Full name: Robert Walpole
Date of birth: 26 August 1676
Place of birth: Houghton, Norfolk, England
Date of death: 18 March 1745 (aged 68)
Place of death: Westminster, England
Occupation: Politician; Scholar; Businessman
Political party: Whig
Father: Col. Robert Walpole
Mother: Mary Walpole
Spouse: Catherine Shorter (m. 1700; died 1737); Maria Skerret (m. 1738; died 1738)
Children: Edward Walpole, Horace Walpole, Lady Maria Walpole, Lady Mary Walpole, Robert Walpole
Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, better known as Sir Robert Walpole (1725–42), was a British statesman and Whig politician who is widely considered as Great Britain’s de facto first Prime Minister. His political finesse has yet to be matched, despite his purposeful cultivation of an open, cheerful demeanor. His twenty-year term as Prime Minister made him the longest-serving Prime Minister in British history, a distinction he still retains.
Walpole’s impact was such that his age of control is lovingly regarded as Robinocracy or Robinarchy, as he came from a politically prominent family. He was a Whig politician who first entered politics as a member of parliament in 1701. He quickly ascended the corporate ladder, holding a variety of high positions. Walpole was initially elected Prime Minister of Great Britain under George I’s reign in 1721, a position he maintained until 1742.
His leadership in Parliament, according to historian Frank O’Gorman, was based on his “reasonable and convincing oratory, his capacity to stir both the emotions and the minds of men, and, above all, his enormous self-confidence.” Britain grew and shone under his leadership. His middle ground welcomed moderates from both the Whig and Tory parties, but his nomination as Chancellor of the Exchequer after the South Sea Bubble stock-market disaster drew attention to Walpole’s perceived protection of political supporters.
Walpole signed peace treaties, improved Britain’s financial situation by lowering taxes, avoided a major financial crisis by reinstating government funds after the South Sea Bubble collapsed, pioneered protectionist policies, allowing import and export, and walked the middle path by tolerating Protestant Dissenters. His ability to take the middle road set him apart from other politicians of the day. By simply following the middle way and courting moderates from both the Whig and the Tory parties, he avoided high-intensity debates in a flash.
Harry Thomas Dickinson (an English Writer, author, historian) sums up his historical role by saying that “Walpole was one of the greatest politicians in British history. He played a significant role in sustaining the Whig party, safeguarding the Hanoverian succession, and defending the principles of the Glorious Revolution (1688). He established a stable political supremacy for the Whig party and taught succeeding ministers how best to establish an effective working relationship between Crown and Parliament.”
Walpole succeeded in establishing a successful working relationship between the Crown and Parliament throughout his life, setting a high standard for subsequent prime ministers to follow. He is regarded as one of the best British prime leaders by academics.
Childhood and Educational Life
Robert Walpole was born on August 26, 1676, in Houghton, Norfolk. One of 19 children, he was the third son and fifth child of Robert Walpole, a member of the local gentry and a Whig politician who represented the borough of Castle Rising in the House of Commons, and his wife Mary Walpole.
Walpole secured his preliminary education from a private school in Massingham. Academically brilliant, he enrolled at Eton College in 1690. Later on, he secured admission at King’s College Cambridge and matriculated from the same on April 2, 1696.
Walpole had intended to become a cleric, but being the family’s eldest surviving son, he decided against it. When his father died in November 1700, Robert inherited the Walpole estate. According to a paper written by his father on June 9, 1700, the family estate in Norfolk and Suffolk consisted of nine manors in Norfolk and one in Suffolk.
On 30 July 1700, Robert Walpole married Catherine, daughter of John Shorter of Bybrook in Ashford, Kent. The couple was blessed with two daughters and three sons. Catherine died on August 20, 1737 and was buried in Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey.
Before the death of his first wife, Walpole became romantically involved with Maria Skerrett. He married her by March 1738. The two had a daughter who following their marriage became his legitimate child.
Working and Political Career
Following his father’s death in 1700, Robert Walpole became the heir to the Walpole family estate. In 1701, he began his political career as a member of the Castle Rising parliament. In 1702, he moved to King’s Lynn, where he remained for the following 40 years, with one brief intermission.
Walpole had invested in the South Sea Company as a young man, which monopolized trade with Spain, the Caribbean, and South America. When the speculative market for slaves, rum, and mahogany failed, it sparked a frenzy that had consequences throughout Europe. Walpole, on the other hand, had bought low and sold high, considerably increasing his inherited riches and allowing him to build Houghton Hall as we know it today.
