He was born in London, the second son of Emmanuel Scrope Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe, who died governor of Barbados in March 1735, and of Mary Sophia Charlotte, a daughter of Baroness Kilmansegge, afterwards Countess of Darlington, the mistress of King George I--a relationship which does much to explain his early rise in the navy. Richard Howe entered the navy in the “Severn,” one of the squadron sent into the south seas with George Anson in 1740. The "Severn" failed to round the Horn and returned home. Howe next served in the West Indies in the "Burford," and was present in her when she was very severely damaged in the unsuccessful attack on La Guayra on February 181742. He was made acting-lieutenant in the West Indies in the same year, and the rank was confirmed in 1744.
During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 he commanded the "Baltimore" sloop in the North Sea, and was dangerously wounded in the head while co-operating with a frigate in an engagement with two strong French privateers. In 1746 he became post-captain, and commanded the "Triton" (24) in the West Indies. As captain of the "Cornwall" (80), the flagship of Sir Charles Knowles, he was in the battle with the Spaniards off Havana on October 21748. While the peace between the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War lasted, Howe held commands at home and on the west coast of Africa. In 1755 he went with Edward Boscawen to North America as captain of the "Dunkirk" (60), and his seizure of the French "Alcide" (64) was the first shot fired in the war. From this date till the peace of 1763 he served in the Channel in various more or less futile expeditions against the coast of France, with a steady increase of reputation as a firm and skilful officer. On November 20 1759 he led Hawke's fleet as captain of the "Magnanime" (64) in the magnificent victory of Quiberon.
As a result of the death of his elder brother, killed near Ticonderoga on the July 6, 1758, he became Viscount Howe--an Irish peerage. In 1762 he was elected M.P. for Dartmouth, and held the seat till he received a title of Great Britain. During 1763 and 1765 he was a member of the Admiralty board, and from 1765 to 1770 was treasurer of the navy. In that year he was promoted rear-admiral, and in 1775 vice-admiral. In 1776 he was appointed to the command of the North American station. The rebellion of the colonies was making rapid progress, and Howe was known to be in sympathy with the colonists. He had sought the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, who was a friend of his sister Miss Howe, a clever eccentric woman well known in London society, and had already tried to act as a peacemaker. It was doubtless because of his known sentiments that he was selected to command in America, and was joined in commission with his brother Sir William Howe, the general at the head of the land forces, to make a conciliatory arrangement. A committee appointed by the Continental Congress conferred with the Howes in September 1776 but nothing was accomplished. The appointment of a new peace commission in 1778 offended the admiral deeply, and he sent in a resignation of his command. It was reluctantly accepted by Lord Sandwich, then First Lord, but before it could take effect France declared war, and a powerful French squadron was sent to America under the Comte d'Estaing. Being greatly outnumbered, Howe had to stand on the defensive, but he baffled the French admiral at Sandy Hook, and defeated his attempt to take Newport in Rhode Island by a fine combination of caution and calculated daring. On the arrival of Admiral John Byron from England with reinforcements, Howe left the station in September. Until the fall of Lord North's ministry in 1782 he refused to serve, assigning as his reason that he could not trust Lord Sandwich. He considered that he had not been properly supported in America, and was embittered both by the supersession of himself and his brother as peace commissioners, and by attacks made on him by the ministerial writers in the press.
On the change of ministry in March 1782 he was selected to command in the Channel, and in the autumn of that year, September, October and November, he carried out the final relief of Gibraltar, It was a difficult operation, for tihe French and Spaniards had in all 46 line-of-battle ships to his 33, and in the exhausted state of the country it was impossible to fit his ships properly or to supply them with good crews. He was, moreover, hampered by a great convoy carrying stores. But Howe was eminent in the handling of a great multitude of ships, the enemy was awkward and unenterprising, and the operation was brilliantly carried out. From January 28 to April 161783 he was First Lord of the Admiralty, and he held that post from December 1783 till August 1788, in Pitt's first ministry. The task was no pleasant one, for he had to agree to economies where he considered that more outlay was needed, and he had to disappoint the hopes of the many officers who were left unemployed by the peace. On the outbreak of the Revolutionary war in 1793 he was again named to the command of the Channel fleet. His services in 1704 form the most glorious period of his life, for in it he won the epoch-making victory of the "Glorious" 1st of June. Though Howe was now nearly seventy, and had been trained in the old school, he displayed an originality not usual with veterans, and not excelled by any of his successors in the war, not even by Nelson, since they had his example to follow and were served by more highly trained squadrons than his. He continued to hold the nominal command by the wish of the king. but his active service was now over. In 1797 he was called on to pacify the mutineers at Spithead, and his great influence with the seamen who trusted him was conspicuously shown.
He was buried in his family vault at Langar. His monument by John Flaxman is in St Paul's Cathedral. In 1782 he was created Viscount Howe of Langar, and in 1788 Baron and Earl Howe. In June 1797 he was made a Knight of the Garter. With the sailors he was always popular, though he was no popularity hunter, for they knew him to be just. His nickname of "Black Dick" was given on account of his swarthy complexion, and the well-known portrait by Gainsborough shows that it was apt.
Lord Howe married, on March 101758, Mary Hariop, the daughter of Colonel Chiverton Hartop of Welby in Leicestershire, and had issue two daughters, His Irish title descended to his brother William, the general, who died childless in 1814. The earldom, and the viscountcy of the United Kingdom, being limited to heirs male, became extinct, but the barony passed to his daughter, Sophia Charlotte (1762-1835), who married the Hon. Penn Assheton Curzon. Their son, Richard William Curzon (1796-1870), who succeeded his paternal grandfather as Viscount Curzon in 1820, was created Earl Howe in 1821; he was succeeded by his son, George Augustus (1821-1876), and then by another son, Richard William (1822-1900), whose son Richard George Penn Curzon-Howe (b. 1861) became 4th Earl Howe in 1900.
The standard Life is by Sir John Barrow (1838). Interesting reminiscences will be found in the Life of Codringlon, by Lady Bourchier. Accounts of his professional services are in Charnock's Biographia Navalis, v. 457, and in Rail's Naval Biographies, i. 83. See also Beatson's Naval and Military Annals, James's Naval History, and Chevalier's Histoire de la Marine française, vols. i. and ii.