Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer KG (5 December 1661 – 21 May 1724), was a British politician and statesman of the late Stuart and early Georgian periods. He began his career as a Whig, before defecting to a new Tory Ministry.
He was raised to the peerage as an earl in 1711. Between 1711 and 1714 he served as Lord High Treasurer, effectively Queen Anne’s chief minister.
He has been called a Prime Minister, though it is generally accepted that the position was first held by Sir Robert Walpole in 1721.
Harley’s government agreed to the Treaty of Utrecht with France in 1713, bringing an end to twelve years of British involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession.
In 1714 he fell from favour following the accession of the first monarch of the House of Hanover, George I and was for a time imprisoned in the Tower of London by his political enemies.
He was also a noted literary figure and served as a patron of both the October Club and the Scriblerus Club. Harley Street is sometimes said to be named after him, although it was his son Edward Harley who actually developed the area.
Harley was born in Bow Street, London, in 1661, the eldest son of Sir Edward Harley, a prominent landowner in Herefordshire and his wife Abigail Stephens and the grandson of Sir Robert Harley and his third wife, the celebrated letter-writer Brilliana, Lady Harley.
He was educated at Shilton, near Burford, in Oxfordshire, in a small school which produced at the same time a Lord High Treasurer (Harley himself), a Lord High Chancellor (Lord Harcourt) and a Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas (Lord Trevor). Harley then spent some time at Foubert’s Academy, but disliked it. He entered the Inner Temple on 18 March 1682, but was never called to the bar.
The principles of Whiggism and Nonconformism were taught him at an early age, and he never formally abandoned his family’s religious opinions, although he departed from them in politics.
His father was wrongly imprisoned for suspected support for the Monmouth rebellion in 1685 and Harley wrote that “we are not a little rejoiced” at Monmouth’s defeat.
By 1688 Harley was acting as his father’s agent in promoting support for William, Prince of Orange and the Protestant cause during the expected general election against the policies of James II. When William landed in England on 5 November, Sir Edward Harley and his son immediately raised a troop of horse in support of the cause of William III, and took possession of the city of Worcester on his behalf.
Harley was sent to report to William, meeting him at Henley. Harley obtained a commission as a major of militia foot in Herefordshire, which he held for several years.
After the general election of February 1701 until the parliamentary dissolution in 1705 he held the office of Speaker. From 18 May 1704 he combined this office with that of the Secretary of State for the Northern Department, displacing The Earl of Nottingham.
As Speaker he oversaw the passage of the Act of Settlement 1701, as previously agreed with King William. Harley was pleased that both the Whigs and the Tories agreed on placing further limits on the power of the crown and was reported to have said that “he hoped in a little time our infamous distinctions and parties, but particularly Jacobitism, should be wholly abolished and extirpated”.
Harley was forced from office, but his cousin Abigail, who had recently married, continued in the Queen’s service. Harley employed her influence without scruple, and not in vain. The cost of the protracted war with France, and the danger to the national church, the chief proof of which lay in the prosecution of Henry Sacheverell, were the weapons which he used to influence the masses of the people.
Marlborough himself could not be displaced, but his relations were dismissed from their posts in turn. When the greatest of these, Lord Godolphin, was ejected from office on 10 August 1710, five commissioners to the treasury were appointed; among them was Harley as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Harley took little part in public affairs, and died almost unnoticed in London on 21 May 1724.
Harley’s importance to literature cannot be overstated. As a patron of the arts, he was notable. As a preservationist, he was invaluable. He used his wealth and power to collect an unparalleled library. He commissioned the creation of ballad collections, such as The Bagford Ballads, and he purchased loose poems from all corners.
He preserved Renaissance literature (particularly poetry), Anglo-Saxon literature that was then incomprehensible, and a great deal of Middle English literature. His collection, with that of his son Edward Harley, was sold to Parliament in 1753 for the British Museum by the Countess of Oxford and her daughter, the Duchess of Portland; it is known as the Harley Collection.
When he was in office, Harley promoted the careers of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Gay. He also wrote with them as a member of the Scriblerus Club. He, along with Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, contributed to the literary productions of the Club.
His particular talent lay in poetry, and some of his work (always unsigned) has been preserved and may be found among editions of Swift’s poetry. Additionally, he likely had some hand in the writing of The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, though it is impossible to tell how much.
In the opinion of the historian David C. Douglas, in Harley’s time “the whole company of scholars looked up to Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, as the great Maecenas of English medieval learning, and they were right to do so, for he was the correspondent and benefactor of very many of them, and he deserved their gratitude as surely as he earned through his book-collecting the thanks of posterity”.