Table of Contents
2. Early Life of Robert Walpole
3. Early political career
4. Rise to Power
5. Premiership under George I
6. Premiership under George II
7. End of an Era
“There never was a man, whose actions and character have been more earnestly and openly canvassed, than those of the present minister, who, having governed a learned and free nation for so long a time, amidst such mighty opposition, … ” (http://www.econlib.org/library/LFBooks/Hume/hmMPL47.html)
These words were written by David Hume in 1742 to describe one of the central figures of eighteen´s century Britain- Robert Walpole. Walpole is considered the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, although the position “Prime Minister” had no recognition in official use at the time. He has headed various government offices on his way to the top of Parliament until he reached it as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1721. Walpole dominated English politics from 1722-1742. His governance period was a powerful era in British history, an era of prosperity and peace. He deliberately cultivated a frank, hearty manner, but his political subtlety has scarcely been equaled. But who was this intelligent, zealous and energetic man? How was he able to reach the top of the Ministry and remain there for the longest spell in history? And what caused the downfall of a rather successful man?
These are the central questions covered in this paper. First part of it will be about the early life of Robert Walpole. Afterwards I will have a closer look inside his early political career and subsequently I want to focus on his rise to power. Third and fourth part of the paper I will develop his premiership under George I and George II. In the last part I want to have a look at the last years of premiership und simultaneously I will try to work out the reasons for his downfall.
2. Early Life of Robert Walpole
Robert Walpole was born in Houghton Hall in Norfolk on 26 August 1676 into a county family. His father, Colonel Robert Walpole, was a Whig politician who represented the borough of Castle Rising in the House of Commons. His mother, Mary Walpole (née Mary Burnwell); Robert was the fifth of seventeen children, eight of whom died during infancy. Later Walpole would hold the record amongst Prime Ministers for the greatest number of siblings. (http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/robert-walpole/early-life.html)
Robert Walpole was educated at Great Dunham, Norfolk and became a scholar at Eton College from 1690 to 1695. Subsequently he matriculated at King´s College in Cambridge in 1696. The death of his only remaining elder brother, Edward, changed the entire course of Robert´s life. In this time family estates were usually inherited by the first son. As the future head of the family he left the University of Cambridge in 1968, to help his father administer the family estate. (Hill 1989: 19) As the eldest son and heir to his father´s estate he abandoned his idea to become a clergyman. Instead he had to learn the arts of estate management and how to prepare for his new political life and seat in Parliament. Furthermore Colonel Walpole was anxious to arrange a profitable marriage for his heir. The choice fell upon Catherine Shorter of Bybrook, Kent, the daughter of a London merchant family. The couple married on July 30, 1700 in London. After his father’s death in the same year, he inherited the family estate and also the family parliamentary seat at Castle Rising, for which he was immediately elected. The marriage of Catherine and Robert was an unhappy marriage denoted by regular infidelity on Robert´s part and probably even on Catherine´s. (Pearce 2007:27) Catherine later gave birth to four sons and two daughters, Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1701-1751), Katherine Walpole (1703-1722), Horatio Walpole (1704-1704), Mary Walpole (1705-1732), The Hon. Sir Edward Walpole (1706-1784) and Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717-1797). Catherine died in 1737 and Walpole married his mistress Maria Skerritt in 1738. They had been openly together since 1724 and she had born him an illegitimate daughter, whom he had eventually ennobled as Lady Maria Walpole. Three month after the marriage of the couple, Maria died of a miscarriage. (http://wapedia.mobi/en/Robert_Walpole)
3. Early political career
Walpole's political career began in 1700 with the death of his father. He followed his father´s footsteps and won the general election in Castle Rising, the constituency once represented by Colonel Walpole, in January 1701. In the first election of Queen Anne´s reign, he left Castle Rising in 1702 and switched to the more important borough King´s Lynn, which would re-elect him at every subsequent general election until he was created Earl of Orford in February 1742. The representation of King´s Lynn was shared by Walpole and Charles Turner, nephew of the prosperous wine merchant Sir John Turner, who had received his knighthood by James II in 1689. In the same year Charles Turner married Walpole´s eldest sister Mary and became a lifelong friend to him. Besides Turner, Walpole already had a number of relations and friends in Parliament. An important ally was the young Viscount of Townshend, a former schoolfellow of Walpole, who acquired the county post of Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk. This important county post gave him a large measure of control in local appointments. Their political connection became a more personal alliance through the marriage of Townshend and Walpole´s sister Dorothy. (Hill 1989: 32)
Like his father, Robert Walpole was an eager member of the Whig Party and had close connections to Admiral Edward Russel, Earl of Orford. Orford was one of the four original members of the Junto. The Whig Junto was a group of leading Whigs who were seen to direct the management of the Whig party and often the government, during the reigns of William III and Anne. Through Orford, who recognized the young man´s “potential as a future leader of the party” (Hill 1989:32), Walpole had access to all important figures of the party: Charles Montagu, Earl of Halifax, Lord Somers, Lord Wharton and Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland.
In contrast to many MP´s, who only preferred to regard a seat for recognition of their family position, Walpole was soon known for his activity in the Commons. Within three days after election, he was serving on a committee and appeared pretty fast to be a noticeable speaker and teller. (Hill 1989:32) He soon became a member of the Kit-Cat Club, whose members included the four Juntos and other leading figures in the House of Lords. Furthermore, he took the first steps in the Lower House and passed through a bill for building a workhouse at King´s Lynn. In December 1702, “he moved unsuccessfully for the resumption of all Crown grants made by James II” (Black 2001:4) and in 1704, he opposed a bill against occasional conformity. Soon after, James Stanhope and Spencer Compton asked Walpole to come to the Commons for leadership. Meanwhile, the young Walpole had to organize their new life between London and Norfolk, whereby their London life was pompous and extravagant from the beginning. Their expensive lifestyle plunged them into debts very soon.
In 1705, Walpole was appointed a member of the Council of the Lord High Admiral, as a reward for his diligence and ability and as a product of his links with the Marlborough-Godolphin connection. The lost battle of Almanac brought a sudden turn in Walpole´s life. The Juntos claimed that the battle had been lost because of a ministerial mistake in form of the absence of thousands of British troops in Almanac. Therefore Queen Anne was forced to agree “to the removal of her favored minister” (Hill 1989:50) Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer. Although Queen Anne did not want to bring more Whigs into the ministry, she had to make an important exception: she had to fill the post of Secretary at War, which was left vacant by Henry St. John´s resignation. Because of his administrative skills and his loyalty to his responsibilities in office and to the cause of the party during the crisis, Walpole was promoted by Lord Godolphin (the Lord High Treasurer and leader of the Cabinet) to the position of Secretary at War in 1708. He became Marlborough´s political and administrative arm in England. While Marlborough handled Britain´s strategy in the War of the Spanish Succession, Walpole was responsible for army commissions. (Black 2001:4) For a short period of time in 1710, he also simultaneously held the post of Treasurer of the Navy.