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The Right Honourable
 The Earl of Oxford and
Earl Mortimer


In office
1710 – 1711
Preceded by John Smith
Succeeded by Robert Benson

In office
1701 – 1705
Preceded by Sir Thomas Littleton

In office
1704 – 1708
Preceded by Sir Charles Hedges
Succeeded by Henry Boyle

In office
1711 – 1714
Preceded by In Commission
Succeeded by Charles Talbot

Died 21 May 1724

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (5 December 1661 – 21 May 1724) was a British politician and statesman of the late Stuart and early Georgian periods. He began his career as a Whig, before defecting to a new Tory Ministry. Between 1711 and 1714 he served as First Lord of the Treasury, effectively Queen Anne's Chief Minister. His government agreed the Treaty of Utrecht with France, bringing an end to British involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. He later fell from favour following the Hanoverian Succession and was for a time imprisoned in the Tower of London by his political enemies.

He was also a noted literary figure and served as a patron of both the October Club and the Scriblerus Club. Harley Street is sometimes said to be named after him, although it was his son Edward Harley who actually developed the area.

Contents

Early life and marriages

Harley was the eldest son of Sir Edward Harley (1624–1700), a prominent landowner in Herefordshire, and grandson of Robert Harley (1579-1656), and his third wife, the celebrated letter-writer Brilliana Harley (c. 1600–1643), and was born in Bow Street, Covent Garden, London.

He was educated at Shilton, near Burford, in Oxfordshire, in a small school which produced at the same time a Lord High Treasurer (Harley himself), a Lord High Chancellor (Lord Harcourt) and a Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas (Thomas Trevor).

The principles of Whiggism and Nonconformism were taught him at an early age, and he never formally abandoned his family's religious opinions, although he departed from them in politics.

He married, in May 1685, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Foley, of Witley Court, Worcestershire. She died in November 1691. His second wife was Sarah, daughter of Simon Middleton, of Edmonton, London.

Political Career

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Coming to Notice

At the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 Sir Edward Harley and his son raised a troop of horse in support of the cause of William III, and took possession of the city of Worcester on his behalf. This recommended Robert Harley to the notice of the Boscawen family, and led to his election, in April 1689, as the parliamentary representative of Tregony, a borough under their control. He remained its member for one parliament, when he was elected by the constituency of New Radnor in 1690, and he continued to represent it until his elevation to the peerage in 1711.

Speaker of the House of Commons

From an early age, Harley paid particular attention to the conduct of public business, taking special care over the study of the forms and ceremonies of the House of Commons. After the general election of February 1701 until the parliamentary dissolution in 1705 he held the office of Speaker. From 18 May 1704 he combined this office with that of the Secretary of State for the Northern Department, displacing the Tory Earl of Nottingham.

Northern Secretary

Harley was an early practitioner of 'spin'; he recognised the political importance of careful management of the media. In 1703 Harley first made use of Daniel Defoe's talents as a political writer. This proved so successful that he was later to employ both Delarivier Manley and Jonathan Swift to pen pamphlets for him for use against his many opponents in politics.

During the time of his office, the union with Scotland was brought about. At the time of his appointment as Secretary of State, Harley had given no outward sign of dissatisfaction with the Whigs, and it was mainly through Marlborough's influence that he was admitted to the ministry.

For some time, so long indeed as the victories of the great English general cast a glamour over the policy of his friends, Harley continued to act loyally with his colleagues. But in the summer of 1707 it became evident to Sidney Godolphin that some secret influence behind the throne was shaking the confidence of the Queen in her ministers. The sovereign had resented the intrusion into the administration of the impetuous Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, and had persuaded herself that the safety of the Church of England depended on the fortunes of the Tories. These convictions were strengthened in her mind by the new favourite Abigail Masham (a cousin of the Duchess of Marlborough through her mother, and of Harley on her father's side), whose coaxing contrasted favourably in the eyes of the Queen with the haughty manners of her old friend, the Duchess of Marlborough.

Harley, c. 1710.

