1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer
British politician and statesman of the late Stuart and early Georgian periods
(1661-1724)




ROBERT HARLEY, FIRST EARL OF OXFORD (1661-1724), the eldest son of Sir Edward Harley, a prominent landowner in Herefordshire, was born in Bow Street, Co vent Garden, London, 5th December 1661. His school days were passed near Burford, in Oxfordshire, in a small school which produced at the same time a lord high treasurer, a lord high chancellor, and a lord chief justice of the common pleas. 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. The family zeal for the Revolution 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 he gave great attention to the conduct of public business, bestowing especial care upon the study of the forms and ceremonies of the House, and acquiring from his labours that distinction which a knowledge of parliamentary precedents always bestows. This reputation marked him out as a fitting person to pre-side 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 18th May 1704, he combined with the speakership the duties of a principal secretary of state, displacing in that office the Tory earl of Nottingham, a circumstance which may have impelled that haughty peer to join the Whigs, some years later, in opposition to the treaty of Utrecht. 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, and the constituencies were enthusiastic in support of a war policy, Harley continued to act loyally with his colleagues. But in the summer of 1707 it became evident to Godolphin that some secret influence behind the throne was opposing his wishes and shaking the confidence of the queen in her ministers. The sovereign had resented the intrusion into the adminis-tration 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 relative 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 communicated to Marlborough their belief that this change in the disposition of the queen was due to the sinister conduct of Harley and his relatives, and the persistent protestations of the accused persons to the contrary were accepted with an ill grace. Although Harley was for the present permitted to remain in his office, subsequent experience convinced the chiefs of the Government of the necessity for his dismissal, and an occurrence which showed the remissness of his official conduct, if it did not prove his treachery to the nation, furnished them with an opportunity for carrying out their wishes. An ill-paid and poverty-stricken clerk 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 a minister whom they distrusted, and of whose incapacity there were such proofs. They did not attend her next council, and when Harley proposed to proceed with the business of the day one of their friends drew attention to their absence, when the queen found herself forced (11th February 1708) to accept the resignation of her secret adviser. At that time it seemed as if Harley's fortunes had sunk for ever.





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, 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 proud spirit was insulted in a thousand ways, and his relations were dismissed from their posts in turn. When the greatest of these, Lord Godolphin, was sent into private life, five commissioners to the treasury were appointed (10th August 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 alliance 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 should pursue a system of government which copied the faults of their political opponents. The clamours of the wilder spirits of the party, 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 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 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 24th May 1711 the minister became Baron Harley of Wigmore and earl of Oxford and Mortimer; before the month was ended he was created lord treasurer, and in the following year he 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 pre-liminary 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 at last brought to a conclusion. While these negotiations were under discussion the friendship between Oxford and St John 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 dilatori-ness, 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 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. After an imprisonment of nearly two years the prison doors were opened, and he was allowed to resume his place among the peers, but he took little part in public affairs, and died almost unnoticed 21st May 1724. Harley's political fame may now be dimmed by time, his 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 first earl of Oxford and his son collected were among the glories of their age. The manuscripts became the property of the nation; the books were sold to a bookseller called Osborne, and described in a printed catalogue of four volumes, part of which was the Work of Dr Johnson. In the recollection of the Harleian manuscripts, the Harleian library, and the Harleian Miscellany, the family name will never die. (W. P. C.)






The above article was written by: W. P . Courtney.



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