Robert Harley 1st Earl of Oxford

Robert Harley Earl of Oxford
Portrait of Robert Harley Earl of Oxford
Robert Harley by Godfrey Kneller

1 Harley's family and early career

1.1 Harley's family

Robert Harley was born in London 5 December 1661. His father Edward Harley was a Whig of the old school strongly leaning to dissent. He fought for parliament, but quarreled with Cromwell. Under Charles II he came into employment again, only to retire under James II. After William III landed Edward raised a troop of horse, and together with his son took Worcester for William. As a Whig Edward Harley was elected to the convention Parliament for County Herefordshire on 15 January 1689, and to later parliaments of William.

Edward soon quarreled with the Whigs who were changing their party principles. Edward brought to Harley a very religious outlook on the world, and a strong concern with moral values (Biddle). In my opinion Edward's behavior of joining a party (Parliament, Charles II, William III) and then staying true to it by abandoning those who change it's principles or go to extremes (Cromwell, James II, the new Whig party), is the way this outlook on the world was translated into actions. Robert Harley's behavior of not following those of his party that wanted to go to extremes, and his abhorrence of party government can only be explained by him believing in the principles and example his father thought him.

1.2 Harley' entrance in politics

Edward Harley's influence, the party leadership and the Boscawen family launched Robert Harley into parliament. On the death of Charles Boscawen they made Harley an M.P. for Tregony in April 1689, the mayor and all 13 burgesses unanimously agreeing. After one session Harley got elected for New Radnor that would continue to elect him till he left the Commons. From the start he was very serious about his job and the way the Commons worked. Though perhaps at first a bit radical in his Toryism he soon embarked on a more moderate course, never clearly stating his views, and ranging Tories and old style Whigs behind him. Thus it was that by 1698 he can be considered to have been leader of the Tory Party (Churchill).

2 Robert Harley comes into power

2.1 The Tories take power

Up to the treaty of Rijswijk William III, the Junto and William's Dutch favorites had been quite solidly in power on a policy of warfare and a strong executive. Once the treaty of Rijswijk had been concluded however, the provincial outlook of the average M.P. meant that the majority of M.P.'s was no longer convinced that it was necessary to have a strong army or to involve England in continental affairs. Thus in December 1697 the Tory majority, supported by a large number of Whigs, started its attacks on William's standing army, the Junto lords and the Dutch favorites. When the new parliament met in December 1698 these attacks continued, making that the main achievement of the Commons up to 1701 was opposing William III in every conceivable way.

2.2 Appointing a government trusted by parliament

With government thus being made impotent by a parliament opposing it in every conceivable way, the logical step would be to appoint ministers that had parliamentary support. Though the constitutional principle that the cabinet needs the confidence of parliament had not been 'invented' at the moment, William now set upon this course. After returning to England in October 1700, he had meetings with Godolphin, Rochester and Harley, signifying Harley's importance at the time. There is little doubt that in these meetings it was agreed to further limit the powers of the crown and to appoint Tories to office (Coward).

2.3 Harley becomes speaker

With the new parliament meeting on 6 February 1701 the new moderate Tory course agreed upon was reflected by Godolphin being First Lord of the Treasury, Hedges being secretary of state and Harley being chosen speaker with royal support. Because the speaker (chairman) of parliament did not participate himself in the debates, this was the ideal function for Harley. He could now manage the Commons from the corridors, while almost never being forced to declare himself openly. When being forced to do so he had a talent of speaking like an oracle, using sentences with an infinite number of clauses, allusions etc. in such a way that all lost him. See Churchill for a description. This session of the first parliament that Harley presided must have been the time he got connected with Godolphin and Marlborough who were then both in government. When William saw a chance of getting a better parliament he disbanded the parliament and had a new one convened in December 1701. This again saw the Whigs in power, and Godolphin out. Though getting only a small majority, Harley was re-elected as speaker.

3 Robert Harley in Queen Anne's reign

3.1 Supports Godolphin's government

When Queen Anne ascended she wanted a High-church Tory government. This again saw Marlborough-Godolphin in power, but now on a very different footing. Marlborough was a favorite of Queen Anne, Godolphin was made Lord Treasurer, and thus Prime Minister. After new elections ordered by Queen Anne a Tory Parliament was returned, convening in August 1702. Harley was elected speaker for the third time, and this time unanimity underscored his influence. Though the Commons were now of the same political color as the queen and the government, it could not be expected that the M.P.'s would of themselves cooperate with the government. The Marlborough-Godolphin government could only gather consistent support by managing the Commons. Harley thus fit perfectly into the needs of the policy of Queen Anne's first moderate Tory government, and soon close ties were established between Godolphin and Harley. He was thus consulted about every important cabinet decision, and while not joining the government, he got a major influence on it, writers speaking of the Marlborough/Godolphin/Harley Triumvirate. For M.P.'s now perceiving that Harley had influence on the government it made sense not only to follow the maxims of their party but also to consider what Harley thought.

