WALPOLE, Robert (1676-1745), of Houghton, Norf.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1701 - 1702
1702 - 17 Jan. 1712
11 Feb. - 6 Mar. 1712
1713 - 6 Feb. 1742

Family and Education

b. 26 Aug. 1676, 1st surv. s. of Robert Walpole, M.P., of Houghton; bro. of Galfridus and Horatio Walpole. educ. Eton 1690-6, King’s Camb. 1696-8. m. (1) 30 July 1700, Catherine (d. 20 Aug. 1737), da. of John Shorter, a Baltic merchant, of Bybrook, Kent, 3s. 2da.; (2) bef. 3 Mar. 1738, Maria, da. of Thomas Skerrett, 2da. (illegit.). suc. fa. 1700. K.B. 27 May 1725; K.G. 26 May 1726, cr. Earl of Orford 6 Feb. 1742.

Offices Held

One of the council of ld. high adm. 1705-8, sec. at war 1708-10; treasurer of the navy Jan. 1710- Jan. 1711; P.C. 29 Sept. 1714; paymaster of the forces Oct. 1714-15 and June 1720-1; first ld. of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer Oct. 1715-Apr. 1717, 3 Apr. 1721-11 Feb. 1742.

High steward, Yarmouth 1733, King’s Lynn 1738- d.

Biography

At George I’s accession Walpole took the lead in the House of Commons, with the office of paymaster general, which he soon exchanged for those of first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer, sharing the chief power in the Administration with his brother-in-law, Lord Townshend. When Townshend was ousted by Sunderland in 1717, Walpole followed him into opposition, where they were joined by the heir-apparent, later George II, causing ‘such a defection from the Court, especially in the House of Commons, that it was with the utmost difficulty the ministers carried on their affairs in Parliament’.1 On the reconciliation of the rival Whig leaders in 1720, Walpole returned to the pay office till 1721, when he and Townshend recovered their former offices. He remained at the Treasury for the next 21 years, at first as junior partner to Townshend, on whose ‘superior favour at court’, based on the King’s mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, ‘as much Queen of England as ever any was,’2 his own power depended.

For as the Duchess of Kendal never loved Sir Robert Walpole, and was weak enough to admire and be fond of Lord Townshend, so in any nice points that were to be insinuated gently and carried by favour ... the canal of application to the royal ear always had been from Lord Townshend to the Duchess, and from the Duchess to the King. (84)

The situation was reversed at the accession of George II, after which

everything that passed to the present King through the Queen (who was to the son at least what the Duchess of Kendal had been to the father) was suggested by Sir Robert, and nothing pushed or received by her from any other hand. (84)

George II himself, who had come to the throne intending to have no first minister and with a strong prejudice against Walpole, was gradually converted by the Queen to the view that

it was absolutely necessary, from the nature of the English Government, that he should have but one minister; and that it was equally necessary, from Sir Robert’s superior abilities, that he should be that one ... Instead of betraying (as formerly) a jealousy of being thought to be governed by him; instead of avoiding every opportunity of distinguishing and speaking to him in public, instead of hating him whilst he employed him, and grudging every power with which he armed him, he very apparently now took all occasions to declare him his first, or rather his sole, minister, singled him out always in the drawing-room, received no application (military affairs excepted) but from him, and most certainly, if he loved anybody in the world besides the Queen, he had not only an opinion of the statesman, but an affection for the man. (152-3)

Townshend was greatly mortified by

seeing and feeling every day that Sir Robert Walpole, who came into the world, in a manner, under his protection and inferior to him in fortune, quality, and credit, was now, by the force of his infinitely superior talents, as much above him in power, interest, weight, credit, and reputation. All application was made to him. His house was crowded like a fair with all sorts of petitioners, whilst Lord Townshend’s was only frequented by the narrow set of a few relations and particular flatterers; and as Lord Townshend in the late reign had nothing but personal favour at Court to depend upon in any disputes that might arise between him and Sir Robert, he could not but grieve to find that resource in the new reign entirely taken away, the scene quite inverted, and himself as much dependent now upon Sir Robert’s personal interest as Sir Robert had formerly been upon his. (83-84)

When it became clear that, in Walpole’s words, the firm of Townshend and Walpole had turned into Walpole and Townshend, Townshend resigned, leaving Walpole undisputed first, or rather sole, minister.

