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Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole


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Robert Walpole was born in Houghton Hall in 1676. Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, he intended to enter the Church but changed his mind and became active in politics instead.

Walpole, a Whig, was elected to the House of Commons in 1701. An outstanding orator, Walpole was appointed Secretary of War in 1708 and Treasurer of the Navy in 1710. After the collapse of the Whig government Walpole was accused of corruption and spent a short period in the Tower of London.

In 1714 Queen Anne became very ill. The true heir to the throne was James Stuart, the son of James II. Many Tory ministers supported James becoming king. However, James Stuart was a Catholic and was strongly opposed by the Whigs. A group of Whigs visited Anne just before she died and persuaded her to sack her Tory ministers. With the support of the Whigs, Queen Anne nominated Prince George of Hanover as the next king of Britain.

When George arrived in England, he knew little about British politics nor could he speak very much English. George therefore became very dependent on the Whigs who had arranged for him to become king. This included Walpole who was made Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715.

Walpole was such a powerful figure in the government he became known as Prime Minister, the first in Britain's history. He was also given 10 Downing Street by Prince George, which became the permanent home of all future Prime Ministers.

Walpole believed that the strength of a country depended on its wealth. The main objective of Walpole's policies was to achieve and maintain this wealth. For example, he helped the business community sell goods by removing taxes on foreign exports.

Walpole did all he could to avoid war, as he believed it drained a country of its financial resources. However, in 1739 Britain became involved in a war with Spain. George II was in favour of the war and became Britain's last king to lead his troops into battle. Walpole, who thought the war was unnecessary, did not provide the dynamic leadership needed during a war. The Tory opposition accused Walpole of not supplying enough money for the British armed forces. Walpole gradually lost the support of the House of Commons, and in February 1742 he was forced to resign from office.

Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, died in 1745.

Walpole was the first and he was the most successful of our Prime Ministers... He took off the duties from more than a hundred British exports... The wisdom of Walpole was rewarded by a quick growth of prosperity.

The policy of Robert Walpole and the Whigs was simple enough. First to avoid foreign wars as being harmful to trade. Then to remove taxes as far as possible, from the merchants and the manufacturers and place them upon goods consumed by the masses.

Walpole attempted... to secure for the country a prolonged period of quiet prosperity... Some of the means he adopted were, as it seems to us now, wholly unworthy. When argument and persuasion failed, he was prepared to bribe members of parliament by giving them pensions, offices, and even money, to lend him their support.

Walpole was in many ways a really great man, and England owes much to his wisdom and good government... There can be no doubt whatever that for many years Walpole bribed and bought the support of Parliament. It must be said, however, that the practice was common at the time, and that he was by no means the only person who adopted it... It is only just, to Walpole, to say that... he bought votes in order to enable him to carry out what he really believed to be the best and wisest policy for the country.

Walpole maintained till near the close of his ministry a policy of peace, which was very beneficial to England. In domestic affairs little happened... Walpole had no passion to lessen the sum of human misery at home. Such a statesman may make a nation prosperous, but he can never make a nation great.


Walpole was a relative of Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister. He was the 10th and 8th Baron Walpole (from two different creations). His ancestors include Sir Robert Walpole's father Robert Walpole (1650–1700).

He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he received a BA and an MA He served on the County Council of Norfolk for eleven years from 1970 to 1981. [1]

He entered the House on the death of his father in 1989. He was a crossbencher and was internally elected to continue serving after the House of Lords Act 1999 prevented most hereditary peers from sitting. [1] He retired from Parliament on 13 June 2017. [2]

His heir was Jonathan Robert Hugh Walpole (born 16 November 1967), a writer he had four other children including Alice Walpole, a diplomat, by his first wife Judith Walpole ( née Schofield), later Judith Chaplin. Their marriage was dissolved in 1979. In 1980 Walpole married Laurel Celia Ball with whom he has three further children.

His father's net estate at his death in February 1989 was sworn as £2,065,295 (equivalent to £5,176,000 in 2019). [3] In April 2016 he sold Wolterton Hall, the house commissioned by his ancestor the 1st Baron Walpole in 1742, where he and his father had lived. He lived nearby at Mannington Hall, a house owned by his family since the 18th century.

Walpole died on 8 May 2021, aged 82. [4] The title was inherited by his eldest son, Jonathan Robert Hugh Walpole, who became the 11th Baron Walpole.


Sir Robert Walpole

On 26th August 1676 Sir Robert Walpole was born, a man who would become not only Britain’s first Prime Minister, but also the longest serving Prime Minister in British history.

Walpole was born in Houghton, Norfolk, the son of Robert Walpole senior, a Whig politician who served in the House of Commons, and his wife, Mary Walpole, a member of the gentry, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Burwell of Rougham. He came from a high ranking, important family with political links that would prove vital for his future career.

The young Robert Walpole attended a private school in Norfolk and in 1690 entered the esteemed Eton College where he gained an excellent academic reputation. With his impressive scholarly credentials, he made the natural progression to King’s College Cambridge, with the intention of becoming a clergyman.

Walpole however was forced to reconsider his plans when on 25th May 1698, after hearing news that his last remaining elder brother Edward had passed away, he left the college to help his father manage the family estate. Only two years later his father died, leaving Robert the successor to the entire Walpole estate, which included one manor house in Suffolk and nine in Norfolk. An enormous responsibility for a twenty-four-year old just out of university.

Fortunately for Walpole he possessed a great deal of business acumen as well as academic skill and whilst he was still very young he had bought shares in a company which had a trading monopoly with South America, the Caribbean and Spain.

