HARLEY, Edward, Ld. Harley (1689-1741), of Wimpole, Cambs.

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



6 July 1711 - 1715
1722 - 21 May 1724

Family and Education

b. 2 June 1689, 1st s. of Robert Harley* by his 1st w.  educ. Westminster c.1705–7; Christ Church, Oxf. 1707–11, MA 1712, DCL 1730.  m. 31 Aug. 1713 (with £13,500), Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles (d. 1755), da. and coh. of John Holles†, 1st Duke of Newcastle, 1s. d.v.p. 1da.  Styled Ld. Harley 1711–24; suc. fa. as 2nd Earl of Oxford 21 May 1724.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Ludlow 1711, New Radnor 1714, common councilman 1719; freeman, Edinburgh 1725; high steward, Cambridge 1728–d.; vice-pres. St. George’s Hosp. 1733; gov. Foundling Hosp. 1739.2

FRS 1727.3


Lord Harley’s career was a diminishing echo of that of his illustrious father: the rough edges of a Puritan upbringing all but smoothed away by polite learning and moderately High Anglicanism, his consuming passions being bibliomania, literary patronage and, towards the end of his life, drink. Where he differed was in his aversion to business and his ineptitude for political infighting. He had some small talent as an orator, and during his father’s premiership relished the privileges of association with the powerful. But his response to the years of adversity and opposition that followed was to retire from the fray, to Wimpole and the society of cronies and protégés. His early years were spent away from his father, at Brampton Bryan, in an intensely religious household presided over by his grandfather, Sir Edward Harley*, where his development was supervised after his mother’s death in 1691 by a devout pair of paternal aunts. Sir Edward insisted that his grandson ‘every day learn his book’ and be ‘careful in . . . praying, not only as a task but as the special excellency of life, in every act of worship drawing near to God, with reverence and . . . fear’. He also provided the young Edward with a religio-political creed, writing in April 1696:

I hear you have made shift to write your name to the Association. Now you must learn betimes to know the meaning of it, which is to promise to be a true Englishman, to defend the good laws and liberties of your country, and especially to be a good Christian, to oppose all superstition and idolatory, especially that of popery . . . you must humbly and constantly pray to God to give you grace to keep your first Association, when you were in baptism devoted and engaged to be a sworn soldier to the king of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The engagement of a Scottish tutor can have done little to water down this Presbyterian influence, and in later life Harley’s aunt Abigail continued to urge upon him the imitation of his grandfather.4

Before he left home for school and university, Harley was already displaying a more ‘sprightly humour’ than perhaps his grandfather had intended, and Westminster and Oxford exposed him to different intellectual priorities and other mentors: Robert Freind (brother of John†), his headmaster, who did not withhold advice when the young man was no longer his pupil; and Canon William Stratford of Christ Church, who, though never officially Harley’s tutor, was entrusted by the family with his welfare, and became a valued counsellor. More important still was the fact that Edward now settled firmly in his father’s orbit, receiving Robert’s homilies on ‘diligence and compliance’ and being admitted into the intimacies of political gossip. Within a year of going up to Oxford he showed he had inherited, or adopted, one of his father’s enthusiasms, when distressingly large debts were incurred to booksellers and bookbinders, but as yet without much evidence of good taste. As the habit grew, however, his purchases became more discriminating. He took a close interest in, and from about 1711 onwards assumed responsibility for, his father’s collection. A certain superficiality also marked his early educational achievements: he was lax in keeping university terms, and recorded that he had paid a poetaster two guineas for ‘the ode that is printed in the Oxford verses with my name under’. Here too he was later to develop a ‘love of antiquities’ that surpassed the dilettante, and was to become the friend and generous patron of Swift, Pope, Matthew Prior* and George Vertue, among others. As for politics, regular newsletters sent from London to Oxford served as an induction into public affairs, and he was soon giving his aunt his own observations of the parliamentary scene. Filial loyalty was their most prominent characteristic: he expressed thanks to God, in terms his grandfather would have endorsed, for the providential preservation of Robert Harley from Whig inquiries into the Greg affair; condemned Robert’s exclusion from the Herefordshire commission of the peace as the effect of pure spite; and over the Sacheverell trial of 1710 took his father’s line, opposed to impeachment but sceptical of the extravagance of high-flying proponents of the ‘darling doctrine’ of non-resistance. While to hypercritical eyes, such as those of (Sir) Simon Harcourt I*, Harley was as yet ‘unacquainted with the world’, having been ‘brought up too long in the shade’ and was consequently ‘bashful’ in society, Oxonian observers praised his ‘discretion’ and considered him, even in 1710, to be ‘a very notable statesman for your years’.5

