HARLEY, Edward (1624-1700), of Brampton Bryan, Herefs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b. 21 Oct. 1624, 3rd but 1st surv. s. of Sir Robert Harley of Brampton Bryan, being 1st s. by 3rd w. Brilliana, da. of Sir Edward Conway, 1st Visct. Conway; bro. of Robert Harley I. educ. Gloucester sch.; Shrewsbury sch.; Magdalen Hall, Oxf. 1638-40; L. Inn 1641-2. m. (1) 26 June 1654 (with £3,000), Mary, da. and coh. of Sir William Button of Parkgate, Tawstock, Devon, 4 da.; (2) 25 Feb. 1661, Abigail, da. of Nathaniel Stephens of Eastington, Glos., 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da. suc. fa. 1656; KB 23 Apr. 1661.3

Offices Held

Capt. of horse (parliamentary) 1643, col. of ft. 1643-7, col. of horse 1660-1; gov. Monmouth 1644-5, Canon Frome 1645-6, Dunkirk May 1660-1.

Commr. for sequestrations, Herefs. 1643, execution of ordinances, Glos. 1644, assessment, Herefs. 1644, 1647-52, 1657, Jan. 1660, Herefs. and Rad. Aug. 1660-80, 1689-90, Leominster 1689; alderman, New Radnor c.1647-80; commr. for militia, Herefs. 1648, 1659, Herefs., Worcs. and Rad. Mar. 1660, scandalous ministers, Herefs. 1654, j.p. 1656-82, July 1688-d., Rad. ?Mar. 1660-82, 1689-d.; custos rot. Herefs. Mar.-July 1660, Rad. Mar. 1660-82; dep. lt. Herefs. c. Aug. 1660-82, Herefs. and Rad. 1689-d.; col. of militia ft., Herefs. 1668-82, commr. for recusants 1675.4

Councillor of State 25 Feb.-31 May 1660.

FRS 1663-85.


Harley’s ancestors had been resident at Brampton Bryan and Members of Parliament since the 14th century. His father, who restored the family fortunes by good estate management, prudent marriages and the profitable office of master of the Mint, was a Presbyterian, and the only county magnate to take the parliamentary side in the Civil War. Harley himself had a distinguished war record, but he opposed the army in 1647 and was twice imprisoned. Unlike his brother, he took no part in royalist conspiracies. In 1656 he succeeded to the family property, valued at £1,500 p.a. In February 1660 he resumed his seat with the secluded Members and was elected to the Council of State. But he was still insistent on the abolition of episcopacy and on parliamentary control of the militia. It required court intervention with the old Cavaliers, and the support of Edward Massey among the Presbyterian Royalists, to secure his return for Herefordshire at the ensuing general election.5

In the Convention, Harley was named to the committees for the abolition of the court of wards, for drawing up the instructions for the messengers to the King, and for the indemnity bill, and he took part in a conference on the King’s reception. He received his commission as governor of Dunkirk from Charles II at Canterbury, and at once crossed over to take up his post, which Lord Gerard of Brandon offered to buy from him for £10,000. He returned to Westminster in June, and served on the committees for the Dunkirk establishment and for disbanding the army, and in the conference on settling ministers. In spite of his other duties he was a moderately active Member, sitting on 17 committees, but he made no recorded speeches. He failed to prevent the re-establishment of the court of the marches at Ludlow, though he obtained the signatures of Matthew Hale and four other Herefordshire Members to his petition against it. It is perhaps an indication of his waning prestige just before the dissolution that the £7,200 required for the payment of the Dunkirk garrison was placed at the bottom of the list of charges on the excise.6