The South Sea Company as it was known was a British joint-stock company used for reducing the national debt. Unfortunately, rapid speculation on the markets grew out of control with everyone wanting a piece of the action. With the shares increasing companies were launched in a frenzy of activity which ultimately concluded with the economic “bubble” bursting.

Hogarthian image of The South Sea Bubble

The resulting South Sea crisis was an economic catastrophe which hit Europe causing suffering for many who had invested in this venture. Fortunately for a young Walpole his personal wealth remained intact and growing as he had been buying from the bottom and selling at the top of the market allowing him to increase his wealth considerably. His economic foresight allowed him to construct the extravagant Houghton Hall which can be visited today.

The building began its construction in 1722 and was completed thirteen years later. The house was used by Walpole to host a variety of parties for the Norfolk gentry, whilst visits from Royalty were also commonplace. When he became a politician and eventually Prime Minister he would often host meetings with members of his Cabinet, which became known at the time as the ‘Norfolk Congress’. The meetings were held in luxurious surroundings, as Houghton became the perfect home for Walpole’s vast art collection including works by Rubens, Rembandt, Van Dyck and Velázquez.

Walpole’s political career began not long after his father’s death, just a year later in fact in 1701 when he won his father’s previous seat as MP for Castle Rising. The following year he left his seat to represent King’s Lynn, a constituency that he would retain for the remainder of his political career as a representative of the Whig Party, the same as his father.

Only a few years into his political career he was appointed to be a member of the council to Prince George of Denmark, Lord High Admiral, by Queen Anne herself. He was an important intermediary character, reconciling the differences within the government with his conciliatory approach. His academic skills combined with his political composure proved to be very useful and he was quickly recognised as an asset for the Cabinet. One of those that identified his skills was Lord Godolphin who was the leader of the Cabinet and who was interested in using Walpole in an advantageous position and subsequently appointed him Secretary at War in 1708.

Unfortunately, his growing influence was not enough to stop the Whigs from prosecuting Henry Sacheverell, a minister who preached anti-Whig sermons. His persecution by the party was extremely unpopular with the public, and impacted the next general election, with the new ministry falling under the leadership of Tory Robert Harley. Walpole was at first made offers by Harley to join the Tories but quickly refused, assuming the role as one of the most noteworthy of the Whig Opposition.

Walpole’s prominence in the Opposition party gained him a lot of enemies and he was later accused of selling his services of power and being corrupt. The charges led to his impeachment and eventual imprisonment in the Tower of London for six months. His expulsion from Parliament saw him viewed as a kind of martyr to the cause, and upon his release he wrote many pamphlets which attacked the ministry overseen by Harley. By 1713 he had been re-elected for King’s Lynn with his public popularity restored.

By 1714 the political climate was changing once more with the ascendancy to the throne of George I. This had an important impact for the Whig party because it was known that George I was suspicious of the Tories, as he believed they opposed his right to the throne. The Whigs therefore were boosted by this mistrust and would ultimately retain power in the Commons for the next fifty years.

Meanwhile, Walpole continued to make headway in his political career. By 1721 he was serving as the first Lord of the Treasury under the government dominated by James Stanhope and Charles Spencer. During this role he introduced the “sinking fund” which was essentially a way of reducing the national debt. He resigned shortly afterwards, as the government continued to be plagued with division. Nevertheless, Walpole continued to serve as an influential figure in the House of Commons, for example when he opposed the Peerage Bill which was seeking to limit the power of the monarchs to create peerages. The bill was subsequently rejected and he assumed the role of Paymaster General not long before becoming Prime Minister in 1721.

He was able to avoid the South Sea financial crisis that plagued the Commons. He helped to restore government credit whilst also preventing political individuals from being punished, earning him the nickname “Screen-Master General”. With the exception of Sunderland and Stanhope, Walpole was the last remaining influential figure in the Commons. He was appointed Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the Commons, effectively becoming a de facto Prime Minister. This position of power he held until 1742.

In his first year serving as Prime Minister he uncovered the Atterbury plot, named after the Tory Bishop, Francis Atterbury of Rochester whose plan was to take control of the government. The Bishop was subsequently exiled for life and Walpole was able to consolidate power for the Whigs by branding the Tories as Jacobites. This plot cemented his position as leader, kept the Tories out of the political game for a long time and gave a boost to his public support.

During this twenty year period Walpole became the most influential man in England, adept at keeping the peace, maintaining an equilibrium and using his oratory skills to his advantage. He was able to get his rivals to resign: first Carteret in 1724 and then Townshend in 1730. He was also able to strengthen power in his party through royal patronage. In 1727 George I died, leaving Walpole in a vulnerable position when George II took the throne. Fortunately, Walpole’s power was retained when he survived the attempt to replace him with the Earl of Wilmington, Spencer Compton. Instead he received the backing of Queen Caroline, the new queen, and remained at the top of his political game.

His time served in office was punctuated by policies aimed at reducing national debt and keeping the peace abroad. His main focus was keeping parliament on his side and winning favour in the Commons. His legislation was not particularly revolutionary and continued to maintain the status quo, a feature for which he was criticised by some, such as William Pitt. He is perhaps most well-known for receiving the gift of 10 Downing Street in 1735 from George II, making it the permanent residence of the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, in his later years opposition was growing, particularly when a trade dispute with Spain forced him to declare the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739. In this period he also attempted to raise the excise tax on wine and tobacco as well as shifting tax burdens to the merchants instead of landowners. This was met with great opposition and in 1741 with a poor election result, his position was increasingly fragile. In February 1742, realising that his time was up, he resigned, assumed the title Earl of Oxford, served in the House of Lords and passed away three years later.

