Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, (August 26, 1676 - March 18, 1745) was a British statesman who is generally regarded as having been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. This position had no official recognition in law, but Walpole is nevertheless acknowledged as having held the de facto office due to the extent of his influence in the Cabinet. However, the term "Prime Minister" was never used officially at this time.
Walpole, a Whig, served during the reigns of George I and George II. His tenure is normally dated from 1721, when he obtained the post of First Lord of the Treasury; others date it from 1730, when, with the retirement of Lord Townshend, he became the sole and undisputed leader of the Cabinet. The "longer" version of the tenure is generally upheld by the contemporary press, most notably that of the opposition, who focused far more attention upon Walpole than his counterpart. Walpole continued to govern until he resigned in 1742, making his administration the longest in British history. He used the system of royal patronage to reward his supporters and to ensure that he could command a majority in Parliament. He tried to minimize British involvment in foreign affairs by avoiding conflict overseas in order to focus on stimulating the domestic economy. He believed in low taxation.
Early life and family
Robert Walpole was born in Houghton Hall, Norfolk in 1676. His father, also named Robert Walpole, was a Whig politician who represented the borough of Castle Rising in the House of Commons. His mother was Mary Burwell Walpole; he was the third of 17 children, eight of whom died during infancy. Robert Walpole would later prove to hold the record amongst Prime Ministers for the greatest number of siblings.
Walpole was a scholar at Eton College from 1690 to 1695 and matriculated at King's College, Cambridge in 1696. In 1698, he left the University of Cambridge after the death of his only remaining elder brother, Edward, so that he could help his father administer the family estate. Walpole had planned to become a clergyman, but abandoned the idea when, as the eldest surviving son in the family, he became the heir to his father's estate.
On July 30, 1700, Walpole married Catherine Shorter with whom he had two daughters and four sons. Lady Catherine Walpole died suddenly on August 20, 1737. Shortly after her death, Walpole married Maria Skerritt on March 3, 1738. The second Lady Walpole died of a miscarriage three months after the couple's marriage.
Early political career
Walpole's political career began in January 1701, when he won the general election in Castle Rising (the constituency once represented by his father, who had died just three months earlier). He left Castle Rising in 1702 so that he could contest the neighboring but more important borough of King's Lynn, a constituency that would re-elect him at every subsequent general election for the next forty years.
Like his father, Robert Walpole was a zealous member of the Whig Party, which was then more powerful than the opposing Tory Party. In 1705, Walpole was appointed a member of the Council of the Lord High Admiral (then Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne), a body which oversaw naval affairs. His administrative skills having been noticed, Walpole was promoted by Lord Godolphin (the Lord High Treasurer and leader of the Cabinet) to the position of Secretary at War in 1708; for a short period of time in 1710, he also simultaneously held the post of Treasurer of the Navy. Walpole's service in these offices made him a close advisor of the Duke of Marlborough, the commander of British forces in the War of the Spanish Succession and a dominant force in British politics. Robert Walpole himself quickly became one of the most important members of the Cabinet.
Despite his personal clout, however, Walpole could not stop Lord Godolphin and the Whigs from pressing for the prosecution of Henry Sacheverell, a minister who preached anti-Whig sermons. The trial was extremely unpopular with much of the country, and was followed by the downfall of the Duke of Marlborough and the Whig Party in the general election of 1710. The new ministry, under the leadership of the Tory Robert Harley, removed Walpole from his office of Secretary at War, but allowed him to remain Treasurer of the Navy until January 2, 1711. Harley attempted to entice him to join the Tories, but Walpole rejected the offers, instead becoming one of the most outspoken members of the Whig Opposition. He effectively defended Lord Godolphin against Tory attacks in parliamentary debate, as well as in the press.
Angered by his political attacks, the Tories sought to ruin and discredit him along with the Duke of Marlborough. In 1712, they alleged that he had been guilty of corruption as Secretary at War; these charges, however, stemmed from political hatred rather than fact. Walpole was impeached by the House of Commons and found guilty by the overwhelmingly Tory House of Lords; he was then imprisoned in the Tower of London for six months and expelled from Parliament. The move, however, backfired against the Tories, as Walpole was perceived by the public as the victim of an unjust trial. His own constituency even re-elected him in 1713, despite his earlier expulsion from the House of Commons. Walpole developed an intense hatred for Robert Harley (by then Earl of Oxford and Mortimer) and Lord Bolingbroke, the Tories who had engineered his impeachment.
