Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford

Harley, Robert, 1st earl of Oxford, 1661–1724, English statesman and bibliophile. His career illustrates the power of personal connections and intrigue in the politics of his day. When he entered (1689) Parliament, he was generally associated with the Whigs and introduced (1694) the Triennial Bill (which required new parliamentary elections every three years) in the House of Commons. His sympathies soon shifted, however, and before the accession (1702) of Queen Anne he was a leader of the Tories. He was secretary of state for the north (1704–8) but was forced out of office by John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, because of his intrigues against the predominantly Whig government. His influence on the queen continued, however, through his kinswoman Abigail Masham. The unpopularity of the War of the Spanish Succession and the uproar caused by the trial of Henry Sacheverell brought the fall of the Whigs, and Harley came to power with Henry St. John (later Viscount Bolingbroke) in 1710. He survived an attempt on his life in 1711 and was made earl and lord treasurer. Consolidating his power, he undertook secret peace negotiations that led to the Peace of Utrecht (1713) and founded the South Sea Company (see South Sea Bubble). His position, however, was undermined by the intrigues of St. John, and he lost office just before Queen Anne's death (1714). After the accession of George I, he was imprisoned (1715) and impeached (1716) for his conduct of the peace negotiations and for dealings with the Jacobites, but he was acquitted. The manuscript collection gathered by Harley and his son Edward constitutes the important Harleian Library in the British Museum.

See B. Hill, Robert Harley: Speaker, Secretary of State and Premier (1988); bibliography by A. Downie (1989).

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