After Townshend’s retirement in 1730 the effective Government consisted of the King, the Queen, and Walpole, who settled all important matters before referring them to ‘those ciphers of the Cabinet’ ‘to give their sanction to’ and ‘to have their share in being responsible for what in form and appearance only they ever had any share in advising or concerting’ (470, 777-8). The Queen’s role was to persuade the King to accept proposals which he would not take from Walpole. For example:

Sir Robert communicated this scheme secretly to the Queen, she insinuated it to the King, and the King proposed it to Sir Robert as an act of his own ingenuity and generosity. (242)

Even when she did not agree with Walpole, his arguments,

conveyed through the Queen to the King, so wrought upon him, that they quite changed the colour of his Majesty’s sentiments, though they did not tinge the channel through which they flowed. When Lord Hervey told Sir Robert he had made this observation, Sir Robert said it was true, and agreed with him how extraordinary it was that she should be either able or willing to repeat what he said with energy and force sufficient to convince another without being convinced herself. (360-1)

In telling her that without her support he found it impossible ‘to persuade the King into any measure he did not like’ (375), he was paying her a compliment which events were to show to have been only too true.

Despite a new schism in the Whig party, originated by Pulteney in 1725, Walpole’s position seemed so impregnable that at the beginning of 1737 Pulteney seriously considered giving up the struggle. The situation was changed that year by a fresh quarrel in the royal family, which once more placed the heir-apparent at the head of the Whig Opposition. No one was more aware than Walpole, from his experience in the late reign, of the difficulties which this would inevitably bring upon his Administration. ‘There,’ he said, ‘is all the Prince’s family [household], be they more or less, thrown in every question into the Opposition; and how is the loss of those votes to be replaced?’ (772). But ‘the passions of the King and Queen’—for on this occasion he ‘found her not as usual an auxiliary by his side, but another opponent’—‘made Sir Robert Walpole afraid of offering or giving in to any palliating schemes’ (786). He therefore reluctantly acquiesced in a rupture, with consequences which only became fully apparent at the general election of 1741, when the Government won only 17 seats in the venal Cornish boroughs, compared with 32 in 1734, largely owing to the activities of the Prince, whose party of 21, all dependent on him either for their places or for their seats, virtually held the balance in the new House of Commons.

In November 1737, two months after the rupture between the King and the Prince, the death of the Queen deprived Walpole of his most useful ally at court. Discussing the effects of her death with Hervey, who argued that it would rather increase than diminish Walpole’s power, because his ‘credit before was through the medium of the Queen, and all power through a medium must be weaker than when it operates directly’, Walpole said that though it was true that the King

will hear nobody but me, you do not know how often he refuses to hear me when it is on a subject he does not like; but by the Queen I can with time fetch him round to those subjects again; she can make him do the same thing in another shape, and when I give her her lesson, can make him propose the very thing as his own opinion which a week before he had rejected as mine. The many opportunities and the credit she has with him, the knowledge of his temper, the being constantly at him, and the opinion he has both of her judgment and her pursuit of his interest and his pleasure as her first objects, make this part easy for her; but I have not the same materials to act it, and cannot do without somebody that has leisure to operate slowly upon him, which is the only way he can be effectually operated upon. For he is neither to be persuaded nor convinced; he will do nothing to oblige anybody, nor ever own or think he has been in the wrong; and I have told the Queen a thousand times that it is not to be wondered at that he should be of that mind, when she, whom he believed sooner than any other body in the world, never heard him broach the most absurd opinion, or declare the most extravagant design, that she did not tell him he was in the right. (904-5)

