BYERLEY, Robert (1660-1714), of Middridge Grange, Heighington, co. Dur., and Goldsborough, Yorks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1685 - 1687
1689 - 1690
1695 - c. May 1714

Family and Education

bap. 27 Mar. 1660, 4th but 2nd surv. s. of Anthony Byerley (d. 1667) of Middridge Grange by Anne, da. and coh. of Sir Richard Hutton† of Goldsborough. educ. Queen’s, Oxf. 1677.  m. 17 Mar. 1692, Mary (d. 1727), da. and h. of Philip Wharton (d. 1685) of Edlington, Yorks., warden of the Mint 1680–5, div. w. of Hon. James Campbell*, 2s. 3da.  suc. bro. 1674.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Durham 1680; commr. Aire and Calder navigation 1699.2

Capt. indep. tp. 1685, 6 Drag. Gds. 1685–7, lt.-col. 1689, col. 1689–92; commr. privy seal Dec. 1711–13.3

Commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696, public accts. 1702–4.4


Though an inconspicuous Member of the 1685 and Convention Parliaments, by 1689 Byerley had clearly established his Tory credentials and by the early 1700s he had become ‘a leading figure among the High Church gentry in Yorkshire’. He also established for himself a role of some significance at Westminster as a Tory zealot, primarily through his pursuit of the perceived misapplication of public monies. Although his actions were in part attributable to a partisan desire to pursue Whig ministers in and out of office, they also stemmed from Country beliefs typical of a man of his background. The Byerleys had possessed lands in both Yorkshire and Durham from the 16th century, and though his father’s estate was valued at only £600 p.a. at the Restoration, the family gained further lands in Yorkshire following the death of a maternal uncle. Byerley took up the profession of arms, initially fighting for the King at Sedgemoor in an independent troop but quickly joining the regular army, and in 1689, having fought for William and Mary in Ireland earlier in the year, was given his own regiment upon the recommendation of Schomberg. Byerley returned to Ireland in the following two years, but while he was on duty there in November 1690 Mary Wharton, who one observer noted was ‘designed’ for Byerley, was kidnapped and forcibly married by Hon. James Campbell. The niece of Byerley’s mother and heir to considerable Yorkshire estates, the 13-year-old Mary was said to be worth £1,500 p.a. Following the death of Mary’s father in 1685 Byerley’s mother had taken a close interest in her niece’s welfare, possibly even taking responsibility for her upbringing, and the two were travelling together when she was kidnapped. Within two days of Wharton’s marriage she was taken from Campbell’s custody by order of the lord chief justice, and in March 1692, following an Act annulling the forced marriage, Byerley himself married her, thereby gaining further Yorkshire estates. The same month also saw Byerley arrested at Dover on suspicion of being a Jacobite going to the Continent, presumably travelling with his bride. It may be that he had been confused with the Jacobite Captain Joseph Byerley of Belgrave, Leicestershire, and he was promptly released on the orders of Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†). The prospect of increased wealth through marriage may have prompted him to surrender his commission at the end of January 1692, but for a considerable part of the following two years Byerley was embroiled in a dispute regarding the accounts of his regiment for the Irish campaign, his claim for arrears being complicated by the allegation of his successor Colonel Hugh Wyndham that Byerley was considerably indebted to the regiment. He eventually received some of his arrears but the issue was to resurface during his parliamentary career, on one occasion causing him acute political embarrassment.5

