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Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford, KG, KB, PC, known before 1972 as Sir Robert Walpole, was a British politician widely agreed to have been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain (although the term did not enter use as anything but an insult for a very long time). He reigned from 1721-1742, all times as a Whig. He saw two monarchs during his time as Prime Minister, Kings George I and II.
Walpole's First Days In Politics
Walpole's political career began in January 1701, when he won the general election in Castle Rising (the constituency his father, who had died just three months earlier, had once represented). He left Castle Rising in 1702 so that he could contest the neighbouring but more important borough of King's Lynn, a constituency that would prove very loyal, re-electing 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 naval affairs body. 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 his administrative skills in his time at the Council; 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 Cabinet members.
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 proved extremely unpopular, causing the Sacheverell riots, 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 2 January 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.
Walpole under the ministry of Stanhope/Sunderland
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, whom he believed opposed his right to succession. (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, would also mark the ascendancy of the Whigs, who would remain the ruling party for the next fifty 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 previous Tory ministry. The individuals who had brought about Walpole's impeachment in 1712 were now themselves attacked for purely political reasons: Lord Oxford was impeached, and Lord Bolingbroke suffered from an act of attainder.
Lord Halifax, the titular head of the administration, died in 1715. Walpole, recognised 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's 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 favour of the Prince of Wales (the future King George II), who still harboured disdain for his father's Government.
Walpole Under King 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 skilful 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 previous attempts at rebellion (most notably the risings of 1715 and 1719) had also failed. The Tory Party was equally unfortunate, even though Lord Bolingbroke, a Tory leader who fled to France to avoid punishment for his Jacobite sympathies, was permitted to return to Britain in 1723.
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. In Ireland, Lord Carteret used his power to secretly aid in the controversy over Wood's Halfpence and support Drapier's Letters behind the scenes and cause harm to Walpole's power. Walpole was able to recover from these events by removing the patent, however, Irish sentiment was situated against the English control.
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 favour 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.
Walpole Under King George II
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 Austria, but Walpole was ultimately victorious, with his colleague retiring on 15 May 1730. This date is often given as the beginning of Walpole's unofficial tenure as Prime Minister. In the wake of his triumph Walpole was able to conclude the Treaty of Vienna creating the Anglo-Austrian alliance.
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; no previous head of the administration could wield so much influence. He increasingly used the Duke of Newcastle as a staunch political ally.
Walpole, a polarising 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 was also satirised and parodied extensively; he was often compared to the criminal Jonathan Wild, as, for example, John Gay did in his farcical The Beggars Opera. 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, 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 theatres were regulated. The Act revealed a disdain for Swift, Pope, Fielding, and other literary figures who had attacked his government in their works.
The Fall Of Walpole- Who Killed Cock Robin?
In 1737, Queen Caroline, Walpole's close friend, died. 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. The news of the naval disaster against Spain in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias also prompted the end of his political career. 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 6 February 1742. Five days later he formally relinquished the seals of office.
Walpole exerted great influence on the politics of his day. The Tories were reduced to insignificiance, while his own party, the Whigs, become the dominant and largely unopposed party. However, he lacked much of a lasting influence on the uncodified constitutional law of Great Britain and the United Kingdom. He relied mainly on monarchial support, rather than on that of Parliament. His power stemmed from his personal influence, rather than the influence of his office. He was also far stronger than most of his immediate successors; it would take decades for the office of the Prime Minister to grow to it's current power and influence.
Walpole's peace strategy helped contribute to Britain's prosperity, and managed both to secure the position of the Hanoveran Dynasty and counter the Jacobite movement, which was completely ended soon after his reign as Prime Minister ended in their defeat in the 1745 rebellion. It is also thanks to Walpole that 10 Downing Street is the current residence of the British Prime Minister. King 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 on 22 September 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).
He even acquired a namesake town in Massachusetts, USA, as well as an allusion to his fall in the nursery rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin?"
- He appears in two episodes of the long running animated TV series Disneyland, played by Michael Goodliffe.
- He is again played by Michael Goodliffe in Rob Roy The Highland Rogue.
- Wolfe Morris plays him in an episode of the 1974 TV series Churchills People.
- In The Lady And The Bandit, he is played by Lumsden Hare.