Queen Anne died in 1714, to be succeeded by a distant German cousin, George I, under the Act of Settlement 1701. George I distrusted the Tories, who he believed opposed his right to succeed to the Throne. (The Act of Settlement had excluded several senior relatives of Anne on the grounds of their adherence to Roman Catholicism.) Thus, 1714, the year of George's accession, marked the ascendancy of the Whigs, who would remain in power for the next 50 years. Robert Walpole became a Privy Councillor and rose to the position of Paymaster of the Forces in a Cabinet nominally led by Lord Halifax, but actually dominated by Lord Townshend (Walpole's brother-in-law) and James Stanhope. Walpole was also appointed chairman of a secret committee formed to investigate the actions of the
Lord Halifax, the titular head of the administration, died in 1715. Walpole, recognized as an assiduous politician, was immediately promoted to the important posts of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer; in this position, he introduced the sinking fund, a device to reduce the national debt. The Cabinet of which he was a member was often divided over most important issues; normally, Walpole and Lord Townshend were on one side, with Stanhope and Lord Sunderland on the other. Foreign policy was the primary issue of contention, for Walpole and Townshend believed that George I was conducting foreign affairs with the interests of his German territories-rather than those of Great Britain-at heart. The Stanhope-Sunderland faction, however, had the King's support. In 1716, Townshend was removed from the important post of Northern Secretary and put in the lesser office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Even this change did not appease Stanhope and Sunderland, who secured the dismissal of Townshend from the Lord-Lieutenancy in April 1717. On the next day, Walpole resigned from the Cabinet to join Townshend in the Opposition. In the new Cabinet, Sunderland and Stanhope (who was created an Earl) were the effective heads.
Soon after Walpole's resignation, a bitter family quarrel between the King and the Prince of Wales split the Royal Family. Walpole and others who opposed the Government often congregated at Leicester House, the home of the Prince of Wales, to form political plans. Walpole also became a close friend of the Prince of Wales' wife, Caroline. In 1720, he improved his position by bringing about a reconciliation between the Prince of Wales and the King.
Walpole continued to be an influential figure in the House of Commons; he was especially active in opposing one of the Government's more significant proposals, the Peerage Bill, which would have limited the power of the monarch to create new peerages. Walpole brought about a temporary abandonment of the bill in 1719, and the outright rejection of the bill by the House of Commons in the next year. This defeat led Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland to reconcile with their opponents; Walpole returned to the Cabinet as Paymaster of the Forces, and Townshend was appointed Lord President of the Council. By returning to the Cabinet, however, he lost the favor of the Prince of Wales (the future King George II), who still harbored disdain for his father's Government.
Rise to power
Soon after Walpole returned to the Cabinet, England was swept by a wave of over-enthusiastic speculation which led to the South Sea Bubble. The Government had established a plan whereby the South Sea Company would assume the national debt of Great Britain in exchange for lucrative bonds. It was widely believed that the Company would eventually reap an enormous profit through international trade in cloth, agricultural goods, and slaves. Many in the country, including Walpole himself, frenziedly invested in the company. By the latter part of 1720, however, the company had begun to collapse as the price of its shares plunged. Walpole was saved from financial ruin by his banker, who had earlier advised him to sell his shares; other investors, however, were not as fortunate.
In 1721, a committee investigated the scandal, finding that there was corruption on the part of many in the Cabinet. Among those implicated were John Aislabie (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), James Craggs the Elder (the Postmaster General), James Craggs the Younger (the Southern Secretary), and even Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland (the heads of the Ministry). Craggs the Elder and Craggs the Younger both died in disgrace; the remainder were impeached for their corruption. Aislabie was found guilty and imprisoned, but the personal influence of Walpole saved both Stanhope and Sunderland. For his role in preventing these individuals, and others, from being punished, Walpole gained the nickname of "Screenmaster-General."
The resignation of Sunderland and the death of Stanhope in 1721 left Walpole as the most important figure in the administration. In April 1721, he was appointed First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. Walpole's de facto tenure as "Prime Minister" is often dated to his appointment as First Lord in 1721. In reality, however, Walpole shared power with his brother-in-law, Lord Townshend, who served as Secretary of State for the Northern Department and controlled the nation's foreign affairs. The two also had to contend with the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, Lord Carteret.
Premiership under George I
Under the guidance of Walpole, Parliament attempted to deal with the financial crisis. The estates of the directors of the company were confiscated and used to relieve the suffering of the victims, and the stock of the South Sea Company was divided between the Bank of England and East India Company. The crisis had significantly damaged the credibility of the King and of the Whig Party, but Walpole defended both with skillful oratory in the House of Commons.