Walpole was an influential figure serving for twenty years as the first British Prime Minister. He sustained power for the Whig party, established Downing Street as home of the Prime Minster, won favour with the Crown and negotiated with great skill and panache. Walpole is an important figure in a long line of influential leaders in British history.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.


British Prime Ministers: Sir Robert Walpole

J.H. Plumb analyses the career of the man recognised as Britain's first prime minister.

Over the high table at King's College, Cambridge, hanging in the place of honour, is a splendid portrait of Sir Robert Walpole. There he is – short, fat, coarse-featured, jovial, resplendent in the Garter of which he was so proud. But he is not without dignity, nor even without a certain mystery for his eyes, alert and guarded, hint that his character was not so obvious as, perhaps, he wished it to seem. The same remark may be made of Walpole's career. The lover of peace who carefully avoided sleeping dogs, the cynic who knew the price, of men, the creator of parties, of cabinet government, and of the office of Prime Minister – these nursery and schoolroom myths vanish before the harsh reality: his long pursuit of power: the desperate , calculated risks: his vast appetite for detail: all of which made him for twenty years the colossus of English political life. By his own superhuman endeavours he held in check the aggressive appetites of English merchants who saw in war an opportunity for commercial plunder, men who afterwards found their voice and inspiration in Chatham, to whom they raised the Guildhall monument, with its proud boast that he was the first minister to make trade flourish by war. But Walpole, hard-headed, obstinate, secure in power, would have none of it. He was too conscious of the great burden of debt, created by the long wars of William and Anne, which pressed like peine forte et dure on the owners of land. Above all else, Walpole wished to ease the land-tax and to achieve this object peace was essential. As for trade, he thought that efficient taxation, improved administration, and common-sense policy were the only real necessaries for the growth and development of English commerce.

In essentials, Walpole's policy was extremely simple – peace which would bring its own prosperity. Few prime ministers have had a policy so simple or so consistently held but the pursuit of it demanded all his extraordinary qualities as a statesman. This was due to the exceptional intricacy of eighteenth-century politics, where there were no parties in a modern sense and no political programmes. Broad issues about Church and. State might divide men, and make some die-hard whigs and some die-hard tories but for the majority of politicians the issues were not so simple. Personal factors were more important loyalty to their family connection or territorial group, personal ambition with its temptations of power, changed men from tories to whigs and back again with such bewildering speed that eighteenth century politics have a cynical air of unreality.

The root of the trouble lay, as Hume understood, in the House of Commons. The vital factor was this: the King chose his ministers: they were his servants, and had to find their majority in the House of Commons, whereas today the leader of an organised party with a majority presents his ministers, to the King. It is true that, even in the eighteenth century, the King's ministers usually had the support of a majority of members of Parliament on the very broadest issues but, once it became a question of detail – whether Irish yarn should be taxed, or London should have a second bridge – local loyalties, or personal views and idiosyncrasies, might easily predominate. Hence in the eighteenth-century Parliament, there was always a considerable element of uncertainty and the danger of political anarchy. As Hume wisely observed, governments were forced to appeal to individual self-interest to secure constant support for a detailed policy. Coherence of government was maintained by an elaborate system of patronage. Every office in Church or State, to which the Crown had the power to appoint, began to be used for political ends.

As a young man, Walpole had witnessed the first great expansion of the patronage system by Harley. It had taught him that in political circles there was a wolfish appetite for places, partly because of their financial reward, even more, perhaps, because of the social prestige which they carried. And it taught him, also, that any minister who intended to exploit the vast patronage of the Crown must have the complete and loyal support of the King. For, if there were two or three ministers who could give places, the insecurity of politics was merely removed from the Commons to the Court. Hence Walpole's early determination to be sole, supreme minister, to brook no rivals at Court, and to prefer as his colleagues, men of small ability but great loyalty, to able but less reliable men, such as Carteret, Pulteney or Townshend. But neither the absolute support of the Crown, nor the most detailed exploitation of the patronage system, could give Walpole the complete political security for which he longed. It gave him stability no doubt, but not security. To maintain his ascendancy, he added a mastery of the detail of the nation's business that, maybe, only Burleigh has equalled. The nation was still small enough for one man – a man of fantastic industry and efficiency – to comprehend its affairs at a level of detail that made him the unrivalled expert on all questions relating to its welfare. He always knew more about everything than his rivals or his colleagues. This vast competence bred authority and confidence, and his contemporaries hesitated long before they opposed his policy. Always convincing, usually right, the fountain of profit, the channel of promotion, Walpole was irresistible at Court and dominant in the Commons. Perhaps no other prime minister has enjoyed so much power for so long over both men and measures.

Walpole served a lengthy apprenticeship. Treasurer of the Navy, and later Secretary of War, in his early thirties he obtained a thorough grounding in financial administration during Godolphin's brilliant period of office as Lord High Treasurer. Accused of corruption on a trumped-up charge, condemned and sent to the Tower, he tasted the rancour and bitterness of eighteenth-century political struggles. Naturally enough, he developed a detestation of Tories, particularly Bolingbroke, which was to last his life. Back in power after the Hanoverian succession, he quickly showed his financial genius by consolidating all the various funds of the National Debt, many of them bearing different interest rates, into one he also instituted the Sinking Fund, a device to repay the debt, which lifted the dark fear of bankruptcy that the burden of debt had created. Indeed, the cloud more than lifted: a reckless financial optimism resulted which ended in the South Sea Bubble disaster. Walpole, luckily, was in no way responsible. He had gambled not on South Sea stocks, but on his own political future, by resigning offices, with his brother-in-law, Lord Townshend, in 1717, and entering into furious opposition against Sunderland and Stanhope, the other Whig leaders. Restored to office, he saw that the South Sea Bubble had given him his opportunity. With utter disregard of popular rage and the public insults hurled at him, Walpole handled Parliament so skilfully that the Court, which had been deeply implicated in the scandal, was successfully screened, the ministry preserved, the Tory opposition frustrated. His victory was political, not economic for Walpole's financial arrangements are of little importance. In 1721, he emerged as the dominant political figure. But he still had a rival – Townshend.