In 1695 Byerley was returned unopposed for Knaresborough, the seat for which his grandfather had sat in the early 17th century and where he had inherited lands at his marriage, and was subsequently returned there at every election until his death. Though he was inactive in the first session, his Toryism soon became evident. Forecast as a likely opponent of the Court in the divisions of 31 Jan. 1696 over the council of trade, Byerley initially refused the Association and in March voted against the Court on fixing the price of guineas at 22s. Byerley took the Association in the court of King’s bench in May but was nevertheless removed from Yorkshire’s commission of the peace for his initial refusal. A further demonstration of Byerley’s Tory beliefs came early in the following session, when on 25 Nov. he voted against the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. He remained an inactive Member, however, his only significant committee nomination coming on 17 Mar. 1697 when he was named to draft an additional clause to the bill to repair the pier at Bridlington, Yorkshire. Of more note was a dispute over the accounts for Byerley’s former regiment. On 14 Dec. 1696 the petition of soldiers from this regiment was ordered to lie on the table because of Byerley’s absence, and on 15 Jan. 1697 their claim for arrears accrued during the Irish campaigns, and their contention that Byerley had failed to make up his accounts, was heard by the House. Byerley responded that his accounts were before the commission of accounts, and his request that the commissioners be asked to report to the Commons was granted by the House. On 30 Mar. the commissioners reported that Byerley’s claim to be owed £467 17s. 31/2d. had to be seen in the light of several inconsistencies in his accounts, pointed out by his successor Colonel Wyndham, so that he was owed no more than £39 13s. 11/2d. The confused state of Byerley’s accounts was also indicated by the commissioners’ querying a payment of £2,000 for clothing the regiment, but on the general question of whether Byerley was liable for the arrears due to his former troops the commission stated that Wyndham had been colonel of the regiment when the King had ordered the Treasury to provide funds to satisfy such arrears. A letter written in early December 1697 demonstrated that Byerley’s opposition sympathies remained strong, as he commented caustically upon the calls to disband the army that ‘some great ones are much offended and would persuade some to believe the towns throughout England will petition for its continuance’. He made his first recorded speech on 17 Dec. in support of a motion by Sir John Kaye, 2nd Bt., for a writ for a by-election at the Yorkshire borough of Aldborough. The question of the arrears due to Byerley’s former regiment was revived in the new year by a petition read on 3 Jan. and referred to the joint paymasters general of Ireland. On 4 Feb. the House ordered the commission of accounts to return Byerley’s papers relating to his former regiment, and on 4 May it was reported that though arrears were due to what had been Byerley’s regiment neither he nor his successor had received this money.6

Shortly before the opening of the 1698 Parliament Byerley was classed as a Country party supporter and a probable opponent of a standing army, and he confirmed his hostility to the Court during the debate of 6 Dec. on the choice of Speaker. James Vernon I* reported that Byerley spoke ‘virulently’ against the Court candidate and Treasury lord Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt., making ‘reflections upon the Treasury’. Though Byerley’s speech followed that of the leading Tory Sir John Bolles, 4th Bt., and his opposition was echoed by other prominent members of the opposition such as Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt., and Anthony Hammond, another report of the debate stated that such arguments were ‘overpowered in reason’ by Court speakers. Little more can be said of Byerley’s activity in this session, though it appears that he took a more active role in the 1699–1700 session. Between January and March he managed a bill to allow justices to raise money to build and repair gaols. More significantly, Byerley played a part in the opposition harassment of the Whigs. On 2 Feb., for example, he took a leading role in the attack upon Lord Orford (Edward Russell*), reminding the House of its vote of the previous session condemning mismanagement of the naval accounts and moving that accounts dating back to February 1689 be laid before the House. His hostility to the Junto was further demonstrated in the debate of the 13th upon grants of forfeited land made to Lord Somers (Sir John*), opining ‘that robbing by the great seal is worse than robbing on the h[igh]way’. His concern to pursue the alleged abuses of Whig ministers had a clear partisan motivation and in March he was among those Tories who supported John Grobham Howe’s proposal to revive the commission of accounts and to appoint, without a salary, seven commissioners.7

Shortly after his return at the first election of 1701 Byerley wrote to Hon. James Brydges* that his intention to stay in the country ‘two months longer than usual’ had been unaffected by the death of the king of Spain, claiming that he was not ‘a jot concerned’ with the consequences for the disposition of the Spanish throne and its effect upon the state of Europe. His name does not appear in the Journals until 20 Feb. when he was the first-named Member nominated to investigate abuses in hospital revenues, his interest in this topic demonstrated by his reporting from this committee (9 Apr.) and being the first-named Member appointed to draft a bill to redress such abuses (24 Apr.). His support of the remodelled ministry became clear early in the session as he was listed as one of those prepared to support the Court in agreeing to the resolution of the supply committee to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’. Byerley’s concern to pursue partisan aims was, however, undiminished, so much so that by May the Whig Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, described him as ‘the most party and ill-natured man in the House’. Tory and Country sympathies may explain his nomination on 20 Mar. to draft a bill to regulate parliamentary elections, but it was his enthusiastic participation in the attempted impeachment of former Whig ministers that was the most notable feature of his parliamentary activity. The concern evident in the previous session to pursue the alleged abuses of Orford at the Admiralty was again demonstrated with his nomination on 28 Mar. to examine the behaviour of the Admiralty solicitor, and on 14 Apr. Byerley was ordered to inform the Lords of the Commons’ intention to impeach Orford. The following day he reported this matter to the House and was added to the committee drawing up the articles of impeachment against the Earl of Portland and the Junto lords. On 9 May Byerley carried to the Lords the articles of impeachment against Orford, and on the 23rd he moved that the select committee on the impeachment be instructed to search for precedents for the answers of the Junto lords to the impeachment articles. His particular hostility to Orford was again in evidence at the end of the month when, on either the 27th or the 30th, he moved that the Commons read its vote of 27 Mar. 1699 condemning the former cashier to the navy George Dodington*, and on the 31st Byerley was nominated to search for precedents for the Lords’ appointing a date for Orford’s trial. Though his activity in the final months of the session was dominated by the impeachments, Byerley was also nominated to manage a conference with the Lords (15 May) and to prepare an address promising to support the King’s alliances for preserving the liberties of Europe (12 June). He also told against an additional clause to the bill appropriating part of the excise (16 June).8