Chief Minister

Both the Duchess and Godolphin were convinced that this change in the disposition of the queen was due to the influence of Harley and his relatives; but he was permitted to remain in office. Later, an ill-paid and poverty-stricken clerk, William Gregg, in Harley's office, was found to have given the enemy copies of many documents which should have been kept from the knowledge of all but the most trusted advisers of the court, and it was found that through the carelessness of the head of the department the contents of such papers became the common property of all in his service. The Queen was informed that Godolphin and Marlborough could no longer serve with Harley. They did not attend her next council, on 8 February 1708, and when Harley proposed to proceed with the business of the day the Duke of Somerset drew attention to their absence. The Queen found herself forced (11 February) to accept the resignations of both Harley and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

Harley left office, but his cousin, who had recently married, continued in the Queen's service. Harley employed her influence without scruple, and not in vain. The cost of the protracted war with France, and the danger to the national church, the chief proof of which lay in the prosecution of Henry Sacheverell, were the weapons which he used to influence the masses of the people. Marlborough himself could not be dispensed with, but his relations were dismissed from their posts in turn. When the greatest of these, Lord Godolphin, was ejected from office, five commissioners to the treasury were appointed (10 August 1710); among them was Harley as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was the aim of the new chancellor to frame an administration from the moderate members of both parties, and to adopt with but slight changes the policy of his predecessors; but his efforts were doomed to disappointment. The Whigs refused to join an alliance with him, and the Tories, who were successful beyond their wildest hopes at the polling booths, could not understand why their leaders did not adopt a policy more favourable to the interests of their party.

Oxford (right), together with his friend and ally Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and a portrait of Francis Atterbury. Engraving after a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

The clamours of the wilder spirits, the country members who met at the October Club, began to be re-echoed even by those who were attached to the person of Harley, when, through an unexpected event, his popularity was restored at a bound. A French refugee, the ex-abbé La Bourlie (better known by the name of the marquis de Guiscard), was being examined before the privy council on a charge of treason, when he stabbed Harley in the breast with a penknife (8 March 1711). To a man in good health the wounds would not have been serious, but the minister had been ill and Swift had penned the prayer, "Pray God preserve his health, everything depends upon it". The joy of the nation on his recovery knew no bounds. Both Houses presented an address to the crown, suitable response came from the queen, and on Harley's reappearance in the Lower House the speaker made an oration which was spread broadcast through the country. On 23 May 1711 the minister became Baron Harley, of Wigmore in the County of Hereford, and Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (the latter, despite its form, being a single peerage); on the 29 May he was appointed Lord Treasurer, and on 25 October 1712 became a Knight of the Garter. Well might his friends exclaim that he had grown by persecutions, turnings out, and stabbings.

A further attempt was made on his life in November with the Bandbox Plot, in which a hat-box, armed with loaded pistols to be triggered by a thread within the package was sent to him; the assassination attempt was forestalled by the prompt intervention of Jonathan Swift.

With the sympathy which these attempted assassinations had evoked, and with the skill which the lord treasurer possessed for conciliating the calmer members of either political party, he passed several months in office without any loss of reputation. He rearranged the nation’s finances, and continued to support her generals in the field with ample resources for carrying on the campaign, though his emissaries were in communication with the French King, and were settling the terms of a peace independently of England's allies. After many weeks of vacillation and intrigue, when the negotiations were frequently on the point of being interrupted, the preliminary peace was signed, and in spite of the opposition of the Whig majority in the House of Lords, which was met by the creation of twelve new peers, the much-vexed Treaty of Utrecht was brought to a conclusion on 31 March 1713.

Harley pictured carrying the white staff of the Lord High Treasurer. Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

Whilst Lord Treasurer (Circa 1712) Harley made the infamous statement "Have we not bought the Scots, and a right to tax them?"[1] This provided credence amongst Scots that the Act Of Union had been a vehicle for England to assert dominance over Scotland.

While these negotiations were under discussion the friendship between Oxford and St John, who had become Secretary of State in September 1710, was fast changing into hatred. The latter had resented the rise in fortune which the stabs of Guiscard had secured for his colleague, and when he was raised to the peerage with the title of Baron St John and Viscount Bolingbroke, instead of with an earldom, his resentment knew no bounds. The royal favourite, whose husband had been called to the Upper House as Baron Masham, deserted her old friend and relation for his more vivacious rival. The Jacobites found that, although the Lord Treasurer was profuse in his expressions of good will for their cause, no steps were taken to ensure its triumph, and they no longer placed reliance in promises which were repeatedly made and repeatedly broken. Even Oxford's friends began to complain of his dilatoriness, and to find some excuse for his apathy in ill-health, aggravated by excess in the pleasures of the table and by the loss of his favourite child. The confidence of Queen Anne was gradually transferred from Oxford to Bolingbroke; on 27 July 1714 the former surrendered his staff as lord treasurer, and on 1 August the queen died.

