BOYLE, Hon. Charles II (1674-1731).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Feb. 1701 - 1705

Family and Education

b. 28 July 1674, 2nd s. of Roger Boyle, 2nd Earl of Orrery [I], by Lady Mary Sackville, da. of Richard Sackville†, 5th Earl of Dorset; bro. of Lionel Boyle*, 3rd Earl of Orrery [I].  educ. Sevenoaks; St. Paul’s; travelled abroad (Holland, France) 1685–6; Christ Church, Oxf. matric. 1690, BA 1694.  m. 30 Mar. 1706 (with £4,000), Lady Elizabeth Cecil (d. 1708), da. of John Cecil†, 5th Earl of Exeter and sis. of Hon. Charles Cecil*, John Cecil*, Lord Burghley and Hon. William Cecil*, 1s. 2 da. illegit. by Mrs Swordfeger.  suc. bro. as 4th Earl of Orrery [I] 24 Aug. 1703; KT 30 Oct. 1705; cr. Baron Boyle of Marston 5 Sept. 1711.1

Offices Held

MP [I] 1695–9.

Receiver-gen. alienations office 1699–1717; col. of ft. 1704–Dec. 1710, 21 Ft. Dec. 1710–16; brig.-gen. 1709, maj.-gen. 1710; envoy extraordinary to Flanders 1711–July 1712, envoy extraordinary and plenip. July 1712–13, to United Provinces Jan.–Aug. 1711; PC 9 Feb. 1711–27; gent. of bedchamber 1714–16.2

FRS 1706.

Ld. lt. and custos rot. Som. Nov. 1714–15.


The beau ideal of ‘politeness’, Boyle embodied the new concept of civic virtue promoted by Augustan social philosophers, many of whom were his friends. He combined sophistication in his personal taste with distinction in the performance of his public duty, his talents enabling him to shine as a scholar and wit, soldier, diplomat and politician. However, he exhibited the weaknesses as well as the strengths of ‘polite’ culture. A prey to vanity and affectation, his brilliance was often merely superficial, his character itself essentially brittle, and his lasting achievements few.

In part at least, Boyle’s powerful, and sometimes consuming, ambition may have derived from his early experience as a talented, yet relatively under-privileged, younger son, to whom the praise lavished by his tutors and the recognition afforded by the great were still inadequate compensation for his inferior position within his own family. Moreover, when eventually he was fortunate enough to succeed his elder brother it was to a depleted inheritance, though far from insubstantial in other men’s eyes, with extensive property in Ireland and in Somerset, but no longer the mighty estate over which his grandfather had lorded. The great mansion at Charleville, county Cork, had been destroyed by Jacobite troops during the Irish wars, and the Cork estate as a whole, managed for the absentee earls in these years of economic depression by local agents of uncertain probity, yielded far less than the £4,000 nominal valuation of the rent-roll. To a nobleman with Boyle’s amour-propre, and love of display, these were straitened circumstances.3

After a childhood spent in his elder brother’s shadow, Boyle came into his own as an Oxford undergraduate. His father had envisaged for him, and had begun to provide, ‘a pious and virtuous education, the objects of which are to fit a man to serve God, his king and his country’, but at Christ Church his mentors were rather more worldly. Pre-eminent were his tutor, Francis Atterbury, under whom he studied not only classical authors but such moderns as Descartes and Locke, pronouncing the latter’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding to contain ‘a great deal of very good sense’; and the dean, Henry Aldrich, who ‘conceived a particular esteem for him’ and indeed nurtured him as ‘the great ornament of our college’. Boyle evidently worked hard, and unlike his brother remained, as he said, ‘firm’ in his ‘notions of morality’, but his bent was literary rather than philosophical. Already by 1693 he had published translations of Plutarch and Lysander, and in that year was selected by Aldrich, as the college’s star pupil, to prepare the edition which would, according to custom, be distributed to members as a Christmas gift and subsequently be offered for publication. The text chosen was the Epistles of ‘Phalaris’, of which Boyle produced a polished if undemanding version, skirting the knotty problems of authorship and authenticity. In passing he indulged his sarcasm in a jibe at the royal librarian, the formidable Dr Bentley, who had withheld from him access to a manuscript in the King’s library, ‘pro singulari sua humanitate’ as Boyle put it in his preface. Stung by this insult from an undergraduate, Bentley turned his mind to the Epistles and produced a dissertation showing them to be spurious. Thus began a controversy which was to tarnish Boyle’s golden reputation. A witty and effective riposte, published in his name, seemed at first to have carried the day, until it became known that this was not Boyle’s work at all but had been produced by a team of Christ Church men, headed by Atterbury, who had been mobilized by Aldrich to vindicate the honour of the college. And in due course Bentley thundered out his second reply, a complete demolition of the case, which had been endorsed in Boyle’s name, for the existence of ‘Phalaris’. In the meantime the young man himself had left Oxford for a grander stage. He had written to Atterbury in 1693 that he viewed the alternatives proposed by his mother of remaining at Christ Church or removing to Ireland as equally unattractive. Instead, he intended to follow the King abroad:

I am not obstinate (he protested) nor fond of being a soldier, nor by going to Flanders do I design to be one, but only to put myself in some way of getting bread . . . my pretensions are wholly at court . . . and not in the army, if I can make my way anywhere else.

Nothing would suit him better than a place as groom of the bedchamber. Unfortunately, the only post his connexions were able to find for him was a minor sinecure in Chancery. Deprived of the opportunity to glitter at Court, he pursued literary ambitions. Verses, epigrams and even a play, the comedy As You Find It, found their way into print, as he exchanged the tutelage of Atterbury for that of Dryden, to whose coffee-house circle he now belonged. There was some self-gratification in all this, but Boyle was also lampooned as ‘a fine scholar sunk in wit’, and his decision to publish a tragedy his grandfather had written proved another blunder. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s devastating dismissal of his literary pretensions, though prompted by personal dislike and family animosities, reflected an opinion that was beginning to gain ground. Boyle had, she said,

begun the world by giving his name to a treatise wrote by Atterbury and his club, which gained him great reputation, but (like Sir Martin Mar-all, who would fumble with his lute when the music was over) he published soon after a sad comedy of his own, and, what was worse, a dismal tragedy he had found among the first Earl of Orrery’s papers. People could [more] easily forgive his being partial to his own silly works (as a common frailty) than the want of judgment in producing a piece that dishonoured his [grand]father’s memory. Thus fell into dust a fame that had made a blaze by borrowed fire.4

A seat in the Commons formed a natural progression in such a career, and Boyle was duly put up at Huntingdon in the January 1701 general election on the Sandwich interest, as managed for the time being by the High Tory Lady Sandwich, a distant connexion of his by marriage. Besides being a party battle, the election contest was also a manifestation of a rancorous family dispute, for Lady Sandwich had determined to oppose what she saw as the baleful (and Whiggish) influence over her weak-minded husband of his uncle, Hon. Sidney Wortley Montagu*, patron of Boyle’s opponents in the constituency. After some violence at the polls Boyle and one of the two Whig candidates were returned. The defeated Whig, John Pedley*, then petitioned, among other things accusing Lord Sandwich (though without naming him) of improper interference in an election. In Boyle’s papers there survived a copy of a speech in defence of his own conduct and that of the unnamed peer, though whether it was ever delivered is far from certain. Having alleged that the petition was ‘a shot that was particularly aimed at another’, the speech observed that ‘the violence of it comes from one that originally had no interest in the borough, but what he had from the very same place that I have mine, and, I doubt, has no interest in it now, but what he has from a much worse case’. Such comments were calculated to offend and led almost inevitably to a duel in which Boyle suffered serious wounds at the hand of Sidney Wortley Montagu and was hors de combat for several months. He was luckier in the outcome of the election case, however, where the petition was rejected. Because of his injuries he seems to have made less of an impact on proceedings in the Commons than might have been expected in view of the reputation that preceded him, though it must be said that his parliamentary activity, as reported in the Journals, is generally indistinguishable from that of his cousin, Hon. Henry Boyle*. He may have made an intervention in debate, for a draft of a speech in defence of his old university friend Christopher Codrington’s governorship of the Leeward Islands was found in the manuscripts available to Boyle’s biographer. After he had been returned again for Huntingdon in November 1701, this time unopposed, he was listed by Robert Harley* as a Tory, and indeed voted on 26 Feb. 1702 in favour of the motion vindicating the proceedings of the Commons in the impeachments of William’s Whig ministers. In his third and last Parliament his succession to the earldom of Orrery makes him more readily identifiable in the Journals. By the 1704–5 session he had been drawn in to support the Court, by the gift of a colonelcy of foot. Forecast as an opponent of the Tack, he duly voted against it or was absent on 28 Nov. 1704. He was classed as a placeman in a list of the Commons the following year. His opposition to the Tack may have lost him Lady Sandwich’s good opinion. Alternatively her influence over her husband may have failed, or Orrery himself simply grown tired of the House of Commons. Whatever the reason, he did not stand for re-election in 1705.5