Walpole's first year as Prime Minister was also marked by the discovery of a Jacobite plot formed by Francis Atterbury, the Bishop of Rochester. The exposure of the scheme crushed the hopes of the Jacobites, whose
During the remainder of George I's reign, Walpole's ascendancy continued; the political power of the monarch was gradually diminishing, and that of his ministers gradually increasing. In 1724, the primary political rival of Walpole and Townshend in the Cabinet, Lord Carteret, was dismissed from the post of Southern Secretary and once again appointed to the lesser office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Now, Walpole and Townshend were clearly the supreme forces in the ministry. They helped keep Great Britain at peace, especially by negotiating a treaty with France and Prussia in 1725. Great Britain, free from Jacobite threats, from war, and from financial crises, grew prosperous, and Robert Walpole acquired the favor of George I. In 1725, he was created a Knight of the Bath, and in 1726, a Knight of the Garter (earning him the nickname "Sir Blustering"). Moreover, his eldest son was granted a barony.
Premiership under George II
Sir Robert Walpole's position was threatened in 1727, when George I died and was succeeded by George II. For a few days, it seemed that Walpole would be dismissed, but the King agreed to keep him in office upon the advice of Queen Caroline. Although the King disliked Townshend, he retained him as well. Over the next years, Walpole continued to share power with Townshend, but gradually became the clearly dominant partner in government. The two clashed over British foreign affairs, especially over policy regarding Prussia, but Walpole was ultimately victorious, with his colleague retiring on May 15, 1730. This date is often given as the beginning of Walpole's unofficial tenure as Prime Minister.
During the following years, Walpole was more dominant than during any other part of his administration. Having secured the support of Queen Caroline, and, by extension, of King George II, he made liberal use of the royal patronage, granting honours and making appointments for political gains. He selected the members of his Cabinet, and was capable of forcing them to act in unison when necessary; as no
Walpole, a polarizing figure, had many opponents, the most important of whom were Lord Bolingbroke (who had been his political enemy since the days of Queen Anne) and William Pulteney (a capable Whig statesman who felt snubbed when Walpole failed to include him in the Cabinet). Bolingbroke and Pulteney ran a periodical called The Craftsman, in which they incessantly denounced the Prime Minister's policies. Walpole's other enemies included Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, and Dr Samuel Johnson.
Despite such opposition, Walpole secured the support of the people and of the House of Commons with a policy of avoiding war, which, in turn, allowed him to impose low taxes. He used his influence to prevent George II from entering a European conflict in 1733, when the War of the Polish Succession broke out. In the same year, however, his influence was seriously threatened by a taxation scheme he introduced. The revenue of the country had been severely diminished by smugglers, so Walpole proposed that the tariff on wine and tobacco be replaced by an excise tax. To countervail the threat of smuggling, the tax was to be collected not at ports, but at warehouses. This new proposal, however, was extremely unpopular, and aroused the opposition of the nation's merchants. Walpole agreed to withdraw the bill before Parliament voted on it, but he dismissed the politicians who had dared to oppose it in the first place. Thus, Walpole lost a considerable element of his Whig Party to the Opposition.
After the general elections of 1734, Walpole's supporters still formed a majority in the House of Commons, though they were less numerous than before. Though he maintained his parliamentary supremacy, however, his popularity began to wane. In 1736, an increase in the tax on gin inspired riots in London. The even more serious Porteous Riots broke out in Edinburgh, after the King pardoned a captain of the guard (John Porteous) who had commanded his troops to shoot a group of protesters. Though these events diminished Walpole's popularity, they failed to shake his majority in Parliament. Walpole's domination over the House of Commons was highlighted by the ease with which he secured the rejection of Sir John Barnard's plan to reduce the interest on the national debt. Walpole was also able to persuade Parliament to pass the Licensing Act of 1737, under which London theaters were regulated. The Act revealed a disdain for Swift, Pope, Fielding, and other literary figures who had attacked his government in their works.
The year 1737 was also marked by the death of Walpole's close friend, Queen Caroline. Though her death did not end his personal influence with George II, who had grown loyal to the Prime Minister during the preceding years, Walpole's domination of government continued to decline. His opponents acquired a vocal leader in the Prince of Wales, who was estranged from his father, the King. Several young politicians, including William Pitt the Elder and George Grenville, formed a faction known as the "Patriot Boys" and joined the Prince of Wales in opposition.
Walpole's failure to maintain a policy of avoiding military conflict eventually led to his fall from power. Under the Treaty of Seville (1729), Great Britain agreed not to trade with the Spanish colonies in North America; Spain claimed the right to board and search British vessels to ensure compliance. Disputes, however, broke out over trade with the West Indies. Walpole attempted to prevent war, but was opposed by the King, the House of Commons, and by a faction in his own Cabinet. In 1739, Walpole abandoned all efforts to stop the conflict, and commenced the War of Jenkins' Ear (so called because Robert Jenkins, an English mariner, claimed that a Spaniard inspecting his vessel had severed his ear).