It took nine years to resolve the struggle. Townshend was a rash man, who liked a vigorous, active, aggressive foreign policy. At one time he cheerfully envisaged England taking over half of the Austrian Netherlands, and becoming once again a European power. To back his policy, he was willing to enter into an alliance with any monarch with troops for hire and he did not count the cost. Walpole, on the other hand, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was obliged to think in terms of hard cash. Each year the financial burden mounted and the landed gentry paid. Yet foreign policy was Townshend's business, not Walpole's. It was an extremely delicate situation, and Walpole got round it by a political manoeuvre of great dexterity which had a lasting effect on English constitutional development. It was essential that opposition to Townshend's policy should not come from Walpole alone at the same time discussion in the cabinet, which at that period was very large and included the Archbishop of Canterbury and others, might divide it into two warring factions and split the government. So Walpole began to make more formal the informal meetings of the four or six chief ministers of state, which were especially active when the King, with Townshend, was in Hanover. They were easy for Walpole to manage he could lobby them privately, and be certain of their views before the meeting. Thus Townshend was isolated and finally driven from office. But Walpole kept this small, efficient cabinet going since it enabled him to retain a firm grasp of the details of foreign affairs. From this small cabinet our modern cabinet is derived and Townshend's behaviour was accepted as the only correct procedure. If a minister of this inner ring differed violently on policy with the others, it was felt that he ought to resign and from this belief was gradually evolved the theory of cabinet responsibility. But, of course, Walpole had no idea that he was encouraging important constitutional developments. For him it was a means of getting his way, a convenient and ingenious manoeuvre by which he secured the fullest extension of his power for the sake of his peace policy.

But peace was difficult to secure. Many of his contemporaries genuinely thought that Walpole's policy in foreign affairs was inimical to England's interests, and wished to see a much more truculent and less compromising attitude to both France and Spain, which they regarded as serious obstacles to our commercial growth. Other politicians joined with them, including some whigs, such as Pulteney, whom Walpole would not have at any price, in the hope that a united front of opposition would pull Walpole down. They attacked him on every issue, including his policy of taxation by excise, which had done a great deal to promote the expansion of English commerce. But Walpole ignored torrents of personal, abuse, violent public agitation, gave the growling dogs a sound kick when he had the chance, and persisted obstinately in his foreign policy and financial reforms, until he was faced with a threat of a split at Court, in the ranks of his own supporters. Then he saw the danger-signal. He at once abandoned excise and, later, reluctantly declared war on Spain, telling the Duke of Newcastle bitterly that it was his war, and that he wished him joy of it. In such circumstances a modern prime minister would have resigned immediately but Walpole did not regard himself as a prime minister, nor did he apply to himself the principles inherent in Townshend's resignation. Walpole regarded himself as the King's first servant and, while he could carry on the King's business with the King's approval, he was prepared to stay in power and, if necessary, throw his own principles overboard. He continued to transact his master's business till in 1742, only resigning when it was made absolutely clear to him that he could no longer do so.

Walpole's career is extremely difficult to assess. He had none of Chatham's uncanny power of intuitively sensing the future destiny of England and, by his unrivalled rhetoric, inspiring the country to strive to attain it. It was a future of imperial grandeur, but also of endless war and indebtedness which Walpole would have deplored. He had none of the moral stature of a Gladstone. Though he did not invent corruption or the exploitation of the self-interest of avaricious politicians, which were well on the way by the time he entered politics, he was more ruthless in his use of patronage, and more obvious, than his predecessors, and brought to the question involved his infinite capacity for detail. Tidewaiters' places at Berwick-on-Tweed, the promotion of an ensign in a regiment of foot, a scholarship for a Wykehamist going on to New College, the foundation of a school in the Bermudas – all applications were studied, docketed, filed, and made to pay their dividends in terms of political allegiance. Knowing well the importance of family connections, he did not hesitate to endow his Norfolk cousinage with the best of places in the very centre of government. This was common knowledge and bandied about in the press and it is undeniable that his brazen use of places brought the institutions of government into disrepute and helped to foster the middle class radicalism of the later eighteenth century. Such is the case against him. Yet, although one must discount his contribution to constitutional development – for that was largely fortuitous and arose out of his methods, not his intentions – there is much to his credit. His reorganization of taxation and of financial administration gave English government funds, throughout the eighteenth century, a buoyancy and strength that no other European country could rival. It drew to us the Dutch capital which enabled us to win a vast commercial empire and this made possible the Industrial Revolution. His policy of peace, prosperity, stability, security, moreover, was surely in every way admirable, and well worth the occasional injuries inflicted on our national pride. Walpole's instinctive attitude to politics was much nearer to the common aspirations of mankind than the majority of our prime ministers. His vision of a secure, orderly, prosperous world, in which the ordinary human story could be lived out according to its own strange necessities, is one that must still command respect. Hence his bitterness towards those who would casually jeopardise peace for the sake of Gibraltar or for the alleged Spanish ill-treatment of Captain Jenkins, a mere smuggler-merchant. Hence, in Walpole's mouth, the term 'patriot' was to become a term of abuse for this was the patriotism of self-seeking greed and not of solid human common sense. Walpole's view was too sophisticated, too urbane, to prevail. And yet, although the scales were weighted against him, he secured a longer period of peace than England had enjoyed since the reign of Elizabeth or was to enjoy until the nineteenth century and in that, possibly, lies his greatest achievement.