3.2 Joins Godolphin's government

After Nottingham had made himself impossible by demanding all Whigs to be removed from office, he was forced to step down as secretary of State for the South. The government looking for ways to bring in more Tory support, then appointed Harley in his place in May 1704. The wisdom of this course showed itself when in the autumn of 1704 the high Tories made their third attempt at pushing an occasional Conformity Bill through. The high Tories now made it part of the land tax bill. This was the 'Tack'. This was a practice forbidden by parliamentary tradition. It consisted of tacking a non-money bill to a money bill, and thereby preventing the Lords from amending it. By this the Lords could only choose between dismissing the bill and not getting tax-money, or assenting to it, and thus turning all non-Anglicans out of office. This kind of behavior was unconstitutional as well as irresponsible and lead to the ministerial Tories voting for the occasional bill but against the tack. This caused an open breach within the Tory party as well as attempts by the government to gain more Whig support. It is said that to this end Harley (BIddle) used his influence to replace Lord Privy Seal the Duke of Buckingham by the Whig Duke of Newcastle (related to him by marriage).

In May 1705 elections were held, which returned an about equal number of Tories and Whigs. Harley then wanted to stop the appointment of more Whigs to office, but Marlborough and Godolphin pushed through some more, leading to a first rift between them and Harley (Biddle) in summer 1705. The government's decision to oblige the Whigs had however brought about steady Whig support for the government while the Tories continued to oppose the government. Not surprisingly the Whigs thus demanded further rewards, leading them to demand the appointment of the Junto Lord Sunderland as Secretary in 1706. This was a matter going directly against Queen Anne's wishes as well as Harley's, his fear being that Sunderland would entrain the rest of the Junto into the government. That in turn would lead to party government leaving no place for him.

Though the appointment of Somers came through after a long struggle, Harley by the end of 1706 started working towards a reconciliation with the (High) Tories. Harley had also succeeded in winning over Abigail Hill, who happened to be his niece as well as Sarah's, and had succeeded in getting himself into Anne's favor. After not getting their way with the appointments of some bishops in the spring of 1707, the Whigs then threatened to attack the admirality's policy in autumn, exposing Marlborough's brother as well as Anne's husband. This was especially dangerous because Anne's husband was Lord High Admiral and naval policy had been quite unsuccessful in 1707. On 6/17 November 1707 the first parliament of Great Britain convened, and while the Commons were quite the Whigs in the House of Lords started their attack on the naval board soon joined by the Tories. On their own the Tories started an attack on the general strategy of the war as conducted by Marlborough. In their opinion the war-effort should be concentrated on Spain, an opinion completely opposed to Marlborough's.

3.3 Harley tries to replace Godolphin

It was amidst these scenes of turmoil and heavy party-strife that Harley wanted to strike. It was his ambition to remove Godolphin, and if necessary Marlborough. He would then by royal favor become Lord Treasurer and govern with the support of moderate Tories and Whigs, destroying the party system in the process. He would come very close, but came across some bad luck because around new-year some of his employees were caught spying for France, and this gave Marlborough - Godolphin the opportunity to strike first. They set upon removing Harley and replacing him with Boyle. Harley sensing this, struck back by causing some of the ministry's proposals to be rejected by the Commons in January (an unheard of affair). Things then came to a head when Godolphin officially stated that he had lost confidence in Harley on 29 January. It then seemed that Harley had gambled right, because Anne decided to dismiss Godolphin. The fact that Marlborough then decided not to serve without Godolphin was a setback for Harley, but it had been taken into account by him. Thus Marlborough and Godolphin were dismissed on 9 February. In the subsequent cabinet-meeting Harley then wanted to speak, but was interrupted by Somerset, who flatly refused to serve without the duo. Others then joined him and the cabinet thus broke up without doing business. This would not necessarily have been the end for Harley had this incident not been followed by an uproar in both Houses who demanded an explanation. Queen Anne had to give in in these circumstances and so she did on the 10th, publicizing Harley's dismissal on 10 February 1708.

