‘Robin the trickster’ versus ‘Stiff Dick’: the election of Robert Harley as Speaker of the Commons in 1701

In the latest in our series discussing some of the notable figures to occupy the role of Speaker of the House Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, discusses the contested election that led Robert Harley to the chair…

From 1704 to the spring of 1705 Robert Harley was both Speaker of the House of Commons and one of the secretaries of state. While it was not unheard of for Speakers to have ministerial offices at the same time, it was unusual for a Speaker to hold such a prominent government office in combination and a number of his contemporaries denounced it as unconstitutional. Harley, though, was a decidedly unusual politician, a towering figure of the reign of Anne, who undertook a remarkable political journey. From a leading light of the Country party in the 1690s, building his reputation as an indefatigable commissioner of public accounts, Harley went on to become the effective head of the Tories and Prime Minister in all but name in the last four years of Queen Anne’s reign. His commanding role in politics and apparent willingness to turn coat was reflected in various nicknames, among them Harlequin, the dragon and ‘Robin the trickster’. He was ultimately to be impeached soon after George I ascended the throne only to be acquitted after two years imprisoned in the Tower. Harley dominated the politics of the period. Unsurprisingly, he also divided opinion. But even those who suspected his slipperiness acknowledged his extraordinary grasp of affairs and head for detail.

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford
Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1714
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Harley’s election to the chair following the 1701 general election had been carefully planned but also raised issues of constitutional propriety. From the autumn of 1700 he had been engaged in close talks at Court involving the king and the effective leader of the Tories at that point, the earl of Rochester. William III was eager to ensure that business close to his heart, settling the Protestant succession and securing parliamentary support for the continental campaign, was secured, for which he needed a compliant Parliament guided by a skilled parliamentary manager. From his point of view, Harley was increasingly keen to take on a larger role while still appearing to remain independent of the administration. As just the sort of skilled political operator William III was in search of, advancing him to the Chair made a great deal of sense. The current Speaker, Sir Thomas Littleton, who as well as being speaker also held office as treasurer of the navy, agreed to give up his place following the king’s personal intervention. More controversially, Littleton was asked not to appear in the House when the election was held in case his supporters attempted to re-elect him. Littleton did so reluctantly but although Harley was elected accordingly, it was not to be without opposition.

In February 1701 Sir Richard Cocks had called on Littleton where he learnt of the plan for Littleton to step aside in favour of Harley. Cocks was in no doubt that:

These things were adjusted between the K[ing] and Mr Harley who is now Spea[ker] by the Lord Rochester now prime minister of state…

Cocks was one of a number of Whigs who objected to Rochester heartily as someone who had been closely involved with Charles II and James II, had been lukewarm on the Revolution and (as he conceived) barely acknowledged William III as king. They resented being forced to accept his nominee as Speaker and, as a result, a meeting was convened by the Whigs at the Rose Tavern in Russell Street, Covent Garden, where it was decided to propose Sir Richard Onslow as an alternative candidate.

On 10 February 1701 when the Commons finally assembled, Harley was proposed as Speaker by the veteran MP Sir Edward Seymour (who had previously had serious run-ins with Onslow) and seconded by Sir John Leveson Gower, though only after (as Cocks believed) there was some jockeying between Leveson Gower and Lord Hartington, as they had both risen to their feet at the same time. Leveson Gower was called to speak first, Cocks noting that the clerk, Paul Jodrell, had been instructed to give Harley’s supporters priority. After Leveson Gower had said his piece, Hartington was given his turn. He objected to the fact that Littleton had been ‘commanded to absent [himself] by the King’, which was a clear invasion of the Commons’ rights and privileges. He therefore proposed Onslow ‘as a man capable of business and beyond exception’.

Sir Richard Onslow
Godfrey Kneller, c.1710
National Trust, Clandon Park via ArtUK

After a handful more interventions, one angry but ‘nothing to the purpose’ against Harley and another ‘foolishly’ in Harley’s favour, Cocks rose to his feet to offer his support for Onslow too. He earned a burst of laughter for commending Onslow as ‘an old long experienced member’ – Onslow being famously rather tall and thin. Because of his rigid support for the Whigs, he was later to be known as ‘Stiff Dick’. Like many Whigs, Cocks made plain his suspicion of the way in which Harley had emerged as the Court candidate:

Gent[le]men say hee is a wise learned and judicious ma[n]: truly this manage[ment] had we never heard of him before makes that out, it is no easy matters to keep old fri[ends] to get new ones, and remove the only obstacle out of his way: this shews him to be a man of parts to[o] good and cur[?ious] parts for Speaker of this house…

Cocks Diary, 63

In truth, Cocks’s beef was less with Harley himself than the murky goings-on behind the scenes which had led to Littleton being persuaded to withdraw. He offered a somewhat entangled classical example to underscore his fear that the privileges of the chamber were being subverted and, while acknowledging Harley himself may not have been party to any wrong-doing, hoped he would in turn withdraw.

Cocks’s efforts proved in vain and Harley insisted that he was unaware of anything that made him unfit to be considered a candidate. When the Commons came to vote on the matter, Harley prevailed by 249 votes to 129. He offered the expected speech desiring to be excused the burden forced upon him, but then accepted his election and was led to the chair, holding onto the position until 1705. Three years later, Onslow got another chance. He occupied the Chair from 1708 to 1710, later became chancellor of the exchequer and in 1716 went to the Lords. His nephew, Arthur Onslow, would then go on to become one of the foremost Speakers of the period, retaining the Chair for 33 years.


Further Reading:

The Parliamentary Diary of Sir Richard Cocks, 1698-1702, ed. D.W. Hayton (Oxford, 1996)

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