For a time, Orrery seems to have applied his talents to the pursuit of martial honour; and, indeed, at the battle of Malplaquet he acquitted himself well. He was also pursuing patrons: first the Duke of Ormond, his commander-in-chief on the Irish establishment; then Marlborough, who helped him to a brigadier’s commission; and finally Argyll, whose part he took against Marlborough in the great quarrel which began in the winter of 1709–10. It was through Argyll that Orrery was brought into the political intrigues of Robert Harley, and during 1710 he acted as an intermediary between Harley and Argyll. The responsibility nourished his self-esteem, so that in November 1710 he was moved to present his own list of terms to the new chief minister. His present post at the Treasury was, he believed, insufficient for a man of his abilities. Command of the yeomen of the guard would be an adequate promotion; he could also change his regiment from infantry to cavalry; and he would be pleased to be made a Privy Councillor. Probably as much to appease Argyll as to gratify his own vanity, he received promotion to major-general, was sworn of the Privy Council, and the following spring was sent on a prolonged diplomatic mission into Flanders. Despite his animosity towards Marlborough, the envoy’s appointment was a good one. Orrery’s peculiar qualities made him an ideal choice for any posting where polished and witty conversation was required rather more than an urgent attention to business. In both Brussels and The Hague he left a favourable impression of elegance and extravagance. When it became clear to him, however, that he had reached the limit of his advancement, he became resentful. Matters were not helped by Harley’s failure to cover his (undoubtedly excessive) expenses. By the autumn of 1712 he had vowed not to go abroad again unless raised to ambassadorial dignity. The English barony he had been granted in 1711 was a forgotten obligation, and the loyal, if mute, supporter of the ministry in the House of Lords had become a ‘whimsical’. He may even have enlisted in Lord Bolingbroke’s (Henry St. John II*) ‘combination’ against Harley: the two had been close friends, and Orrery had been one of Bolingbroke’s first choices for the dining-club, the ‘Society of Brothers’, he had established in 1711. But not even the friendship of two such ‘philosophers’ was proof against worldly disappointment, and by the autumn of 1713 Orrery was complaining of ‘coldness and neglect’ from Bolingbroke as well as Harley, and was turning instead to the Hanoverian court. Alongside Argyll, he was counted one of the Hanoverians’ ‘friends’ in the Lords in the 1714 Parliament, spurning approaches from Harley and reassuring the Hanoverian resident of his fidelity. For this he was rewarded by George I, though perhaps not as amply as he thought he deserved: he retained his regiment and Exchequer sinecure, was admitted a lord of the bedchamber and appointed lord lieutenant of Somerset. In common with other ‘Hanoverian’ Tories the period of his honeymoon with the new dynasty lasted little more than two years, however, and in 1716–17, in the wake of Argyll’s fall, he was dismissed from all his offices, though not as yet from the Privy Council.6

