Thomas Erle was born in about 1650, the second son of Thomas Erle of Charborough, Dorset. In 1678 he became MP for Wareham, then on 27 May 1685 was made Deputy Lieutenant for Dorset. Equally successful in his military career, Erle became Colonel of a foot regiment and on 8 March 1689 was sent to Ireland to fight the combined French and Irish Army of the deposed King James II. In 1690 he took part in the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Limerick, and in 1691 the Battle of Aughrim. Returning from Ireland, he made part of an expedition to Flanders and on 3 August 1692 was Colonel of Luttrell's Regiment at the Battle of Steinkirk. In the following year, on 22 March, Erle was promoted to Brigadier-General, fighting in the Battle of Landen.
In 1694 Erle returned home as Governor of Portsmouth [Hampshire], a position which he was to hold until 1712). In June 1696 he was made a Major-General and in 1698 became MP for Portsmouth. In the following year he returned to Ireland as second in command to Lord Galway, then in 1700 was both MP for Portsmouth once again and also Commander-in-Chief of Ireland. In 1702 Erle was made a Lord Justice of Ireland and was MP for Wareham for a second time, then promoted to Lieutenant-General in 1703, he became MP for Cork in the Irish Parliament. In 1705 Erle was made Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance (a post which he held until 1712). In January 1707 he took part in an expedition to Spain, fighting the Battle of Almanza on 23 April, then in the following year was sent on an expedition to France. He then returned home, serving as MP for Wareham once again. In 1714 he became Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance for a second time and was also made Governor of Portsmouth, until 1718. Erle died on 23 July 1720 and was buried at Charborough.
The papers include: correspondence between the Lords Justices and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; general correspondence (with transcripts); papers (with transcripts) on subjects including Monmouth's Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution, Ireland, the fortifications of Portsmouth [Hampshire] and the Ordnance Office; later material relating to the Erle and Drax families and the papers themselves.
Admiral Sir R.A.R. Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax deposited his own papers and those of his ancestor, General Thomas Erle, at Churchill College in May 1966.
Until the late nineteenth century General Erie's papers remained at the family house, Charborough in Dorset, until the estates passing through the female line on several occasions, they became the property of Jane Frances Erle Drax. She married John S.W. Sawbridge, who after her death in 1853 moved most of the contents of Charborough to a house called Olantigh near Wye in Kent. After his death Olantigh became the property of his nephew, Warley Sawbridge, while Charborough passed to Sarah Charlotte Elizabeth, his daughter. Most of the property removed from Charborough was subsequently returned and the Erle papers were handed over between 1920 and 1926 by Warley Sawbridge Erle Drax of Bilting House, Wye to Admiral Drax. Olantigh had been burnt down earlier, but there is no evidence that any archives had been lost in the fire. Although some of General Erle's letter books (see ERLE 1/1-5) are now missing, their fate is unknown.
Because the Erle and Drax papers form two distinct and separate collections they have been catalogued with different catalogue references, but they form two sections of the family archives.
There is some evidence that the original arrangement of the Erle papers had been chronological with a few divisions by subject, but several attempts had been made to re-arrange both by correspondent and subject. This re-arrangement may never have been completed and, despite Admiral Drax's efforts, the papers had once again become disordered because of the use made of them by researchers. The entire collection has therefore been re-sorted into its present arrangement.
In 1926 and again in 1945 the Historical Manuscripts Commission considered printing a volume of Erle papers. The typed transcripts were probably all made on the earlier occasion. They are reliable copies and often Admiral Drax and others have added notes of identification to them. Two copies were made of each transcript. The top copy was usually (but not invariably) left with the original (ERLE 3/1-18) and the carbon copy was sorted by subject (ERLE 3/19-24).
The papers are on loan to Churchill College from the Drax family.