3.4 The back way to the Queen's closet

Though Harley was now out of office, he possessed Queen Anne's favor, while Marlborough - Godolphin had only forced her to give in. It was also comforting that St. John, Harcourt and Mansell had deliberately stepped down with him. Harley thus still had two trump cards: his followers in Parliament and the favor of the queen. Though the May 1708 elections brought further Whig gains, he now started to rebuild his party. At Queen Anne's desire he meanwhile continued to meet her in secret, described often as Abigail leading him to her via a hidden passage. His second chance came when public sentiment again coincided with the Queen's opinion.

4 Harley heads the ministry

4.1 Harley becomes Chancellor of the Exchequer

After the Whigs had made themselves quite unpopular by the prosecution of Sacheverell and the continued war in Europe, it became clear that an election would lead to an overwhelming Tory victory. Anne thus thought herself strong enough to appoint Harley's associate, the Duke of Shrewsbury, in April 1710 as Lord Chamberlain. It was followed by Sunderland's replacement as secretary by Dartmouth in June. Harley finally became Chancellor of the Exchequer after Godolphin was sacked in August.

4.2 Harley schemes for a mixed government

Harley now hoped to realize his plan of having a mixed Tory/Whig ministry. For this he did not need new elections, and even opposed them on the ground that it would lead to a High-Tory majority. Harley thus did his best to delay elections but was forced to hold them in October 1710. Harley's hand was shown when contrary to previous elections these were not influenced by the crown supporting the Tories (Biddle). The elections thus still brought forward a quite radical Tory majority, but also one that could be considered as hostile to Harley, suspecting him of some scheme against the Tories. A suspicion that was strengthened by the continuance of some Whigs in office. The fanatical Tories then plotted to end Harley's career when he regained his popularity by being stabbed by the traitor Guiscard on 8 March 1711.

4.3 Harley becomes Lord Treasurer

Harley was for some time forced to hold his bed due to the wound inflicted by Guiscard and therefore temporarily lost some influence. On his return to parliament however he was elevated to the peerage on a wave of popularity, being made Earl of Oxford on 23 May 1711, and Lord Treasurer on 29 May. The next period was marked by bitter rivalry with his formal ally St. John. In general Harley always got the better of St. John in these conflicts and reigned till he lost his superior influence with Queen Anne and Abigail.

His downfall came to pass in August 1713, when he asked Queen Anne to make his son Duke of Newcastle. This probably was an outrageous demand, and the Queen did not like this request at all, and so his relations with her soured. It is not known whether it was this loss of royal favor or the loss of his daughter, but Harley now got into a personal crisis (Coward). He lost confidence and started drinking way too much, neglecting his duties to a point that he was not longer functioning well enough to be Lord Treasurer. It was however only the combination of this personal crisis and the fact that Bolingbroke had bribed himself into Abigail's favor, that enabled Bolingbroke to have Harley sacked on 27 July 1714.

Given the fact that Queen Anne died so soon afterwards, the 27th may well have been Harley's lucky day, as it put some more distance between him and St. John's pretender schemes. On the succession of George I Harley retired from politics, but was later impeached and locked in the tower July 1715 to be released two years later, meaning he got of lightly.

5 Harley's Character

Of all that can be said against his character, Harley can certainly not be said to be corruptible. He did not rob the state of a penny and thus soon found himself almost penniless when sacked as Lord Treasurer. He worked hard but had the tendency to agree and to promise, but not to perform, not to delegate and generally be ineffective in conducting the state's as well as his own affairs. He was talented in being very discreet, always avoiding to publicly take a clear stand on things (which made him very suitable as speaker), and generally converse in a manner by which all listeners lost him. Harley is also famous for the vast library he collected during his life, one of the two founding collections of the British Museum.

Career of Robert Harley
1689M.P. for Tregony
1689M.P. for New Redmore until made a peer
1704-1708Secretary of State for the Northern Department
1710Secretary of State
1711: May 23rdElevated earl of Oxford and Mortimer
1711: May 29thLord Treasurer -1714 27 July
1711Governor of the South Sea Company
1711: 25th Octoberknight of the Garter
1714: 27 JulyReplaced as Lord Treasurer
1715:Imprisoned on accusation of correspondence with the pretender, acquitted 1717.

6 Sources

As regards internet sources the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has an old article about Robert Harley

Bolingbroke & Harley by Sheila Biddle, 1974 is a more modern and double portrait of rivals Harley and Bolingbroke.