Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, was a senior political figure in the reign of Queen Anne. Harley became her senior minister and acted as Secretary of State (1704 to 1708) and Lord Treasurer (1711 to 1714). The death of Anne and the succession of the Hanoverian George I effectively ended Harley’s political career.
Robert Harley was born on December 5th 1661, the son of the moderately Puritan Sir Edward Harley who had been a supporter of Parliament during the English Civil War. Harley had a Puritan upbringing at the Haymarket Dissenting Academy and in 1682 attended the Middle Temple. In 1688, he accompanied his father in his capture of Worcester for William of Orange – the future William III.
When William III was king, Harley served as a backbench MP with the Country Whigs. These were men who had a great deal of sympathy for the rural way of life as opposed to the urban way of living. Harley, a country squire, would have fitted in naturally with this group. Harley was a great believer in honest and open government and he developed a hatred of political corruption – something that he associated with those in the finance and commercial houses of the City of London. Harley himself became a very skilful political manager and while he was associated with the Country Whigs, he was not a party person. Harley became an expert on constitutional history and his reputation was such that aged just 29 he was appointed to the Public Accounts Institution – the accepted institution of governmental opposition. BY 1695, Harley was acknowledged as its leader.
He, along with others, formed the New Country Party that historians view as the embryonic Tory Party of Queen Anne’s reign. Made up of Tories and Whigs, its members internally bickered on a variety of issues but managed by Harley, it became a major player in English politics. In February 701, Harley was appointed Speaker of the House by the king – a royal recognition of his managerial ability and the political status he now held.
Under Queen Anne, Harley became one of the Triumvirate – three men who dominated politics at that time. Marlborough was the military heart of the three; Sidney Godolphin was Lord Treasurer and used his political skill to raise the funding for the Spanish War of Succession while Harley was the effective political manager, first as Speaker and then as Secretary of State.
One of the ways that Harley used to manage Parliament was to create a large network of political informers that left him as “the best informed politician of his day." (E N Williams)
Domestically, the most important issue that Harley was associated with was his role in piloting through the Act of Union in 1707 with Scotland. In the field of foreign affairs, his most important input was to ensure that reluctant politicians financed the War of Spanish Succession.
Harley became an adept non-party manager. He brought both moderate Tories and Whigs into government so that both parties would feel a sense of ownership of any decisions made. However, he fell out with Marlborough and Godolphin – both of whom shared his belief in being a non-party man – over his cousin Mrs Abigail Masham. For many years Queen Anne had as her favourite the highly influential Sarah Churchill, wife of Marlborough. There is little doubt that Sarah was the dominant personality in the relationship but her position was threatened and then taken over by Mrs Masham. Both Godolphin and Marlborough were concerned at this development and used their influence over the Queen to get Harley dismissed in February 1708.
By 1710, all those politicians in Westminster dissatisfied with the way politics was going rallied around Harley as he was seen as the natural leader of the opposition. Their primary criticisms were high taxation, corruption via the use of ‘placemen’ and the desire of the Whigs to line their own purses during the War of Spanish Succession which saw them deliberately prolong the war in the eyes of those who rallied behind Harley. Their beliefs matched the mood of a war weary nation. The trial of Henry Sacheverell acted as the spark to rally the poor of London. The so-called ‘Sacheverell Riots’ in London spurred Anne into action as no one wanted to confront the fear of social unrest. Between 1710 and 1711, Godolphin and Marlborough were dismissed and Harley led the government. A general election called at the same time returned a Tory majority to the Commons. Between 1710 and 1714, Harley was at the peak of his political powers.
Harley’s popularity increased still further after a failed assassination attempt on him by a French émigré called Antoine de Guisard on March 8th 1711. The fact that this attempt had been done by a foreigner brought Harley even more sympathy. Anne created Harley Earl of Oxford in May 1711. At home Harley, as Lord Treasurer, stabilised the economy and proved to the City that Tories were as able to do this as the Whigs. Abroad, he ended Britain’s involvement in the Spanish War of Succession in 1711 and pushed forward a peace process that culminated in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
However, 1714 was the see the end of his political influence. This was caused by the issue of succession. Anne’s health had not been good for a number of years and the government with her support had pushed for a Hanovarian succession to her on her death. The Whigs were united in their support for the Elector George of Hanover. The Tories split into those who wanted him and those who did not. Harley bore the brunt of this disunity which was exploited by his main adversity – Viscount Bolingbroke. Unable to cope with such pressure – and never really a party man – Harley took to drinking more and more. He suffered accordingly and on more than one occasion was unintelligible in public. Anne dismissed him on July 27th 1714 – just five days before she died.
Rather than flee abroad, Harley stayed in England and was impeached. He spent two years in the Tower of London (1715 to 1717) before he was acquitted in July 1717.
Though Harley was allowed to remain a member of the House of Lords, he preferred to spend his time at his Hereford estates where he became a landlord interested in agricultural improvement. He also gained fame as a collector of important books and manuscripts.
Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, died on May 21st 1724.