HARCOURT, Simon II (1653-1724), of the Middle Temple and Pendley, Herts.
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Family and Education
b. 1653, 2nd s. of Rev. Vere Harcourt, DD, of Plumtree, Notts., adn. of Nottingham, by Lucy, da. of Sir William Thornton of Snailswell, Cambs. educ. M. Temple 1672, called 1683, bencher 1706, reader 1707, treasurer 1718. m. (1) 4 Jan. 1677[?–8], Elizabeth (d. 1694), da. and h. of Sir Richard Anderson of Pendley, and sis. of Richard Anderson†, 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. (1 d.v.p.); (2) 9 July 1696, Elizabeth (d. 1706), da. and h. of John Canon of Kilgetty, St. Issells, Pemb., wid. of Edward Philipps (d. 1694), of Picton, Pemb., s.p.; (3) by Oct. 1707, Elizabeth (d.1724), da. of George Morse of Henbury, Glos., wid. of Sir Samuel Astry of Henbury, s.p.; (4) 1724, Mary, da. of Sir Philip Harcourt† of Stanton Harcourt by his 2nd w., and half-sis. of Simon Harcourt I*, s.p.1
Secondary, Crown Office by 1686–May 1704, master May 1704–d.; clerk of the peace, Mdx. 1689–92, 1693–d.2
Harcourt came from a cadet branch of the Oxfordshire family. As a younger son, his father had opted for a career in the Church, but like his nephew, Sir Philip Harcourt†, Vere Harcourt was ‘a great Presbyterian’. The early 1640s were propitious times for such men and Vere Harcourt became a lecturer at St. Andrew’s, Holborn, and by 1650 rector of Plumtree. He presided over the wedding in 1657 of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, to the daughter of the Parliamentarian general, Lord Fairfax [S] (Thomas†). Such connexions probably explain his continued prosperity after conforming at the Restoration. Charles II reinstated him at Plumtree and he became archdeacon of Nottingham and a prebendary of Lincoln. Dr Harcourt was assessed at ten hearths in 1674 and was able to provide a stable background for his second son. Harcourt was sent to the Middle Temple where he prospered. His earliest extant correspondence dates from 1676 when he addressed the 7th Earl of Huntingdon as his ‘kinsman’. This correspondence continued into the 1690s when Harcourt seems to have been negotiating a possible marriage for Huntingdon’s son, Lord Hastings. A later correspondence with the Nottinghamshire peer John Holles†, 1st Duke of Newcastle, suggests an attempt to trade on his Midlands connexions to become a man of business to the aristocracy.3
According to Lord Wharton’s (Hon. Thomas*) Memoirs, Harcourt acted as one of the clerks to Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys during the ‘Bloody Assize’. This may well be true, for an account of 1685–6 allows ‘Mr Harcourt’ expenses towards the cost of the commission for trying rebels in the west. Shortly afterwards, Harcourt’s name appears as a clerk in the Crown Office and he began to receive payments from the Treasury solicitors for prosecuting crown causes. Other miscellaneous duties followed, including the prosecution of a quo warranto against the corporation of Nottingham in September 1688.4
Despite his record of service to King James II’s government, Harcourt gained office after the Revolution. The Earl of Clare (the future Duke of Newcastle), having been appointed lord lieutenant of Middlesex, bestowed upon him the clerkship of the peace for that county. From Clare’s point of view this was an obvious appointment as Harcourt had both Nottinghamshire and metropolitan roots. However, it was bound to arouse resentment among former opponents of James II’s regime. As early as August 1689 Harcourt was informing Clare of ‘three designs on foot against your lordship’s right of nominating a clerk of the peace’. As might have been expected, the Court Whigs were his most formidable foes. In November 1689 he rather plaintively asked Clare ‘why the courtiers should endeavour a mischief to me having never been injurious to any there’, concluding that they were envious of the rewards of his office. That being the case, he asked for Clare’s help in convincing his enemies of his worth, adding in his own defence that ‘no man in the government is more an antipapist than I am’. Harcourt rode out this wave of criticism, but Clare’s replacement by the Earl of Bedford (William Russell†), father of the executed Whig martyr Lord Russell (Hon. William†), led to another attempt at removal. Bedford made his move at the Westminster quarter sessions in April 1692 when he sought to replace Harcourt with John Fox, his own steward. After debating the matter for two hours the justices backed Harcourt, voting by a majority of 15 votes that the post was not vacant. Bedford’s supporters included the Earl of Macclesfield (whose son, Charles Gerard*, Lord Brandon, faced a similar problem in Lancashire) and ‘the Court justices’, namely Sir William Forester*, Sir Rowland Gwynne* and Wharton. They achieved their objective later in April when a quo warranto was issued against Harcourt, followed by a mandamus to swear Fox into office. The justices accepted this by six votes at the May quarter sessions. Harcourt successfully challenged the decision in King’s bench. In July Fox petitioned the crown for a writ of error to bring the case before the Lords. All this was to no avail because in December 1693 the Lords confirmed the previous judgment in Harcourt’s favour. However, by May 1694 Harcourt’s position was again under threat, owing to the arrest outside his house of a Jacobite go-between, Walter Crosby alias Phillips. The government were also able to link Harcourt with the Jacobite, Sir John Knight*. This was too good an opportunity for the Whigs to miss: the Treasury was instructed to remove Harcourt ‘from any employment he has under their Majesties from which he may be removed by you’, presumably the