HARLEY, Sir Edward (1624-1700), of Brampton Bryan, Herefs.

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



14 Nov. 1646 - 6 Dec. 1648
1656 - 1658
1661 - July 1679
Oct. 1679 - Mar. 1681
1689 - 1690
8 Feb. 1693 - 1698

Family and Education

b. 21 Oct. 1624, 3rd but 1st surv. s. of Sir Robert Harley† of Brampton Bryan, being 1st s. by 3rd w. Brilliana, da. of Edward Conway†, 1st Visct. Conway.  educ. Gloucester sch.; Shrewsbury sch.; Magdalen Hall, Oxf. 1638–40; L. Inn 1641–2.  m. (1) 26 June 1654 (with £3,000), Mary, da. and coh. of Sir William Button of Parkgate, Tawstock, Devon, 4da.; (2) 25 Feb. 1661, Abigail (d. 1688), da. of Nathaniel Stephens† of Eastington, Glos., 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da.  suc. fa. 1656; KB 23 Apr. 1661.1

Offices Held

Capt. of horse (parliamentary) 1643, col. of ft. 1643–7, col. of horse 1660–1; gov. Monmouth 1644–5, Canon Frome 1645–6, Dunkirk May 1660–1; councillor of State 25 Feb.–31 May 1660.

Alderman, New Radnor c.1647–80; commr. scandalous ministers, Herefs. 1654; custos rot. Herefs. Mar.–July 1660, Rad. Mar. 1660–82.2

FRS 1663–85.


‘Sir Edward Harley’, boasted his devoted son, Edward*,

may be truly said to have had all the accomplishments of a gentleman, his features were very exact, and he had great quickness in his eyes which commanded respect; his temper was naturally very passionate, though mixed with the greatest tenderness and humility. His passion he kept under a strict restraint, and had in a manner totally subdued, but his generosity and tender compassion to all objects of charity continued to the last.

This was a portrait doubtless enhanced by filial affection, but not exaggerated out of all bounds. Others too praised Harley’s exemplary piety, noting his ‘awful and solemn . . . look . . . composed with reverence and godly fear’:

          A faithful Joshua in his house was he,
          Worshipping God, praying continually,
          Restraining vice and from offences free.

Devout Presbyterianism, combining an excessive anxiety over personal morality with a hypersensitivity to the immanence of divine providence, carried over into his political beliefs. In this strain of Whiggism, a resolute anti-popery, a corresponding yearning for unity among Protestants and a loathing for the apparatus of monarchical absolutism were flavoured by a commitment to a ‘second reformation’ of society’s manners and morals, and in personal terms a scrupulous regard for public duty. Indeed, Harley’s scrupulosity was not a little self-conscious and at times self-regarding, and was nurtured as a family tradition. By his patriarchal counsel he encouraged his children to follow his example, while he himself took his own father as a model: of Sir Robert he wrote that ‘in the Parliament-house he was more zealous for the public good than to obtain recompense for his private losses’. The extent to which Sir Edward’s political attitudes were shaped in his father’s lifetime can be gauged by his careful commemoration of the anniversary of his father’s sufferings at Pride’s Purge, and by his proud exposition to his son Edward of the part played by ‘godly’ Members of Parliament in defending the ‘purity of religion’ against Charles I’s innovations.3

