1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Oxford, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of

OXFORD, ROBERT HARLEY. 1st Earl[1] of (1661–1724), English statesman, commonly known by his surname of Harley, eldest son of Sir Edward Harley (1624–1700), a prominent landowner in Herefordshire, and grandson of the celebrated letter writer Lady Brilliana Harley (c. 1600–1643), was born in Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, on the 5th of December 1661. His school days were passed at Shilton, near Burford, in Oxfordshire, in a small school which produced at the same time a lord high treasurer (Harley), a lord high chancellor (Simon Harcourt) and a lord chief justice of the common pleas (Thomas Trevor). The principles of Whiggism and Nonconformity were instilled into his mind at an early age, and if he changed the politics of his ancestors he never formally abandoned their religious opinions. At the Revolution of 1688 Sir Edward and his son raised a troop of horse in support of the cause of William III., and took possession of the city of Worcester in his interest. 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, and he continued to represent it until his elevation to the peerage in 1711.

From the first Harley gave great attention to the conduct of public business, bestowing especial care upon the study of the forms and ceremonies of the House. His reputation marked him out as a fitting person to preside over the debates of the House, and from the general election of February 1701 until the dissolution of 1705 he held with general approbation the office of speaker. For a part of this period, from the 18th of May 1704, he combined with the speaker ship the duties of a principal secretary of state for the northern department, displacing in that office the Tory earl of Nottingham. In 1703 Harley first made use of Defoe’s talents as a political writer, and this alliance with the press proved so successful that he afterwards called the genius of Swift to his aid in many pamphlets against his opponents in politics. While he was secretary of state the union with Scotland was effected. 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 good opinion of his abilities 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 loyaUy with his colleagues. But in the summer of 1707 it became evident to 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 earl of Sunderland, and had persuaded herself that the safety of the church depended on the fortunes of the Tories. These convictions were strengthened in her mind by the new favourite Abigail Hill (a cousin of the duchess of Marlborough through her mother, and of Harley on her father’s side), whose soft and silky ways contrasted only too favourably in the eyes of the queen with the haughty manners of her old friend, the duchess of Marlborough. Both the duchess and Godolphin were convinced that this change in the disposition of the queen was due to the sinister conduct of Harley and his relatives; but he was for the present permitted to remain in his office. Subsequent experience showed the necessity for his dismissal and an occurrence supplied an opportunity for carrying out their wishes. An ill-paid and poverty-stricken clerk, William Gregg, in Harley’s office, was detected in furnishing the enemy with 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 thereupon informed that Godolphin and Marlborough could no longer serve in concert with him. They did not attend her next council, on the 8th of February 1708, and when Harley proposed to proceed with the business of the day the duke of Somerset drew attention to their absence, when the queen found herself forced (February 11,) to accept the resignations of both Harley and St John.

Harley went out of office, but his cousin, who had now become Mrs Masham, remained by the side of the queen, and contrived to convey to her mistress the views of the ejected minister. Every device which the defeated ambition of a man whose strength lay in his aptitude for intrigue could suggest for hastening the downfall of his adversaries was employed without scruple, and not employed 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 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 (August 10, 1710), and among them figured 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 in an affiance with the man whose rule began with the retirement from the treasury of the finance minister idolized by the city merchants, 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. 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-abbe de la Bourlie (better known by the name of the marquis de Guiscard), was being examined before the privy council on a charge of treachery to the nation which had befriended him, when he stabbed Harley in the breast with a penknife (March 8, 1711). To a man in good health the wounds would not have been serious, but the minister had been for some time indisposed—a few days before the occurrence Swift had penned the prayer “Pray God preserve his health, everything depends upon it”—and 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 the 23rd of May 1711 the minister became Baron Harley of Wigmore and earl of Oxford and Mortimer; on the 29th of May he was created lord treasurer, and on the 25th of October 1712 became a Knight of the Garter. Well might his friends exclaim that he had “grown by persecutions, turnings out, and stabbings.”

With the sympathy which this attempted assassination had evoked, and with the skill which the lord treasurer possessed for conciliating the calmer members of either political party, he passed through several months of 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 Upper House, which was met by the creation of twelve new peers, the much-vexed treaty of Utrecht was brought to a conclusion on the 31st of March 1713. 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 habitual 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. By slow degrees the confidence of Queen Anne was transferred from Oxford to Bolingbroke; on the 27th of July 1714 the former surrendered his staff as lord treasurer, and on the 1st August the queen died.

On the accession of George I. the defeated minister retired to Herefordshire, but a few months later his impeachment was decided upon and he was committed to the Tower on the 16th of July 1715. After an imprisonment of nearly two years the prison doors were opened in July 1717 and he was allowed to resume his place among the peers, but he took little part in public affairs, and died almost unnoticed in London on the 21st of May 1724. He married, in May 1685, Edith, daughter of Thomas Foley, of Witley Court, Worcester. She died in November 1691. His second wife was Sarah, daughter of Simon Middleton, of Edmonton. His son Edward (1689–1741), who succeeded to the title, married Henrietta (d. 1755), daughter and heiress of John Holies, duke of Newcastle; and his only child, a daughter Margaret (1715–1785), married William Bentinck, 2nd duke of Portland, to whom she brought Welbeck Abbey and the London property which she inherited from her mother. The earldom then passed to a cousin, Edward, 3rd earl (c. 1699–1755), and eventually became extinct with Alfred, the 6th earl (1809–1853).

Harley’s statesmanship may seem but intrigue and finesse, but his character is set forth in the brightest colours in the poems of Pope and the prose of Swift. The Irish dean was his discriminating friend in the hours of prosperity, his unswerving advocate in adversity. The books and manuscripts which the 1st earl of Oxford and his son collected were among the glories of their age. The manuscripts became the property of the nation in 1753 and are now in the British Museum; the books were sold to a bookseller called Thomas Osborne in 1742 and described in a printed catalogue of five volumes (1743–1745), Dr Johnson writing an account of the library. A selection of the rarer pamphlets and tracts, which was made by William Oldys, was printed in eight volumes (1744–1746), with a preface by Johnson. The best edition is that of Thomas Park, ten volumes (1808–1813). In the recollection of the Harleian manuscripts, the Harleian library and the Harleian Miscellany, the family name will never die.

Bibliography.—The best life of Harley is by E. S. Roscoe (1902). Articles relating to him are in Engl. Hist. Rev. xv. 238-250 (Defoe and Harley by Thomas Bateson); Trans. of the Royal Hist. Soc. xiv. N.S. 69-121 (development of political parties temp. Q. Anne by W. Frewen Lord); Edinburgh Review, clxxxvii. 151-178, cxciii. 457-488 (Harley papers). For his relations with St John see Walter Sichel’s Bolingbroke (1901–1902, 2 vols.); for those with Swift, consult the Journal to Stella and Sir Henry Craik’s Life of Swift (2nd ed., 1894, 2 vols.).  (W. P. C.) 

  1. I.e. in the Harley line.