lucrative business he had conducted since 1686 in the Crown Office. He faced interrogation by Sir John Trenchard* and Lord Keeper Somers (Sir John*), and a vexatious suit whereby the failure to estreat 27 recognizances without an order of court to discharge them was made the grounds for a motion to dismiss him for neglect and illegal practices. Harcourt was adamant when reassuring Newcastle that ‘nothing can be fixed upon me for correspondence, or doing or countenancing anything disserviceable to the government’, in the hope that his patron could convince the secretaries of state and the Earl of Sunderland that ‘their notions are groundless’. Newcastle must have found this task very difficult as Harcourt proved to be an irritating thorn in the side of an increasingly Whiggish ministry. Harcourt proved willing to supply evidence that John Lunt, chief witness for the prosecution of the Lancashire Plot, was a bigamist. It was he who provided copies of the indictments (which named the witnesses) against the Haymarket rioters in July 1695 at the adjournment of their trial, which prompted Dr Richard Kingston to describe him as ‘a notorious enemy to the government’. Nor was he averse to tipping off such stalwart supporters of James II as the Earl of Huntingdon about security scares and attendant measures aimed at suspected Jacobite sympathizers.5
Harcourt must have been familiar with the workings of Parliament before he was elected a Member. In the 1692–3 session he had petitioned the Commons concerning the bill to regulate proceedings in the Crown Office (12 Dec.), and later petitioned the Lords on the bill regulating quarter sessions (17 Feb. 1693). He had been summoned before the Upper House in 1697 to recount what knowledge he had of ‘a coffee-house discourse of the Earl of Monmouth’ regarding the suborning of witnesses in the case of Sir John Fenwick†. Finally, he had been ordered into custody by the Commons on 21 Dec. 1699 for a physical assault on Sir John Philipps* in Westminster Hall. The occasion of the quarrel was a Chancery lawsuit concerning the Philipps estate, Harcourt having married the widow of Sir John’s elder brother. He petitioned for release on 24 Jan. 1700. Simultaneously, Harcourt was engaged in a lawsuit over his first wife’s estate, including Pendley. By 1703 Harcourt had won this particular battle, several Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire manors being conveyed to him. These estates formed the basis of his interest at Aylesbury.6
Perhaps it was Harcourt’s perceived disadvantage in his own personal and official concerns which prompted him to look for a seat in the Commons. He first mentions the possibility in December 1700 in a letter to Newcastle in which he asked for ducal support to ‘be elected in any borough instead of one that was in the contrary interest’. His aim was to serve the ‘Church party’. Given this Tory commitment, he proved useful to the Tory Sir John Pakington, 4th Bt.*, lord of the manor of Aylesbury. After the 1702 election Pakington chose to sit for Worcestershire and relinquished his interest at Aylesbury to a political ally. Harcourt duly won the ensuing by-election. He was subsequently appointed to the county bench (sworn in October 1702), and to the lieutenancy (March 1703). The changed political climate of the new reign also suited him, as it enabled him to petition for the arrears in fees owing to him for various tasks in the Crown Office and as clerk of the peace for Middlesex. Not surprisingly, what little information we possess about his activities in the Commons suggests a committed Toryism. Thus, he voted on 13 Feb. 1703 against agreeing to the Lords’ amendments to the bill enlarging the time to take the Abjuration. His enhanced status, however, did not prevent Whig attacks on his role as an office-holder over a decade before. In July 1703, Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, was informed that ‘the party roar much against Harcourt of the Crown Office’ for failing to register the reversal of the Earl of Macclesfield’s attainder, which favoured the Tory Duke of Hamilton over the Whig Lord Mohun, in the lawsuit over the estate. The 1703–4 session saw Harcourt promote two pieces of legislation: a bill for better regulating the nightly watch in Westminster and other places within the weekly bills of mortality outside the city of London, which he presented on 22 Jan. 1704, and an estate bill of one John Hawe, which he managed through the House during February.7
Another of Harcourt’s well-laid schemes reached fruition in May 1704 when he was sworn in as master of the Crown Office in succession to Sir Samuel Astry, ‘who being superannuated resigned the same to him upon a consideration’. As early as June 1703 Harcourt had obtained a reversion to this office worth £2,000 p.a. To complete the coup, he eventually married Astry’s widow. Evidence of Harcourt’s attitude to the Tack points in opposing directions. A forecast of likely voting intentions made on 30 Oct. listed the name Harcourt twice as a probable opponent of the measure, but it does not appear on any other list connected to the Tack. Nevertheless, from an examination of notes made before his charge to the grand jury at Buckinghamshire’s quarter sessions between July 1704 and Easter 1705 it is clear that he was in sympathy with measures against occasional conformity. Thus, amid conventional panegyrics to the English constitution, the Queen was described in July 1704 as
a zealous professor of the religion of the Church of England as established by law and will always be a promoter of its honour and interest, and a Queen, gentlemen, who wishes from the very bottom of her heart there were no separatists from it in her dominions.