Classed as a Tory by Robert Harley in December 1701, Byerley was an active Member of the second 1701 Parliament. Prior to the death of William in early March Byerley was nominated to draft bills for the employment of the poor and encouragement of privateers (6, 10 Jan.); told against allowing a petition relating to a forfeited Irish estate to lie on the table (23 Feb.); and presented a bill relating to a forfeited Irish estate (3 Mar.). He supported the motion of 26 Feb. vindicating the Commons’ proceedings in the previous Parliament against the Whig ministers, and the approbation of his Tory peers for his recent parliamentary activity was indicated early in March by his inclusion on the Tory slate for the ballot for the revived commission of accounts. His partisan loyalty led to his attempt on 7 Mar. to make use of what was to prove to be the fatal illness of the King to propose an adjournment of the Commons which would have delayed the passage of the abjuration and malt tax bills. Tory success in the ballot for commissioners of accounts later that month saw Byerley elected in fifth place. His hostility towards union with Scotland was evident on 19 Mar. when he told against putting the motion for a bill to appoint commissioners to treat for such a union. A concern to further Yorkshire interests was evident on 2 Apr., when he told against exempting Great Yarmouth from the tolls levied by the bill to repair piers at Whitby. He also told against recommitting a bill concerned with an Irish forfeited estate (8 Apr.).9

Given Byerley’s clearly demonstrated hostility to the Junto, it is likely that he took some pleasure, for partisan as well as pecuniary reasons, over the defeat in November 1702 of Lord Wharton’s (Hon. Thomas*) judicial challenge against the right of Byerley and 12 others to land in Yorkshire containing ‘a lead mine of great value’, and his animosity both to the Junto lords and those who had served with them in the ministries of the 1690s was evident in the 1702–3 session. He had been a signatory to the accounts commission’s report, presented to the House on 9 Nov., which condemned the former paymaster general Lord Ranelagh (Richard Jones*) for failing to prepare proper accounts, obstructing the investigation of the commissioners, and for alleged corruption. As a commissioner of accounts he was also involved in investigating Lord Halifax’s (Charles Montagu*) alleged circumvention of Exchequer procedures, presenting a report on 26 Jan. which claimed that a failure to complete and transmit proper accounts amounted to a mismanagement of public funds. The Lords’ response to this attack was prompt. On 3 Feb. they voted to ask the commissioners of accounts to attend the Lords’ committee on their report, which prompted the Commons to nominate a committee, including Byerley, to investigate the precedents for such requests. Byerley’s partisan loyalties were demonstrated by his vote of 13 Feb. to disagree with the Lords’ amendments to the bill enlarging the time for taking the abjuration.10