It was only achieved thanks to his inhuman energy and his quite exceptional insight into political tactics. We like to think of the eighteenth century as a leisured world but Walpole worked as hard as, or harder than, any modern minister. At the Treasury before eight in the morning, prepared to conduct his first interviews, during the sessions of Parliament he was almost continuously in the House. On his way to Houghton, we hear of him up at six o'clock at Newmarket, in order to deal with his letters. Wherever he goes, bundles of paper follow him and, even if he makes time for hunting or drinking or his mistress, work goes on remorselessly. Treasury procedure, taxation yields, foreign despatches, electioneering, regimental promotion, the tribulations of dissenters or colonists, the difficulties of Eton College over a public house belonging to the Crown, everything great or small received his detailed attention.

This knowledge, coupled with his formidable powers of argument, made him difficult to dislodge. And yet, he always had time to spare. He would devote hours to the King and Queen, to ensure their absolute support. No minister can have been easier of access for his papers are full of letters of thanks for the trouble he has taken over cousins and younger sons up from the country in search of a career. He appears to have seen them all personally. Walpole's wide human contacts, coupled with patience and foresight, gave him an unrivalled knowledge of the shifting personal aspect of politics, from which he derived his superb certainty of decision in times of crisis. He seemed always to know whom he could disgrace with impunity, whom he must flatter and cajole back into alliance. No prime minister ever weathered so skilfully, or so often, the danger of a break-up of his ministry. Again and again the political world confidently expected his fall but until 1742 he confidently rode through all storms. With his rare combination of detailed knowledge and subtlety in human relations, backed by a prodigious memory and an obstinate faith in his attitude to life, he knew exactly what he wanted – power for himself, to bring peace and prosperity to his country. After Walpole's defeat, England embarked on a race for wealth through aggressive war which was to last for nearly a century of tribulation and heroism, and at length called into being the industrial revolution, destined to destroy forever the world which he had struggled to maintain. Time has not served him well. His use of patronage and corruption, his worldliness and cynicism, are remembered in our text books but his capacity, his wisdom, his aspirations are frequently neglected. Even more neglected is another aspect of his personality. None of our British prime ministers can compare with Sir Robert Walpole in appreciation of the fine arts. He personally supervised the building of Houghton, the design of the superb furniture by Kent, and the magnificent collection of pictures afterwards sold to Catherine of Russia. To questions of taste he brought the same confident certainty of judgment that made him a political master.


Biography

Robert Walpole was born in Houghton, Norfolk, England on 26 August 1676, and he came from a family of local Whig gentry. He was elected to his father's old parliamentary constituency in 1701, looking to country gentlemen for his political base. He became Secretary of War in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and he survived a Tory-led impeachment attempt and went on to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1715 to 1717 and from 1721 to 1742, also serving as Prime Minister and leader of the House of Commons from 1721 to 1742. He survived the South Sea Bubble stock-market crisis of 1720 and was tasked with sorting out the government crisis by King George I. Walpole pursued a non-interventionist foreign policy, worked for lower taxes and growing exports, and allowed slightly more tolerance for Protestant dissenters. However, the death of Queen Caroline of Ansbach in 1737 weakened Walpole's influence over King George II, and the King's estranged son, Frederick, Prince of Wales and Walpole's political opponents William Pitt the Elder and George Grenville allied against the declining elder statesman. The "Patriot Whigs" under Pitt opposed Walpole's non-interventionist policies, and, in the 1734 general election, Walpole's Whigs lost 85 seats and were reduced to 330 seats, while the Patriot Whigs won in 68 more constituencies to gain a total of 83 seats. In 1741, the Whigs dropped to 286 seats, while the Patriot Whigs rose to 131 seats. Due to his electoral defeat and naval defeats during the War of Jenkins' Ear with Spain, Walpole was forced out of office on 11 February 1742, losing a motion of no-confidence over a supposedly rigged by-election. His supporters then reconciled with the Patriot Whigs to form a new government. Walpole died in 1745 at the age of 68.


Great Britons: ROBERT WALPOLE – The First Prime Minister

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Robert Walpole came to prominence just as power in Britain was shifting from the Crown to the Parliament. He was the first, and the longest serving, Prime Minister under the newly-developed balance of power. Although he ruled more by influencing the King than by using Parliament, he laid the foundations for the present constitutional monarchy. By avoiding wars for an extended period, he allowed the country to grow in wealth and establish itself as a powerful nation, ready to build an Empire. He also personally enriched himself and retained power by using the corrupt political system which existed at that time.

  • Born 1676 – died 1745
  • Britain’s first Prime Minister
  • Established the foundations of the British parliamentary system
  • Kept his party – the Whigs – in power for 50 years

The Glorious Revolution in 1688 was a turning-point in British history, shifting the balance of power away from the Monarch and toward the Parliament. After the English Civil War abolished the Monarchy, Charles II returned to the throne when the Commonwealth collapsed in 1660, but when Charles II died in 1685 his already-unpopular Catholic brother, James II, took the throne. English Protestants were outraged, and a group of nobles arranged for his nephew and son-in-law William, Prince of Orange, to invade England and ensure that a Protestant dynasty ruled. James II fled and William and Mary took the throne, establishing a Protestant succession that has continued in various forms into the present. But William got the throne at a price – The Bill of Rights of 1689.

