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The Harley family and the Harley papers

1989

Abstract

IN 1759 John Dalrymple of Cranstoun, a Scottish observer of British politics, wrote that the English 'bore two very low men Lord Oxford [Robert Harley] and Lord Orford Sir Robert Walpole long to reign over them, who had nothing but their own abilitys and their princes favour to support them, men of low birth and of no connexions'. It would be no exaggeration to say that Harley and Walpole were the most influential, and instature the greatest politicians of the first half of the eighteenth century. Though in the popular mind Walpole is credited with being the first 'prime minister' of Great Britain, Harley has an equally good claim to that title; indeed his own brother referred to him as 'becoming the "Primere" Minister'. Two major differences between Harley and Walpole were, however, the length of time each spent in office as head of the administration, four years in Harley's case and twenty-one in Walpole's, and the amount of personal papers they left behind. Walpole's papers, which form the Cholmondeley (Houghton) Collection in Cambridge University Library, are disappointingly sparse for such a great figure, the remaining items showing evidence of 'weeding' at some time. In contrast, Robert Harley's papers are probably the most extensive surviving for any early eighteenth century English politician (with the possible exception of Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle). Besides his own papers, there is an almost equally vast archive of papers relating to the Harley family. Furthermore, though the papers of the Harley family are scattered, the bulk of them are in five major deposits, the Portland Collection (split between the British Library, Nottingham University Library and the Nottinghamshire Record Office), the papers remaining at the Harleys' ancestral home at Brampton Bryan Hall in Herefordshire, and those at Longleat House in Wiltshire.

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