Harley, Robert

, afterwards earl of Oxford and earl Mortimer, and lord high treasurer in the reign of queen Anne, was eldest son of sir Edward Harley, and born at London, in Bow-street, Covent Garden, December 5, 1661. He was educated under the rev. Mr. Birch, at Shilton, near Burford, Oxfordshire, which, though a private school, was remarkable for producing at the same time, a lord high treasurer, viz. lord Oxford a lord high chancellor, viz. lord Harcourt a lord chief justice of the common pleas, viz. lord Trevor and ten members of the house of commops, who were all contemporaries, as well at school as in parliament. Here he laid the foundation of that extensive knowledge and learning, which rendered him afterwards so conspicuous in the world. At the revolution, sir Edward Harley, and this his eldest son, raised a troop of horse at their own expence; and, after the accession of king William and queen Mary, he was first chosen member of parliament for Tregony in Cornwall, and afterwards served for the town of Radnor till he was called to the house of lords. In 1690 he was chosen by ballot one of the nine members of the house of commons, commissioners for stating the public accounts; and also one of the arbitrators for uniting the two India companies. In 1694 the house of commons ordered Mr. Harley, November 19, to prepare and bring in a bill “For the frequent meeting and calling of parliaments;” which he accordingly did upon the 22d, and it was received and agreed to by both houses, without any alteration or amendment. On February 11, 1701-2, he was chosen speaker of the house of commons; and that parliament being dissolved the same year by king | William, and a new one called, he was again chosen speaker, December 31st following, as he was in the first parliament called by queen Anne.

On April 17, 1704, he was sworn of her majesty’s privy council; and, May 18th following, sworn in council one of the principal secretaries of state, being also speaker of the house of commons at the same time. In 1706 he was appointed one of the commissioners for the treaty of union with Scotland, which took effect; and resigned his place of principal secretary of state in February 1707-8. August 10, 1710, he was constituted one of the commissioners of the treasury, also chancellor and under-treasurer of the exchequer. On the 8th of March following he was in great danger of his life; the marquis of Guiscard, a French papist, then under examination of a committee of the privy council at Whitehall, stabbing him with a penknife, which he took up in the clerk’s room, where he waited before he was examined. Guiscard was imprisoned, and died in Newgate the 17th of the same month: and an act of parliament passed, making it felony, without benefit of clergy, to attempt the life of a privy counsellor in the execution of his office; and a clause was inserted “To justify and indemnify all persons, who in assisting in defence of Mr. Harley, chancellor of the exchequer, when he was stabbed by the sieur de Guiscard, and in securing him, did give any wound or bruise to the said sieur de Guiscard, whereby he received his death.” The wound Mr. Harley had received confined him some weeks; but the house being informed that it was almost healed, and that he would in a few days come abroad, resolved to congratulate his escape and recovery; and accordingly, upon his attending the house on the 26th of April, the speaker addressed him in a very respectful speech, to which Mr. Harley returned as respectful an answer. They had before addressed the queen on this alarming occasion.

In 1711, queen Anne, to reward his many eminent services, was pleased to advance him to the peerage of Great Britain, by the style and titles of baron Harley of Wigmore, in the county of Hereford, earl of Oxford, and earl Mortimer, with remainder, for want of issue male of his own body, to the heirs male of sir Robert Harley, knight of the Bath, his grandfather. May 29, 1711, he was appointed lord high treasurer of Great Britain; and August 15th following, at a general court of the South-sea | company he was chosen their governor, as he had been their founder and chief regulator. October 26, 1712, he was elected a knight companion of the most noble order of the garter. July 27, 1714, he resigned his staff of lord high treasurer of Great Britain, at Kensington, into the queen’s hand, she dying upon the 1st of August following. June 10, 1715, he was impeached by the House of commons of high-treason, and high crimes and misdemeanors; and on July the 16th was committed to the Tower by the House of lords, where he suffered confinement till July 1, 1717, and then, after a public trial, was acquitted by his peers. He died in the 64th year of his age, May 21, 1724, after having been twice married.

Hewas a great encourager of learning, and the greatest collector in his time of all curious books in print and manuscript, especially those concerning the history of his own country, which were preserved and much augmented by the earl his son, and afterwards purchased for the British Museum. The dispersion, however, of his printed books must ever be regretted. He was also a man of taste and letters himself; and under this character we find a proposal addressed to him by Dr. Swift, “for correcting, improving, and ascertaining the English tongue.” He wrote also “An Essay upon Public Credit,1710, inserted in Somers’s Tracts; where are also “An Essay upon Loans,” and “A Vindication of the Rights of the Commons of England,” said to be by him, but signed Humphrey Mackworth. Various letters by him are preserved among the Harleian Mss.; and a few jocular verses in the correspondence between Swift and his friends.

Oxford, says Mr. archdeacon Coxe, was unimpeachable in his private character, never offending against morality either in conversation or action, a tender husband, and a good father; highly disinterested and generous. He prided himself in his high descent, was stiff and formal in his deportment, and forbidding in his manner. He was learned and pedantic; embarrassed and inelegant both in speaking and writing. He was equally an enemy to pleasure and business; extremely dilatory and fond of procrastination; timid in public affairs, yet intrepid when his own person was concerned; jealous of power, indefatigable in promoting the petty intrigues of the court, but negligent in things of importance a whig in his heart, and a tory from ambition too ready for temporary convenience to adopt | measures he disapproved, yet unwilling wholly to sacrifice his real sentiments to interest or party; affecting the most profound secrecy in all political transactions, and mysterious in the most trifling occurrences. He was liberal in making promises, yet breaking them without scruple, a defect which arose more from facility of temper, than from design. He corresponded at the same time with the dethroned family and the house of Hanover, and was there ­fore neither trusted nor respected by either party. The only pojnt in which he and his colleague Bolingbroke agreed, was the love of literature and the patronage of learned men; which rendered their administration eminently illustrious. 1


Collins’s Peerage by Sir E. Brydges. Park’s edit, of Royal and Nobl< Authors. Swift’s Works; see Index, Coxe’s Life of Walpole.