Appointed on 9 Nov. 1703 to prepare the Address, Byerley’s standing among Tory back-benchers by the 1703–4 session was indicated when he was included in a list of Members drawn up by Sir William Trumbull* described as the ‘secret committee’ of the Commons. This list may have been drawn up in connexion with the controversy over the Scotch Plot, and Byerley was nominated to draw up three addresses relating to this matter. In mid-March 1704 he was listed as a supporter of Secretary Nottingham on this issue. Though Byerley took an interest in various minor issues which came before the House, his parliamentary activity was again dominated by the commission of accounts. On 10 Jan. he moved that an information filed by the attorney-general relating to the charges levelled by the commissioners in the previous session against Halifax be read to the House, and on two further occasions he presented information from the commissioners to the Commons. On 25 Feb. it was announced that Byerley had again been elected a commissioner, but the bill to renew the commission was subject to a concerted attempt by Whig peers to sabotage the body which had spent much of the last two parliamentary sessions censuring former Whig ministers. Continuing claims for arrears due to Byerley’s former regiment had been under investigation by the commissioners for military debts since the spring of 1703, and in March 1704 they reported to the Commons on the 10th and to a committee of the Lords six days later that they had not, owing to disputes between Wyndham and Byerley, received ‘in the form they prescribed’ accounts covering the years of the Irish campaigns. Byerley’s involvement in this failure to produce correct accounts, one of the main charges made by the commission of accounts against Ranelagh and Halifax, presented peers hostile to the commission of accounts with the ideal pretext to torpedo the bill for the commission’s renewal. Thus, on the 16th the Lords removed Byerley’s name from the list of commissioners and added three of their own nominees. The following day the Commons appointed a committee, including Byerley, to investigate the Lords’ amendments to the public accounts bill. The committee reported on the 20th, and the following day it was resolved, without a division, to appoint a committee to draw up reasons to disagree with the Lords’ amendments. This committee’s report of the 24th strongly endorsed both the right of the Commons to appoint commissioners and the election of Byerley in ‘whose abilities and integrity, in the discharge of this trust, they have so much experience’. The Commons ordered that a conference be requested to inform the Lords of the Lower House’s disagreement to the amendments, but the issue was not resolved before the end of the session so that the bill fell. However, the difficulties that Byerley experienced did not diminish his concern to condemn what he perceived as a misuse of public money, and on 31 Mar. he criticized James Vernon I for receiving ‘four years’ salary for nothing’ while commissioner for prizes in the 1690s.11

At the beginning of the 1704–5 session Byerley was named, on 24 Oct., to prepare the Address, and it is clear from his actions concerning the Tack that his partisan ardour had in no way cooled. As early as 27 Oct. it had become known that Byerley was ‘strongly for consolidating the bill against occasional conformity with the first money bill’, and three days later he was forecast as a probable supporter of the Tack. He duly voted for it on 28 Nov., and it was probably the failure of the Tack that led Byerley to complain to Bishop Nicolson in early January 1705 of ‘the unsteadiness of his friends’. He also appears to have taken an interest in a number of miscellaneous issues. As well as being nominated to draft three bills, to prevent outlawries being obtained via personal legal actions (24 Oct.), to prohibit trade with France (11 Nov.) and to introduce an alternative to cheek-burning as a punishment for theft (18 Dec.), he told against the introduction of a bill to enforce the Act encouraging the use of needlework buttons (21 Nov.) and against reading a bill concerned with duties upon East India goods re-exported to Ireland (22 Feb.). Any remaining doubts over Byerley’s reputation for financial rectitude were lifted when the report of the commissioners for military debts concluded that Byerley had not been guilty of any corruption in the handling of the finances of his former regiment, and a Commons’ resolution of 22 Feb. affirmed the propriety of his actions. Tory loyalties are the likely explanation of Byerley’s activity in the final months of the session as in February he was nominated to three committees concerned with the Aylesbury case, and on 13 Mar. was appointed to manage a conference concerning a disagreement with the Lords over Tory attempts to add to a naturalization bill a clause preventing those naturalized from voting in parliamentary elections.12

Though Byerley remained in the House for the rest of his life and continued to promote and support Tory measures, his parliamentary career had passed its zenith. Classed as ‘True Church’ in an analysis of the 1705 Parliament, on 25 Oct. he voted against the Court candidate for Speaker. Byerley’s only recorded speech of the session came in a debate on the regency bill on 19 Dec. when he defended Charles Caesar from attempts to have him removed to the Tower for Caesar’s allusions to Lord Godolphin’s (Sidney†) former contact with the Jacobite court. On 11 Mar. 1706 he told against a Lords amendment to a private bill, though no further significant activity is recorded for him until the first Parliament of Great Britain. Listed in early 1708 as a Tory, Byerley managed a bill in this session concerning the estates of Christopher Lister*, initiated by a petition from the Yorkshire Tory Sir Arthur Kaye, 3rd Bt.*, in addition to being nominated to draft bills for the regulation of servants (16 Feb. 1708) and to revive the Act on naval discipline (2 Mar.). Classed as a Tory shortly after the 1708 election, Byerley’s only significant action in the 1708 Parliament was his opposition in early 1710 to the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell.13

