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Simon Harcourt, 1st Viscount Harcourt

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Simon Harcourt, 1st Viscount Harcourt

1661? - 1727

Biography

(see long history)

Simon Harcourt was of a gentry family whose seat was at Stanton Harcourt. He was educated at a dissenting academy at Shilton, near Burford. He went on to Pembroke College at Oxford, which was closely connected with Abingdon.

Harcourt was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1683, became Recorder of Abingdon in 1689, and in 1690 was elected unopposed to Parliament for the Abingdon seat as a high Tory and Anglican. He soon developed a reputation as an orator and administrator, and gradually gained recognition and promotion. This was especially the case in the time of Queen Anne (reigned 1702-14), whose chief minister was Robert Harley. Harcourt and Harley had been contemporaries at the Shilton academy, and they now worked closely together. For many years, he maintained a legal career in addition to his political one, the two feeding off each other, and he became very rich. By 1711, he had become Lord Keeper and was soon made a baron. In 1713, he was promoted to Lord Chancellor.

In the later part of Anne’s reign, Harcourt was among her principal ministers. When she was succeeded by George I, a Whig, it seemed to be the end of his political career, as it was for his colleagues. But unlike them, he was able to make his peace with the new regime. Against expectation, he had government office again in 1720, was made a viscount in 1721, and by 1722 was back in the Privy Council. When the king was out of the country, Harcourt was one of the Lords Justices, holding vice-regal power.

Harcourt made his home at Cokethorpe and bought the estate of Nuneham Courtenay. At Cokethorpe he entertained widely, including literary men of congenial political views such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. He died in 1727, and is buried at the old family seat at Stanton Harcourt.

Harcourt was three times married, but his first wife, Rebecca, was the only one with whom he had children: two daughters and three sons. The first and third sons died young. The second, Simon, in spite of the influence his father exerted on his behalf, had a short and only mediocre career. He was MP for Abingdon 1713-15, but was not re-elected. He died in 1720. A grandson, also Simon, became in 1749 Viscount Nuneham of Nuneham Courtenay and Earl Harcourt of Stanton Harcourt'.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2016

 

(see short history)

Simon Harcourt’s long career took him from the status of a simple country gentleman with a seat at Stanton Harcourt to that of an immensely rich lawyer, a peer of the realm, and an important regional magnate. On the way, he was several times MP for Abingdon and became one of the top politicians of his time, number three in the governmental pecking order.

He should by rights have been a Whig. His paternal grandfather had died in 1642 as a parliamentarian war hero; his mother’s father was the General Waller who had captured Abingdon from the Royalists in 1644 and forthwith demolished the ornate market cross that had been its pride. His parents had sent him to the dissenting academy at Shilton, near Burford, run by Samuel Birch, remarkable for the number of its alumni who made outstanding careers for themselves. Among his contemporaries there was Robert Harley, who would become Queen Anne’s chief minister and with whom Harcourt would be closely associated. Harcourt went on to Pembroke College at Oxford. Pembroke was not one of the elite colleges like Christ Church or Magdalen, but it did have close links with Abingdon.

While still a minor, Harcourt married Rebecca Clarke, daughter of his father’s chaplain. They made their home at Chipping Norton. It was a marriage out of his social class; it estranged him from his family and he realised he would have to make his own way in the world. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1683, became Recorder of Abingdon in 1689, and in 1690 was elected unopposed to Parliament as a high Tory and Anglican. He had the support of local Tory worthies such as the previous MP, Sir John Stonhouse, and the Holt family, notable as lawyers.

Harcourt very soon made his name in the Commons as an organiser and orator. Nonetheless, his hold on the Abingdon seat was always precarious. On two occasions, he was opposed at elections by William Hucks, a London brewer with local family connections. Each time, Harcourt won the poll, but Hucks appealed to the House on the grounds that men had voted who were not qualified to do so. The voting qualifications for Abingdon had never been clearly defined. On the first occasion, in 1698, the House made its own ad hoc interpretation, supported Harcourt, and sent Hucks to jail for his presumption. On the second, ten years later, the now whiggish House came to a different definition and it was Harcourt who was expelled.  He was by then Attorney-General, and was quickly found another seat in Wales.

However, his potentially most serious defeat was in 1705. The dominant political issue of the time both within and outside Parliament was what became known as ‘the Tack’. Extremist Tories wanted to force through a bill outlawing the practice of ‘occasional conformity’ which had allowed some Dissenters access to public affairs by taking the Anglican sacraments once a year. This had no chance of passing the House of Lords in the usual way. The intention was to attach or ‘tack’ it to a finance bill. The Lords could not amend a money bill; they could only pass or reject it as it stood. If they passed the bill, the Whigs would be decimated and the Dissenters tempted to desperate measures; if they rejected it, the war being fought on the Continent would immediately stop for lack of money to pay the troops. Since the war was unpopular with the Tories, they would win in either event. But, again in either event, it would have been shown that the will of the Lords could at any time be frustrated by the Commons. A constitutional crisis threatened, but the Tories, intent on their anti-Dissent crusade, did not care.[1] Harcourt had never changed his high Tory principles, but followed his old school friend, Robert Harley, in a strategy of moderation that had the support of the queen. He voted in the House of Commons against the Tack, which was finally defeated. There was great anger among the Tories, and a backlash against moderates. Harcourt lost Tory votes at Abingdon without gaining Whig ones. He was replaced by Grey Neville, a Whig, and for the next three years was obliged to sit for Bossiney in Cornwall.

