ERLE, Thomas (c.1650-1720), of Charborough, Dorset
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Family and Education
b. c.1650, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Thomas Erle† (d. 1650) of Bindon House, Axmouth, Devon by Susanna, da. of William Fiennes, 1st Visct. Saye and Sele. educ. Trinity, Oxf. matric. 12 July 1667, aged 17; M. Temple 1669. m. 1675, Elizabeth (d. 1710), da. of Sir William Wyndham, 1st Bt.†, of Orchard Wyndham, Som., sis. of Sir Edward Wyndham, 2nd Bt.*, 1da. suc. gdfa. Sir Walter Erle† 1665.1
Commr. rebels’ estates, Dorset 1686; freeman, Poole 1691; commr. Portsmouth and Sheet Turnpike trust 1711–d.; commr. R. Hosp. Chelsea 1715–d.2
Col. of ft. 1689–98, 19 Ft. 1691–1709; brig.-gen. 1693, maj-gen. 1696, lt.-gen. 1703, gen. of ft. 1711; gov. Portsmouth 1694–1712, 1714–18; PC [I] 1701; c.-in-c. [I] 1701–5, of expedition 1708, land forces in Eng. 1708–12; ld. justice [I] 1702–3, Mar.–Nov. 1704; col. of Drag. [I] 1704–5; lt.-gen. of Ordnance 1705–12, 1714–18; PC 3 May 1705.3
MP [I] 1703–13.
After a chequered career under Charles II and James II, Erle had been one of the first to come out in support of William of Orange in 1688. Although he was nearing 40 and had hitherto only served in the militia, he now embarked on a military career and was made colonel of one of the newly raised regiments of foot in 1689. He went to Ireland with his regiment and saw action at the Boyne and at Aughrim. He was rewarded with the colonelcy of another regiment of foot and the grant of an Irish estate. Meanwhile, he had been returned to the 1690 Parliament for Wareham, which was some six miles from his principal seat at Charborough. Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) classed Erle as an adherent of the Court, and forecast his support in December 1690 in the event of an attack upon his own ministerial position in the Commons. Robert Harley* also listed Erle as a Court supporter in April 1691. His name occurs on all known lists of placemen in this period. Erle’s rare contributions to debate usually related to the armed forces. Thus, on 15 Dec. 1691, in a committee of the whole on the army estimates, he spoke on the question of the numbers of officers and men to be allowed in a regiment. For the next summer’s campaign he transferred from Ireland to Flanders, where he was wounded at the battle of Landen. In the 1692–3 session he spoke for the first time in a full debate, against the motion to employ only English officers in the army:
No man is of less sufficiency to speak than myself. I have had the honour to serve in three or four Parliaments and have not troubled you. I was a colonel of foot in the engagement at Steenkerk, where the ground was mistaken, and so we were forced to retreat. As to the question, no man is more pleased than I for English officers to command the English army; but I do not think that three or four years service can make a general. I wish we had men fit; but before you have them, pray do not rid yourselves of all foreign generals. I hope when you come to the question you will not part with all the foreign generals before you can have some of your own to come into their places.