With the revival of Tory fortunes in 1710, however, Byerley again took a more prominent role, returning with vigour to the attack on the alleged corruption of former Whig ministers. On 2 Dec. he moved for a statement of the number of troops in Spain and Portugal at the time of the battle of Alamanza, thereby reopening the controversy surrounding this issue, while on 19 Jan. 1711 he was sharply critical of the failure to produce an account of the previous year’s contingencies. He even suggested ‘that no supply should be granted till a satisfying account should be laid before them of these contingencies’, but was unable to find a seconder. Suggestions in March 1711 that Byerley’s right to sit in the House was to be challenged under the terms of the Landed Qualification Act came to nothing. At the end of the session Byerley was classed as a Tory patriot who had opposed the continuation of the war, as a ‘worthy patriot’ who had detected the mismanagements of the previous administration, and as a leading member of the October Club. To the surprise of at least one observer, who in February had described Byerley as one of the ‘old Tories (who are not yet provided, and who have shown a great uneasiness all this session)’, Byerley had initially kept his distance from the October Club, yet his appointment to office later in the year may be explained in part by his membership of the club, for at this time the Earl of Oxford (as Harley had become) was eager to improve his relations with the Octobrists. When rumours of a ministerial reshuffle were circulating in June 1711 it was suggested that Byerley’s nomination as a lord of trade was imminent, though these reports proved inaccurate. Having moved the Address on 7 Dec. Byerley was the first-named Member appointed the same day to prepare it, reporting the following day. On 21 Dec. he was named a commissioner of the privy seal, an appointment characterized by one modern historian as part of the ministry’s rapprochement with the October Club, and on the 22nd a writ was ordered for the by-election consequent upon this appointment. The Official Returns state that this election did not take place until January 1713, but the appointment in February 1712 of Byerley to two committees and to prepare a representation on the state of the war (18th) suggests that the election must have taken place in January 1712, as did those of the two other commissioners of the privy seal appointed at the same time as Byerley. The possibility of Byerley being appointed a commissioner of trade was rumoured in the spring of 1712 but again came to nothing. The 1713 session saw Byerley nominated to draft a bill to open up the African trade (2 May). His loyalty to the ministry was evident during the passage of the French commerce bill, as on the 18th he spoke and voted for this measure. Re-elected in 1713 and classed as a Tory in the Worsley list, Byerley died during the 1714 session and on 3 May was buried at Goldsborough. He was succeeded by his eldest son, but all of Byerley’s children died without issue and none entered the Commons.14

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison


  • 1. Surtees, Dur. iii. 313; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 394.
  • 2. Surtees, iv(2), 22; HMC Lords, n.s. iii. 204.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1686–7, p. 374; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxv. 600; xxvii. 335.
  • 4. CJ, xii. 508.
  • 5. G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 278; VCH N. Riding Yorks. i. 90, 360–1, 379; HMC Le Fleming, 263; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 347; 1691–2, pp. 117, 205; Davies Diary (Cam. Soc. ser. 1, lxvii), 122, 146; HMC Finch, ii. 423; Trinity, Dublin, Clarke mss 749/3/296, T. Maule to George Clarke*, 15 Nov. 1690; E. R. Wharton, Whartons of Wharton Hall, 31–33; Docs. Relating to the Swaledale Estates of Ld. Wharton (N. Yorks. RO Publ. 36), 11–12, 262–5; Luttrell, 128, 328; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 270, 272, 279, 282, 286, 294, 299; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1557–1696, p. 306.
  • 6. Luttrell, iv. 60; Add. 70155, jnl. of land bank commrs.; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 123; T. Lawson-Tancred, Recs. of a Yorks. Manor, 218.
  • 7. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 226–7, 424; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 424; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF 4107(a), notes on debate, 15 [recte 13] Feb. 1699[-1700]; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 48/51, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 28 Mar. 1700.
  • 8. Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 58(1), pp. 17–18; Cocks Diary, 144, 166.
  • 9. Stowe mss 26(2), James Brydges’ diary, 4 Mar. 1702; Cocks Diary, 237.
  • 10. Luttrell, v. 235; LJ, xvii. 267.
  • 11. HMC Downshire, i. 817; HMC Lords. n.s. v. 449–52; Luttrell, v. 402; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 254.
  • 12. Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 216, 267; HMC Lords, n.s. vi. 290–1; Bull. IHR, xl. 157.
  • 13. Cam. Misc. xxiii. 52, 55.
  • 14. NSA, Kreienberg despatch 5 Dec. 1710; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 5, ff. 107–8; Nicolson Diaries, 554; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/5/808/15, Mungo Graham* to Ld. Montrose, 6 Feb. 1711; GD220/5/256/20, George Baillie* to same, 8 Dec. 1711; Scots Courant, 8–11 June 1711; Add. 57861, f. 162; Huntington Lib. Q. xxxiii. 164; BL, Trumbull Alphab. mss 54, Ralph Bridges to Sir William Trumbull, 25 Apr. 1712; Chandler, iv. 41.