Robert Harley 1st earl of Oxford

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Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford, 1661–1724, English statesman and bibliophile. His career illustrates the power of personal connections and intrigue in the politics of his day. When he entered (1689) Parliament, he was generally associated with the Whigs and introduced (1694) the Triennial Bill (which required new parliamentary elections every three years) in the House of Commons. His sympathies soon shifted, however, and before the accession (1702) of Queen Anne he was a leader of the Tories. He was secretary of state for the north (1704–8) but was forced out of office by John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, because of his intrigues against the predominantly Whig government. His influence on the queen continued, however, through his kinswoman Abigail Masham. The unpopularity of the War of the Spanish Succession and the uproar caused by the trial of Henry Sacheverell brought the fall of the Whigs, and Harley came to power with Henry St. John (later Viscount Bolingbroke) in 1710. He survived an attempt on his life in 1711 and was made earl and lord treasurer. Consolidating his power, he undertook secret peace negotiations that led to the Peace of Utrecht (1713) and founded the South Sea Company (see South Sea Bubble). His position, however, was undermined by the intrigues of St. John, and he lost office just before Queen Anne's death (1714). After the accession of George I, he was imprisoned (1715) and impeached (1716) for his conduct of the peace negotiations and for dealings with the Jacobites, but he was acquitted. The manuscript collection gathered by Harley and his son Edward constitutes the important Harleian Library in the British Museum.

See B. Hill, Robert Harley: Speaker, Secretary of State and Premier (1988); bibliography by A. Downie (1989).

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Harley, Robert, 1st earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer (1661–1724). Prime minister and bibliophile. From a puritan Herefordshire family, Harley was MP for Tregony (1689–90) and New Radnor Boroughs (1690–1711), and in the 1690s a leader of the new country party (which attacked the royal prerogative and a standing army), as well as twice being chosen Speaker of the Commons. He was again Speaker (1702–5), and in 1704 was appointed secretary of state for the northern department in the Godolphin ministry. His growing Toryism and reputation for deviousness and (in the eyes of the Junto Whigs, Marlborough and Godolphin) untrustworthiness led to his resignation from the ministry in 1708. His revenge was to gain the confidence of Queen Anne and to engineer the fall of the ministry in 1710, becoming chief minister for the next four years, first as chancellor of the Exchequer and then in 1711 as lord treasurer (when he was raised to the peerage by a grateful queen after he had recovered from an assassination attempt).

Though the leader of an essentially Tory ministry, Harley wanted to establish a government above party. His failure was as a result of increased extremism in the Tory Party (which won decisively in the general elections of 1710 and 1713), the problems of the peace with France (which the Whigs strenuously opposed), and the rivalry with Bolingbroke. One week before she died, Anne dismissed Harley from office. He was impeached in 1715, largely for his part in the peace of Utrecht which George I had opposed, and remained in the Tower until 1717 when proceedings were dropped. His main political achievement was to develop a ‘party of the crown’ in Parliament, which was later taken up and refined by Walpole. His extensive collection of books and manuscripts later formed the basis of the British Museum library.

Clyve Jones

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Harley, Robert, 1st Earl of Oxford (1661–1724) British statesman. He was a Tory MP (1688–1711) and speaker of the House of Commons (1701–05). In 1710 he became the leading minister of Queen Anne, but was unable to form a lasting government. He was appointed Lord High Treasurer in 1711, but dismissed from office in 1714.