HARLEY, Edward (1664-1735), of Eywood, Herefs.

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



1695 - 1698
1698 - 1700
3 Apr. 1701 - 1722

Family and Education

b. 7 June 1664, 2nd s. of Sir Edward Harley* by his 2nd w., and bro. of Robert Harley*.  educ. Shilton, Oxon. (Samuel Birch) 1671–c.81; ?Newington Green, Mdx. (Charles Morton) 1681–2; M. Temple 1682, called 1688; L. Inn 1698, bencher 1710.  m. 5 or 15 Sept. 1698 (with £6,000), Sarah (d. 1721), da. of Thomas Foley I*, sis. of Edward*, Richard* and Thomas Foley III*, 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da.1

Offices Held

Recorder, Leominster 1692–1732; freeman, Ludlow 1701.2

Commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696, S. Sea Co. 1711; dir. S. Sea Co. 1711–15.3

Jt. auditor of imprests 1703–d.4


Harley, who after 1703 was customarily called by his official designation of ‘auditor’, was happy in a role akin to that of faithful squire, acting as man-of-business for his family and as a political lieutenant of his elder brother. His exceptional religiosity, however, gave him a significantly separate identity. In his early career in Parliament he was a man to be reckoned with on the ‘Country’ side of the House, especially as a spokesman for the ‘moral reform’ lobby, and even in his latter years occasionally embodied his brother’s Puritan conscience. The suggestion that in his youth Harley was a pupil at Westminster appears to rest on the fact that an ‘Edward Harley’ acted as a steward at an anniversary dinner in 1728, but this is more likely to have been the Member’s son. It is highly improbable that Sir Edward Harley, having hitherto placed the education of his two elder sons in the hands of Dissenting ministers, should have sent Edward (and not Robert) to Westminster, for however short a time.5

Harley’s memoir of his brother Robert began with ‘adoration of the divine goodness that we sprung from such excellent parents, who from our infancy instructed and initiated us in all the principles of sincere piety and virtue’. For him, rather more than for Robert, the revered figure of their father served as a pattern of right conduct. In religion Edward Harley was by preference a Presbyterian, continuing to frequent conventicles long after the Revolution and serving as one of the executors of the will of the eminent divine Richard Baxter; in politics he began as a devout Whig. He regarded the events of 1688–9 as ‘a most surprising instance’ of God’s dominion in the world, and recalled his own participation:

Sir E. Harley sent me . . . to London to buy arms, and to transmit to him the best intelligence I could get, which, during the greatest part of King James’s reign, I weekly sent to him by a method of writing not to be discovered . . . [B]eing thoroughly convinced that the religion and liberties of the nation were then at stake, I acted without the least fear and less caution than I ought . . . Apprehending myself discovered in buying arms, I got out of London and . . . met the Prince [of Orange] at Salisbury . . . From Salisbury I went directly into Herefordshire and met my father . . . he and my brother having raised a troop of horse.

His letters at the time of the Convention, and the general election of 1690, show a distaste for the self-proclaimed ‘sons of the Church’ and for those who had been the ‘promoters of tyranny’ in the preceding reign. In his view Tories, particularly of the clerical variety, were still ‘the enemies of religion and common liberty’. This deep antipathy, fuelled by his anxiety over the safety of Protestantism from the Jacobite menace, and reinforced by his practical involvement in assisting beleaguered Dissenting congregations and Huguenot refugees, persisted over several years, though its dominant power gradually weakened as the tenor of his comments changed, the Court and its mismanagements becoming instead the focus of his suspicions. At first the chief ministers were suspect because of their Tory affiliations, ‘where the Court intends to centre’, but in due course the ‘intermixing’ and ‘jumbling together’ of parties, especially in opposition, was reflected in his correspondence. ‘Whigs and Tories unite against the Court’, he wrote in 1691, ‘in endeavouring to be frugal by good management.’ In the same year he observed, without apparent irony, that Sir Thomas Clarges* and Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt.*, had ‘got the character of commonwealthmen’. In part, he was simply following a political course charted by his brother, to whose aspirations his own career was subordinated. Events at Westminster were seen through Robert’s eyes. Nevertheless, the programme of the emergent Country opposition did correspond closely with his own outlook. Its emphasis on frugality was echoed in his admonitions to Robert against personal extravagance; and its denunciations of ‘corruption’ touched an even deeper chord, the belief, shared with other ‘reformers’, that England had entered a moral crisis on the outcome of which the fate of the kingdom, and the reformed religion, depended. The current ‘plague’ of immorality and profanity stood, in this view, as a provocation to divine providence. As early as January 1690 Harley wrote that ‘poverty and confusion, the just deserts of a profane nation, seem to make haste towards us’; in March, ‘the distemper of the nation is not only the decay of trade but in the failure of virtue and religion’; and in the following December he set out his priorities clearly: ‘the folly, treachery and neglect which appears in the management of affairs amuses all persons that have any concern for their country. But that which staggers all hope is the manifest decay and disappearance of religion and virtue.’ Bribery and corruption at parliamentary elections were not only evils in themselves but might also ‘entail a curse upon . . . Parliament’. The societies for the reformation of manners naturally enjoyed his warm support, and he was close to a parliamentary lobby anxious for legislative proposals to combat ‘debauchery and profaneness’. This religious and moralistic fervour reached a peak in the winter of 1691–2, when he revealed a streak of millenarianism. ‘Great commotions of the world’, he wrote, ‘give hope that God will overturn, overturn all that oppose His dominion, till that kingdom be fixed which shall have no end.’ Then, after a Christmas devoid of ‘revels’, he sent his father a long letter on ‘a matter of the highest concern’. Recalling that around 1680 it had pleased God ‘to work that happy change in me which . . . I may say was a translation from death to life’ and that after enjoying ‘views’ of the Almighty for the next three years he had fallen back into his former ways and in consequence had come to know ‘the bitterness of living without Him in the world’, he announced that

