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 on Robert Harley

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 Biography 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.