In the last phase of Orrery’s career he emerged as a political figure in his own right, as patrons and mentors dropped away. Argyll, with whom he remained on good terms, was unable or unwilling to assist him when he returned to power in 1719. Halifax (Charles Montagu*), his other friend among the leading Whigs in 1714, had died. With Robert Harley (now Lord Oxford) he re-established cordial relations, yet still tinged with suspicion. Bolingbroke and Atterbury were more intimate friends, but he had outgrown pupillage of any kind. Guided by his own lights, he turned eventually to the Jacobite option, after the failure of the ‘Leicester House’ party. Contact was made by a Jacobite agent in the summer of 1717, with Orrery expected once again to act as a go-between with the Duke of Argyll. He gave several professions of goodwill, and for several years maintained a regular, though infrequent, correspondence with the exiled court, in which his principal themes were the impossibility of effecting anything of substance without the assistance of large numbers of foreign troops, and the equal necessity of the Pretender’s taking steps to ‘give satisfaction’ about his religion. So notorious did his caution become in Jacobite circles that he was given the cant-name ‘Jeremiah’ in some secret correspondence. Partly at his own request and partly for tactical reasons he was kept ignorant of the crucial details of ‘projects’ prior to 1720, when he appears to have taken a more active role in Jacobite conspiracy, perhaps because like other Jacobites he saw in the ministry’s difficulties a priceless opportunity, or perhaps because after Argyll’s return to office, the ending of the Whig Schism and the reconciliation between the King and Prince of Wales, few other political avenues were open to him. There is some evidence that he was still ‘visiting’ the Prince in 1721, though without much hope. He was prevailed upon by the Pretender to travel to Paris in the summer of 1720, in order to join in persuading the Regent of the value of endorsing the Jacobite cause, but once again his ‘excessive’ caution got the better of him and he failed to raise the subject during his interview, to the chagrin, not to say disgust, of James’s ministers. During the following winter and spring he continued to emphasize the need for foreign aid to effect any Jacobite restoration, and undertook negotiations with Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) which came to nothing. Whether, like other leading Jacobites in England, he abandoned his belief in the impossibility of a purely domestic rising is unclear: for a spell money took the place of external assistance as the sine qua non of his strategy. What is certain is that he was not a party to the ‘Atterbury Plot’, though he was informed of its existence. He regarded it as at best a ‘rash’ attempt, suggesting instead that the money raised be spent on elections, to secure an ‘honest’ House of Commons and effect a restoration in a parliamentary way. Later he devised an alternative plan of his own, requiring ‘patience’ and French help. When news of the ‘plot’ broke, his comments were scathing: ‘I hope your friends will take warning’, he told the Pretender,

and not only go upon projects with a better foundation than this had which is now defeated, and which I told you, Sir, was very unlikely ever to succeed but will act in all respects with more caution than any have hitherto done. I believe now most of those forward people of whose characters as well as designs I dare say, Sir, you now think I gave you a pretty true account not long ago are convinced themselves that their scheme had not a solid foundation . . . The government now are put so much upon their guard that even the scheme that I sent you from myself cannot go on in all its parts but I think it may be reduced and made more plain and simple.

Subsequently he let it be known that he had indeed amended his alternative scheme, and requested commissions for himself as lieutenant-general and an unnamed friend to be a brigadier, with further commissions to come in due course. Meanwhile he advised the Pretender to concentrate on raising finance, and was himself entrusted with organizing the collection of funds from sympathizers in the city of London. It was this responsibility, and its attendant documentation, that made him vulnerable to ministerial accusations of complicity in the plot, based originally upon the dubious testimony of the Jacobite agents Layer and Plunkett, with whom Orrery or his secretary had had some dealings. Thus, although he had carefully kept apart from Bishop Atterbury, Lord North and the other ‘forward’ conspirators, who regarded him as ‘a timorous fellow . . . always making difficulties, and schemes, out of his own brain’, he was arrested and confined for six months in the Tower. His cousin Henry (now Lord Carleton) and Argyll were prepared, if need be, to ‘form an interest in the House of Lords to save him’ but eventually the ministry (warned of the danger to his health from continued imprisonment) were obliged to let him go for want of evidence. On his release he returned to the campaign of opposition in the Upper House in which he had for several years been a prominent figure. He also resumed his correspondence with the Pretender. Indeed he was now James’s only correspondent of note in England, having taken over the direction of his affairs there. Not surprisingly, however, in view of recent experience, he was once again the ‘excessively cautious’ Orrery of old. Without a large force of regular troops from abroad, he opined, no rebellion would be feasible. ‘People of reflection and fortunes will hardly venture their lives and estates unless they see they have some tolerable chance to succeed’. In a letter of 1727 he was more precise: at least 20,000 soldiers would be required for an invasion. Thus while he remained in regular contact with the Pretender, and was prepared on occasion to travel to France to give tentative assistance to renewed efforts at enlisting French help for a restoration, he was essentially a broken reed. Not even the unpleasant sensation of being struck off the Privy Council by George II could reinvigorate him, and this after he had gone to Court on the King’s accession. Indeed he subsequently took a pension from the ministry, which according to Walpole he ‘well earned’.7

