300 years ago, on the 3rd April, 1721, an announcement was made in the morning papers that stated “We are informed that a commission is preparing, appointing Mr Walpole first Lord Commissioner of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.” This was how people became aware that Robert Walpole was now the most senior figure in the government, and what we now refer to as Britain’s first Prime Minister.
It seems quite remarkable to the modern eye that such an important appointment could’ve been made with such indifference by the papers, given the fanfare that greets the news of who our new Prime Minister is, every time there’s a general election. But back in 1721, things were different. Ministers were usually appointed by the King-though this was changing- and at the time there was still a feeling that ministers were subservient to the Crown, not vice versa.
But who exactly was Robert Walpole, and how did he rise to the top?
Sir Robert Walpole was born on 26th August, 1676 at Houghton, Norfolk. He was the son of Colonel Robert Walpole, an MP and a member of the Gentry. Walpole was educated at Eton, before advancing onto King’s College Cambridge, as a King’s Scholar.
Walpole demonstrated impressive ‘scholarly credentials’ and initially wanted to become a clergyman but the death of his eldest brother left him as the heir and thus his ambitions were transferred from the ecclastial realm to the political. He became the man of the house when his father died, inheriting one manor in Suffolk and nine in Norfolk.
Walpole was first elected to Parliament in 1701, as MP for Castle Rising, a seat which had previously belonged to his father. He would hold this seat until 1702, where he would be elected as MP for King’s Lynn, a seat he would hold with one exception in 1712, until his resignation in 1742.
Walpole quickly earned a reputation as a clear, forceful speaker with a firm commitment to the Whig principles that had developed following the revolution of 1688.
Clearly his skills were recognised by his peers for Walpole rose quickly through the ranks becoming Secretary of War in 1708 and Treasurer of the Navy from 1710 to 1711. However, his skills and ability were feared by the Tories who dismissed him when they came to power. The Tories also had him imprisoned on corruption charges which later saw him expelled from the Commons. Though the pushback against this by the Whigs saw him reinstated and put on the pathway toward his eventual ultimate rise.
In 1714, George I, the first Hanoverian King ascended the throne and with his distrust of the Tories, he appointed a heavily Whig ministry that included Walpole. Walpole served as First Lord of the Treasury from 1715-1717 before being dismissed as a consequence of the change in government. However, he was soon back in power as Paymaster of the Forces from 1720 to 1721, when there was another change in ministry.
In 1721, Walpole formed a ministry alongside Viscount Townshend and took up the roles of First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. He would hold these positions until his resignation in 1742, and would also set a precedent for a member of the House of Commons who served as the King’s first minister serving as Chancellor and First Lord, that is still sometimes used today.
Walpole’s time as First Minister was an intriguing one. He skilfully kept the Hanoverian dynasty on the throne through numerous attempts by the deposed Stuart dynasty to return. He also used his connections and his political ability to stack Parliament with Whigs.
Walpole also used his closeness to King George I and that fact that he spoke both German and Latin to ensure that he remained in the King’s good books, whilst others fell out of favour. This influence ensured that Walpole’s men and favourites got appointed to key positions at court and in government. It also ensured that his legislation despite not being all that fantastical was passed by large majorities.
It wasn’t just George I, that Walpole was close to. Indeed, as George I’s health began failing, Walpole started cultivating a relationship with the Prince and Princess of Wales, and would often play the peacemaker between the Prince and his father. Often arguing in favour of increasing the Prince’s allowance.
And whilst his ultimate loyalty was to George I, when that man died, Walpole was rewarded by being kept in his position as George II ascended the throne.
Walpole remained a loyal and capable minister for George II, working Parliament and the people to get things done that his King wanted, though he broke with the King over British involvement in the War of Polish Successions and had to pull back the Gin Acts that threatened riots.
What ultimately brought him down though was his desire for peace. When a British merchant had an ear cut off by the Spanish, Parliament and the country were outraged. They demanded retribution, but Walpole was too slow to respond. When Britain did eventually respond they suffered defeat after defeat brought the issue to a head, and when the Commons decided to judge the validity of an election in Chippenham, Walpole took that as a vote of confidence in him.
He lost the vote and resigned.
He was later created Earl of Orford but died not long after.
Walpole’s career was one of rapid rise, careful management of power and sometimes flagrant corruption. He was an intriguing figure, and one that perhaps best fits the role of Prime Minister as we understand it today. He is also responsible for Number 10 Downing Street becoming the home of the PM, having first been offered the place in 1732, as a personal residence. Walpole refused, but in 1735, he decided to take the House as an official residence, deciding that it was more suitable for conducting government business.