Harley, Robert (1661–1724)

views updated May 14 2018

HARLEY, ROBERT (16611724)

HARLEY, ROBERT (16611724), British politician. Robert Harley headed the Tory ministry from 1710 to 1714. Although by background a Whig and dissenter, he eventually changed his political affiliation, becoming leader of the Tory and Anglican governing regime.

Born in London on 5 December 1661, the eldest son of Sir Edward Harley and Abigail Harley, daughter of Nathaniel Stephens, Robert Harley received a private education and was admitted to the Inner Temple on 18 March 1682, though never called to the bar. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688 he assisted his father in raising a regiment of cavalry and took part in capturing the city of Worcester on behalf of William III (ruled 16891702). In March 1689 Harley was appointed high sheriff of Herefordshire and was elected to Parliament for the borough of Tregoney until 1690, when he became member of Parliament for New Radnor, a seat he retained until his elevation to a peerage. In this position he advanced numerous legislative measures, including the Triennial Bill, which provided that elections be held at intervals no longer than three years, the National Land Bank, and the reduction in army strength following the Treaty of Ryswick (1697). Harley was speaker of the commons between 1701 and 1705 and served as secretary of state from 1704 to 1708, when, due to political intrigues, he was forced to resign.

With the collapse of the Marlborough-Godolphin coalition in 1710, Harley returned to office as chancellor of the exchequer. After the Tory election landslide of 1710, he became head of a reconstructed administration and in 1711 was elevated to an earldom (Oxford). He launched the South Sea Company in 1711 and initiated the complex deliberation with France that resulted in the Treaties (or Peace) of Utrecht of 1713, which laid the foundation of Britain's imperial hegemony. Harley played a key role not only in the initial negotiations of the Treaty of Utrecht but also in the concluding stages until October 1712. These initiatives brought him into conflict with his colleague Henry St. John, first viscount Bolingbroke (16781751), whose ambition for supreme office was fanned by Harley's growing alienation from Queen Anne (ruled 17021714) and declining support within Tory ranks. Harley's tenuous political position was further eroded by increasing apathy, excessive drinking, and his questionable (if not treasonous) correspondence with the Jacobite Old Pretender James Edward (16881766). Dismissed on 27 July 1714 and excluded from power, Harley's influence ended with the Hanoverian succession (August 1714). He was impeached for corruption, sedition, and other misdemeanors and languished for two years in the Tower of London pending trial. For lack of evidence he was eventually acquitted. Harley spent his last years banished from court but attending the House of Lords, speaking in opposition to the Mutiny Bill in 1718 and protesting the Peerage Bill the following year.

Harley died at his home on Albermarle Street in London on 21 May 1724. He was buried at Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, where a memorial was erected to his memory.

Excelling at political intrigue and manipulation, Harley was an intelligent, moderate, and pragmatic minister with the ability to attract and conciliate followers from both the Whig and the Tory ranks. His positive achievement lay in promoting measures of the highest national importance while providing the resourceful leadership required to steer them through Parliament during a time of chronic partisan divisions. Committed to political independence, Harley invariably strove to maintain an administration that functioned autonomously, free from dictation by parties and party leaders. So secretive was his nature and political strategy that they ultimately became a liability, confirming a reputation for deviousness and bad faith that cost him the support of vital Whig political groupings that distrusted his intentions.

Appreciating the influence of the press in contemporary politics, Harley recruited many notable pamphleteers, including Daniel Defoe (16601731), Jonathan Swift (16671745), and Charles Davenant (16561714) to manipulate national opinion on his ministry's behalf. He also had broad literary and cultural interests. Over the years he assembled a sizable collection of books and manuscripts that form the nucleus of the Harleian Collection in the British Library.

See also Anne (England) ; Churchill, John, duke of Marlborough ; Defoe, Daniel ; Glorious Revolution (Britain) ; Parliament ; Swift, Jonathan ; Utrecht, Peace of (1713) ; William and Mary .


Biddle, Sheila. Bolingbroke and Harley. New York, 1974.

Dickinson, William Calvin. Sidney Godolphin, Lord Treasurer, 17021710. Lewiston, N.Y., 1990.

Gregg, Edward. Queen Anne. London, 1980.

Hill, Brian. "Oxford, Bolingbroke, and the Peace of Utrecht." Historical Journal 16 (1973): 241263.