This session saw his first involvement with mutiny bills, and in the following session he carried up the mutiny bill on 27 Feb. 1694, attending a conference on this subject with the Lords on 5 Mar. On 27 Mar. he obtained three weeks’ leave of absence. In July 1694 he was made governor of Portsmouth. His only significant activity in the 1694–5 session again revolved around the mutiny bill.4
At the 1695 election Erle was returned again for Wareham. He was forecast as a probable opponent of the Court in the division of 31 Jan. 1696 on the proposed council of trade. In February 1696, he was again concerned in the management of the mutiny bill, and, having signed the Association later that month, voted with the Court in March to fix the price of guineas at 22s. On 25 Nov. he voted for the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. In March 1697 he was granted the residue of a debt to the crown amounting to £1,864. On 8 Jan. 1698 he spoke against a reduction of the military establishment, explaining ‘the defenceless condition they would be in without some troops to make a stand’. His two legislative initiatives in this session concerned a bill to naturalize the foreign-born children of armed forces personnel, and an estate bill on behalf of his nephew, Sir William Wyndham, 3rd Bt.* On 28 May 1698 he was granted another leave of absence.5
By the 1698 election Erle appears to have entered into an agreement with George Pitt*, a Tory, to share the parliamentary representation of Wareham. Under this arrangement he gave his own seat there to his nephew, Thomas Trenchard, and was himself returned on the government interest for Portsmouth. Classed as a Court supporter in a comparative analysis of the old and new Commons, he spoke and voted on 18 Jan. 1699 against the third reading of the disbanding bill. His loyalty to the Court was not strained by the loss of one of his regiments in March 1699, which he was ‘willing to lay down’. Later in the same year he successfully proposed the Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett I*), an ally of the Junto, to be lord lieutenant of Dorset, ‘those in the county not having been able to agree’. In the first general election of 1701 Erle was returned for both Wareham and Portsmouth, opting to sit for the latter, and leaving his Wareham seat for his son-in-law, Sir Edward Ernle, 3rd Bt.* He was listed as a supporter of the Court in February 1701 over the ‘Great Mortgage’. Reverting to Wareham for the second election of 1701, he was classed as a Whig by Harley. He brought in the mutiny bill on 5 Feb. 1702, and told against an amendment to it on the 16th. He was given leave to go to Ireland on 4 Mar., having been appointed commander-in-chief of the land forces under the lord lieutenancy of the Earl of Rochester (Laurence Hyde†), with whom, despite their political differences, he appeared to be on the best of terms. He was added to the Irish privy council and was one of the three lords justices during Rochester’s absence in England. ‘I think I cannot appoint a fitter man’, Rochester had written on 5 Dec. 1701, adding ‘there’s no man here but himself to whom the care of the army can be committed’.6
Although pressurized by fellow Whigs to stand with Trenchard for Dorset in 1702, Erle declined to do so, apparently out of a desire to retain his places and the good opinion of the new administration. He was returned for Wareham after a contest. On 23 Aug. 1702 he wrote to Rochester:
I am confident I had never failed of your protection but I must confess it would be a very sensible mortification to me if I thought I served her Majesty so ill in the command of her army under your lordship here that I should deserve to be the very last who had a mark of her favour in a military promotion since her reign.
His promotion did not come through until 11 Feb. 1703, the day after Rochester was replaced by Ormond as lord lieutenant. Erle was shown a further mark of favour when, on the viceroy’s recommendation, he was given the command of a newly raised regiment of dragoons in June 1704. He was forecast as a probable opponent of the Tack, and did not vote for it on 28 Nov. 1704.7
In April 1705 Erle left Ireland to take up a new appointment as lieutenant-general of the Ordnance. For the election of that year he again considered standing for Dorset, but contented himself with his customary return for Wareham. He was classed as ‘Low Church’, and supported the Court over the choice of Speaker on 25 Oct. First-named to the drafting committee on the mutiny bill on 23 Jan. 1706, he managed it through the House, including chairing the committee of the whole on 6 Mar. He voted with the government on 18 Feb. over the regency bill. At the end of the session he received a summons to go as second-in-command under Earl Rivers (Richard Savage*) in a descent on the French coast. The Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) had insisted that a lieutenant-general go with the expedition and Erle was the only one available. The Duke assured him that the Queen ‘will make you sensible how well she is pleased with the zeal you have shown on this occasion and the readiness wherewith you accepted the service’. After the descent had been delayed by contrary winds and then cancelled, Erle stayed with the troops, who were sent to join Lord Galway’s army in Spain. He remained there during the winter of 1706–7, sending Marlborough ‘a melancholy account’ of affairs in January 1707, to which the Duke replied, ‘you may be assured I shall omit no opportunity of laying your services favourably before the Queen, that her Majesty may have a just regard for them’. In the disputes between Rivers and Galway, Erle sided with the former. He took part in the battle of Almanza and remained in Spain until the end of September, increasingly dissatisfied and in poor health. Marlborough received a stream of letters depicting Spanish affairs in a gloomy light. Erle repeatedly requested permission to return to England, being anxious about becoming a subject of censure at home. On 20 June Marlborough reassured him that
the Queen is perfectly well inclined to you, and . . . there are none about her Majesty but what are so much your friends as to do you all good offices imaginable; and if her Majesty thinks fit to continue you abroad, I am certainly persuaded it proceeds from the opinion she has of the services you will be able to do there.