Harley’s personal qualities and political record, in particular his steadfast opposition to King James II, had by 1690 brought him a considerable reputation both locally and nationally, and it was widely expected that he would enjoy an easy passage to re-election as knight of the shire. As the poll approached, however, misgivings began to be voiced, and what had originally been envisaged as an unopposed return became a ‘hard contest’ and a ‘doubtful’ issue. To the consternation of family and friends, he was defeated by Sir John Morgan, 2nd Bt.*, and Sir Herbert Croft, 1st Bt.* His outraged sons viewed the opposition as ‘sordid’ and marked by ‘base and perfidious artifices’, principally his being blacklisted as a ‘commonwealthman’ (that is to say one who in the Convention had voted for the disabling clause in the corporations bill), and the ‘raising an universal and ridiculous clamour of his being an enemy to the Church’. A Court-inspired conspiracy was suspected. Despite recurrent bouts of illness, Harley cherished a strong desire to re-enter Parliament, but, anxious to avoid electoral conflict, and presumably because he wished for the gratification of being the unanimous choice of the electors, he did not leap at the first opportunity. Robert’s hope that his father might come in at a by-election for Weobley in 1691 ‘without contest’ evaporated when two other candidates appeared. Sir Edward’s reaction to this prospect revealed a genuine distress at the prospect of strife between political interests in the county, at least when the rivals were his friends and relations the Foleys, and the nephew of his old ‘comrade’ John Birch I*. He hoped for a ‘composition’ and encouraged his sons to work for one. On the other hand, a similar stance in a Radnorshire by-election the following year smacks of hypocrisy. Harley withstood pressure to stand himself and ostensibly stood neutral, while his family strongly supported one of the candidates. The death of Sir John Morgan, his victorious opponent in 1690, provided at last the opportunity for which he had been waiting. ‘What will be the inclination of the county’, he wrote,

[I] cannot guess. I trust the Lord will in mercy dispose this special providence to His glory and the good of two poor counties [Herefordshire and Radnorshire]. If the Lord please to delight in this poor, aged creature I trust the way and call will be plain and gracious.

First reports from Herefordshire were encouraging, though there was talk of a rival to be ‘set up by the Church party’. Harley was determined not to ‘solicit, as they call it’, and seems to have preferred to step down rather than engage in a contest. But he was soon inundated with letters urging him to stand. One admirer observed, ‘there is a great want of true Englishmen to assist in such an assembly’. Thomas Foley I* stressed that it was his ‘plain duty’ to allow his name to go forward: ‘providence hath so ordered it that you can do no otherwise but stand’. There would be no ‘discouragement from court’, he went on, and ‘the Hereford men both in the House of Lords and Commons’ had ‘met and unanimously agreed to make choice of you’. Probably it was the assurance of an unopposed return that made up Harley’s mind. The only breath of dissent among the Herefordshire interests had come from the Earl of Kent, who reportedly disliked Sir Edward on account of his support for the Wye and Lugg navigation bill and because ‘he had met him and did not pull off his hat to him’. Harley was duly elected, without opposition or expense, and took his seat in the Commons on 20 Feb. 1693, ‘with extraordinary respect from very many’, as he himself recorded, taking care to add that this fact was mentioned ‘in all humility to the glory’ of God.4