that mercy which first raised from the dead [has] revived me out of this lethargy. The immense excellency of the divine glory and majesty shining upon my spirit [greatly] consumed all love to this world and desires after it, which were succeeded by most awful apprehensions of the divine being and strong desire to be entirely devoted to Him . . . these discoveries I found a command powerfully impressed upon me to preach the Gospel . . . At first I did not conclude these to be the impressions of the divine spirit, and examining these thoughts by the rules of human prudence I found a great aversion and struggle in my spirit, against such a course which led me from the profession I had been educated in and which must expose me to the utmost scorn and contempt . . . But I observed while this frame continued I was not admitted into those intimate converses with Heaven which formerly I had enjoyed . . . I cannot disobey this voice, which I take to be the call of the divine spirit, without expecting the withdrawing of this presence, which is more trouble than death . . . My desire, under your direction, was privately to retire into some part of Yorkshire, where the Gospel I am told is hardly known.

Sir Edward’s considered reply, which evidently succeeded in reimposing more sober counsels, pointed out that ‘magistracy’, as well as ‘ministry’, was a ‘godly calling’. Sir Edward also cited the precedent of ‘godly’ politicians earlier in the century:

in three former reigns the purity of religion had been banished the land, in the first of those reigns had not the Lord raised up worthy lords and gentlemen, very especially excellent lawyers . . . in Parliament, to assert religion and to promote reformation.

The example would seem to have been noted. No more was heard of Edward’s vocation, and the very next year he took the first step towards a parliamentary career with election as recorder of Leominster, a borough in which he was already known and where he was slowly to cultivate an interest.6

Harley was returned to Parliament, along with his father and brother, at the general election of 1695. He was recommended by Robert’s father-in-law (and his own future father-in-law) Thomas Foley I at Droitwich. In so far as it is possible to distinguish his parliamentary activity from that of his brother, and cousin Thomas Harley*, his first legislative undertakings would appear to have reflected constituency interests (a bill to explain the 1689 Droitwich Saltworks Act, which he presented on 1 Feb. 1696). His first recorded speech, on 31 Jan. 1696, against the imposition of an abjuration oath on members of the proposed council of trade, combined a moral reformer’s dislike of the misuse of oaths for political purposes with ‘Country party’ opposition to a Court Whig scheme. Harley had been classed as ‘doubtful’ in the forecast for that day’s division on the council, while his father and brother had been listed as likely to vote against the Court. All three signed the Association. A commissioner for taking subscriptions to the land bank, he was an active member of the committee chosen by the commissioners in May 1696 to undertake negotiations with the Treasury. In November the bill of attainder against Sir John Fenwick† gave rise to two notable interventions. Opposing the reading of the testimony given by the absconded witness Goodman in a previous trial, he declared:

I would not have it said, that under the reign of King William, anything was done contrary to the law and constitution of the nation. There hath been an instance given of the trial of Mr Cornish, though that case does not come up to it. But we know what was done in those reigns hath been justly reflected upon, and I hope you will not make a precedent here, to encourage judges to do what is against law.