Despite Harley’s youth, these university friends were surprised and disappointed to find him unprovided with a parliamentary seat in the 1710 general election. ‘All here begin to despair of seeing you again’, wrote Dr Stratford, ‘especially since the late turn; they say you are of age, and now entered upon the government of the nation, and not likely to relish any longer the poor entertainments this place affords.’ Harley did indeed spend the winter of 1710–11 in London, but had returned to Oxford by the following June, when he needed to be called up from the university to attend the anticipated election to Parliament, a vacancy having arisen at New Radnor with his father’s elevation to the peerage. Predictably there was no opposition, the ‘great concourse’ of voters vying with each other as to ‘who should best express their zeal and respect for his . . . service’. Just 16 days before the by-election his name had been inserted into the Herefordshire commission of the peace. His father, now Earl of Oxford, wasted little time in introducing him into the world of high politics, and one must presume that Harley himself was not reticent. Within a month of his return he had joined the ‘Society of Brothers’, the exclusively ministerial dining club founded by Henry St. John II*, which numbered Swift and Prior among its otherwise parliamentarian membership. Swift’s ‘Journal to Stella’ records him as a frequent dining companion, usually together with his brother-in-law Lord Dupplin (George Hay*). In September 1711 there was an unfounded rumour that he would be accompanying Lord Rivers’ (Richard Savage†) mission to Hanover. It was only a short time until an Oxford friend was approaching him to be presented to the Queen. ‘I find you are now grown a regular courtier’, teased Stratford; ‘I hope I shall hear no more complaints that you are unacquainted with the world, but shall be told that you [have] worn off the ungraceful habits you have contracted here, by the advantage of a more polite conversation.’ Harley formally took his leave of the university when he was ‘in a convocation . . . created Master of Arts in a full house, being presented by Dr Atterbury, dean of Christ Church, in an elegant Latin speech’, and his sudden maturity was soon evident in Stratford’s correspondence, where instead of proffering advice the canon now sought it. It was shortly after his election, too, that moves were made towards securing him a wife. A proposal of a match with the daughter of a wealthy London merchant had been abandoned the previous year, for Oxford had his sights on a far greater fortune, the daughter of his friend the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†), a match so brilliant that at one stage there was speculation that it would fall to the Hanoverian electoral prince. In June 1711 gossip linked Edward, now Lord, Harley with Lady Henrietta Holles, and in the following November reports that a marriage had taken place were the talk of the town. In dismissing them, Swift noted that the negotiations ‘had been privately managing this long time’. After Newcastle’s death in July 1711, Oxford had been obliged to treat with the dowager Duchess. One of her demands, that the Newcastle dukedom should be recreated for Lord Harley, Oxford was convinced he had met when in 1712 the Queen appeared willing to promise it, but there were further problems concerning the bride’s disputed inheritance, and the matter dragged on.6

Even though he was only in his first session, Harley was ordered by his father at the division on 7 Dec. 1711 on ‘No Peace without Spain’ to ‘take a list of all in the House of Commons who had places, and yet voted against the Court, in such a manner as if they should lose their places’. On 12 Feb. 1712 he acted as a teller against a motion to put the question for appointing a time for further consideration of the Queen’s Speech. He was so passionate in his defence of his father’s peace policy as to complain bitterly in a private letter of the attitude of the Dissenters (his family’s erstwhile brethren), who, he said, had ‘fasted and prayed against peace . . . and made a collection for printing all the virulent pamphlets that have been wrote against the Queen and this ministry in two volumes’. A teller on 10 Apr. 1713 for a Court amendment to the Address, he made his first recorded speech (evidently not his maiden speech) on 8 May, in favour of lowering the duty on French wines. As the struggle over the French commercial treaty unfolded, he played a leading role on the Court side, defending the negotiations in a debate on 9 June, voting for the bill confirming the 8th and 9th articles of the treaty on the 18th, and telling on the 23rd against an instruction to the committee preparing the address, to express a desire that the commissioners for the new treaty insist on a liberty to the Queen’s subjects to trade in every port in the French king’s dominions. After the close of the session he received a grant of wreck, to enable him to hunt for treasure off Bermuda, a project he never put into execution, but his real reward for faithful service in his father’s cause came with his marriage late in August 1713 to the Newcastle heiress. The ceremony took place privately, without the Duchess’s consent, since she had taken offence at Oxford’s refusal to compromise himself by publicly assisting her in her lawsuit with her nephew Lord Pelham over the descent of the Newcastle estate. In this crisis it was Lady Henrietta who displayed resolution and insisted that the ‘wicked marriage’, as her mother termed it, be celebrated. The size of her fortune was still problematic. Besides her portion, she was entitled under her father’s will to estates in Northumberland, Staffordshire and Yorkshire, and in addition might have expected to inherit the Huntingdonshire property left to her mother. The Duchess of Newcastle had not, however, accepted the inclusion of lands belonging to her own family, the Cavendishes, in the bequest made to her coheir, Lord Pelham, and had contested the validity of the will in several actions. The Harleys now took over her claim, achieved a success in Chancery, and obliged a not unwilling Pelham to agree to a compromise by which Lord Harley took the whole of the Cavendish estate in return for relinquishing the marriage portion, and for other considerations. It was computed that Harley would thus receive some £140,000, ‘and when the jointures fall in to him will have £16,000 a year’. He was not granted the expected dukedom, however, for when Oxford raised the subject with the Queen the request was coldly refused, a rejection that signalled a significant breach between Anne and her chief minister. Nevertheless, the marriage was a triumph, prompting Lord Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†) among others to write in congratulation: Lord Harley’s ‘personal merit was equal to the best match in England’, he averred, and he would ‘now have one of the best estates in it’.7

