STEELE, Richard (1672-1729), of Llangunnor, Carm.
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Family and Education
bap. 12 Mar. 1672, o.s. of Richard Steele of Monks-town and Dublin, attorney, by Eleanor, da. of one Sheyles, wid. of Thomas Symes, or Sims, of Dublin. educ. Charterhouse, as nominee of the Duke of Ormonde 1684-9; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1689; postmaster Merton, Oxf. 1691-2. m. (1) c. May 1705, Margaret (d. 21 Dec. 1706) da. of John Ford of St. Andrew Overhills, Barbados, sis. and testamentary h. of Maj. Robert Ford of St. Andrew’s, Barbados, wid. of John Stretch of St. James’s, Barbados, s.p.; (2) 9 Sept. 1707, Mary, da. and h. of Jonathan Scurlock of Llangunnor, 2s. 2da. suc. fa. c.1677. Kntd. 9 Apr. 1715.
Volunteer 2 tp. Life Gds. c.1693, sec. to Ld. Cutts 1696-7; ensign, Coldstream Gds. 1697; capt. 34 Ft. 1702-c.1705; gentleman waiter to the Prince Consort 1706-8; gazetteer 1707-10; commr. of stamps 1710-13; surveyor, royal stables at Hampton Court 1714-c.1717; supervisor, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Jan. 1715-Jan. 1720, May 1721-d.; commr. for forfeited estates 1716-25.
Richard Steele, the Whig essayist and dramatist,1 took a prominent part in the political warfare against the Tories under Queen Anne, bringing out the Tatler, 1709-11, and, with his friend Joseph Addison, the Spectator, 1711-12. Expelled by the Tory House of Commons in March 1714 for uttering seditious libels, he again obtained minor preferment after the Hanoverian succession, receiving a patent for the management of the theatre at Drury Lane and a royal bounty of £500 in January 1715.2 Through the Duke of Somerset he was offered a ‘very precarious and uncertain’ seat at Great Bedwyn but he accepted a nomination from the young Earl of Clare, afterwards Duke of Newcastle, for Boroughbridge where, with the help of Clare’s agent, Charles Wilkinson, and William Jessop, he was returned in February 1715.3 Shortly afterwards he was knighted on the presentation to the King of a congratulatory address, composed by himself, from Lord Clare and the deputy lieutenants of Middlesex. Early in May 1715 he was asked to take charge of official anti-Jacobite propaganda, especially that relating to the impeachment of the Tory ex-ministers. He was, however, like Addison, dissatisfied with the rewards for his services to the Hanoverian cause, complaining to Lord Clare on 25 May that in the late reign he had lost £3,000
and an acceptable character by choosing a side ... I will never hereafter do more than my part without knowing the terms I act upon and I think what I have said deserves a good establishment for life ... I cannot turn so much time that way and be supported by assistants equal to the work for less than £1,000 a year. And before I enter upon the argument I hope to receive £500 or be excused from so painful, so anxious and so unacceptable a service.
The £500 was forthcoming4 and Steele brought out a second series of the pro-Government Englishman, July-November 1715, but the ‘establishment’ of £1,000 a year did not materialize.