His speech against the bill at its third reading, when he was listed as voting for rejection, concentrated on the same theme, the infringement upon legal precedent and upon the rights of Englishmen:

It hath been said, that the Parliament is unlimited. I do agree, that we are not tied to the rules of Westminster Hall. If any will look into the history of England, they will find it hath been often the design of the crown to turn up plots upon the subject; and therefore these Acts took particular care there should be two witnesses to prove the fact. This is the reason of the law, and, I think, upon it the liberty of the subject is founded, and therefore I can’t be for this bill.

These contributions furnish the best evidence that Harley had attained some standing in the House, for aside from presenting on 10 Feb. 1697 a bill to prevent the corrupting of jurors, and in the same month managing through the House the bill for the payment of the debts of the 2nd Lord Holles (Sir Francis, 1st Bt.†), he was not prominent in business. However, when Thomas Foley III, soon to be his brother-in-law, recommended him in April 1697 as a candidate for the post of chief justice on the Chester circuit, the recipient of the recommendation, Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*) was willing to relay the message to the King. Somers’ quasi-endorsement, though unsuccessful, was in itself significant, and is unlikely to have derived solely from a desire to placate Harley’s formidable connexions.7

In the 1697–8 session, by contrast, Harley was active in the preparation and prosecution of a number of bills. There was a bill relating to his constituency, for obliging all retailers of salt to sell by weight, for which he and Thomas Foley III constituted the drafting committee in January 1698. On 8 Mar. he presented a bill which provided for the continuance of the Act to confirm the privileges of the Hudson’s Bay Company, while in March–April he managed a private estate bill, before being granted leave of absence on 9 April for 21 days. However, his keenest enthusiasm was reserved for the work of moral reformation, which was at this time undergoing a resurgence. Harley’s correspondence during 1697 began once again to be peppered with denunciations of moral delinquency: ‘the contempt of the gospel and the vile abused peace and plenty has long given just cause to expect the judgments of God upon the nation’, he had written in March of that year. Thus when (Sir) John Philipps moved on 9 Feb. 1698 for an address to the King to issue a proclamation for the suppression of immorality and profaneness, ‘and all books which endeavour to undermine the fundamentals of the Christian religion’, he did so at Harley’s urging; and when on 26 Feb. leave was given for a bill to eradicate ‘profaneness, immorality and debauchery’, Philipps and Harley were together charged with bringing it in. Harley may also have been responsible for a clause against prostitution inserted into a Lords’ bill against ‘profaneness’. A bill of his own, presented on 9 June 1698, to vest in Greenwich Hospital estates formerly given to ‘superstitious uses’, was typical of a ‘moral reformer’ in its combination of philanthropy and anti-popery. So powerful was this conviction of moral crisis that he saw administrative issues in the same terms, for example dilating upon the ‘villainies and corruptions of the Exchequer officers’ in January 1698. It reinforced his opposition to the ‘new Whig’ ministry. In April 1698 he seconded ‘young Mr Foley’ (probably Thomas Foley III) in a proposal to tax crown grants, and after the general election, in which he ‘displaced’ the Court Whig John Dutton Colt* at Leominster, he was listed among the supporters of the Country party in the new Parliament. He seems to have remained in Brampton Bryan, presumably on family business, at the beginning of the first session, for as late as 24 Dec. 1698 Robert was writing to warn him of a call of the House on 3 Jan. Having arrived in London in time for the call, he spoke on 18 Jan. in favour of the disbanding bill at its third reading. He was a confirmed opponent of a standing army and had been forecast as likely to support the bill. Now he spoke of the danger to liberty inherent in any standing force, which would reduce England to the condition of ‘slavery’ endemic in continental Europe. ‘The affec[tion]s of the people, and the interest of Europe’ were sufficient ‘to protect us’ from the Jacobites: ‘by this way’, the maintenance of an army in time of peace, the kingdom would be ‘undone’. He was prominent in other Country causes too. On 10 Feb. 1699 he presented a petition against allowing privilege to the former receiver of customs duties and now Whig Member for Malmesbury, Michael Wicks, in an execution against his estate for debts owed to the crown, on behalf of various ‘informers’ who were being rewarded by the Treasury for ‘making discoveries of considerable estates’ in Wicks’s possession. Harley also introduced, on 23 Mar., a bill to regulate the method of qualifying votes in parliamentary boroughs. He is not known to have spoken in support of Sir John Philipps’ ‘immorality’ bill, but bitterly deplored its defeat, ‘baffled in a most scandalous manner . . . such an open appearing for vice is a sad omen’. In attendance at the House on 6 Dec. 1699, when in a debate on the affair of Captain Kidd he backed opposition criticisms of the grants of pirates’ goods, he seems to have spent some time away from London in December and early January 1699–1700, but was back in March to launch two efforts in the direction of excluding placemen from the House, both aimed specifically at excise officers. In the first, on 2 Mar. 1700, he moved during a debate on the excise that no Member ought to be concerned in the ‘farming or managing’ of revenues. By the use of the word ‘managing’ he subsequently ‘explained himself, that no Member should be a commissioner of the excise, or hold any office belonging to the excise’. Then on 18 Mar. he successfully moved an amendment to the land tax and Irish forfeitures resumption bill to bar all excise officers from sitting in the Commons.8