Although he repeated these sentiments at the Michaelmas sessions in 1704, held at Aylesbury, he affected to believe that his constituents had received him well. Musing on the forthcoming parliamentary session of 1704–5, he was no doubt referring to the occasional conformity bill when he wrote,
there will be no room for argument against what we resolve to carry if possible. We shall not fail to do it unless some of our Members become trimmers, which God forbid none can be such but cowardly or knavish folk, of which sort we have too many in our interest.
Christmas 1704 seems to have been spent at Pendley, ‘pestered with Aylesburians’ keen for their share of pre-election entertainment. His son Henry professed to believe ‘that my father would scarce endure the vast trouble and charge that constantly attend elections, if it was not with a prospect of at least serving his country’. As if to prove the point about public service, Harcourt saved his most blistering charge against Dissent for the sessions preceding the 1705 election. In a veritable High Church Tory manifesto, worthy of his partner, Pakington, he denounced the enemies of established religion, likening the current ‘scurrilous and seditious’ pamphleteers to the ‘Levellers in 1641’, and warning of the dangers of another civil war. The ‘anti-hypocritical bill to prevent occasional conformity’ was defended on the grounds that it included ‘an indulgence to consciences truly scrupulous’. This toleration was then compared favourably to the situation facing Episcopalians in Scotland. The threat to the Church could best be remedied by ‘a Parliament composed of members of the Established Church’. The danger lay in electing self-serving occasional conformists who sought only to undermine the Church. Such stern rhetoric did not achieve its purpose, for on 2 May Harcourt lost his seat at Aylesbury. He seems to have played only a peripheral role in the Ashby v. White case, being nominated only to one committee of inquiry on the case, although obviously he supported Pakington. Ironically, his legal duties ensured that he had a neutral, administrative role to play in the affair, as a newsletter recorded a meeting on 17 Feb. 1705 between ‘Mr [James I*] Montagu and the other counsel for the Aylesbury prisoners with Mr Harcourt, the clerk of the crown . . . to make up the records in order no doubt to bring that affair before the House of Lords by writ of error’.8
During the years of growing Whig supremacy, 1705–10, Harcourt seems to have kept a low profile. He invested heavily in his Hertfordshire property. It was observed in October 1707: ‘the alterations at Pendley are truly admirable and the new wife a piece of rich furniture; friend Simon is much to be commended for labouring for his family’. He was then returned for Aylesbury in the Tory landslide of 1710. So was his distant cousin, Simon Harcourt III, thus complicating the process of identifying him in the Journals. Both men were Tories, Harcourt being classed as such on the ‘Hanover list’, and also being named as one of the ‘worthy patriots’ who during the 1710–11 session helped to detect the mismanagements of the previous ministry. His letters to his friend, the Oxford don Dr Arthur Charlett, at this time reflect a desire to sweep away the corruption of the previous regime. Thus, ‘justice and equity we design shall flow with us to the eternal condemnation of the proceedings in the late Parliaments and then we need not fear the conspiracies of the devils called Whigs’. The appointment to office of men such as George Clarke* (an Admiralty lord) filled him with hope that ‘a glorious government’ would ensue. The recent marriage of his eldest daughter, and the impending marriage of his eldest son, ‘the greatest works of a parent’s life’, may have proved distracting, but he still felt able to write to Charlett apropos of election disputes: ‘we intend the Whigs no compliment, they shall be sure of justice but not of extraordinary favour.’ He may have been the ‘Mr Harcourt’ who acted as a teller twice during this session. He was probably the ‘Mr Harcourt’ named to draft a Middlesex road bill in January 1712. His loyalty to the Tory ministry was shown on 18 June 1713 when he voted for the French commerce bill. The Post Boy confirmed this assessment after his re-election for Aylesbury at the 1713 general election, describing him as ‘well affected to the government in church and state’. The compiler of the Worsley list concurred, classifying him as a Tory. Harcourt was in London for most of the 1714 session as in both March and May Lord Fermanagh (John Verney*) asked him to excuse his absence from the House. By 1714 Harcourt was also an important figure in Buckinghamshire politics. He was one of 21 signatories in October 1714 to a document supporting the joint candidacy of John Fleetwood* and Richard Grenville† for knights of the shire, in an attempt to divide the representation between the two parties. Harcourt himself was defeated at Aylesbury in 1715, but this political setback did not affect his enjoyment of his legal offices, which he retained until his death. The Crown Office in particular proved useful in providing employment for his younger son, Richard, and other relatives. Just before his death Harcourt secured an Act settling the debts of his first wife’s father. Harcourt died at Pendley on 22 Mar. 1724.9