Walpole’s fears were soon justified by the King, who after the Queen’s death became increasingly unmanageable. The most serious consequence of his intractability was the defection of the Duke of Argyll, who considered that as the only officer of the rank of field marshal he should have been

set at the head of the army, and imputed his not being so to Sir Robert Walpole, though in reality, had Sir Robert loved him as much as he hated him, it would not have been in his power to do it; in the first place, as he had little power in military affairs, and in the next, because the King determined to have nobody at the head of the army but himself, would do everything there by his own authority, and without any advice, and last of all, because, if his Majesty would have given any authority or taken any advice in these matters, he disliked the Duke of Argyll so much that he was the last man in England to whom he would have delegated the one, or from whom he would have received the other. (707-8)

At the beginning of 1739 Argyll, though a member of the Cabinet, manifested his displeasure by attacking the Spanish convention in the Lords, where he continued to act with the Opposition, without resigning his offices. On 29 Apr. 1740, Walpole’s brother, Horace, wrote:

There has been and is still a good deal of motion about the Duke of Argyll’s behaviour; it was resolved to let him have the command of a camp this summer, for there will be three encampments. The King acquainted him with it himself, he accepted it, but has since insisted that by the title of marshal he should be called commander-in-chief of all the forces. This has been refused by his Majesty with indignation. I suppose a reconciliation with his Grace is absolutely become impracticable.3

A few days later Argyll was dismissed from all his offices, at the cost of throwing him into opposition, with the result that the Government won only 19 seats in Scotland at the ensuing general election, compared with 34 in 1734.

Argyll’s defection was followed by that of Bubb Dodington owing to Walpole’s inability to hold out any hopes of his obtaining a peerage, because the King, apart from being ‘in nothing so hard to be persuaded as to make peers’, had a personal objection to him for having set the Prince against his parents. Dodington’s defection cost Walpole another five seats, making a total of 35 lost not on any point of policy or principle, nor because any of the applications in question was unreasonable but purely because, without the backing of the Queen, he was unable ‘to persuade the King into any measure he did not like.’ Dependent on the royal favour, he was forced to discard from his majority to keep his court cards.

The loss of these 35 seats, counting 70 in a division, left Walpole with an unworkably small majority, which soon showed signs of turning into a minority by defeats on election petitions. During the Christmas recess he attempted to win over the Prince’s party by persuading the King with great difficulty to offer his son the extra £50,000 a year for which he had originally gone into opposition. On the Prince’s refusal to consider any terms so long as Walpole remained in office

all the Cabinet Council ... told the King his affairs could not go on as long as Sir Robert continued in post, and that it would be most advisable for himself and the King that he should quit. The King told them all he would never part with him till he himself desired it.

Walpole’s first reaction was ‘that he was determined to stand it out to the last’, but after further reverses on election petitions even his staunchest supporters recognized that the game was lost. On 31 Jan. 1742 he decided to retire, communicating his decision to ‘some particular persons in the House’ on 2 Feb.,4 and sending to the Duke of Devonshire, who was in Ireland as lord lieutenant, ‘a short view of this great revolution’.

I must inform you that the panic was so great among what I should call my own friends, that they all declared my retiring was become absolutely necessary, as the only means to carry on the public business, and this to be attended with honour and security, etc.5

After settling the lines of the new Administration he resigned with an earldom, a patent of precedence for his illegitimate daughter, and a pension of £4,000 a year, which he did not take up till 1744, when the outcry against it had subsided.6 An attempt by a secret committee of the House of Commons to collect material for his impeachment on grounds of corruption petered out owing to the refusal of the Treasury officials to give evidence as to the disposal of secret service money. During the struggle for power between the old and new sides of the Administration he supported the claim of Henry Pelham to succeed Wilmington as head of the Treasury, and continued to advise him after his appointment.7 Later in 1743 he prevailed on the new ministry to continue the Hanoverian troops, who but for his intervention would have been given up. His last political act was to advise the King not to persist in supporting Carteret, now Lord Granville, against the demand of the Pelhams for his dismissal.8 Four months later, 18 Mar. 1745, he died, killed by a remedy for the stone.