The Bill of Rights listed 12 things that James had done to subvert the laws and liberties of this kingdom and asserted a list of ancient rights and liberties which were to be protected. These lists repeated used the term without the consent of Parliament, effectively limiting the power of the King in matters such as raising an Army the election of MPs levying taxes establishing fines and punishments and limiting free speech within Parliament. Britain does not have a written constitution, so the transfer of these powers to Parliament represented a major shift of power towards a constitutional monarchy, such as exists in Britain today.

What the King could still do was select the person who was his Prime Minister, who must, however, be the person most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons. The first person to effectively hold that position was Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford.

Walpole was born in the small Norfolk village of Houghton on the 26 August 1676. He was the fifth of what were to become 19 brothers and sisters. His father was a member of the local gentry and an MP for the Whig party. Robert was educated privately and then went on to Eton School and King’s College, Cambridge. Although he had intended to enter the clergy, plans changed after his two elder brothers died, leaving him the heir. He returned home to help his father, and two years later, in 1700, his father died, leaving the family estate of 10 manor houses and land to the 24-year-old Robert.

It was relatively easy to take advantage of the corrupt nature of the electoral system of the time – there was no secret ballot and since those eligible to vote were limited, a rich man could buy all the properties with voting rights, install obedient tenants, and ensure a seat for perpetuity – a so-called pocket borough. This Walpole did in 1702 with the borough of Kings Lynn, in the same year that William died, and the popular Protestant Queen Anne took the throne. Like his father, he was a Whig, whose rivals in parliament were the Tories. The Whigs were largely responsible for curtailing the freedom of the monarch, preferring to exercise power themselves. Their political descendants became the current Liberal Party. They supported Protestantism and were largely responsible for the Glorious Revolution.

Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Walpole caught the eye of the new Queen and became a member of the advisory council to her husband, Prince George of Denmark. He entered the Cabinet of Lord Godolphin as Secretary of War and Treasurer of the Navy. When power shifted to the Tories at the election of 1710, the new Lord High Treasurer was a defector from the Whigs, Robert Harley, who attempted to entice Walpole to join him, but failed, leaving Walpole as a major critic of the new government and defender of the Whig cause. To eliminate him from the opposition he was found guilty of accepting bribes and expelled from Parliament. He spent six months as a prisoner in the Tower of London, where he continued to attack the government, but in 1713 he was re-elected to his seat of Kings Lynn.

The death of Queen Anne the following year brought her distant German cousin, George I, to the throne, a triumph for the Whigs, we retained power for the next 50 years. Walpole became a powerful member of the Cabinet as a Privy Councillor and Paymaster of the Forces. He also condemned without trial prominent members of the previous Tory government. He quickly rose to Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In a dispute over foreign policy with other cabinet members Walpole chose to resign and join the opposition, but after being influential in ending a rift in the royal family, he returned to the Cabinet.

As a younger man, Walpole had purchased shares in the South Sea Company, a joint-stock company with a monopoly on trade with South America. Walpole enjoyed a 1,000% profit, but others were not so fortunate, and when the highly inflated value of the stock began to fall in the event known as the South Sea Bubble, prominent cabinet members were implicated. Although Walpole protected them from punishment, he benefited from their resignations and was able to eliminate several long-standing rivals, leaving him the most prominent and powerful figure in the Cabinet. He simultaneously became First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons with his brother-in-law Lord Townsend by his side they effectively controlled the entire government. He became, in fact, if not in the title, the King’s ‘Prime Minister’, the first since the Glorious Revolution established the importance of such a position. He devised a scheme to partially repay those most injured by the South Sea debacle and reduced the damage to the reputation of the King and the Whig party.

George I

Throughout the reign of George I the power of the Cabinet and the Prime Minister rose, as that of the King declined. When George II took the throne, he retained Walpole and even Townsend, despite a personal dislike of him. When Townsend died in 1730, Walpole was left in sole charge and clearly the most powerful person in the country. Despite opposition and ridicule from many social liberals, like Jonathan Swift and Dr. Samuel Johnson, Walpole was able to remain popular with the people by keeping Britain out of wars and thus keeping taxes low. Despite a succession of crises he retained power, even managing to silence critics like Alexander Pope and Henry Fielding by regulating the theatres, so reducing their power to parody and satirize him.

As time passed, however, his popularity waned, and an unsuccessful war with Spain further damaged his reputation. Finally, corruption and his immense personal enrichment led to a parliamentary inquiry and rather than face the outcome he resigned from office, ending his political career. Always one to land on his feet, however, George II, grieving at the loss of his favorite minister, made him Earl of Orford, thus giving him a seat in the House of Lords. He continued to wield considerable influence with the King, and became known as the ‘Minister behind the Curtain’. As he grew older, he retreated more and more to his country estate, to hunt and admire his extensive collection of art, acquired during his years of power. However his health continued to deteriorate, and he died on the 18 March 1745.

Although usually regarded as Britain’s first Prime Minister in the modern sense, in fact, Walpole governed more by personal influence with the King than by using the House of Commons. He did, however, reduce the Tories to insignificance and ensure Whig dominance for half a century. By keeping Britain away from the older pattern of perpetual wars, he greatly enriched the country, doing that also by protectionist trade policies that allowed the wool industry to thrive and produce revenue for necessary imports.