Orrery died at his house in Downing Street, Whitehall, on 28 Aug. 1731, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He had asked for ‘a decent, not a costly, monument, with a proper inscription in Latin, describing my just character and behaviour, both in public and private, without any exaggeration or fulsome panegyric’. Despite his undoubted gifts, his lengthy public career and literary accomplishments, especially in the field of rendering classical texts, to which he returned late in his life with less renown but greater seriousness than in the days of the ‘Phalaris’ controversy, it may be fitting that he is commemorated in the name of an astronomical instrument invented, and dedicated to him, by someone else.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Lodge, Peerage of Ire. (1754), i. 294–5; Centre Kentish Stud. Sackville mss U269/A10/3; Cal. Orrery Pprs. ed. McLysaght (Irish Mss Commn.), 313–14; info. from L. B. Smith, jnr.
  • 2. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 580; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxxi. 417.
  • 3. Cal. Orrery Pprs. 197; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, iii. 475; iv. 91–92; [T. Prior], A List of the Absentees of Ire. . . . (1730), 2.
  • 4. Cal. Orrery Pprs. 182; E. Budgell, Mems. of Earl of Orrery and Boyle Fam. (1732), 156–97; Atterbury Epistolary Corresp. ii. 1–23, 33; Poems on Affairs of State ed. Ellis, vi. 108, 136, 142; vii. 198; G. V. Bennett, Tory Crisis, 31–32, 38–43; Hist. Oxf. Univ. ed. Sutherland and Mitchell, v. 526; Swift Works ed. Davis, i. 5, 139; Addison Letters, 1; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu Letters ed. Halsband, iii. 58–59.
  • 5. 7th Duke of Manchester, Court and Soc. Eliz. to Anne, ii. 85; VCH Hunts. ii. 35–36; Budgell, 198–208; Luttrell, v. 33.
  • 6. Lodge, 295; Budgell, 209–10; HMC Ormonde, n.s. viii. 180; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. ed. Snyder, iii. 1288–9, 1301; HMC Portland, iv. 537–8, 544, 548, 553, 600, 605, 626, 635; v. 56, 100, 145, 216, 232–3, 348–9, 368–9, 467; G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 227; P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 147–8; Cam. Misc. xxvi. 148–9; Add. 37209, ff. 158–9, 179–80; HMC 10th Rep. I, 145–6; Bolingbroke Corresp. i. 35–36, 121, 169, 216, 246–7, 408; iii. 491–2; iv. 84, 157, 288–9; Reasons which Induced Her Majesty to Create the Rt. Hon. Charles, Earl of Orrery, and James, Duke of Hamilton, Peers of Gt. Brit. . . . (1711), 3; Ailesbury Mems. ii. 627–8, 645; Swift Stella ed. Davis, i. 99; ii. 423; G. Holmes, Pols. in Age of Anne, 426; Macpherson, Orig. Pprs. ii. 546; H. Horwitz, 2nd Earl of Nottingham, 242.
  • 7. Budgell, 212–16; Stowe 242, f. 194; HMC Stuart, ii. 290; iii. 259–60, 553–4; v. 122, 305–6, 336–7, 446–7, 456–8; vi. 137, 165–6, 260, 287; vii. 181–2, 261, 538, 626, 647; RA, Stuart mss 45/59; 46/93, 118, 128, 150; 47/35, 106; 48/17, 19, 23, 27, 71–72, 81, 107, 109; 49/4, 40; 51/53; 52/61, 100, 105; 53/13, 49, 87, 145; 54/77; 55/67; 57/111, 135; 58/127; 59/15, 55, 143; 60/127, 129–30; 63/33; 70/46, 107; 71/137; 100/45; Rep. from the Cttee. . . . to Examine Christopher Layer . . . (1722), 2–4, 13, 19, 22–23, 31–32; Rep. from the Lords Cttees. . . . to Examine Christopher Layer . . . (1723), 11, 13; Add. 62558, f. 26; Bennett, 225–9, 231, 233, 254, 260, 264; P. S. Fritz, Ministers and Jacobitism 1715–45, 69–70, 73, 77–78, 121, 126–7, 134–5; Jacobite Challenge ed. Cruickshanks and Black, 92, 94, 103–4; C. B. Realey, Early Opposition to Walpole, 82–83, 123; J. H. Glover, Stuart Pprs. i. 266, 276, 280, 321–2; ii. 59, 90; Atterbury Epistolary Corresp. v. 348; L. Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy, 37, 63, 209; The Commons 1715–54, i. 67.
  • 8. Countess of Cork and Orrery, Orrery Pprs. i. 99; Lodge, 296; Harvard Univ. Lib. Orrery mss 218/7.