Eventually given leave to return to England, he immediately joined James Stanhope* in defending Galway in the Commons on 24 Feb. 1708, during the debate on the deficiency of English troops at Almanza. He gave this public display of loyalty, despite private misgivings about the generalship of the campaign.8
A list in early 1708 classed Erle as a Whig, and after the election he was listed as a ‘gain’ by Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) and as a Court Whig in another analysis of the new Parliament. He had been returned for Portsmouth and Wareham, choosing to sit for the latter. While he was still in the country he was informed that he was to be commander-in-chief of a descent on the French coast. This news did not greatly please him, since previous attempts had been unsuccessful. He was also irritated that his field pay as general had been stopped on his return from Spain, whereas that of Lord Rivers had been continued. Replying to his complaint, Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) reassured him that the favour shown to Rivers was the product of ‘a sort of bargain with the Duke of Marlborough before he went over’. Godolphin not only emphasized his own high regard for Erle, but also stated that ‘you have no reason so much as to imagine that there can be the least competition betwixt you in the opinion of the Queen or of the Duke of Marlborough’. On Marlborough’s recommendation his pay was continued from the time he left Spain, and in July he was awarded £1,500 in consideration of his services. The expedition itself was a fiasco. It was late in starting and the original plan of landing at St. Valery to capture Abbeville was abandoned. After one false start the force eventually landed at Ostend. An outpost was then established at Leffingham, but this fell to the French without a fight on 16 Oct. Although Erle had not been personally in command, he came in for criticism in England from ‘coffee-house politicians’. Despite his failure, upon returning home in December 1708 he was appointed commander-in-chief of land forces in England. In this Parliament he was involved in various measures relating to Portsmouth harbour and voted for the naturalization of the Palatines in 1709, and the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell in 1710.9
Erle was active in the 1710 election, securing his own return at Wareham, but also bringing his influence to bear at Poole and Shaftesbury. He was classed as a Whig in the ‘Hanover list’. Despite the ministerial revolution of 1710 Erle retained all his offices and was promoted general of foot in January 1711. In February he was named to draft the mutiny bill, and, moreover, when later that month Harley set up a committee of Council at the war office to run the administration of the army, Erle was included along with Rivers and Argyll. The committee seems to have been an attempt by Harley to circumvent Marlborough. Certainly the Duke was alarmed and on 7 Apr. 1711 asked Erle to endeavour ‘at least to screen me from anything that might seem a hardship to me at this committee’. In fact it ceased to function after July 1711, owing to the intrigues of Henry St. John II* and Marlborough himself. In the House Erle spoke on the Court side in the disputed election at Carlisle on 20 Feb., seconding the motion to take the defeated candidate, Samuel Gledhill, into custody for prevaricating as a witness at the bar. Erle abandoned the Court in the next session, voting with the Whigs on 7 Dec. on the motion for ‘No Peace without Spain’. In the following June he was removed from all his offices, and since he had already sold his regiment he was, for the first time in many years, without employment. He presented the mutiny bill on 20 Feb. 1712, and on 23 May told against a private bill for the relief of two London wine merchants. He voted against the French wine duties bill on 6 May 1713, but does not appear to have voted on 18 June on the French commerce bill. He told against the ministry on a clause in the bill to encourage the tobacco trade (8 July) and on a procedural question on a bill to regulate the armed forces (13 July). On 18 Mar. 1714 he voted against the expulsion of Richard Steele, and reported on 31 May the bill to enforce the Bristol Workhouse Act. The Worsley list classed him as a Whig, as did two other comparative analyses of the 1713 and 1715 Parliaments. After the accession of George I he was reappointed lieutenant-general of the Ordnance, but his performance in Parliament was considered unsatisfactory and in March 1718 he was dismissed. He received a pension of £1,200 p.a., which obliged him to vacate his seat. In a defence of his conduct, submitted to the King, he maintained that
I have now served in the House of Commons 39 years, and have always endeavoured to serve my Prince and country there to the best of my judgment. I have often differed in opinion with the ministry in power, which was never laid to my charge but by the late administration some time before your Majesty’s accession to the crown. The event has since shown I was then in the right . . . On all occasions I have endeavoured to serve without reproach, and have made it my business in every station to take more care of the public money than my own, so that in the long course of my services I have added very little to my paternal estate.