During the autumn and winter of 1713–14 Harley’s new establishment at Wimpole occupied most of his energies, and he was loath to leave his seat for London when the new Parliament met. Part of his time had been spent in entertaining the Cambridgeshire gentry, but the 1713 general election came too soon for him to consider putting himself up as a knight of his adopted shire. He and his father also ignored offers from patrons or would-be patrons in other constituencies, and contented themselves with his re-election on the family interest at New Radnor, again without opposition. In this session he was as loyal as ever to his father. He spoke on the Court side in the debate on 16 Mar. 1714 over the expulsion of Richard Steele, and wrote exultantly of the address of 22 Apr. in support of the peace and the Queen’s subsequent foreign policy, that ‘our numbers were so great, the W[higs] would not divide’. One reason for this, he argued, was that ‘a great many gentlemen who had, out of fancy, or to try if they could do anything by changing sides so as to make themselves to be courted, came back to us’. His opposition to the proposed invitation of the Duke of Cambridge was trenchant. He wrote on 6 May:

The W[higs] say the D[uke] of C[ambridge] will certainly be here in a fortnight. I cannot think he will come. I have an opinion that his father and grandmother are both wiser than to let him come. If he pretends to come with force it must be to dethrone the Q[ueen] and to take his f[ather’]s and g[randmother’]s place; or else to draw us into a civil war. I must confess I cannot think we are in any of these dangers. The great comfort of all is that there is one alone who governs all.

With most of his father’s family and connexions, he supported the schism bill on its introduction, and subsequently voted against a Whig amendment to extend the scope of the bill to Catholic educational establishments. ‘Those who were for promoting the bill opposed it’, he informed his aunt, ‘and said it was more proper for another bill . . . These are called papists and lists given about of their names as such . . . I believe you will not think me more a papist for being there called one.’ His activities during the session encompassed more mundane business as well as the great set-piece debates. He may well have been involved in deliberations over the Trent navigation bill: in his new capacity as a Nottinghamshire landowner, he had been approached by Lord Middleton (Sir Thomas Willoughby, 2nd Bt.*) for help in ‘throwing . . . out’ or at least amending the bill so that ‘it may not be of much prejudice to us’. Despite his previous expressions of distaste for the expedient of inviting over the Duke of Cambridge, and his own personal friendship with the non-juror George Harbin, he proved himself in the crisis over the succession to be loyal not only to his father but to the house of Hanover. Late in May he and his uncle, Edward Harley*, were reported to have sided with (Sir) Thomas Hanmer (4th Bt.*) and the Hanoverian Tories in the Commons against the friends and adherents of Lord Bolingbroke (Henry St. John II*), and in the following month he joined other relations and allies of Lord Oxford at a dinner for the Hanoverian resident, Kreienberg. After his father’s dismissal he rejoiced to hear that the Duke of Shrewsbury, rather than Bolingbroke, had been appointed lord treasurer: ‘it is one of the happiest turns in the world’. And when Parliament resumed, in the interval between the Queen’s death and her successor’s arrival, he wrote again, ‘it is a great happiness that everything is so very quiet, and a prospect of its continuing so. I heartily wish the King was come. Some say it will be three weeks, I hope it will not be so long.’ The Worsley list classified him as a Tory.8