Before his return as knight of the shire, Sir Edward’s principal activity would seem to have been the dispensing of advice to his two sons and to other friends and connexions, especially among Nonconformist congregations. Thus in 1691–2 he carefully dissuaded his younger son from abandoning the practice of the law for the life of an itinerant preacher in Yorkshire; at various times offered counsel and assistance to distressed Dissenting ministers; and in 1691 proposed an ‘accommodation’ to the disputing factions in the New England Company. But the most interesting correspondence was with his elder son, upon whom the family’s political ambitions were fastened. At the outset of his parliamentary career, Robert Harley was still very much under his father’s tutelage, subject to lectures on frugality and the need to pray for providential assistance – ‘all good patriots must supplicate for the blessing of Heaven’; and obliged to defend himself against reports that he spent too much time in taverns, or was in danger of being persuaded to accept a place in government. Gradually, however, Robert was able to emancipate himself, a process marked by a dilution of the religious element in his own observations, and in so doing he seems to have worked some subtle change in his father’s political outlook. Certain principles were unaltered, however: Sir Edward remained convinced of the reality of providential interposition in political life, and the perils of tolerating vice and blasphemy; of the overarching importance of religious issues, and the value and urgency of promoting measures for the relief of Nonconformists; and of the difficulty in ensuring that those who served ‘the public’ were truly virtuous. In part, his attitudes to political questions in the 1690 Parliament reflected these principles: his support for bills against ‘profane swearing’, ‘whoredom, drunkenness’ and the like; his gratitude for provisions that would help ‘the poor Dissenters, who preach and live like apostles’, or that would ameliorate the grievance of ‘the Test’; and his encouragement of place legislation. Other comments are evidence for the absorption of the ideals and priorities of the new Country opposition of which Robert was an architect: a change of mind from scepticism to appreciation of the usefulness of the commission of accounts; concern for trade and naval security; anxiety over the growing financial burden imposed by the war. Equally significant was his tacit endorsement of Robert’s unorthodox choice of political friends. In 1690, when seeking to raise support for Robert in the disputed election for New Radnor, Harley had himself applied to, and encouraged his son to approach, old Whig confederates like Hugh Boscawen I* (who had previously found Robert a seat in the Convention), ‘uncle Hampden’ (Richard I*), Sir Thomas Lee, 1st Bt.*, and Philip, Lord Wharton. Within two years Robert was transmitting, evidently without paternal reproof, the cordial greetings of such former political enemies as Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt.*, and Sir Thomas Clarges*, the latter venturing to open up a correspondence with Sir Edward himself. Locally, Harley might still regard his Tory opponents as a ‘pure, pure Jacobite interest’, but in the Commons he was prepared to countenance co-operation with the leaders of that interest.5

Harley’s importance in the House was not as an active debater or committee man: indeed in this final phase of his parliamentary career he made no speech of which there is a record. Rather, in standing as an embodiment of an older Country tradition, he gave Robert moral support, proudly reporting his speeches to other members of the family. He appears to have attended the House during what remained of the 1692–3 session and, despite a relapse into ill-health in November 1693, was up in London to attend the ensuing session, or at least part of it, since his various physical complaints returned over the winter. His letters show him to have supported the inquiries into alleged naval mismanagements, for the furtherance of which he implored God’s help; joined in the House’s censure of a deist tract, which he deplored as a ‘most vile and scandalous blasphemy’; resented moves by the Court to emasculate the bill for more frequent elections; and, amid a welter of complicated fiscal legislation of which he candidly admitted incomprehension, singled out for particular concern the prospect of a general excise – ‘it is very unhappy that not only sensitive Members but others precipitate the excise of liberty to avoid a present land tax’. In January 1694, probably as part of a ministerial scheme to conciliate the Harley–Foley connexion, he was invited to a ‘great feast’ at the house of Lord Keeper Somers (Sir John*). Characteristically, he drew most gratification on this occasion from the fact that there had been ‘no health drunk, no profane word uttered, [and] thanks given before the meal’. Before the 1694–5 session, he was pressed to come up to Westminster promptly by John Locke, who refused to explain this request in writing, adding only ‘I conclude you will when you are here think it time not lost’. Again, Harley’s attendance was interrupted by bouts of illness, but he seems to have remained in the capital until at least March 1695. That year saw the publication of his counterblast to deism and Socinianism, A Scriptural and Rational Account of the Christian Religion . . ., in which he reasserted the supremacy of revelation over reason as a means of discovering the divine will, and denounced alike deists, Socinians and papists (whose ‘superstition’ provided a breeding-ground for ‘atheism’). A reference to ‘those who deny the predestinating presence of God the father’ indicates the persistence of a strong Calvinist element in his theology. His daughter Abigail, acknowledging receipt of her copy of the book in April 1695, set it in a context of ‘moral reformation’, hoping that it would serve to ‘reclaim and put a stop to the growth of those unchristian, unchurching errors that give more dreadful presages of ruin to poor England than all open enemies or false friends’.6

