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Definition: Harley, Robert, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

1661-1724

English statesman

He was born in London. A Whig MP from 1689, he became Secretary of State in 1704. He soon joined the Tories, however, and was Chief Minister to Queen Anne from 1711 to 1714. His administration included the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) but he was dismissed for alleged treasonable acts and imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years. He then retired. His large collection of books and manuscripts is now in the British Library.


Summary Article: Harley, Robert 1st earl of Oxford from The Columbia Encyclopedia

1661–1724, English statesman and bibliophile. His career illustrates the power of personal connections and intrigue in the politics of his day. When he entered (1689) Parliament, he was generally associated with the Whigs and introduced (1694) the Triennial Bill (which required new parliamentary elections every three years) in the House of Commons. His sympathies soon shifted, however, and before the accession (1702) of Queen Anne he was a leader of the Tories. He was secretary of state for the north (1704–8) but was forced out of office by John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, because of his intrigues against the predominantly Whig government. His influence on the queen continued, however, through his kinswoman Abigail Masham. The unpopularity of the War of the Spanish Succession and the uproar caused by the trial of Henry Sacheverell brought the fall of the Whigs, and Harley came to power with Henry St. John (later Viscount Bolingbroke) in 1710. He survived an attempt on his life in 1711 and was made earl and lord treasurer. Consolidating his power, he undertook secret peace negotiations that led to the Peace of Utrecht (1713) and founded the South Sea Company (see South Sea Bubble). His position, however, was undermined by the intrigues of St. John, and he lost office just before Queen Anne's death (1714). After the accession of George I, he was imprisoned (1715) and impeached (1716) for his conduct of the peace negotiations and for dealings with the Jacobites, but he was acquitted. The manuscript collection gathered by Harley and his son Edward constitutes the important Harleian Library in the British Museum.

  • See Hill, B., Robert Harley: Speaker, Secretary of State and Premier (1988);.
  • bibliography by A. Downie (1989).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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