion. Robert Vansittart, who served as permanent under-secretary, 1930-38, would write to Howard at a time of great personal distress, 'I wish I had your strong faith instead of my weak one?.' (DHW 1/35). He was close to Tyrrell, a fellow Roman Catholic, and Tyrrell asked him to be one of his two supporters when he was introduced to the House of Lords (DHW 8/25). Howard lobbied quietly for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican (DHW 9/23.1). In 1931 he became a Tertiary of St. Francis (DHW/personal/73). In 1935 he was active in the celebrations surrounding the Pope's canonisation of Thomas More and John Fisher (DHW 5/Personal/73).

Howard was well liked by his diplomatic colleagues, who kept up a lively correspondence with him. These are among the most valuable aspects of his papers, as among his papers are letters from most of the key diplomatic figures of his day. The professional diplomats often expressed views in their correspondence with one another which was blunter and less discreet than is to be found in official despatches, and Howard's papers provide a useful source of material of this type. Spring-Rice, back in leave from Washington in 1913, wrote to him of the new Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, in the new administration of Woodrow Wilson, 'What a kettle of fish! I wonder what Bryan, our special friend,, will turn out to be ? a flying fish I expect. He wants to be president and the best way for him is to use his office to pitch into the British. So it is probable that there will be trouble.' (DHW 4/Personal/18). Later, after the 1920 election, Sir William Tyrrell wrote him, 'The result of the Presidential election should, it seem to me, be welcome, as it will furnish an administration which can work with its Senate, and thus avoid paralysis which for the last two years has produced chaos in America, and a great deal of unnecessary trouble abroad.'(DHW 9/37.2).

Hardinge clearly felt close enough to Howard to write on being re-appointed to be permanent under-secretary after serving as Viceroy of India, 'I think I can perhaps be more useful at the Foreign Office than in any other position at home and I am therefore quite glad to go back to my old post and to do what I can till the end of the war when I hope to get a diplomatic post again.' (DHW 4/Personal/15). Howard was also the uncle of the M.P. Aubrey Herbert, a romantic figure of the period, and there are several letters from Herbert of note (DHW 5/97). He was also close to numerous major figures, Stanley Baldwin for example proposed that they drop title when addressing one another and simply write informally (DHW 1/39).

Howard also had a literary flair, evident in his correspondence, his official despatches, and his other writings. He produced a version of Shakespeare's speech by John of Gaunt that was used by Sir Hubert Parry in 1918 in his anthem England. He also wrote a hymn Lord Jesus Master and Saviour. His Polish and musical interests combine in an unpublished essay on the career of Paderewski (DHW 1/51).

Howard was, above all, a professional. He accepted that as the man on the spot he could not always be aware of the 'big picture' as viewed from London. London's task was policy formulation, the diplomat's mission was implementation. This in itself requires a range of skills, including the ability to establish social contacts, an insight into the culture and thinking of the host country, and the artistry to interpret that society's views in an understandable form to London. With the increased speed of modern communications, it has often been argued that the diplomatic representative's role has been much diminished, allowing his political masters the opportunity of immediate and direct involvement. Esme Howard's papers demonstrate that diplomatic skills such as he displayed remain essential for the successful prosecution of foreign policy.

July 2014.


Acknowledgement of Copyrights:

Microform Academic Publishers (MAP) would like to thank Lord Philip Howard and Cumbria Archive Service for granting permission to reproduce and publish the digital images contained herein.

To cite this resource:

Erik Goldstein (2014) Papers of Sir Esme Howard, 1863-1939: an introduction to the British Online Archives edition, Last updated: 29 July 2014.