In 1708, political pressure forced Robert Harley to resign from the government led by Lord Godolphin, and Harcourt was among those who resigned with him.[2] This enabled him to concentrate on his highly profitable legal work. He recovered the respect of the Tory extremists by his defence of the preacher Henry Sacheverell. In his intemperate sermons, Sacheverell had reiterated the traditional Tory doctrine of non-resistance to an anointed monarch. To the Whig prosecutors, this implied that the ‘revolution’ of 1688 had been illegal and that Anne was not the rightful sovereign; Charles Edward, son of the deposed James II, was. Sacheverell thus was guilty of Jacobite treason. In what was said by some to be the best speech of his career, Harcourt redefined the doctrine; sovereignty did not reside in the king alone but in the King (or Queen) in Parliament. Since James II had largely ignored the wishes of his parliament, the ‘revolution’ had been justified; Sacheverell was not attacking Anne’s right to the throne. In the event, Sacheverell was found guilty, but given no more than a nominal sentence. Harcourt found himself the Tory hero of the hour and was met by applauding crowds as he travelled the country to plead at the assizes.

By 1711 his exile from parliament was over, as was his need to concern himself with Abingdon. Harley had succeeded in replacing Godolphin as the queen’s chief minister; Harcourt was now Lord Keeper and a baron and had his assured seat in the Upper House.

Harcourt’s legal and political careers intermeshed, each feeding off the other. He seems to have specialised in cases that needed coordinated political and legal action. One was that of the East India Company, chronically under political attack for its monopoly. After a succession of governmental enquiries had uncovered corruption and mismanagement, it was forced in 1698 to allow the formation of a second company which would in principle compete with it. The new company actually turned into an extension of the old, and the two entities recombined eleven years later.[3] The operations were complex, and Harcourt both saw the necessary legislation through Parliament and mediated the inevitable financial conflicts in the courts. Another such affair was the settlement of the estates and pensions that were being lavished by a grateful queen on the Duke of Marlborough after his victories in Europe. Harcourt shepherded one of the major bills through Parliament, earning the gratitude of the duke and, especially, of the duchess, politically powerful as the reigning favourite of the queen. Harcourt was for a time steward of the Woodstock estates. That the duke was often a political opponent adds a certain piquancy to the fact.

Harcourt could never live at Stanton Harcourt, which was occupied by his dowager stepmother and in poor repair, but made his home at Cokethorpe and bought the estate of Nuneham Courtenay. At Cokethorpe he entertained widely, including literary men of congenial political views such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.

Harcourt’s wealth, estates, and political influence gave him standing as a regional magnate, influential throughout Oxfordshire and north Berkshire.  But he failed to impose himself as patron of Oxford University, where he aspired to perpetuate the dominance of high Tory Anglicanism. He chose as his tool the extremist scholar and preacher, Francis Atterbury. He succeeded in having Atterbury made Dean of Christ Church in 1711. But by his uncompromising fanaticism, Atterbury quickly drove the college into a state of mutiny and the university into chaos. The only way to save the situation was to promote him to a bishopric. It was a humiliation for Harcourt, who was never able to impose his will on the university.[4]

In the later part of Anne’s reign, Harcourt, now Lord Chancellor, was among her principal ministers, with only Harley and Lord Bolingbroke of higher status. Anne died in 1714, and Harcourt was prominent among those who ensured that that her successor would be George of Hanover rather than Charles Edward. But George I was a Whig, and Tories, even moderate ones, were no longer acceptable in the government. Harley went to the Tower and Bolingbroke into exile. Harcourt, remaining in the House of Lords, kept in contact and worked on their behalf. But he himself made his peace with the new regime and especially with the rising minister, Robert Walpole. He was gradually rehabilitated. He had government office again in 1720, became a viscount in 1721, and by 1722 was back in the Privy Council. During George’s absences from the country, Harcourt was one of the Lords Justices who could at need exercise vice-regal powers.

He suffered a stroke while visiting Walpole in 1727, and died a week later at his house in Cavendish Square. He is buried at the old family seat at Stanton Harcourt. There is no memorial, presumably because his son had predeceased him and his grandson was still a child.

Harcourt was three times married. His first wife Rebecca died in 1687; at some time after 1695 he married Elizabeth Anderson, née Spencer. She died in 1724, and his third wife was Elizabeth Vernon, née Walter, who survived him.  Rebecca was the only wife with whom he had children: two daughters and three sons. The first and third sons died young. The second, Simon, in spite of the influence his father exerted on his behalf, had a short and only mediocre career. He was MP for Wallingford between 1710 and 1713 and for Abingdon 1713-15, but was not re-elected. He was suspected of Jacobite tendencies, and died, allegedly of drink, while on a visit to Bolingbroke in Paris in 1720.[5] A grandson, also Simon, became in 1749 Viscount Nuneham of Nuneham Courtenay and Earl Harcourt of Stanton Harcourt.

 

Sources: Material not specifically referenced comes from the articles by Stuart Handley in the History of Parliament [http://www.histparl.ac.uk/volume/1690-1715/member/harcourt-simon-i-1661-1727 accessed 26 March 2016] and in the ODNB http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12244, accessed 26 March 2016].

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2016

 

[1] J R Jones, Country and Court 1658-1714 (1978) p. 324; Geoffrey Holmes, The Making of a Great Power 1660-1722 (1993) pp 362-3.

[2]  W. A. Speck, ‘Harley, Robert, first earl of Oxford and Mortimer (1661–1724)’,  [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12344, accessed 26 March 2016]; Sheila Biddle, Bolingbroke and Harley (1975), pp 136-8

[3] ‘The East India Company’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_India_Company (accessed 26 March 2016).

[4] G V Bennett, The Tory Crisis in Church and State: the career of Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester (1975), pp 140-59; G V Bennett in L S Sutherland and L G Mitchell (eds) History of the University of Oxford Vol 5 (2005) pp 89-96.

[5] ODNB on Harcourt; G V Bennett in History of the University of Oxford, pp 92-96.

 

 

 

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