Meet The Howes: A Family of Puritan Booksellers

As part of the 2021 IJBS Blog Series, Joe Saunders (@joe_saunders1), PhD candidate at the University of York, uncovers a new network of Puritan booksellers in seventeenth-century England. Joe’s research is part of a larger article to be published in the Society’s next issue of Bunyan Studies: A Journal of Reformation and Nonconformist Culture (forthcoming Autumn 2021).

In the spring of 1638, the Stationer William Howes died, leaving few tangible marks of his young life. He had been a member of the Company of Stationers, the London guild which theoretically controlled most of the printing and bookselling in England. However, he is one of many who barely surface in the records of the Company. Nor does he appear to have been involved in the publication of any surviving texts. Despite this absence, William left a last will and testament in which he bequeathed to his brother Thomas (fl. 1617-1638) three books; ‘Armeniasme Dixon on ye Hebrews Aynswer’, ‘the Comunion of Saintes’ and the ‘Lamentacons of Germany’.[1] William’s membership of the print trade meant he would have acquired them directly through his work or indirectly through his knowledge and contacts within the trade network. However, they were seemingly personal texts, intended for someone William believed would appreciate them as he had done.

Bequests of books are of interest in our effort to understand what was read in early modern England. As William was a participant of the print trade his bequest is of particular value. These were godly books and William was appreciating these texts at a time when godly print was blooming in England. When it came to flower during the following decades it did so with the assistance of members of his family who were Puritan booksellers during the 1640s and 1650s. A study of William’s books and wider family is an opportunity to learn about the Puritan print trade in a period when, according to Andrew Cambers, Puritan ‘booksellers were key figures in the fusion of religious zeal and printed polemic’.[2] It should be said that I am taking ‘Puritan’as an encompassing term referring to a broad type of literature, suggesting the wide practical appreciation of godly texts by readers not bound by the differences authors drew between themselves, or by historians subsequently.

The first book William bequeathed was ‘Armeniasme Dixon on ye Hebrews Aynswer’. This was certainly David Dickson’s A short explanation, of the epistle of Paul to the Hebrewes (1635–37), a significant and bulky theological book of around 500 pages by a leading Scottish Calvinist minister (see Figure 1). The text does not appear in the Stationers’ Registers of London, and one version was published in Aberdeen and another in Dublin ‘by the Society of Stationers’.

Figure 1. Frontispiece to David Dickson, A Short Explanation of the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrewes (Aberdeen, 1635).

The second text bequeathed was The Comunion of Saintes‘. This is more difficult to identify. It may have been Edward Maie’s, A sermon of the communion of saintes or Henry Ainsworth’s The communion of saincts. Maie’s work is a short tract, Ainsworth’s runs to hundreds of pages and both are weighty theological discussions. The only extant text of Maie’s work is from 1621 and so it does not fit the pattern set by William’s other books which were current at the time of his death. Ainsworth was a minister in a separatist church in Amsterdam and a prolific author. If this was his text then we should note that the earliest London edition was not published until 1641, after Howes’ death. Either this bequest shows a London edition prior to those previously known or it came from abroad. Before 1641 this text had borne an Amsterdam imprint including a 1640 edition probably from the ‘Richt Right Press’, an English Calvinist publishing operation which produced a number of bestsellers in the late 1630s and early 1640s (see Figure 2).[3]

Figure 2. Frontispiece to Henry Ainsworth, The Communion of Saincts (Amsterdam, 1640).

The last book William named was ‘Lamentacons of Germany’. This has only one likely correspondent text, that authored by Philip Vincent, for which we have an extant edition from 1638 (see Figure 3). It is a short book containing information on the state of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) and a warning of the devastation it caused. His possession of it shows William as a keen observer of providentialism, a characteristically Calvinist concern for destruction and ruin, and reveals that William was interested in the condition of the Calvinist project internationally.[4]

Figure 3. Frontispiece to Philip Vincent, The Lamentation of Germany (London: 1638).

Despite a will proclaiming himself a Stationer, the lack of a record of William’s own work means comparisons cannot be drawn between the books he read for pleasure and those he plied for his trade. We can, however, find evidence of other Howes Stationers as a Puritan bookselling family. In doing so we can see the influences of Puritanism within a print trade family. Peter McCullough has shown individuals situated within a complex web of economics, locality and kinship all acting as ‘matrices’ in the publication process.[5] The Howes family matrix would have influenced the print trade decisions they made collectively and individually. Their case illuminates the nature of the family as crucial to the formation and dissemination of the Puritan print trade in seventeenth-century England.

William’s will was witnessed by his brother Robert (fl. 1610–1648), who was also a Stationer and had been William’s Master. For much of his life William would have lived and worked in his brother’s household learning the trade of bookselling (see Figure 4). Puritanism centred on the godly household so the spiritual influences of Robert on William (and vice-versa) would have been significant. To Robert can be attributed three extant texts, indicating a godliness like that of his brother. This includes publishing a newsbook favourable to the Parliamentary cause with the Puritan printer Henry Overton, (and likely brother of the Leveller, Richard Overton); the Weekly intelligence from severall parts of this kingdome for which we have two issues from October 1642.

Figure 4. Men working at a printing press, proofing copy, inking, and setting type. Engraving after a woodcut by Stradanus, c.1580. Wellcome Collection.

Robert’s son Samuel (fl. 1643–1653) was also a Stationer, becoming Henry Overton’s apprentice. In 1649 he was listed as a sectarian bookseller and was said to have been an Antinomian bookbinder. He was involved in the publication of several Puritan texts. His place of business was named as ‘Pope’s Head Alley’, within the parish of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street, notable for the religious Independency and political radicalism of its inhabitants. There also is a possibility that Robert was father to Hannah (fl. 1632–1664) who married first the Stationer Benjamin Allen and then Livewell Chapman. She was similarly based in Pope’s Head Alley. Maureen Bell has shown how Hannah’s Puritan radicalism was significant as was her role in publishing, especially in support of the Fifth Monarchist cause.[6] Hannah’s publishing network and those of the books bequeathed by her uncle William shows several mutually held relationships within the trade.

Taken together, the texts William collected and the careers of his brother, niece and nephew suggest the interconnectedness of a London based Puritan family of booksellers and their involvement within an international print trade of godly texts. This highlights the intergenerational influences of Puritanism, passed down between kith and kin, and how such influences served both spiritual and practical ends.


[1] London, The National Archives, PROB 11/177/403 [Will of William Howes, 02 July 1638].

[2] Andrew Cambers, Godly Reading: Print, Manuscript and Puritanism in England, 1580-1720 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 203.

[3] See David D. Hall, The Puritans: A Transatlantic History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp.197–98.

[4] See Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp 15–20.

[5] Peter McCullough, ‘Print, Publication, and Religious Politics in Caroline England’, The Historical Journal, 51 (2008), 285–313 (286).

[6] Maureen Bell, ‘Hannah Allen and the Development of a Puritan Publishing Business, 1646–51’, Publishing History, 26 (1989), 5–66.