The Leominster election of January 1701 was fiercely contested between Harley and John Dutton Colt for the second place behind Lord Coningsby (Thomas*) and it was not until 3 Apr. that Harley was finally seated on petition. It was probably Edward rather than his cousin who was the ‘Mr Harley’ who acted as a teller on 28 May in favour of a bill to prevent the corrupting of jurors. The one speech attributed to him in this Parliament suggests a degree of independence from his brother, in that his proposal, in ways and means, for ‘the sale of the King’s lands and forests’ was unlikely to find favour at court. After the dissolution he was blacklisted as one who had opposed making preparations for war, and in a Whig pamphlet was denounced as a ‘ringleader’ of the ‘new Tory party’ and, as such, a hypocrite: ‘does he not attend all ordinances, and as constantly every weekday frequent the service of the Church, for his is a Church party, in St. Stephen’s Chapel, as he does the conven[ti]cle every Lord’s Day?’ That there was some truth in this accusation of occasional conformity is indicated by evidence of his continued close connexions with London Dissenting congregations. In his constituency, however, his predilection towards Nonconformity was taken for a virtue rather than a vice. He was returned again in the second general election of 1701: this time it was Colt who petitioned, but the petition was never heard. In comparison with the result of the election in January, before the House’s adjudication, this was calculated by Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) as a ‘loss’ to the Whigs. Robert Harley naturally listed his brother with the Tories in December 1701, and Harley was later recorded as voting on 26 Feb. 1702 in favour of the motion vindicating the Commons’ proceedings in the impeachments of William’s former ministers. His speech on 10 Feb., on the report of the abjuration bill, recalled his comments on the council of trade proposals in 1696, in that, while in tune with Tory opposition to the Abjuration as such, it also reflected a devout Christian’s distaste for this particular political mechanism. Significantly, his seconders were both Whig moral reformers, Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt., and Peter King. One of his arguments had been heard before, against a standing army, ‘that the security of the prince was whe[n] it was the interest of the people to support’. For the rest, he ‘railed against and exploded oaths in general’, wrote Cocks, ‘that they were only a snare to tender consciences and of no significance to others, that the very persons that abjured King Charles II in less than 12 months brought him in’. A further contribution to debate, on 6 Mar. 1702, was entirely motivated by moral principles. Harley warned the House of two Members seen to have ‘had some words’ and to have ‘gone out together’, and to forestall the impending duel ‘desired’ to ‘adjourn’. Here his zeal seems to have carried him into a blunder, for as Cocks noted, with amusement, one of those allegedly involved, Lord William Powlett*, had been ‘all this time in the House’.9

It seems reasonable to assume that Edward Harley, rather than his less conspicuous cousin Thomas, presented a private bill on behalf of Sir Edward Williams* on 27 Nov. 1702. Perennial concern for the health of the electoral system makes it almost certain that he was the presenter, on 4 Dec., of the bill to disfranchise Hindon, one of the most flagrantly corrupt of parliamentary boroughs. Brother Robert had for some time been angling for an appointment for him from the new ministry, and, together with Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†), had settled on the place of joint-auditor of the imprests, with a salary of £300 p.a. but said to be worth in fees and perquisites a good £700 more. An opportunity had arisen by the end of the year, but Robert wished the grant to be on the most favourable terms, holding out on his brother’s behalf for a life patent. Eventually he was obliged to settle in March 1703 for an incumbency ‘during good behaviour’. The appointment brought with it official responsibilities in Parliament, in the presentation of accounts and papers, and the answering of inquiries. It also tied Edward Harley to the Marlborough–Godolphin administration. The Tack, in 1704, provided him with an issue on which he could easily prove this loyalty, since he was in all probability himself an occasional conformist. Forecast as likely to oppose the Tack, and lobbied by his brother, he was variously listed as having voted against and ‘sneaked’ on the division of 28 Nov. 1704. He voted for the Court candidate in the contest for the Speakership on 25 Oct. 1705, and, although angering the Whig Junto by absenting himself from the vote on the Amersham election in December rather than oppose a Tory candidate, rejoined the Court in the crucial division on the ‘place clause’ in the proceedings on the regency bill on 18 Feb. 1706. He had spoken in an earlier debate on the bill, concerning the provisions for summoning a Parliament on the death of the sovereign and in the interim before the successor should arrive, recalling that he had ‘seen the happy effects of P[arliamen]t sitting [?at] the late K[ing’s] death’; and observing that it ‘tends to quiet the minds of the people’. On 1 Mar. 1706 a ‘Mr Harley’ acted as a teller on a bill to reform legal practices in order to permit the admission as evidence of written ‘interrogatories’ of witnesses unable to attend in person. A year later he was specifically named as chairman of a committee to inquire into the passing of debentures made out to Colonel John Rice (4 Mar. 1707), and in the same month, on the 18th, he presented the bill to oblige Rice to tender his accounts. Presumably he acted thus in an official capacity. In November 1707 he brought to the attention of the House John Asgill’s* eccentrically heterodox pamphlet ‘proving that, according to the Scriptures, man may be translated from hence into eternal life, without passing through death’, and on the 29th reported from the committee investigating authorship.10