Re-elected without opposition in 1695, Harley was forecast as likely to oppose the Court in the division on 31 Jan. 1696 on the proposed council of trade. He signed the Association promptly, though he was not listed as voting in the division in March on fixing the price of guineas at 22s. In the following session, along with his sons, he voted on 25 Nov. 1696 against the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. The 1696–7 session seems to have been the last in which he was able to pay attention to parliamentary business. He missed the greater part of the following session, only arriving in London in April 1698, by which time he had already decided not to stand for Parliament again, giving as his reason ‘that which hath been always of most concern to me, and is especially at this present . . . that the county of Hereford may have entire peace among the gentry and freeholders’. Despite the fact that he continued to enjoy comparatively good health for some years, age and increasing infirmity are likely to have been additional reasons for withdrawal. A comparative analysis of the old and new Houses of Commons after the 1698 general election classed him among the supporters of the Country party ‘left out’.7

After his retirement from Parliament, Harley’s influence faded perceptibly. His letters continued to emphasize what was to him the all-important religious dimension to political action. He represented himself as a ‘poor worm’, an ‘old-fashioned man’ with ‘very troublesome apprehensions’ lest England suffer the judgment of providence for its sins; and he prayed that his elder son be filled with ‘wisdom and zeal for the service of God and his country’. In February 1700 Robert was sent ‘some thoughts concerning the woollen manufacture’, his father adding:

The concerns for the poor were never so necessary, the abundance of lewd, idle persons under no due animadversion are wretched instruments of robberies and universal mischiefs. Some also think that a more strict legal regulation of household servants is very needful and might be a great advantage to prevent much wickedness.

