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Harley, Edward, third earl of Oxford and Mortimer (bap. 1699, d. 1755), politician, was baptized on 27 August 1699, the eldest of the four children of , and his wife, Sarah (d. 1721), the daughter of Thomas Foley and his wife, Elizabeth. He was educated at Westminster School, and progressed in 1717 to Christ Church, Oxford, where he became the first gentleman commoner in the eighteenth century to be awarded the degree of honorary MA. Harley's serious, even priggish, character was already apparent during his student days, as was his passion for politics and his indulgence in the two family vices, drink and books. Little is known about his activities in the years immediately after he left Oxford, but he seems to have acted as a man of business for his father and uncle. On 16 March 1725 he married Martha (d. 1774), the daughter of John and Martha Morgan of Tredegar, Monmouthshire. Their closeness and affection is revealed in numerous letters written while Harley was attending parliament or electioneering. Together they had five sons and two daughters. The eldest, Edward, Lord Harley (1726–1790), served as MP for Herefordshire before succeeding his father as fourth earl of Oxford and Mortimer. The third son, John Harley (1728–1788), became bishop of Hereford, while the fourth, , set up as a wine merchant in London and served as lord mayor in 1767–8.

By the time Harley entered parliament as MP for Herefordshire, in 1727, he had emerged as the representative of the political legacy bequeathed to him by his father and, above all, his uncle, —his first recorded speech was a defence of the latter's ministry during the Dunkirk debate in February 1730. It was, without doubt, the Harley name which enabled him to emerge so quickly as one of the leading members of the tory party in the House of Commons. In the year of his election he founded a board of like-minded tory MPs, which met at the Cocoa Tree Coffee House in Pall Mall and which soon developed into ‘a vital and durable component of tory organization’ (Colley, 86). Harley's principles were those of country toryism. During the 1741 elections he prided himself on his ‘plain Frock’, in contrast to the ‘fine Laced Cloaths’ of the ‘Courtiers’ (Taylor and Jones, 255). Throughout his parliamentary career he was a consistent and enthusiastic advocate of the country programme of reforms which aimed at securing the independence of parliament and its members from the corrupt influence of the ministry. On issues such as place and pension bills he was able to work closely with opposition whigs. But he always distrusted the ‘patriots’, from whom he was separated above all by his high Anglican beliefs and his unwavering commitment to the preservation of the rights and privileges of the established church. However, he was never an extremist. He distrusted the extreme high flyers, describing their champion, the preacher Henry Sacheverell, as ‘a coxcomb’ (Portland MSS, 5.587), and there is no evidence that he ever dabbled in Jacobitism.

Harley's greatest political achievement was the Jury Bill of 1730, which he piloted through the House of Commons and onto the statute book. The bill, which aimed to combat the corrupting of jurors by establishing new procedures for their selection, reflects the interest of many country MPs in law reform. Crucial to the success of this particular measure, however, was Harley's ability to construct an alliance in its support which included not only tories and opposition whigs but also a fair number of government supporters. Harley commemorated his success by commissioning a painting, which still hangs over the staircase at the family home, Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, in which he is portrayed, with two of his children, holding a copy of the act. For contemporaries, however, his distinctive brand of toryism was probably revealed most clearly in the debate which took place in February 1741 on Samuel Sandys's motion for an address to the king to dismiss his prime minister, Robert Walpole. In a short speech, which Earl Nugent still recalled forty-five years later, Harley, referring explicitly to his uncle's impeachment, stated that he would not censure anyone without ‘Facts and Evidence’. He then walked out of the chamber and refused to vote, a course of action in which he was joined by many other tories who shared his abhorrence of arbitrary ‘Bills of Pains and Penalties’ (Taylor and Jones, 50).

A few months later, on 16 June 1741, Harley's cousin died and Harley moved to the House of Lords as third earl of Oxford and Mortimer. Between this date and his death he was one of the senior figures in the tory party. He remained one of the whig ministry's most persistent and vocal critics in the upper house, entering his protest in the Journals of the House of Lords more frequently than any other opposition peer. It is a measure of his prominence that he was talked of as a possible candidate for the chancellorship of that bastion of high-church toryism, Oxford University. After the death of Henry Pelham in March 1754, however, there is some evidence of negotiations between Oxford and the ministry. Little over a year later, on 11 April 1755, Oxford himself died at Bath, so it is impossible to say where these overtures may have led. But they hint at the process which facilitated the return to court of his son, together with representatives of many other old tory families, at the accession of George III. The third earl himself was buried at Brampton Bryan on 18 April 1755.

Stephen Taylor

Sources  

Tory and whig: the parliamentary papers of Edward Harley, third earl of Oxford, and William Hay, MP for Seaford, 1716–1753, ed. S. Taylor and C. Jones (1998) · L. J. Colley, ‘The Loyal Brotherhood and the Cocoa Tree: the London organization of the tory party, 1727–1760’, HJ, 20 (1977), 77–95 · The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Portland, 10 vols., HMC, 29 (1891–1931), vol. 5 · C. Nugent, Memoir of Robert, Earl Nugent (1898) · E. G. W. Bill, Education at Christ Church, Oxford, 1660–1800 (1988) · GM, 1st ser., 25 (1755), 187 · GEC, Peerage · BL, Add. MS 70079 · Old Westminsters, vols. 1–2 · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · parish register (marriage), 16 March 1725, St Anne's, Soho, London · parish register (burial), Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, 18 April 1755 · faculty office, marriage allegations, LPL, 15 March 1725

Archives  

BL, corresp., loan 29 · BL, family corresp., Add. MSS 70237, 70381, 70497 · BL, general corresp., Add. MS 70498 · Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, Harley MSS · CUL, parliamentary journal, MS Add. 6851 |  BL, Hardwicke MSS, Add. MSS 35588, 35590, 35602–35604 · BL, Newcastle MSS, Add. MSS 32707–32708 · BL, Portland MSS, Add. MSS 70001–70523 · Herefs. RO, Brydges MSS, A81/IV · Rodney MSS, PRO 30/20


Likenesses  

oils, c.1731, Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire · G. Hamilton, group portrait, oils, 1736 (with family), Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire; repro. in E. Einberg, Manners and morals: Hogarth and British painting, 1700–1760 (1987) [exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 15 Oct 1987–3 Jan 1988]