Harley, who was classed as a Tory in a list dating from early 1708, followed his brother into opposition in February of that year, though he was not deprived of his office in consequence. He was not especially active in opposition until February 1710, when he voted against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell, and on 16 Feb. was a teller against giving leave for a bill to regulate all select vestries in London. The level of his parliamentary activity rose still further with his brother’s accession to power. Classed as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’, he was subsequently listed among the ‘Tory patriots’ voting in favour of peace in April 1711, and the ‘worthy patriots’ who during the course of the 1710–11 session exposed the mismanagements of the previous ministry. He played a part himself in this work of exposure, reporting on 4 Apr. 1711 from the committee to examine the passage of imprest accounts and to consider methods to reform procedures, a subject close to home. However, in this session Harley’s main concern was with ministerial business, and in particular with the raising of funds to continue the war, a task in which he seems to have acted as his brother’s right-hand man. His original appraisal of the prospects for the new ministry had been gloomy. ‘I must own I looked upon the difficulties as insuperable.’ The first problem to be solved with his material assistance was that of raising £1,500,000 by a lottery, as Parliament had voted. ‘The scheme for doing it was left by the Treasury to Mr [William] Lowndes*’, he noted in his memoir,

who fell into the same method as was attempted in the Earl of Godolphin’s treasurership. The credit of the administration depending so much upon the raising of this money, Mr E. Harley concerned himself herein, and proposed a scheme very different from that of Mr Lowndes, which he [Lowndes] called unintelligible, and was with great difficulty brought to comply with it. Though the cashiers of the Bank were appointed receivers of this money, yet the directors and all the faction of the Whigs set themselves by all wicked artifices to oppose the filling of this lottery. Mr [Edward] Harley having discovered this, proposed to the chancellor of the Exchequer [Robert Harley], that Mr J[ohn] Blunt, who had been concerned in forming the scheme with himself, should take in subscriptions to this lottery, and in five days’ time managed this affair in such a manner, that the directors of the Bank, supposing that Mr Harley and Mr Blunt had received so much money as would near fill the lottery, the very day before the time appointed for opening the subscription writ so much into it that when the sum received came to be cast up, there appeared £300,000 overwrit. This strangely surprised all the faction . . . This happening to be upon the 7th of March . . . it was proposed by the Lord Halifax [Charles Montagu*] and others, that £1,500,000 more should be raised upon the same scheme, but the auditor, finding the temper of the moneyed people, apprehended it would be necessary to vary the method, and thereupon had the scheme of the class lottery formed; and proposed to his brother the £2,000,000 which was the whole sum necessary for that year’s supply, upon the scheme of the class lottery. This was thought a very hazardous undertaking, and therefore, to prevent any further artifices of the Bank, the auditor proposed taking in subscriptions by himself, Mr J. Blunt and the four tellers of the Exchequer.