In Parliament Steele supported the Administration in a number of speeches but was prepared on occasion to put an independent point of view because, as he wrote to his wife, ‘I have always an unfashionable thing called conscience in all matters of judicature or justice’.5 Despite his attacks on the Jacobites in the Englishman, Steele, with characteristic humanity, was among those Whigs who, on 22 Feb. 1716, presented a petition to the House from the womenfolk of the condemned rebel lords, for whom, in a rousing speech, he urged respite of sentence and clemency. When describing the working of a triennial Parliament in a debate on the septennial bill in 1716, he said that the first year was spent in vindictive decisions and animosities about the late elections; the second session entered into business but rather in a spirit of contradiction to what former Parliaments had brought to pass; the third session languished and the approach of the next election terrified the Members into a servile management. After Walpole had presented his scheme for reducing the national debt in March 1717, Steele told his wife that ‘I happened to be the only man in the House who spoke against it because I did not think the way of doing it just. I believe the scheme will take place and, if it does, Walpole must be a very great man’. It was said that his objections ‘must have been put into his head by some stockjobber; for ... he has no more skill in, than liking to, the affair of accounts and funds’.6 He was one of a group that met in March and April 1717 to promote the interests of the Dissenters, but at the same time ‘was reported a Tory’; for when the Duke of Norfolk and others presented a petition to the House of Commons on 26 March for the relief of Roman Catholics, he
stood up and said to this purpose ... I cannot but be of opinion that to put severities upon men merely on account of religion is a most grievous and unwarrantable proceeding. But indeed the Roman Catholics hold tenets which are inconsistent with the being and safety of a Protestant people; for this reason we are justified in laying upon them ... penalties ... but, Sir, let us not pursue Roman Catholics with the spirit of Roman Catholics but act towards them with the temper of our own religion.7
After the split in the Whig party in April 1717 he continued to support the Administration, speaking for the army estimates, December 1717 and January 1718, and voting for the repeal of the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts in January 1719. Two months later, however, he went into opposition over the projected peerage bill, producing in support of his views the Plebeian, which was answered by Addison’s Old Whig. In December 1719 he was the first to speak against the committal of the bill, arguing ‘in a very masterly speech’8 that they were safer under the prerogative in the King than they could be under an aristocracy. Newcastle, with whom Steele had for some time been at odds over the management of Drury Lane, took the opportunity, probably at the instigation of Craggs and Stanhope, to revoke his licence at the theatre. Sir John Vanbrugh wrote on 18 Feb. 1720 that
Sir R. Steele is grown such a malcontent that he now takes the ministry directly for his mark and treats them in the House for some days past in so very frank a manner that they grow quite angry, and ’tis talked as if it would not be impossible to see him very soon expelled the House. He has quarrelled with the lord chamberlain, that a new licence has been granted to Wilks, Cibber and Booth, which ... [has] left him with his patent but not one player. And so the lord chamberlain’s authority over the playhouse is restored and the patent ends in a joke.9
Steele next turned his attention to the South Sea Company which he attacked in pamphlets and in his new periodical the Theatre, January to April 1720; and in March he followed Walpole in opposing the proposals of the company for reducing the national debt. After the crash and during the debate on the South Sea directors, 12 Dec. 1720, he observed that
this nation, which two years ago possessed more weight and greater credit than any other nation in Europe, was reduced to its present distress by a few cyphering cits, a species of men of equal capacity, in all respects ... with those animals who saved the capitol, who were now to be screened by those of greater figure.
However, as with the Jacobite lords in 1716, Steele soon ceased to belabour a beaten foe. In March 1721 he spoke against forcing Robert Knight, the absconding South Sea cashier, to give evidence; and in April and June he joined Walpole in urging leniency for John Aislabie10 and Sir Theodore Janssen. When Walpole replaced Sunderland at the Treasury, Steele, after applying to both men and to Henry Pelham for their good offices with Newcastle, was restored to his place at Drury Lane on 2 May 1721. As his seat at Boroughbridge was clearly lost to him, he now turned to Sunderland, his first patron of the Gazette days, for political backing. With money from this source and presumably on the interest of Richard Hampden, who also needed Sunderland’s patronage, Steele transferred to Wendover for the 1722 election, at which he defeated the sitting member, Sir Roger Hill, then aged 80, by 71 votes.11 Lord Perceval commented on 27 Mar. 1722 that
Sir R. Steele got his election by a merry trick. He scooped an apple and put ten guineas into it, and said it should be deposited for the wife of any of the voters that should be the first brought to bed that day 9 months. Upon this, several that would have been against him and who lived some miles from the town, posted home to capacitate their wives to claim the apple, and the next morning the election passed in his favour before they returned.12
In the new Parliament Steele took little active part, withdrawing in 1724, harassed by debts and ill-health, to his dead wife’s property in Wales, where he died 1 Sept. 1729.