In Roman times the site of Howden was permanently underwater; a feature sometimes called "Lake Humber." (The Romans landed at Brough, "Petuaria" and marched over the Wolds to establish the settlement that has now become Malton.)
Centuries of winter flooding from the river Ouse deposited large quantities of silt, building up the land between the carrs and salt-marshes until the site became dry throughout the year. The first recorded reference (to Howden) refers to a wooden tomb of a sister of King Osred of Northumbria, made in a Saxon church on this site in 700 C.E. A surviving document dated 959 C E. records a transfer of land ownership in this area. Later Howden was the centre of a large 51-carucate estate recorded in the Domesday Book.
The most decisive event following the Norman Conquest was William's gift of Howden to the Prince Bishop(s) of Durham. His policy was to disperse the assets of the nobility. This dictated the development of the town from 1180 until 1537. The Prince Bishops saw Howden as a convenient staging point on journeys to and from the Royal Court in London. They established a small palace here. The Canons of Durham began the construction of a large Norman Church in place of the Saxon one; this eventually featured a small grammar school (1260's) teaching Latin to future clerics and clergy. Roger of Howden became a "clerk" serving Henry 11 who established the first form of civil service for the country. Roger is remembered for his "History of England" written about 1200 C.E. John of Howden is remembered for his attractive Latin verses and for unusual happenings at his funeral which caused Howden to become a place of pilgrimage.
In 1201 King John granted the town an annual wholesale market when merchants from London brought their wares to sell to local retailers. This market would last several days. Such changes increased local wealth, further boosted when the church achieved collegiate status in 1267, whereby a College of Prebends (senior vicars) was created. These clergy (about 20) had generous stipends and employed junior clergy to perform the offices whilst themselves lived the "good life." The population grew so that the census for the poll tax levied in 1379 suggests about 1,600 residents at a time when York, the country's second city, had about 10,000.
Henry V111's dissolution of the monasteries stopped the inflow of wealth but fortunes revived with the growth of an annual horse fair from the early 1700's. Yorkshire was a notable horse breeding area with Howden playing a significant part in the sales. The Horse Fair reached a peak in the mid 1800's when in one year, during a two week fair, more than 16,000 horses changed hands. Many were bought for the various armies of Europe but the trade and fair died out in the 1920's.
The opening of a bridge over the river Ouse in 1929 gave easy access to the shops in Goole and contributed to the decline of Howden's place as a self-sustaining market town serving its local area.