‘This method proved so successful’, Harley recorded, that the lottery was oversubscribed, which placed him in the awkward position of having to ‘reduce the subscription he had taken’ himself so as to accommodate the subscriptions of his colleagues. How this tricky feat was performed is not explained, though he added, in a typical note of exculpation, that ‘to avoid any imputation of his concerning himself for his own lucre, kept no more for himself than £500’, despite the fact that ‘he might have got a great sum’. There seems little reason to doubt this somewhat priggish self-justification. The Harleys prided themselves on moral scruples and financial probity (at least as far as public money was concerned), and the family papers contain one letter from Robert, as lord treasurer, to his brother exulting in Edward’s refusal of a bribe of £5,000, for which he might expect instead ‘durable riches and honour’ in the form of ‘many times £5,000 to you and yours in this life and an eternal crown of glory in the next’. It was while the class lottery scheme was being framed that Robert Harley suffered an assassination attempt, and during the prime minister’s recuperation Edward came into his own. In May he took charge of a quasi-fiscal measure, the bill for altering the standard of plate, but his most signal service was his part in ‘forming the Act for the South Sea Company’, for which he claimed sole credit but which may also have benefited from the advice of John Blunt. The drafting was kept secret from ‘the offices principally concerned in the debt . . . upon the nation’ since ‘for many reasons it was absolutely necessary to conceal the methods of doing it till the bill was perfected’. Only when Robert Harley was fit to return to the House and take charge of the scheme was it

laid before 40 or 50 of the Members, who entirely approved of it, and were extremely pleased as well as surprised that such an unexceptionable method could be found to ease the government from a debt, which by the vast discounts must in a short time have sunk the nation, or disabled it from keeping any fleet, or carrying on the war.

A founding director of the South Sea Company, Edward held a seat on the board until 1715, but was quickly disillusioned by the ‘baseness’, ‘perverseness’, ‘faction’ and ‘self-interest’ of his fellow directors, later condemning the entire affair as ‘a dirty ditch’. His memoir, with its unfailing moral conceit, notes that he ‘might once have got a very great sum’ had he ‘complied with some schemes for getting this trade into private hands’, but ‘I absolutely declined, upon the prospect that the company at last would be induced to carry on this trade to a much greater advantage to the nation than hitherto they had done’. At this point, while his influence with his brother was possibly at its height, he made one further unavailing essay in the direction of moral reform. His religious conscience had been stimulated through his having recently been reminded of the plight of the ‘persecuted’ French Protestants, in particular those alleged to be kept as ‘galley-slaves’. On the eve of his appointment as lord treasurer Robert received a homily from Edward on the true purposes of government:

In an age when not only the vital part of religion is in a manner suppressed, but all regard to the divine dominion banished from human conversation, or exposed to banter, how difficult is it for the most pious mind not to be afflicted with this poison . . . Since the Revolution (which was a miraculous deliverance from popery) how often have the contending parties taken their turn upon the stage of power, and how strangely have they been confounded by things very improbable? None of their schemes ever took in any regard to the supreme majesty, or His government of the world, which I take to have been the fatal rock on which they have all split, and which will sink all that steer the same course.11

Early in the following session Harley’s closeness to his brother was exemplified when he twice acted as a ministerial hatchet-man: he was prominent in support of the motion of censure against the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) in January 1712, and also reopened the question of mismanagement of funds by the Marlborough–Godolphin ministry by volunteering to the House information about the £35 million allegedly unaccounted for. In due course, on 11 June 1712, he presented a bill to appoint commissioners to examine the debts of the armed forces, for transports and for sick and wounded. His opposition to the tack of a land grants resumption measure to the lottery bill (inspired by the October Club), which was carried to a vote in the division of 21 Apr., precisely echoed his brother’s sentiments, as did his desire to see the similarly immoderate Scottish patronage bill kept from the statute book, though in the latter case residual Presbyterian sympathies were also a factor. His political usefulness to Robert was now such that there were unfounded rumours of promotion to higher office, while privately he was taking the prime responsibility for negotiating the marriage of his nephew Lord Harley (Edward*) to the Newcastle heiress, an affair whose complexities necessitated his occasional ‘preservation’ by ‘very extraordinary providences’. His services to the ministry in the 1713 session began with the shrewd advice to his brother to revive the practice of consulting with ‘the gentlemen of the House of Commons’, or at least a representative body of Tory back-benchers, on Court policy and tactics. In the crisis over the peace and the French commercial treaty he took an active role, speaking and voting on 18 June in favour of the bill confirming the 8th and 9th articles of the treaty, opening the case for the Court and expatiating on the likely benefits. Then, on 1 July, he moved quickly to second James Stanhope’s motion for an address to procure the expulsion of the Pretender from Lorraine, ‘for fear some Whig should second’, and was nominated to the committee to prepare the address.12

