Steele, Sir Richard (1672–1729), essayist, whig polemicist, and politician, was born in the parish of St Bride's in Dublin, and baptised 12 March 1672. The boy, who had an elder sister, was the only son of Richard Steele and his wife, Eleanor Steele (née Sheyles), widow of Thomas Symes or Sims. Little is known of Steele's parents and there is no firm evidence to support suggestions that his father was a son either of William Steele (qv), lord chancellor of Ireland during the interregnum, or of Richard Steele (d. c.1658), an English merchant explorer and grantee of Irish lands. It is certain, however, that the essayist's father was an attorney, a clerk of the registry of the court of claims (1666–9), and sub-sheriff of Co. Tipperary (1672–3). Richard Steele senior, who undoubtedly enjoyed the last post through the influence of the 1st duke of Ormond (qv), died probably before 1680. Eleanor Steele's date of death is also unknown but she survived her husband, probably not by many years.
The younger Richard Steele was effectively adopted by his father's sister Katherine, known as Lady Mildmay from her first marriage to Sir Humphrey Mildmay (d. 1666), and subsequently married to Henry Gascoigne (d. 1707), private secretary to his grandson the 2nd duke of Ormond (qv). In 1684 Steele was, on the nomination of the 1st duke (who was one of the school's governors), admitted to Charterhouse School in London, where his celebrated and fruitful friendship with Joseph Addison (qv) began. He entered Oxford in 1689, to which university the 2nd duke of Ormond had just succeeded the 1st duke as chancellor. At first admitted to Christ Church (the college attended by the 2nd duke), where his tutor was Welbore Ellis (qv), he was afterwards at Merton (1691–2).
Steele left Oxford without a degree and subsequently enlisted as a private soldier in Ormond's regiment of royal horse guards. His first published work, a poem on the funeral of Queen Mary, appeared anonymously in March 1695, dedicated to Lord Cutts (qv), a soldier with literary interests and Irish connections. A little later Cutts made Steele a member of his household and got him an ensign's commission in his own regiment of the Coldstream guards. In 1696 and 1697 Steele was acting as a confidential secretary to Cutts, but their association had ended unhappily by 1702.
In many respects a fairly conventional soldier (he gravely wounded an opponent in a duel in 1700), he undertook, initially with a view to the reformation of his own character, the composition of a manual of piety. In 1701 he published this under the title The Christian Hero, and in the same year (with the encouragement of William Congreve (qv)) he produced his first play, The funeral. In 1702 he was made a captain in Lord Lucas's regiment of foot, but he had left the army by early 1705. Around this time he began to move in whig political circles in London, including the Kit-Kat Club, where whig writers and politicians mingled. He held the position of gentleman waiter, a minor household appointment, to Prince George, consort to Queen Anne, from 1706 until the prince's death in 1708. A more lucrative and substantial post was that of gazetteer, or writer of the official publication, the London Gazette, which he held from 1707 until the accession to power of the tories in 1710. Around the end of 1708, when Addison vacated the post of under-secretary to Lord Sunderland in order to go to Ireland as chief secretary to Lord Wharton (qv), Steele hoped he might succeed his friend, but was disappointed. He was, however, made commissioner in the stamp office in 1710, holding this post until 1713, when he resigned.
In April 1709 he launched a periodical called the Tatler, published thrice weekly, and comprising a great variety of pieces, including vignettes of London life, discussions of manners, and essays of criticism, but largely eschewing news and political commentary. Steele had now found the genre of writing in which he excelled, and the Tatler was an immediate success. Soon his friend Addison began to contribute, and the Tatler and subsequently the Spectator (started in March 1711) became a collaborative effort of the two friends, with much smaller numbers of contributions from others such as Eustace Budgell and, perhaps, Jonathan Swift (qv). The Tatler ceased publication in January 1711, but the Spectator, published six times a week from March of that year, was in many respects its successor, until it too ceased to appear in December 1714. The abrupt disappearance of each periodical in turn seems to have resulted from Steele's political commitments. The papers, appearing frequently and circulating very widely, were long reprinted in collected editions, translated into several languages, and imitated in other European countries. Their influence was not simply literary but also social: they have been credited with helping to inaugurate a new age of manners, in which an aristocratic male code of honour gave way to middle-class domestic life.
During this period, when the ‘rage of party’ was at its height, Steele also engaged in much polemical writing on behalf of the whigs. He thus found himself in opposition to the pre-eminent political writer in the service of the tories, Swift (whose abilities in this field were superior). One of Swift's biographers has remarked that ‘at one of the signal crises in English history, both great parties chose to be represented by advocates who shared an Irish origin’ (Ehrenpreis, ii, 696). Swift (whose family and Steele's were probably known to each other in Dublin) liked Steele and remained friendly even as their political differences became sharper, but he eventually felt himself to have been treated with ingratitude and the two traded personal as well as political blows in print. In his periodical The Guardian, which ran March–October 1713, when it was superseded by The Englishman, which continued to February 1714, as well as in occasional pamphlets, Steele attacked the tory ministry over the implementation of the terms of the peace of Utrecht and the succession.
Steele was elected to the English house of commons in 1713 but the tories, who controlled the house, moved to censure him for publishing seditious libels and he was expelled in 1714. On the accession of George I he returned to the commons, where he sat until 1727. In 1715 he was knighted and appointed governor of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane, a post he occupied almost continuously until his death. This later period of his life lacked a sense of purpose: though he continued to publish some political writings (including a short-lived second series of The Englishman in 1715), party controversy had ceased with the start of the whig ascendancy. He felt he had not been adequately rewarded for his services to the whig cause, while his stance as an independent-minded supporter sometimes irritated the government. A quarrel with Addison was not repaired before his old friend's death in 1719. He devised eccentric and futile schemes to repair his perennially troubled finances, including a project for shipping live salmon from Ireland.
While his English friend Addison's career had a large Irish dimension, the adult Steele had little or no connection with Ireland. He never visited the country he left as a child, and once described himself as ‘an Englishman born in the city of Dublin’. Nonetheless, until far advanced in his career, he moved within a sphere of Anglo-Irish, notably Ormond, patronage and social connections. Irish influences were detected by Steele's contemporary critics and have been commented on by modern biographers in traits as various as his physical appearance, his accent, his conviviality, his impulsiveness, his restlessness, his generosity, his lack of discipline, and his financial improvidence. His whig politics and political detestation of Roman catholicism (which was always tempered by his humane instincts) have also been attributed to his Irish upbringing.
He married first, in 1705, a widow, Margaret Stretch (d. 1706), daughter of John Ford of Barbados. His second marriage, in 1707, was to Mary Scurlock (d. 1718), daughter of Jonathan Scurlock, of Llangunnor in Carmarthenshire. Steele, in declining health, left London in 1724 to live at Llangunnor, and died in Carmarthen 1 September 1729. He was survived by two daughters of his second marriage (two sons having died young) and another daughter born outside marriage. A portrait of Steele is reproduced by Aitken and by Blanchard.