Imprisonment

On the accession of George I of Great Britain, the defeated minister retired to Herefordshire, but a few months later his impeachment[2] was decided upon and he was committed to the Tower of London on 16 July 1715. After an imprisonment of nearly two years, he was formally acquitted from the charges of high treason and high crimes and misdemeanours for which he had been impeached two years earlier and allowed to resume his place among the peers, but he took little part in public affairs, and died almost unnoticed in London on 21 May 1724.

Literary importance

Harley's importance to literature cannot be overstated. As a patron of the arts, he was notable. As a preservationist, he was invaluable.

When he was in office, Harley promoted the careers of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Gay. He also wrote with them as a member of the Scriblerus Club. He, along with Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, contributed to the literary productions of the Club. His particular talent lay in poetry, and some of his work (always unsigned) has been preserved and may be found among editions of Swift's poetry. Additionally, he likely had some hand in the writing of The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, though it is impossible to tell how much.

At the same time, Harley used his wealth and power to collect an unparalleled library. He commissioned the creation of ballad collections, such as The Bagford Ballads, and he purchased loose poems from all corners. He preserved Renaissance literature (particularly poetry), Anglo-Saxon literature that was then incomprehensible, and a great deal of Middle English literature. His collection, with that of his son Edward Harley, was sold to Parliament in 1753 for the British Museum by the Countess of Oxford and her daughter, the Duchess of Portland; it is known as the Harley Collection.[3]

References

  1. ^ Lockhart Papers Page 327
  2. ^ Impeachment against E. Oxford brought from House of Commons at the journal of the House of Lords (UK).
  3. ^ Illuminated manuscripts: a guide to the British Library’s collections British Library Illuminated Manuscripts; The Foundation Collections

Bibliography

  • Boyer, Abel Political State of Great Britain. London, 1724 (a semiannual publication)
  • Burnet, Gilbert, History of my Own Time. 6 volumes, London, 1838
  • Hill, Brian W. Robert Harley: Speaker, Secretary of State and Premier Minister. New Haven: Yale U. P., 1988 ISBN 0300042841
  • Cobbett, William, Howell, Thomas B. and Thomas J., State Trials. London, 1809-26 (part of a 34 vol. series)
  • Lecky, William. History of England in the Eighteenth Century. London, 1878-90
  • Lodge, Edmund, Portraits of Illustrious Personages of Great Britain. London, 1850
  • Macaulay, Thomas B. History of England. London, 1855
  • Manning, James A. The Lives of the Speakers of the House of Commons. London: G. Willis, 1851
  • Roscoe, E. S., Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, Prime Minister, 1710-14. London: Methuen, 1902 (Appendices: I. Swift's character of the Earl of Oxford.--II. Money lent to the Queen by the Earl of Oxford.--III. Note on the manuscripts and letters of and relating to Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford)
  • Stanhope, Lord. History of England, Comprising the Reign of Queen Anne until the Peace of Utrecht. London, 1870

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

Parliament of England
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Littleton
Speaker of the House of Commons
1701–1705
Succeeded by
John Smith
Preceded by
Charles Boscawen
Hugh Fortescue
Member of Parliament for Tregony
1689 – 1690
With: Hugh Fortescue
Succeeded by
Sir John Tremayne
Hugh Fortescue
Preceded by
Sir Rowland Gwynne
Member of Parliament for Radnor
1690 – 1707
Succeeded by
Parliament of Great Britain
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Parliament of England
Member of Parliament for Radnor
1707 – 1711
Succeeded by
Lord Harley
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Rowland Gwynne
Custos Rotulorum of Radnorshire
1702–1714
Succeeded by
The Lord Coningsby
Preceded by
Sir Charles Hedges
Northern Secretary
1704–1708
Succeeded by
Henry Boyle
Preceded by
John Smith
Chancellor of the Exchequer
1710–1711
Succeeded by
Robert Benson
Preceded by
In Commission
(First Lord: The Earl Poulett)
Lord High Treasurer
1711–1714
Succeeded by
The Duke of Shrewsbury
Peerage of Great Britain
Preceded by
New Creation
Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer
1711–1724
Succeeded by
Edward Harley

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