Walpole’s long predominance was due to a combination of the qualities of a parliamentarian, a courtier, and a man of business, in all three of which capacities he was ‘much superior to his contemporaries’ (17). Chesterfield, an opponent, describes him as the

best parliament-man, and the ablest manager of Parliament, that I believe ever lived. An artful rather than an eloquent speaker, he saw, as if by intuition, the disposition of the House, and pressed or receded accordingly. So clear in stating the most intricate matters, especially in the finances, that, whilst he was speaking, the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not.9

Both George II and the Queen

were possessed with an opinion that Sir Robert Walpole was, by so great a superiority, the most able man in the kingdom, that he understood the revenue, and knew how to manage that formidable and refractory body, the House of Commons, so much better than any other man, that it was impossible for the business of the Crown to be well done without him. (177-8)

His skill as a courtier is shown by his early realisation that George II was governed by his wife. While others were paying court to the mistress, Walpole, in his own words, ‘had the right sow by the ear’.10 As a man of business

he had great skill in figures, the nature of the funds, and the revenue; his first application was to this branch of knowledge; but as he afterwards rose to the highest posts of power, and continued longer there than any first minister in this country since Lord Burleigh ever did, he grew, of course, conversant with all the other parts of government and very soon equally able in transacting them. The weight of the whole Administration lay on him, every project was of his forming, conducting, and executing. From the time of making the treaty of Hanover all the foreign as well as domestic affairs passed through his hands; and, considering the little assistance he received from subalterns, it is incredible what a variety and quantity of business he dispatched. But as he had infinite application and long experience, so he had great method and a prodigious memory, with a mind and spirit that were indefatigable; and without every one of these natural as well as acquired advantages, it would indeed have been impossible for him to go through half what he undertook. (17)

Walpole’s long Administration is marked by no reformist measures.

More anxious to keep his power than to raise his fame ... he knew, whatever happened, he could be nothing greater than what he was; and, in order to remain in that situation, his great maxim in policy was to keep everything else as undisturbed as he could, to bear with some abuses rather than risk reformations, and submit to old inconveniences rather than encourage innovations. From these maxims ... he would never lend his assistance nor give the least encouragement to any emendation either of the law or the church ... From this way of reasoning he opposed the inquiry into the South Sea affair, the bill to vacate the infamous sale of Lord Derwentwater’s estate, the examination of the House of Commons into the affairs of the charitable corporations and the abuses in the gaols ... This apprehension, long experience and thorough knowledge of this country and this Government had taught him; and in this way of thinking, the unsuccessful deviation he had made from it in the excise scheme had ... more than ever confirmed him. (364-5)

The worst charge brought against him was that of deliberately lowering the standard of public morality.

Money ... was the chief engine of his Administration; and he employed it with a success that in a manner disgraced humanity ... When he found anybody proof against pecuniary temptations, which, alas, was but seldom, he had recourse to a still worse art; for he laughed at and ridiculed all notions of public virtue.11

Admitting that he ‘gave [money] away liberally at home’, George II added: ‘He was a great man, he understood the country’.12 His creation of the positions of leader of the Opposition and of minister for the House of Commons is discussed in chapters II and III of the Introductory Survey.

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Author: Romney R. Sedgwick

Notes

The references in the text are to Hervey’s Mems.

  • 1. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 509.
  • 2. Lady Cowper Diary, 58.
  • 3. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 46.
  • 4. Walpole to Mann, 4 Feb. 1742.
  • 5. Coxe, Walpole, iii. 591-2.
  • 6. Harrowby mss 10 (L. Inn), 8 Jan. and 2 Feb. 1742; Walpole to Mann, 18 June 1744.
  • 7. Owen, Pelhams, 170-2.
  • 8. Coxe, Walpole, i. 736-7; iii. 602; Yorke, Hardwicke, i. 336.
  • 9. Chesterfield, Characters, 31.
  • 10. Hardwicke, Walpoliana, 6.
  • 11. Chesterfield, 32.