Erle died at Charborough on 23 July 1720.10
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Authors: Paula Watson / David Wilkinson
- 1. Hutchins, Dorset, i. 82; iii. 502; Dorset RO, D60/F2; HMC Portland, iii. 352; W. D. Christie, Life of Shaftesbury, i. p. xlix.
- 2. CSP Dom. 1679–80, p. 61; Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 546; Poole Archs. B17; Portsmouth and Sheet Turnpike Commrs. Min. Bk. (Portsmouth Rec. Ser. ii), 169; C. G. T. Dean, R. Hosp. Chelsea, 298–9.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 390; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 13; xxvi. 325; xxix. 99, 252; xxxii. 246; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, p. 49; Boyer, Pol. State, iii. 386; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 341; v. 545; vi. 725; SP 63/362; Add. 37531, f. 1; Daily Courant, 30 Apr. 1705.
- 4. CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 528; 1691–2, p. 98; 1693, p. 246; Luttrell Diary, 81, 254; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 898, 1602; Grey, x. 258.
- 5. CSP Dom. 1697, pp. 484, 532–3; Cal. Treas. Bks. xi. 432; Cam. Misc. xxix. 360; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/77, James Vernon I* to Duke of Shrewsbury, 8 Jan. 1697[–8].
- 6. Cam. Misc. 385; CSP Dom. 1699–1700, p. 71; Hutchins, i. 82; iii. 502; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 301; Add. 15895, ff. 195, 319–20; 40775, f. 304; Cal. Treas. Bks. xvii. 180.
- 7. Add. 15895, f. 276; HMC 7th Rep. 768.
- 8. Churchill Coll. Cambridge, Erle mss 2/2, Bolton to Erle, 10 May 1705; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 602, 620, 623, 630, 673, 754, 792, 797, 799, 805, 808, 813, 881, 892–3, 899; Marlborough Letters and Despatches ed. Murray, iii. 34, 293–4, 429, 569, 570; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 176; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 355; HMC 8th Rep. ii. 95; Yale Univ. Beinecke Lib. Osborn coll. Manchester mss 1987.1.7, p. 8, Joseph Addison* to Ld. Manchester, 27 Feb. 1707[–8].
- 9. Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 946–7, 1001, 1008, 1017, 1049–51, 1054, 1057, 1066, 1068, 1072, 1076, 1086, 1089, 1091, 1095, 1098, 1101–2, 1113, 1128, 1133, 1135, 1140, 1143, 1156, 1180; Erle mss 2/12, James Craggs I* to Erle, 19, 29 Oct. 1708.
- 10. Erle mss 2/65, Robert Walpole II* to Erle, 16 Sept. 1710; 2/19, Erle to George I, n.d.; Hist. Jnl. iv. 82–83; Marlborough Letters and Despatches, v. 301; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 5, ff. 138–9; SRO, Montrose mss, Mungo Graham* to Montrose, 22 Feb. 1711; Boyer, iii. 386; Add. 17677 FFF, f. 249; H. C. Tomlinson, Guns and Govt. 80; The Gen. n.s. ii. 144–5.