Walpole’s political career was one of fast advancement. Robert Walpole, like his father, was a Whig Party member. Walpole was nominated to the council for her husband, Prince George of Denmark, Lord High Admiral, by Queen Anne in 1705. He was named Secretary of War in 1708 after becoming a member of the Admiralty board. From 1710 to 1711, he served as the Treasurer of the Navy.
During these years, Walpole established himself as one of the most prominent of the younger Whig leaders, making his mark both in society and in politics. He rose through the ranks of the Kit-Cat Club, a gathering spot for many Whig men of letters. He had a lot of friends, but his expenses were so expensive that he was in serious debt. He had relied on his political positions to keep himself afloat, but he refused to compromise his values for the sake of a higher pay and benefits.
In the matter of two forage contracts for Scotland, Walpole was accused of venality and corruption in 1712. Walpole was found “guilty of a high breach of trust and notorious corruption” despite the fact that he had kept none of the money. He was re-elected as the Member of Parliament for King’s Lynn in 1713. The death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the following ascension of George I, signaled the end of the Tories’ reign. The Whig government came to power when the Tories opposed George I’s ascension.
Walpole was named Privy Councillor and Paymaster of the Forces by the Whig government. In 1715, he was appointed chairman of a secret committee set up to probe the previous Tory government’s acts. His abilities also sparked envy, which was heightened by a feud over foreign policy between Walpole and his brother-in-law, Charles, Viscount Townshend, on the one hand, and James Stanhope and Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, on the other.
Walpole was a member of the Board of General Officers, which was founded in 1717 to look into pay irregularities. William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath Secretary at War, General Lumley, General Erle, and Sir Philip Meadowes Controller of the Army and Knight Marshal of the King’s Palace, whose daughter, Mary Meadows, was maid-of-honour to Walpole’s friend, Queen Caroline, were among the members appointed by the Prince of Wales.
Walpole fought the administration on every subject over the following three years, and was particularly successful in getting the Peerage Bill (1719) rejected, which would have limited the royal prerogative in the formation of peers. During this period, he also got friendly with Caroline of Ansbach, Princess of Wales, who would later aid him in retaining power after her husband, George II, succeeded to the throne in 1727. Walpole used his influence with the prince to bring about a reconciliation with the king in April 1720 and his own subsequent return to the ministry as paymaster general of the forces.
After resolving the difficulties between the King and the Prince of Wales, Walpole resumed his political career in 1720. He rose to prominence in the House of Commons and wielded enormous power. The Peerage Bill was dropped as a result of Walpole’s influence. Walpole returned to the job of Paymaster of the Forces in 1720. Walpole, on the other hand, lost the Prince of Wales’ favor as a result of his acceptance of the office.
However, by taking the position as Paymaster, Walpole alienated the Prince of Wales (later King George II), who still despised his father’s government. Britain was absorbed in the South Sea Bubble hullabaloo when Walpole returned to the government. Despite common assumption, the corporation quickly went bankrupt, resulting in significant financial losses. Members of the cabinet, such as Stanhope and Sunderland, were held accountable. Walpole saved both of them from punishment and thus gained the nickname ‘The Screen’ and ‘Screenmaster-General’.
After Sunderland’s resignation and Stanhope’s death in 1721, Walpole became the most powerful member in the administration. He was named First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons on April 3, 1721. The administration attempted to resolve the financial issues that followed the collapse of the South Sea Bubble under the premiership of Walpole. With his compensation plans, he guided the government toward financial prosperity, easing the suffering of the people.
On the political front, Walpole’s vision not only prevented a Jacobite uprising under Francis Atterbury, but also prevented the Tories from mounting a revolt. He even oversaw the signing of the treaty of peace between France and Prussia. As he reinforced Whig authority, Walpole’s influence endured. By 1724, however, Walpole and Townshend obtained the dismissal of Carteret from his secretaryship of state and had him sent to Ireland as lord lieutenant. For the rest of George I’s reign Walpole and Townshend remained at the head of the ministry. Their position steadily grew stronger.