Harley made no attempt to defend his county seat in the general election of 1661. According to family tradition he was offered a peerage in the coronation honours, but he preferred to accept a KB and remain in the Lower House. His steward advised him not to contest the neighbouring borough of Leominster ‘unless you come in by the interest of the Duke of Buckingham’. His brother Robert Harley I, who was steward of the crown estates in Radnorshire, made way for him in the borough seat; but even though another brother was recorder of New Radnor, (Sir) Allen Brodrick, standing on the Earl of Carbery’s interest, carried the election to a poll. ‘The elections’, as a sardonic old Royalist wrote to him, ‘are in all places such as you would wish.’ Nor were Harley’s friends much kinder, and the sprightly Lady Clinton never tired of alluding to his new constituency by describing him as ‘a good gentleman of Wales’. To fill up the cup, he was shortly afterwards required to surrender the governorship of Dunkirk, the King ‘being continually disturbed because he is represented to be a notorious Presbyterian’. Harley’s Protestant zeal was ill-adapted to the rule of a Catholic town, and the queen mother had complained of him.7

Although relieved of the burdens of office, Harley sat on only five committees in the first nine sessions of the Cavalier Parliament, and none of them was of political or religious importance. Although his correspondence shows that he was assiduous in attendance at the House, his total for the whole Parliament was only 38. Nor did he shine as an orator, and it is to be feared that Lady Clinton was teasing him again when on one occasion she professed to believe that ‘had you been in the House of Commons ... the Speaker had been argued into the chair’. His absence from the Oxford session, when the Five Mile Act was passed, led to the accusation that he ‘countenanced factious persons’. Harley thought it necessary to explain to the lord chancellor that he had been incapacitated by gout, an excuse which surely would have earned Clarendon’s sympathy, and professed:

As for my religion, I thank God that I can truly say I have no opinion but what is consonant to the catholic faith and the doctrines of the Church of England, but what I have learned out of the scriptures and the writings of the ancient fathers.

If Clarendon had to pretend to be satisfied with this highly qualified statement, others were not. In 1668 the Marquess of Worcester (Henry Somerset) explained to Arlington that he could not make Harley colonel of the Herefordshire militia in succession to Sir Edward Hopton because he was a Presbyterian. ‘Lord Arlington replied’, according to Harley’s brother Robert, ‘that the King commanded the lord marquess to offer you the command of the regiment without more ado’. Harley, who depended for spiritual guidance largely on the moderate Presbyterian Richard Baxter, had no scruples about conforming, though when in London he attended Baxter’s services and even proposed to lodge with him during one session of Parliament.8

Harley took little part in the impeachment of Clarendon, though he made his only recorded speech in the Cavalier Parliament to condemn the sale of Dunkirk. In 1668 he was appointed for the first time in this Parliament to a politically significant committee, one which was entrusted with a review of the militia laws. In the following year he was noted as one of the independent Members who had usually voted for supply, but his loyalty was put under severe strain by the renewal of the Conventicles Act. On 12 Mar. 1670, he wrote sorrowfully to his wife: ‘That day before I came, to the grief of my soul the bill of conventicles passed the House of Commons’. But when the bill was reintroduced and amended in the next session, he was satisfied on the whole, writing: ‘Blessed be to God the conventicles bill had a better issue. Most of the severe parts are left out.’ Needless to say, his tolerant views did not extend to Popish priests, of whom one was brought before him in petty sessions in 1671, though he does not seem to have initiated any prosecution. While active during the Cabal ministry in making representations to the Government on behalf of Presbyterians, as well as preferring low churchmen to benefices in his gift, he himself took the Anglican sacrament in 1673.9

Harley was appointed to the committee for the suppression of Popery in 1675, and henceforward became increasingly intimate with Shaftesbury, who was his partner in the lease of a mine at Lyonshall. When the session closed amid general expectation of an imminent dissolution, he took the lead in nominating opposition candidates for all the Herefordshire seats, and he himself was adopted as a candidate for the county. Harley came up to London in the following February. The death of William Strode I was about to involve him in an unpleasant lawsuit over the portions of Strode’s daughters, in which his opponent was no less formidable a lawyer than John Maynard I. But no doubt he seized the opportunity to report to Shaftesbury on the difficulty that had arisen in Herefordshire over the claim of Sir Herbert Croft to the county seat, and he was certainly closeted with Shaftesbury when Secretary Williamson called at Exeter House to warn the opposition leader to desist from his political activities. Undeterred by this unfortunate encounter, Harley was noted by Shaftesbury in 1677 as ‘thrice worthy’. He was one of the Members instructed to prepare reasons for a conference on the growth of Popery on 29 Apr. 1678, and after Oates’s revelations he helped to investigate the murder of Godfrey, as well as the mysterious knocking noises heard in the night in Old Palace Yard. He did not succeed in finding another Guy Fawkes, but his services in promoting the fall of Danby were valued by the French ambassador at 300 guineas.10

There is no evidence that Harley stood for Herefordshire in February 1679, when Croft was returned. Indeed he had some difficulty in securing re-election for Radnor Boroughs, but the committee of elections never reported on his opponent’s petition. Although Harley was permitted to take his seat, he was only moderately active in the first Exclusion Parliament. He was named to five committees, none of much importance; but Maynard’s advocacy of lifting the ban on the import of Irish cattle stirred him to unusual eloquence in defence of the stock-breeding interest of the marcher counties, and perhaps also for more personal reasons. He justified Shaftesbury’s description of him as ‘worthy’ by voting for the exclusion bill. But the Radnor burgesses, he learnt, were likely to express themselves unkindly towards one that ‘hath deserved better from them’ by easing the county of £80 a month in taxes.11

This was probably some intrigue of Croft’s, but it backfired. Harley transferred himself to his own county, and was returned unopposed with Lord Scudamore (John Scudamore) at the next general election as knight of the shire. He employed his leisure while waiting for the second Exclusion Parliament to assemble in writing a pamphlet on religious comprehension, which attacked the imposition of rites and ceremonies. He was an active Member of this Parliament, sitting on 16 committees. He took the chair of the committee to consider the bill for regulating elections, but apart from presenting his report he did not speak in the House. He was again returned unopposed to the Oxford Parliament, in which he served only on the committee of elections and privileges. But he was certainly present, for he attended the meeting of Herefordshire Members in Lord Scudamore’s lodgings the morning after the dissolution. On this occasion Shaftesbury is said to have offered them both commands in a revolutionary army, and when Scudamore refused Harley denounced him as a timorous spirit. The breach became irreparable in the following summer, when Harley was forced to choose between the support of Scudamore and of Thomas Coningsby, who had run away with Lady Scudamore.12

Harley was naturally under suspicion during the Tory reaction and was removed from all local office in Feb. 1682, but his political activity did not decrease. He announced his candidature for Herefordshire in 1685, but withdrew without a poll. During Monmouth’s Rebellion he experienced a few weeks of not uncomfortable detention. In 1687 Danby noted Harley as one of the eminent Parliament men, distinguished by ability rather than wealth or interest, who were hostile to James II’s government. Efforts were made to win him over; in 1688 he was restored to the commission of the peace but he refused, for the second time, a seat on the Privy Council, and he urged the bishop of Hereford not to read the Declaration of Indulgence. He took up arms for William III in 1688, subscribed £50 to a loan, and was chosen governor of Worcester by the local gentry.13

Although a contest for Herefordshire was expected, and John Dutton Colt was holding a seat in reserve for Harley he was in fact returned unopposed in 1689, though, unlike his younger colleague Sir John Morgan, he did not care to face the electors. Nor, when he reached London, did he find the new regime particularly appreciative of his services: ‘Sir E.H. has met with many disappointments in his attendance upon the King’, wrote one of his younger sons. Within the House, however, his influence over the Herefordshire Members was undiminished, and he had the satisfaction of leading them all to vote against the Lords’ amendments to the abdication vote on 5 Feb. He was named to 58 committees in the Convention, including those of chief political importance, though he made no recorded speeches. ‘I was never so tied to a Parliament’, he complained on 2 Apr. He served on the committees for the mutiny and toleration bills. In the latter he may have been active behind the scenes, for before Parliament met he asked his son to send him ‘a sheet or two written by myself, being a scheme of the ecclesiastical government of England’. He also took part in the inquiries into the authors and advisers of grievances and the delays in the relief of Londonderry. Harley’s correspondence shows that three less important committees were of particular concern to him, those for refugee Huguenot ministers, for the abolition of the court of the marches (on which his name stands first) and for the Wye and Lugg navigation. ‘I hope the good work goes on to your content’, wrote a Leominster clothier on 12 Apr., ‘which you have so long laboured in to make Wye and Lugg navigable.’ In the second session he was appointed to the inquiries into the expenses and miscarriages of the war. He served on the committee for the bill to restore corporations, and supported the disabling clause.14

Harley was defeated at the general election of 1690, and on his return to the House went into opposition as a country Whig. He died on 8 Dec. 1700 and was succeeded by his son, Robert Harley II. He was never a political figure of national importance, being content to control and guide the elections and representatives of his county. Even here he owed his influence less to his territorial power, which was only moderate, than to his character. It was a political opponent, Herbert Aubrey, who wrote to him: ‘That you are kind and good all persons own’, and his voluminous correspondence confirms this contemporary verdict.15

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Authors: M. W. Helms / Edward Rowlands


  • 1. HMC Portland, iii. 147. Secluded at Pride’s Purge, 6 Dec. 1648 and readmitted 21 Feb. 1660.
  • 2. Excluded.
  • 3. HMC Portland, iii. 247, 291; v. 641; Letters of Lady Brilliana Harley (Cam. Soc. lviii), 218.
  • 4. HMC Portland, iii. 111, 117, 129, 140, 155, 306; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Pw2 Hy 114; Trans. Woolhope Field Club, xxxiv. 292; Portland mss BL Loan 29/80, Richard Jeffrey to Harley, 20 May 1682, CSP Dom. 1682, p. 77.
  • 5. C. J. Robinson, Castles of Herefs. 8; Keeler, Long Parl. 203; HMC Portland, iii. 220, 226, 617; Cal. Cl. SP, iv. 580, 642; Add. 11051, f. 229; Symonds’s Diary (Cam. Soc. lxxiv), 195.
  • 6. BL Loan 29/88; CJ, viii. 234; HMC Portland, v. 641.
  • 7. BL Loan 29/82, Samuel Shilton to Harley, 8 Feb. 1661; 29/79, letters of Thos. Harley, passim; 29/74, Lady Clinton to Harley, 23 Dec. 1676; HMC Portland, iii. 235, 250, 617.
  • 8. BL Loan 29/83, Ralph Strettell to Harley, 24 Nov. 1674; Letters of Lady Brilliana Harley, 240-1; HMC Portland, iii. 306; D. R. Lacey, Dissent and Parl. Pols. 405-7.
  • 9. Milward, 124; HMC Portland, iii. 313, 323, 336; CJ, ix. 469.
  • 10. BL Loan 16, Mineral and Battery Works Society Order Bk., ff. 145, 151; CSP Dom. 1675-6, pp. 461, 529; BL Loan 29/87, Strode letters, passim; Dalrymple, Mems. ii. 317.
  • 11. CJ, ix. 571, 577, 578; Grey, vii. 91; BL Loan 29/140, Harley to Robert Harley, 30 July [1679]; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Pw 2 Hy 114.
  • 12. CSP Dom. 1682, p. 426.
  • 13. BL Loan 29/140, Harley to Robert Harley, 12 Mar. 1685; 29/74, Harley to Bishop Croft, 20 June 1688; HMC Portland, iii. 384-5, 415, v. 644; R. Morrice, Entering Bk. 2, pp. 343, 347, 358; Hatton Corresp. ii. 113; BL Loan 29/184, f. 120.
  • 14. BL Loan 29/184, f. 123, Colt to Harley, 14 Jan. 1689, 29/140, Harley to Robert Harley, 2 Apr. 1689; 29/49, James Powle to Harley, 12 Apr. 1689; Add. 40621, ff. 2, 10, 16, 18, 21; HMC Portland, iii. 398; v. 644.
  • 15. BL Loan 29/50, Aubrey to Harley, n.d.