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Walpole, Sir Robert, 1st earl of Orford

Walpole, Sir Robert, 1st earl of Orford (1676–1745). Traditionally known as Britain's first prime minister. From a Norfolk gentry family, Walpole was the Whig MP for Castle Rising (1701–2) and King's Lynn (1702–12, 1713–42). 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 1720–1 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 1722–3, 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

Clyve Jones

Bibliography

Dickinson, H. T. , Walpole and the Whig Supremacy (1973);
Holmes, G. , ‘Sir Robert Walpole’, in Holmes, G. (ed.), Politics, Religion and Society in England, 1679–1742 (1986);
Plumb, J. H. , Sir Robert Walpole (2 vols., 1956–60).

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Walpole, Robert, 1st earl of Orford

Robert Walpole, 1st earl of Orford, 1676–1745, English statesman.

Early Life and Career

He was the younger son of a prominent Whig family of Norfolk. After the death of his father and elder brothers he was returned (1701) to Parliament from the family borough of Castle Rising, and in 1702 he took the seat for King's Lynn, from which he was regularly returned thereafter. Walpole soon made his mark as a hardworking administrator. In 1708 he was appointed secretary of war and later (1710–11) was treasurer of the navy. As a Whig, he led the opposition in Parliament to the Tory administration of 1710–14 and as a consequence was falsely convicted (1712) of corruption and spent some months in the Tower of London.

The accession of George I (1714) returned the Whigs to power, and Walpole served variously as paymaster of the forces, first lord of the treasury, and chancellor of the exchequer (1715) under his brother-in-law, Viscount Townshend, and James Stanhope (later 1st Earl Stanhope). The dismissal of Townshend led to Walpole's resignation (1717), and together they formed an opposition nominally headed by the prince of Wales (later George II). The two returned to office in 1720.

The Height of Power

Soon after Walpole's return to office in 1720, he was called upon to salvage the financial wreckage resulting from the South Sea Bubble, in which he himself lost a substantial amount of money. This marked the turning point of his career. His successful handling of this matter led to his appointment (1721) as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. He shared power with John Carteret (later 1st Earl Granville) until 1724 and with Townshend, whom he left in charge of foreign affairs, until 1730, but thereafter his ascendancy was complete until 1742.

He enjoyed the confidence of both George I and George II, influencing the latter through his friendship with the queen, Caroline of Ansbach, and handled Parliament with unprecedented skill. His control of Parliament was due partly to the dispensation of royal patronage, partly to the electoral management of Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, but also to Walpole's own debating skills and the popularity of many of his policies.

In financial policy, his strongest point, he created the sinking fund to reduce the national debt. He mollified the largely Tory gentry by reduction of the land tax and promoted trade by awarding bonuses for exports and encouraging the production of raw materials by the colonies. Walpole's plan to reduce smuggling and make London a free port by replacing tariffs on wine and tobacco with an excise tax was defeated in 1733, largely because of widespread popular prejudice against excise. After this debacle Walpole dismissed all the officeholders who had voted against him, an action that created a much stronger opposition group than he had previously faced.

It was on foreign policy that the opposition against him finally coalesced. Walpole had pursued a policy of friendship with France and avoidance of war, and he had managed (against fierce opposition) to keep Great Britain neutral during the War of the Polish Succession (1733–35). In 1739, however, the war party forced him into the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739–41; see Jenkins's Ear, War of), which in turn involved Britain in a general European war (see Austrian Succession, War of the). Military reverses increased the opposition, and Walpole was forced to resign in 1742. Walpole was created earl of Orford and remained politically powerful until his death.

Legacy

Walpole is usually described as the first prime minister of Great Britain, but he was not a prime minister in the modern sense. Although management of Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, was an essential part of his power, so too was royal favor, on which he ultimately depended. The purge of his ministry in 1733, sometimes hailed as a major step in the development of cabinet solidarity, could not have been accomplished without royal support. Moreover, the contention that there was any idea of cabinet solidarity is refuted by the fact that when Walpole left office his most important colleagues remained in the ministry. Walpole's primacy was achieved and maintained through his own political talents and the circumstances of the time; he made little impact on constitutional development.

Bibliography

See biographies by C. R. Stirling Taylor (1931) and J. H. Plumb (2 vol., 1956–61, repr. 1973); study by H. T. Dickinson (1973); bibliography by A. Downie (1990).

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Walpole, Sir Robert, 1st Earl of Orford

Walpole, Sir Robert, 1st Earl of Orford (1676–1745) British statesman, widely acknowledged as the first prime minister (1721–42). Following the Tory victory in the general election of 1710, Walpole was impeached for corruption, expelled from Parliament, and sent to the Tower of London (1712). A Whig martyr, he was reinstated on the accession of George I. Walpole resigned as chancellor of the exchequer (1715–17) out of sympathy for his brother-in-law Charles Townshend, but returned to restore order after the South Sea Bubble crisis (1720). His patronage from George I and George II, ability to unite the House of Commons and grasp of economic issues, ushered in a period of relative peace and prosperity in Britain.

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