This was the last political sermon he preached. A month later came the onset of his final illness, when, he wrote, ‘it pleased God . . . to visit me with pain and faintness, goutish and scorbutic’. Even then he retained such prestige in his own county that he was obliged to announce that he would not be standing at the next election, an event he did not live to see. After a long deterioration, he died at Brampton Bryan on 8 Dec. 1700. Tributes came not only from those of his own persuasion, in religion and politics, but from his son’s more recent collaborators, men like Sir Christopher Musgrave, Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.*, or Henry Guy*, who ‘truly lamented . . . the loss of that worthy gentleman . . . he was true to his country against the greatest temptations’. The image of incorruptibility, and of a virtue both godly and patriotic, which Harley had cultivated since before the Revolution, thus inspired (its ‘godliness’ excised) a new generation of ‘Country’ rhetoricians, especially those of his own family. ‘So exemplary was his virtue and love to his country’, affirmed his son Edward, ‘that he was called by some very discerning persons “ultimus Anglorum”.’8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. HMC Portland, iii. 247, 291; v. 645; Letters of Lady Brilliana Harley (Cam. Soc. lviii), 218.
  • 2. HMC Portland, iii. 111, 117, 129, 140, 155, 306; CSP Dom. 1682, p. 77.
  • 3. Add. 70095, poems on the death of Sir Edward Harley [c.1700]; 70130, Sir Edward Harley’s biog. notes on his father; 70235, Sir Edward to Robert Harley, 6 Dec. 1692; 70140, same to Edward Harley, 2 Jan. 1691–2; 70019, ff. 314–23.
  • 4. HMC Portland, iii. 443–4, 446, 453, 513; v. 645; Add. 70197, William Fiennes to Robert Harley, 3 Mar. 1689[–90]; 70014, ff. 291–2, 305; 70079, autobiog. memo. by Robert Harley, 11 Sept. 1723; 70015, ff. 73, 150, 222; 70237, Edward to Robert Harley, 16 Mar. 1691; 70234, Sir Edward Harley to same, 12 May 1691; 70115, Abigail Harley to same, 26 Feb. 1691–2; 70225, Paul Foley I* to same, 17 Sept. 1692; 70128, Sir Edward Harley to [–], 15 Sept. 1691, 10 Jan. 1692–3; 70016, f. 193; 70263, John Williams to Robert Harley, 25 Oct. 1692; 70512, Samuel Powell to Nehemiah Ketelby, 12 Oct. 1692, James Morgan to Sir Edward Harley, 27 Oct. 1692; 70017, ff. 3, 12; 70114, Paul Foley I to same, 10 Jan. 1693; 70125, Sir Francis Winnington* to same, 10 Jan. 1692[–3]; 70126, J. Boscawen to same, 10 Jan. 1692[–3], Sir Herbert Croft, 1st Bt., to same, 10 Jan. 1692[–3], Edward Cornewall to same, 14 Jan. 1692[–3], Ferdinando Gorges to same, 17 Jan. 1692[–3], John Birch II* to same, 18 Jan. 1692[–3], Richard More* to same, 19 Jan. 1692[–3], William Gwillym to same, 26, 31 Jan. 1692[–3]; 70235, Sir Edward to Robert Harley, 14, 17, 28 Jan., 11 Feb. 1692[–3]; 70123, Ld. Scudamore (John†) to Sir Edward Harley, 26 Jan. 1692[–3]; NLW, Kemeys-Tynte mss, Charles Herbert* to Sir Charles Kemys, 3rd Bt.*, 7 Mar. 1689–90; Epistolary Curiosities ed. Warner, i. 142; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Harley) mss Pw2 Hy 355, W. Probert to [–], ‘Tuesday, 10 at night’; D. R. L. Adams, ‘Parl. Rep. Rad. 1536–1832’ (Wales Univ. M.A. thesis, 1969), 173–86; Luttrell Diary, 433.
  • 5. Add. 70140, Sir Edward to Edward Harley, 2 Jan. 1691–2, 10 Dec. 1692, 3 Feb. 1693[?–4], 28 Aug. 1694; 70125, John Wickins to Sir Edward Harley, 27 Oct. 1692, Francis Tallents to same, 16 Apr., 28 June 1695; 70233, Sir Edward to Robert Harley, 1, 4, 11 Nov., 18, 30 Dec. 1690; 70234, same to same, 2, 6, 24 Dec. 1692, 17 Jan. 1692[–3], 1, 18, 28 July 1693, 2, 6 Nov. 1694; 70115, Abigail Harley to same, 18 Jan. 1693; 70118, Edward to Sir Edward Harley, 30 Dec. 1691; 70016, ff. 165–6; HMC Portland, iii. 458, 467–9, 478.
  • 6. Add. 70235, Sir Edward to [Edward Harley], 24 Feb. 1693[–4]; 70144, same to Abigail Harley, 21 Nov. 1693, 2, 13 Jan. 1693[–4]; 70140, same to Edward Harley, 8 Feb., 6, 13 Mar. 1693[–4]; 70115, Abigail to Sir Edward Harley, 27 Mar. 1694; 70017, ff. 197, 212; 70117, Abigail to Sir Edward Harley, 30 Apr. 1695; HMC Portland, iii. 548, 561–2; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 214; HMC Bath, i. 50–51; Sir Edward Harley, A Scriptural and Rational Acct. of Christian Relig. (1695), pp. v–vi, viii, 24, 82–83, 91, 107, 109, 114.
  • 7. Add. 70380, Sir Edward to Edward Harley, 18 Apr. 1696; 70113, same to Edward Cornewall, 24 Feb. 1697[–8]; HMC Portland, iii. 581, 594–8, 605.
  • 8. Add. 70235, Sir Edward to Robert Harley, 25 Nov. 1699, 16 Jan., 15 Feb. 1699[–1700]; 70237, Edward to same, 30 Sept. 1700; 70118, same to Sir Edward Harley, 1 Oct. 1700; 70019, ff. 168, 307; 70095, ‘An elegy . . . on the death of . . . Sir Edward Harley’ [c.1700]; HMC Portland, iii. 614, 617–18, 623, 625, 635, 638; v. 645; Top. and Gen. iii. 36.