Walpole's influence continued to dramatically decline even after the war began. In the 1741 general election his supporters secured an increase in votes in constituencies that were decided by mass electorates, but failed to win in many pocket boroughs (constituencies subject to the informal but strong influence of patrons). In general the government made gains in England and Wales but this was not enough to overturn the reverses of the 1734 election and further losses in Cornwall where many constituencies were obedient to the will of the Prince of Wales (who was also Duke of Cornwall); these constituencies returned Members of Parliament hostile to the Prime Minister. Similarly, the influence of the Duke of Argyll secured the election of members opposed to Walpole in some parts of Scotland. Walpole's new majority was difficult to determine because of the uncertain loyalties of many new members, but contemporaries and historians estimated it as low as fourteen to eighteen.
In the new Parliament, many Whigs thought the aging Prime Minister incapable of leading the military campaign. Moreover, his majority was not as strong as it used to be; his detractors approximately as numerous as his supporters. In 1742, when the House of Commons was prepared to determine the validity of an allegedly rigged by-election in Chippenham, Walpole and others agreed to treat the issue as a Motion of No Confidence. As Walpole was defeated on the vote, he agreed to resign from the Government. As part of his resignation the King agreed to elevate him to the House of Lords as the Earl of Orford and this occurred on February 6, 1742. Five days later he formally relinquished the seals of office.
Orford was succeeded as Prime Minister by Lord Wilmington, in an administration whose true head was Lord Carteret. A committee was created to inquire into his ministry, but no substantial evidence of wrongdoing or corruption was discovered. Though no longer a member of the Cabinet, Lord Orford continued to maintain personal influence with George II and was often dubbed the "Minister behind the Curtain" for this advice and influence. In 1744, he managed to secure the dismissal of Carteret and the appointment of Henry Pelham.
Orford died in London in 1745, aged nearly sixty-nine years; he was buried in his home town of Houghton. His earldom passed to his eldest son Robert, who was in turn succeeded by his only son George. Upon the death of the third Earl, the Earldom was inherited by the first Earl's younger son, Horace Walpole (a famous writer and friend of poet Thomas Gray), who died without heirs in 1797.
Walpole's influence on the politics of his day was tremendous. The Tories became a minor, insignificant faction, and the Whigs became a dominant and largely unopposed party. His influence on the development of the uncodified constitution of Great Britain was less momentous, even though he is regarded as Great Britain's first Prime Minister. He relied primarily on the favor of the King, rather than on the support of the House of Commons. His power stemmed from his personal influence instead of the influence of his office. Most of his immediate successors were, comparatively speaking, extremely weak; it would take several decades more for the premiership to develop into the most powerful and most important office in the country.
Walpole's strategy of keeping Great Britain at peace contributed greatly to the country's prosperity. Walpole also managed to secure the position of the Hanoverian Dynasty, and effectively countervailed Jacobitism. The Jacobite threat was effectively ended, soon after Walpole's term ended, by the defeat of the rebellion of 1745.
Another part of Walpole's legacy is 10 Downing Street. George II offered this home to Walpole as a personal gift in 1732, but Walpole accepted it only as the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, taking up his residence there in 1735. His immediate successors did not always reside in Number 10 (preferring their larger private residences), but the home has nevertheless become established as the official residence of the Prime Minister (in his or her capacity as First Lord of the Treasury).
Walpole also left behind a famous collection of art which he had assembled during his career. This collection was sold by his grandson, the 3rd Earl of Orford, to the Russian Empress Catherine II in 1779. This collection-which was regarded as one of the finest in Europe-now lies in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
- Black, Jeremy. Walpole in power. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton 2001. ISBN 9780750925235
- Dickinson, H. T. Walpole and the Whig supremacy. London: English Universities Press 1973. ISBN 9780340115152
- Hill, Brian W. Sir Robert Walpole: sole and prime minister. London: H. Hamilton 1989. ISBN 9780241127384
- Morley, John. Walpole. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press 1971. ISBN 9780837145273
|Member for Castle Rising|
Sir Thomas Littleton
Sir John Turner
|Member for King's Lynn|
|Member for King's Lynn|
Henry St John
|Secretary at War|
Sir Thomas Littleton
|Treasurer of the Navy|
|Paymaster of the Forces|
The Earl of Lincoln
The Earl of Carlisle
|First Lord of the Treasury|
Sir Richard Onslow
|Chancellor of the Exchequer|
The Earl of Lincoln
|Paymaster of the Forces|
The Lord Cornwallis
The Earl of Wilmington
The Earl of Sunderland
|First Lord of the Treasury|
Sir John Pratt
|Chancellor of the Exchequer|
|Leader of the House of Commons|
|Peerage of Great Britain|
|Earl of Orford|