The use of 10 Downing Street as the official residence of the Prime Minister also dates back to Walpole’s time. The house was a personal gift to him from George II, although he only used it as his residence when he was First Lord of the Treasury.

As for corruption and personal gain, he was probably no more corrupt than most of his peers, although he was known to advise new MPs the rid themselves of their principles and become ‘wiser’.


Robert Walpole, the First Prime Minister

Townshend and Walpole were connected by marriage. They had held together through the political vicissitudes of the last ten years, and for ten years more they remained colleagues. Their government was at first a partnership but neither was content to be second or merely equal to the other and the partnership developed into a rivalry which was only brought to an end when Townshend made up his mind in 1730 to leave the field to Walpole, since they could not longer work in harness together.

But from the outset Walpole rather than Townshend filled the public eye for practical purposes Walpole controlled British policy from the end of 1720 until 1739, and he remained nominally at the head of affairs for three years more.

This long ministry of Walpole inaugurates the era during which the question of primary importance has been not who was king or queen, but who was Prime Minister? Since the days of Charles I and Buckingham it had hardly been possible at any time to name any one person as the minister of the Crown who directed the policy of the state.

The Evolution of the Office of Prime Minister
Before the seventeenth century ministers had been still more palpably the servants of the Crown, holding office at the pleasure of the Crown, and dismissed or disgraced or sent to the block if the Crown so pleased. But from Walpole's time onwards the sovereign has been virtually deprived of choice.

He has hardly been able to refuse a minister pressed upon him by the leaders of the party dominant in parliament, still less to dismiss one who enjoys parliament's support or to appoint one whom parliament finds obnoxious. And almost at all times one particular minister has been decisively the chief of the administration, though not always the nominal figurehead for whom the title of Prime Minister has come to be reserved.

The change however was gradual and unconscious. William III, chose his own ministers, merely modifying his selection in order to avoid excessive friction in the machinery of government. It was a practical outcome of the struggle between Crown and parliament that parliament made its voice heard on questions of policy and of administration very much more energetically at the close of the seventeenth century than in the days of Plantagenets or Tudors the more or less tacit acquiescence of parliament was less easily obtained than in earlier times.

Hence to avoid friction it had become necessary to secure correspondingly a greater concord between ministerial action and parliamentary opinion. Theoretically it was not necessary for minis­ters to be in agreement even with each other, but practically it was becoming very inconvenient that it should not be so. If at any time during the reign of William or Anne all the ministers were taken from one political party, it was merely because such a selection seemed necessary 'at that particular time to prevent a deadlock.

The Role of Royal Whim
The Crown did not as yet recognise, popular opinion did not yet declare, that the power of the Crown to select ministers was restricted, except by the obligation not to choose men who were conspicuously obnoxious. Moreover, the power of the Crown was only slightly restricted even in practice. It is notable that changes of ministry did not usually follow upon general elections.

When the Crown and the ministry were in harmony the electors gave a general support to the ministry. When the Duchess of Marlborough thoroughly dominated the queen, Whigs domi­nated the ministry, and an appeal to the electorate returned a Whig majority.

When the queen shook herself free of the Duchess, Whigs were turned out of office, Tories took their places, and when there was a general election the electors returned a Tory majority. Politicians devoted them­selves more zealously to capturing the favour of the sovereign than to cultivating the goodwill of the electorate. Both the theory and the practice survived the Hanoverian Succession.

But the change of dynasty produced new conditions. One of the two great parties was shattered. The interests of the whole body of Whigs were bound up with the security of the new dynasty. The interests of the new dynasty were bound up with the predominance of the Whigs and the Hanoverian Tories, without hopes of themselves forming a dominant party, were rapidly absorbed into the Whig ranks, more especially after the ignominious collapse of the "Fifteen."

The Crown had not the will, and would not have had the power, to choose ministers except from among the Whigs. After the passing of the Septennial Act, Whig government was never really in danger even the South Sea Bubble confirmed a Whig combination instead of shaking it. Instead of a rivalry of parties, there was only a rivalry of Whig factions and the long ascendency of the Whigs under these conditions made it for ever impossible that a working ministry should be formed independent of party lines.

Within the party the king apparently retained the power of selection but the prestige of the Crown was very much reduced by the fact that it was worn by unattractive and unpopular German princes, while the sentiment of loyalty, wherever it survived at all, was necessarily attracted to the legitimate king "over the water."

Thus if the king was free to choose any Whig ministers he liked, it still remained necessary that he should choose men who would work together and the personal influence of the king proved to be no longer sufficient to induce ministers to work in political harmony when they were personally antagonistic to each other.

Politicians continued to intrigue in order to obtain "royal favour but the royal favour was wasted on any statesman who could not manage his colleagues or who could not manage parliament. This managing capacity was possessed by Walpole, and after Walpole by Henry Pelham. It was not possessed by their rivals, and therefore between 1720 and 1754 Walpole was for twenty years the inevitable minister and Pelham for ten years.

And after Pelham's death government fell into hopeless confusion until there was a coalition between Newcastle and William Pitt. The position of a minister was unstable unless he could secure the royal favour, though the royal favour was not sufficient to keep in power even a brilliant politician who lacked the art of managing his colleagues and parliament.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.


Why did Robert Walpole get painted with a crown on his right side?