. Robert Harley: Speaker, Secretary of State, and Premier Minister. New Haven, 1988.

Karl W. Schweizer

Robert Harley

views updated May 17 2018

Robert Harley

The English statesman Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (1661-1724), revived and unified the Tory party at the end of the 17th century and was its leader until the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

Robert Harley was born in London on Dec. 5, 1661, eldest son of a well-known Presbyterian squire of Herefordshire and member of Parliament. He was educated at a Nonconformist academy and read law for a while. When England expelled its Catholic king James II in 1688, Harley supported the Dutch Prince of Orange, who supplanted James, taking the throne as William III. Harley began his political career as a Whig-Presbyterian member of Parliament but soon moved into leadership of the coalition that opposed William III and his Whig government.

Leader of the Tories

This coalition was made up of Church Tories, former Tory courtiers, independent gentry, and dissatisfied Whigs. It combined reverence for the monarchy with dislike of the Dutch king, loyalty to the Church of England with attacks on Nonconformists, and respect for the landed interest with scorn for city financiers and war contractors. These were to be lasting elements of Toryism. A skilled parliamentarian and born intriguer, by 1701 Harley had become a leader of this new Tory party and was chosen Speaker of the House of Commons.

When William III died in 1702 and was succeeded by Queen Anne, Harley continued as Speaker. He was now on close terms with Sidney Godolphin, whom Anne had named lord treasurer and head of the government. While the Duke of Marlborough managed the great war with France (War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1713) and Godolphin the government finances, Harley managed the government's business in the Commons—first as Speaker, then (1704-1708) as secretary of state. In 1708 this three-man team broke up. Marlborough and Godolphin found it impossible to continue the war without the support of the Whigs, who were strong among the Non-conformists and commercial class.

This approach to the Whigs alienated the pious Anglican queen, as it did Harley. Harley persuaded the Queen to let him form a new administration, purged of Whig elements; but the scheme was discovered before it could be put into effect. The leading political figures refused to accept Harley in place of Godolphin and Marlborough, and Harley was forced out of office in late 1708. Two years later, taking advantage of general weariness with the long war, Harley successfully brought down the Marlborough-Godolphin administration. His influence with the Queen and the political mistakes of the government in rejecting a peace overture from France and apparently attacking the Church of England by the impeachment of an antiadministration High Church parson contributed to Harley's success.

Lord High Treasurer

Harley became the new lord treasurer and was made Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer. His administration made peace with France on favorable terms at Utrecht (1713). He himself improvised financial backing for his regime in the face of Whig hostility in London business circles through the foundation of the South Sea Company—a legitimate corporation in its early years though later tainted by the scandals of the "South Sea Bubble" of 1720. Harley had a brilliant public relations man in Jonathan Swift, whose Four Last Years of Queen Anne is a classic. He also used Daniel Defoe as a government journalist.

Harley's leadership did not go unchallenged. The chief architect of the peace with France was Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. While Harley tried to preserve his communications with Low Church and Whig groups, Bolingbroke rallied the young High Church squires around him. As Harley slipped into indolence and overindulgence, he let the initiative fall into the hands of Bolingbroke and the young Tory extremists. Schemes for a Stuart restoration were afoot, but the sudden death of the Queen on Aug. 1, 1714, came before they could be carried out. When George of Hanover was proclaimed king of England, Bolingbroke fled to France, and Harley remained to face the music.

Impeached for high treason by the unanimous vote of the Commons, Harley spent nearly 3 years in the Tower until acquitted by the House of Lords. Thereafter he attended the upper house regularly until his death in London on May 24, 1724.

During his lifetime Harley acquired a notable collection of printed books plus some 25, 000 manuscripts later bequeathed to the British Museum. Much of his correspondence has survived; it adds to the enigma of his devious and secretive personality.

Further Reading

A short but excellent biography is Oswald B. Miller, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1925). Also recommended is Elizabeth Hamilton, The Backstairs Dragon: A Life of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1970). Geoffrey Holmes deals with Harley in British Politics in the Age of Anne (1967), an introductory work to a projected biography of Harley. See also Robert Walcott, English Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century (1956), to which Holmes's work is a rejoinder.

Additional Sources

Biddle, Sheila, Bolingbroke and Harle, New York, Knopf; distributed by Random House 1974.

Hill, Brian W., Robert Harley, speaker, secretary of state, and premier minister, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. □

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