At the 1713 general election Harley topped the poll in a three-cornered contest for Leominster. On 12 Mar. he led the ministerial attack on Richard Steele*, along with his colleague in the imprests Thomas Foley II*. Harley, who had earlier described Steele privately as ‘a true representative of his party in office’, maliciously obstructing any administration to which he did not himself belong, preferred the formal complaint against Steele’s writings. To his embarrassment, the tables were wittily turned as Steele requested an adjournment. Knowing his ‘two principal prosecutors’ to be ‘rigid Presbyterians’, Steele

assumed their sanctified countenance and owned ‘in the meekness and contrition of his heart, that he was a very great sinner, and hoped the Member who spoke last [Harley] and who was so justly renowned for his exemplary piety and devotion, would not be accessory to accumulating the number of his transgressions by obliging him to break the Sabbath of the Lord, by perusing such profane writings, as might serve for his justification’. This speech, spoken in a canting tone, having put the generality of the assembly in good humour, Mr Steele carried his point.

Harley and Foley spoke in tandem again on the question of paying the arrears to the Hanoverian troops, which surfaced in the committee of supply on 4 June, arguing strongly in favour of satisfying the claims: ‘they were sure’ the Hanoverian contingent ‘had ever done their duty’, and did not scruple to remind their audience of the obligations imposed by the oath of abjuration. Harley had in fact been privy to the first raising of this question in an earlier committee, or so the lord treasurer’s enemies alleged. His private correspondence, no less than his public utterances, confirms him as utterly loyal to his brother in these vital months, so that he was regarded by contemporaries as the chief minister’s mouthpiece. Thus the Duke of Marlborough took a keen interest in reports from England in mid-June that the auditor had accepted the case for the invitation to the electoral prince, as a sure method of ‘putting an end to the Jacobite ministers and party’, a statement whose sincerity Marlborough refused to credit. Similarly, the Hanoverian resident, Kreienberg, made a point of relaying to the Elector Harley’s conversation at a dinner on 25 June, when he made ‘a thousand protestations . . . of the good intentions of his brother, and wanted to give me to understand, that I would see yet further proofs of them before the end of the Parliament’. Harley was in good odour with Hanover at that particular time, for the previous day he had seconded a Hanoverian Tory’s motion for an address of thanks for the Queen’s proclamation of a reward for the apprehension of the Pretender, and then, as a Whig proposed an amendment to increase the reward offered, was again on his feet to second. The only issue on which he diverged from his brother was the schism bill, where his own stronger Nonconformist loyalties dictated a less equivocal response. Alone among the lord treasurer’s relations and ‘friends’ he voted against the bill. On the death of Queen Anne he signed the proclamation of her successor, in the capacity of one of the ‘principal gentlemen of quality’ in London.13

Harley retained his seat despite a general collapse of his family’s interest in the 1715 election, and also kept his auditorship, though he did suffer the ignominy of removal from first the Radnorshire and then the Herefordshire commissions of the peace. He helped defend his brother against impeachment, and in 1717 successfully justified his own conduct in office. His defeat at Leominster in 1722, after he had offered to withdraw on health grounds, was notable for the opposition he encountered from ‘the fanatics’. Their hostility, and the fact that he sent two of his sons to Westminster school, seems to indicate a more positive alignment with the Established Church. On the other hand he retained some of his reforming zeal, declaring his ambition to see Parliament bring about ‘the confusion of impious buffoons and atheists’. His particular contribution was towards the setting up of charity schools. He maintained three from his own resources, in Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, and in 1725 was chosen as chairman of the trustees for charity schools in London. This and the writing of various devotional tracts occupied the last decade of his life, spent in retirement from politics at his estate of Eywood in Herefordshire, where he had begun to build a house soon after his appointment as auditor.14

Harley died on 30 Aug. 1735, at his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn, and was buried at Titley, the parish in which Eywood was situated. Fittingly, it was his personal piety that was best remembered. Queen Anne had called him ‘a very good man’, while in 1735, not long before Harley’s death, the son of the bishop of Sodor and Man remarked with admiration that ‘his whole life has been one preparation for futurity’. The inscription on his funerary monument recalled that ‘the . . . tenor of his life was strictly moral . . . and the great example of piety and religion is the great consolation and blessing he has transmitted to posterity’. While in politics he had displayed a ‘steady and unbiassed adherence to the constitution, and a disinterested zeal for the good of his country’, yet ‘his assiduity in civil employments neither lessened his attention to religion, nor interrupted his daily course of devotion; the discharge of his duty as a Christian was the source and centre of all his desires’. His eldest son, Edward†, already knight of the shire for Hereford, in due course succeeded as 3rd Earl of Oxford.15