In this painting of Robert Walpole by John Theodore Heins Robert is painted with a crown on his right. Robert Walpole is according to Wikipedia "a British politician who is generally regarded as the de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain".

pictured above : Portrait of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) Earl of Orford, painted by John Theodore Heins (1697-1756) followed by a close-up of the crown. attributed to Norwich Castle / Public domain

When looking at a portrait of him I noticed a crown on his right which looked odd to me since Walpole certainly wasn't royalty and the way this portrait is painted reminded me of royal portraits, like for example the portraits of his contemporaries George I and George II which use many of the same elements:

George I and George II both monarchs during Walpole's time as Prime Minister displayed in a similar way. George I - Studio of Godfrey Kneller / Public domain. George II - Thomas Hudson / Public domain

So my question is : Why did Robert Walpole get painted with a crown on his right side?

I have searched a lot on the Internet but with no avail, am I missing something obvious here or is the answer a little more nuanced?


Walpole, Sir Robert, 1st earl of Orford

Walpole, Sir Robert, 1st earl of Orford (1676�). Traditionally known as Britain's first prime minister. From a Norfolk gentry family, Walpole was the Whig MP for Castle Rising (1701𠄲) and King's Lynn (1702�, 1713�). His first posts were as secretary at war (1708) and treasurer of the navy (1710). His part in the administration of the War of the Spanish Succession and his management of the trial of Dr Sacheverell earned him the hatred of the Tory Party and he was dismissed in 1710, impeached for corruption, sent to the Tower (1711), and expelled from Parliament (1712). At the Hanoverian succession he rejoined the government, along with his brother-in-law Viscount Townshend, as paymaster-general, being promoted to 1st lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. In 1717 he, Townshend, and several followers left the Sunderland/Stanhope ministry. During the ensuing Whig schism Walpole opposed the repeal of the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts (1718), and successfully defeated the Peerage Bill in the Commons (1719). In April 1720, with most of the schismatic Whigs, he rejoined the government in the office of paymaster-general.

Walpole was not the first ‘prime minister’ several of his immediate predecessors (such as Sunderland, Harley, and even Godolphin) were so regarded, and the term was in common use (though often pejoratively). The starting date of Walpole's premiership is a matter of some controversy. One historian has recently suggested that it should be dated from 1720 (since he was in control of the Treasury as paymaster-general, John Aislabie, the chancellor of the Exchequer, being a figurehead), rather than from the traditional date of his promotion to the chancellorship in 1721. Despite his brilliant financial acumen, which saved the administration and the dynasty in 1720𠄱 from the disaster of the South Sea bubble, and his control of the nation's finances and the secret service money (the major source of patronage), neither of these dates marks his true dominance of the ministry. Both Stanhope (who died prematurely in 1721), and more particularly Sunderland (who also died unexpectedly in April 1722), retained the confidence of George I until their deaths. Until 1724, when he was manœuvred into the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland, Carteret (a protégé of Sunderland's favoured by the king) was a potential rival. Further, from the very beginning of the reconciliation of the Whigs in 1720, Townshend was a major force to be reckoned with, particularly through his control of foreign policy after 1721 (an area dear to the king) and the House of Lords after 1722. Townshend remained in office until his resignation in 1730, and for most of the 1720s the ministry should be seen as a duumvirate. Only in the late 1720s did Walpole become the unquestioned prime minister, partly through forcing the most talented of his Whig opponents, led by Pulteney, into opposition. These self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ worked fitfully with the Tories in the 1730s, but were no real threat to Walpole, until he began to lose his grip in the early 1740s.

Walpole's major contribution to politics was his development of the cabinet system, of the ‘party of the crown’ (which he based on the work of Harley) through extensive use of patronage, and of the Commons as the centre of parliamentary power. His refusal of a peerage in 1723 (it went to his son), which astounded contemporaries, signalled the beginning of the latter development.

Following the South Sea crisis, Walpole's establishment of the Whig hegemony was largely accomplished as a result of his handling of the Atterbury plot in 1722𠄳, which he used to drive home the fear of Jacobitism, a label he had great success in attaching to his Tory opponents, and which, in the final analysis, prevented effective and sustained co-operation between them and the Whig ‘patriots’. The smear of Jacobitism proved very effective for the rest of his ministry. His ruthless control of political patronage was the foundation on which he built his control of the administration. This is best illustrated by his removal in 1734 of several peers from colonelships of regiments for voting against the government, though such positions were, in effect, regarded as private property, and the dismissals caused consternation amongst the political élite.

His sure grip on politics occasionally wavered. One such occasion was the Excise scheme in 1733, which aroused so much opposition that Walpole was forced into dropping the proposal before the second reading. Another was his loss of favour in Scotland by his too repressive measures over the Porteous riots in 1736. Yet another was his opposition to war with Spain in 1739, to which he was forced to agree by both the patriot opposition and members of his own government. The poor handling of the war eventually led to his downfall in February 1742 as he lost control of the House of Commons, one of two essential props to his power. The other was the support of the monarch (first George I, and then George II, though the latter's was uncertain before his accession in 1727), which he retained to the end, along with that of Queen Caroline who, until her death in 1737, provided invaluable support.

Walpole was created earl of Orford upon his resignation, and helped from the Upper House to baffle efforts to impeach him for corruption. He took part in debates in the Lords, and continued to give advice to George II when asked. He devoted much of his time to Houghton in Norfolk, the palatial house he had built and stocked with art treasures. He died in debt

Dickinson, H. T. , Walpole and the Whig Supremacy (1973)
Holmes, G. , ‘Sir Robert Walpole’, in Holmes, G. (ed.), Politics, Religion and Society in England, 1679� (1986)
Plumb, J. H. , Sir Robert Walpole (2 vols., 1956�).


Watch the video: Robert Walpole (May 2022).