Harley’s satisfaction at the Hanoverian succession was dispelled by the train of events which followed: his own defeat at New Radnor, the proscription of the Tories, and his father’s lengthy imprisonment under impeachment. Although Harley returned to the Commons as knight of the shire for Cambridgeshire in 1722, he made little impact, either in the Lower House or, as 2nd Earl of Oxford after 1724, in the Upper. His ‘manner of life’ in his latter years was ‘in conversation with men of wit, virtue and learning, and in encouraging their studies’. He was described by those of his own circle as ‘of a natural good temper’. Despite his heavy drinking in later years, he was said to have ‘no vices (except buying manuscripts and curiosities may be called so)’, but this heavy expenditure, combined with a lack of application to the management of his estate, forced him to sell much land and kept him ‘without a guinea in his pocket’. He died on 16 June 1741, and was buried with his wife’s family in Westminster Abbey. According to Swift, he left ‘many books, many manuscripts, and no money. His lady brought him £500,000, four of which have been sacrificed to indolence, good nature, and want of worldly wisdom.’ His will (drawn up in 1725) paid tribute to his parents for bringing him up ‘in the true faith and fear of God’, and made particular reference to ‘my very valuable libraries’ in the statement of his personalty. The title passed to a cousin; the former Cavendish estates passed, through his daughter, to the dukes of Portland; the books and manuscripts, together with his other collections, of coins, medals and pictures, were sold.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. Recs. Old Westminsters, i. 425; HMC Portland, iv. 182, 405; vii. 23; Add. 70392, Duke of Newcastle’s receipt, 5 Mar. 1717; 70380, Edward* to Ld. Harley, 18 Sept. 1714.
  • 2. Salop RO, Ludlow bor. recs. min. bk. 1690–1712 (unfol.); D. R. L. Adams, ‘Parl. Rep. Rad. 1536–1832’ (Univ. of Wales M.A. thesis, 1969), 546.
  • 3. Rec. R. Soc. 399.
  • 4. Add. 70130, Sir Edward to Elizabeth Harley, 19 May, 30 June 1696; 70380, same to Edward (Ld.) Harley, 18 Apr. 1696; 70378, Abigail Harley to same, 2 June 1704; A. S. Turberville, Hist. Welbeck Abbey, i. 291–2; HMC Portland, iii. 578, 580; iv. 514.
  • 5. HMC Portland, ii. 251; iv. 459, 478, 480, 482–4, 488, 514–22, 534, 555; v. 5, 127, 142, 144–5, 247–8; vii. pp. xvii–xviii, 3, 10, 30–32, 34–36; Add. 70376, Robert Freind to Edward (Ld.) Harley, 25 Sept. 1708; 70382, Robert Harley to same, 25 Oct., 16 Dec. 1707, 16 Nov. 1708, 24 May 1709; Turberville, i. 293–5; Hearne Colls. iii. 288, 408; iv. 109; DNB; Procs. Brit. Acad. xlvi. 110–11.
  • 6. Add. 70395, William Stratford to Edward (Ld.) Harley, 29 Oct. 1709; 70144, Harley to Abigail Harley, 10 Mar. 1710–11; 17677 EEE, f. 309; HMC Portland, iv. 657; v. 5, 65, 87, 106–7, 127; vii. 11, 18, 23, 32–33, 48, 70, 89; Adams, 210; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 210; Swift Stella ed. Davis, i. 335, 352, 361, 378; ii. 406–7, 419, 583; Hearne Colls. iii. 287–8; Turberville, i. 296–8; A. McInnes, Robert Harley, 178; E. Gregg, Q. Anne, 373.
  • 7. Swift Stella, ii. 434; Bull. IHR, xxxiii. 232; McInnes, 181; NSA, Kreienberg despatches 8 May, 9 June 1713; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxvii. 326; info. from Mrs Z. Cowan; Turberville, i. 299–304, 311, 313, 315–20; Bodl. Ballard 18, f. 49; Add. 70382, Oxford to Ld. Harley, 24 Oct. 1713; 70380, Edward Harley to same, 12 Jan., 10 July 1714; 70373, Matthew Brailsford to same, 13 Feb. 1713–14; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, ii. 67–68; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 205–6; Gregg, 373; HMC Portland, v. 325.
  • 8. HMC Portland, vii. 167, 180; v. 313, 329, 413; Add. 70440, Ld. Harley’s diary (2, 3 Sept., 6 Nov. 1713); 70144, Harley to Abigail Harley, 27 Apr., 6, 13 May, 31 July, 5 Aug. 1714; 17677 HHH, f. 221; Kreienberg despatch 16 Mar. 1714; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 502; Gregg, 364; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 631.
  • 9. Turberville, i. 331–2; Swift Corresp. ed. Williams, ii. 383; iii. 105; v. 98, 117–18, 206; HMC Portland, v. 328; PCC 209 Spurway.