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From Howden's name and the internal evidence of his work, he is believed to have been a native of Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Nothing is known of him before the year 1174. He was then in attendance upon Henry II, by whom he was sent from France on a secret mission to the lords of Galloway. In 1175 he again appears as a negotiator between the king and a number of English religious houses. The interest which Howden shows in ecclesiastical affairs and miracles may justify the supposition that he was a clerk in orders. This, however, did not prevent him from acting, in 1189, as a justice of the forests in the shires of Yorkshire, Cumberland and Northumberland.
During this time, Howden is believed to have been working on his Gesta Henrici II et Gesta Regis Ricardi. This chronicle was formerly ascribed to Benedict of Peterborough, who had the manuscript copied for his library. The Gesta Regis Henrici II & Gesta Regis Ricardi is the work of a well-informed man, connected with the court and inclined to take the side of Henry II. He confines himself to the external history of events, and his tone is strictly impersonal. He incorporates some official documents, and in many places obviously derives his information from others which he does not quote. There is a break in his work at the year 1177, where the earliest manuscript ends. The work begins at Christmas 1169, and concludes in 1192; it is thus in form a fragment, covering portions of the reign of Henry II and Richard I.
Howden went on the Third Crusade with Richard I of England, joining him in Marseille in August 1190. He left for Europe in August 1191, in the entourage of Philip II of France. On his return, about the year 1192 he began to compile his Chronica, a general history of England from 732 to his own time. Up to the year 1192 his narrative adds little to our knowledge. For the period 732-1148 he chiefly drew upon an extant, but unpublished chronicle, the Historia Saxonum sive Anglorum post obitum Bedae (British Library Royal MS 13 A VI), which was composed about 1150. From 1148 to 1170 he used the Melrose Chronicle (edited for the Bannatyne Club in 1835 by Joseph Stevenson) and a collection of letters bearing upon the Thomas Becket controversy. From 1170 to 1192 he drew upon his own earlier Gesta Regis Henrici II and Gesta Regis Ricardi, revising the text and inserting some additional documents. From 1192, the Chronica is an independent and copious authority.
Howden is sedulously impersonal, and makes no pretense to literary style, quotes documents in full and adheres to the annalistic method. His chronology is tolerably exact, but there are mistakes enough to prove that he recorded events at a certain distance of time. Both on foreign affairs and on questions of domestic policy he is unusually well informed. His practical experience as an administrator and his official connections stood him in good stead. He is particularly useful on points of constitutional history. His work breaks off abruptly in 1201, though he certainly intended to carry it further. Probably his death should be placed in that year.