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. HMC Portland, iii. 319–21, 362–3, 369; A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised, 56–57, 356; Add. 70199, extracts from Brampton Bryan par. reg., Harley ped. pprs.; 61899, f. 30; Harley mss at Brampton Bryan, marriage settlement.
  • 2. G. N. F. Townsend, Town and Bor. of Leominster, 175, 292; cf. CSP Dom. 1696, p. 144; Salop RO, Ludlow bor. recs. min. bk. 1690–1712 (unfol.).
  • 3. Pittis, Present Parl. 350; J. Carswell, S. Sea Bubble, 279.
  • 4. Cal. Treas. Bks. xviii. 111–12; Cal. Treas. Bks. and Pprs. 1735–8, p. 249.
  • 5. Recs. Old Westminsters, i. 425; Alumni Westmon. 544.
  • 6. A. S. Turberville, Hist. Welbeck Abbey, i. 289; HMC Portland, v. 641, 643–5; iii. 421, 432, 434–5, 442, 444–6, 450–2, 455, 469, 481, 485–6, 488, 511, 528, 550; Add. 40621, ff. 22, 26; 70236, Edward to Robert Harley, 1 Jan. 1690, 16 Mar., 18 Sept., 17[?–] 1691, 16 Aug. 1693, 7 Aug. 1699; 70140, Sir Edward to Edward Harley, 28 Apr. 1691, 2 Jan., 10 Dec. 1692; 70144, same to Abigail Harley, 14 Oct. 1692; 70014, ff. 310, 383; 70015, ff. 16, 131, 254–5, 271, 274; 70118, Edward to Sir Edward Harley, 30 Dec. 1691, 19 Jan. 1693, 15 Jan. 1697[–8]; 70016, f. 225; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 95.
  • 7. Add. 70226, Thomas Foley I to Robert Harley, 7 Nov. 1695; 70236, Edward Harley to same, 8 Nov. 1695; 70155, jnl. of cttee. of land bank commrs. 1696; 70092, Thomas Hunt to Edward Harley, 24 Sept. 1700; Horwitz, 165; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 1046, 1149; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1181, Somers to the King, 29 Apr. 1697.
  • 8. HMC Portland, iii. 582, 586, 594–5, 600–2, 614; Horwitz, 234, 253, 262, 265; J. Oldmixon, Hist. Eng. (1735), 175; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 184; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 152, 453; Cam. Misc. xxix. 385.
  • 9. Cocks Diary, 98, 107, 120, 208–9, 235; Cobbett, v. p. cxciv; HMC Portland, iii. 613.
  • 10. Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 258; vi. 238; HMC Portland, iv. 54; Add. 70087, Godolphin to Robert Harley, 21 Jan. 1703; 70146, Robert to Abigail Harley, 2 Mar. 1703; Boyer, Anne Annals, ii. 2; Bull. IHR, xlv. 47; Cam. Misc. xxiii. 67.
  • 11. HMC Portland, v. 650–4; Add. 70140, Robert to [Edward Harley], 25 July 1713; 70236, Edward to Robert Harley, 13 May, 4 Nov. 1711; Carswell, 51–52, 60.
  • 12. Oldmixon, 488; H. L. Snyder, ‘Arthur Maynwaring and the Whig Press, 1710–1712’, Literatur als Kritik des Lebens ed. Haas, Müllenbrock and Uhlig, 133; Add. 70236, Edward to Robert Harley, [1712], 22 Mar. 1711[–12]; 17677 GGG, f. 229; D. Szechi, Jacobitism and Tory Pol. 112–13, 139; NSA, Kreienberg despatch 25 Apr. 1712; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 3 Jan. 1713; HMC Portland, v. 657–9; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 366; Cobbett, v. 41; Wentworth Pprs. 341.
  • 13. Add. 70226, Thomas Foley II to Robert Harley, 19 Aug., 5 Sept. 1713; 70236, Edward to same, 9 Nov. 1713; 17677 HHH, ff. 221, 284; 40621, ff. 217–18; Cobbett, vi. 1266–7, 1358; Chandler, v. 142; Szechi, 173; Bolingbroke Corresp. iv. 532; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 627, 631; Britain after Glorious Revol. ed. Holmes, 233; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 502; viii. 117.
  • 14. L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 248, 257; Add. 70383, Robert to Ld. Harley, 9, 18 Mar. 1721–2; 70144, Edward to Abigail Harley, ‘Tuesday 4’; DNB; Trans. Woolhope Club, xxxv. 48.
  • 15. DNB; A. Collins, Hist. Colls. Cavendish, Holles, Vere, Harley and Ogle Fams. 206–7; Hamilton Diary ed. Roberts, 51; Thomas Wilson Diaries ed. Linnell, 126.