Walpole’s premiership was jeopardized upon the death of King George I. On the suggestion of Queen Caroline, King George II’s wife, Walpole was re-elected. His power expanded significantly. Through the Treaty of Vienna, he established the Anglo-Austrian alliance. People in both the opposition and the party were irritated by Walpole’s supremacy and authority. The publication ‘Craftsman’ was relentless in its condemnation of his policies. Walpole, on the other hand, was unconcerned about it.
Walpole persisted in his efforts to ensure Britain’s bright and affluent future. For the same reason, he imposed minimal taxes on the people and implemented a non-war policy. He even persuaded King George II to stay out of the European war. Walpole maintained his dominance in the Commons until 1742. When George II came to power in 1727, he faced a brief crisis when it appeared that he would be removed for a few days, but Queen Caroline persuaded her husband to maintain Walpole in office.
Parliament attempted to deal with the financial crisis caused by the South Sea Bubble under Walpole’s leadership. The South Sea Company’s directors’ estates were used to alleviate the victims’ suffering, and the company’s stock was split between the Bank of England and the East India Company. The King’s and the Whig Party’s credibility had been severely harmed by the crisis, but Walpole defended both in the House of Commons with deft oratory.
The merchant class was enraged by Walpole’s application of excise taxes on wine and tobacco on warehouse goods, which sparked a strong backlash. The new proposal, which was intended to replenish the nation’s dwindling revenue due to smuggling, sparked outrage. The rise in gin tax added fuel to the fire. Despite the fact that Walpole’s popularity waned, his House majority remained stable. Walpole earned the wrath of the literary figures when he persuaded the Parliament to pass the Licensing Act of 1737 under which London theatres were regulated. However, he rose above all.
The great opportunity for the opposition came in 1733, when Walpole decided to impose an excise tax on wine and tobacco to combat smuggling and customs fraud. This was exceedingly unpopular, especially among London merchants, and the opponents tried everything possible to sway public opinion. By dropping the bill, Walpole avoided defeat, but those legislators who had been indiscreet enough to oppose Walpole’s bill lost their positions.
Year 1737 marked the death of Queen Caroline. Though King George II and Walpole had formed a solid bond by that time, Walpole’s sole authority in the government was severely impeded as the Prince of Wales became increasingly hostile to Walpole’s rule. The Prince of Wales established the Patriot Boys, a group that resisted Walpole’s rule. Walpole’s demise was precipitated by a military confrontation. Dispute occurred between Spain and Great Britain over trade with West Indies. This led to the declaration of the 1739 War of the Jenkins’ Ear.
Despite Walpole’s opposition to the war, it was supported by the King, MPs, and his own government. His power was further eroded by the bad results of the 1741 general election, which put his position in jeopardy. In 1742, he resigned from the government. Despite the fact that he was no longer First Lord of the Treasury, Walpole remained politically active as a consultant. His former colleagues were still happy to see him, possibly because he had kept the king’s favor.
Following his resignation, his major political tasks were to provide advise to the government, distribute some patronage, and speak in the Lords on behalf of the administration. He aided the Ministry in the Lords, advised the government on patronage issues, and even spoke in the Lords on the Minister’s behalf. He served as King George II’s ‘Minister behind the Curtain,’ advising and influencing him.
Retirement and Later Life
Walpole relished the delights of the hunt in his later years, in addition to his political pursuits. Such activities were denied to him back at his recently rebuilt country house in Houghton, Norfolk, due to “dismal weather.” He also admired the natural beauty of the area. He was very pleased with his art collection. In the 1720s and 1730s, he spent a lot of money amassing a collection of Old Masters from all across Europe. Walpole was also preoccupied with estate problems.
Death and Legacy
By 1744, Walpole’s health rapidly deteriorated. He breathed his last on March 18, 1745. He was buried in the parish church of his home estate in Houghton, Norfolk.
Several streets, roads, and towns have been named after him since his death. On the boundary between Ontario and Michigan, he has an island named after him. The nursery rhyme ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ is largely ascribed to Walpole’s demise, as he was known by the moniker Cock Robin at the time.
King George II gave him a residence at 10 Downing Street as a present. Walpole, on the other hand, transformed it into an official dwelling instead of using it as a personal gift. Since then, the mansion has served as the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Awards and Honours
Walpole Island is an island and an Indian reserve in southwestern Ontario, Canada, near the boundary between Ontario and Michigan, named for Sir Robert Walpole. It is located on Lake St. Clair near the mouth of the St. Clair River, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario.