Born in 1661, his father was Sir Edward Harley Robert Harley.
Robert was an exceptionally important parliamentarian, and was described as a “ political wizard and master of schemes” but he was also known to be a tricky character.
He became Sheriff of Herefordshire in 1689; Speaker of the House of Commons in 1701; Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1710; Treasurer in 1711; Housekeeper, St. James’ Palace in 1714
He was a Presbyterian who loved the country life, and who took pains to deplore bad behaviour in others, but who also sided with villains; cheated on his wife appallingly and became rather too fond of the drink.
Robert Harley’s Childhood
Robert’s father was a domineering chap, and his insistence on strict religious routines plus his self important beliefs had a lasting effect on Robert – so much so that for all of his life he never entirely shook himself free of religious meditations. Robert was also made to set great store by family ties and friendships.
When a young lad, Robert was noted at school to be cunning and sly, and there must have been quite a conflict within the boy because although he had been brought up with a very strict moral code, or maybe because of this, he learnt to play his role according to who he was with.
Robert Harley in Parliament
Robert arrived in Parliament via a by-election for a Cornish Borough, and almost immediately delivered his maiden speech which was well received. He wheedled his way around his father’s, Sir Edward Harley, many colleagues and friends in the House in order to win a seat in Leominster, Herefordshire, at the election of 1690, and succeeded in being endorsed by the House purely because of the way that people felt about his father and it had little to do with the merits of Robert.
Robert threw himself into parliamentary work, and was successful although not entirely well liked as people distrusted his tricky nature. In 1691 he became Commissioner of Accounts which he found to be hard work, but he loved it and learned fast, although he made few friends. He spent more and more time in London, and disgusted his father by turning to the bottle big time, but stoutly denied that he was drinking – actually he wriggled neatly out of it by claiming that he didn’t frequent public houses.
It would seem that Robert could be described as being obsessed with politics, and even when he was told that his pregnant wife Elizabeth back in Brampton Bryan had smallpox and was seriously ill he refused to leave London. Five days later he was informed that both she and the baby were dead, and his grief did seem to be real…….for a short time. It seems so sad that Elizabeth was reported to have declared that she was pleased that she had smallpox in Herefordshire and not London so that she did not disturb his work, and that she loved him to bits.
Robert Harley attacked by the Lewis brothers
Robert returned for a visit to Brampton Bryan then carried on to Radnor in Wales for a by election in the county. Two men, the Lewis brothers, who held Robert responsible for their decline in power, set upon him in New Radnor, and if it were not for his considerable fencing skills he may well have been killed.