Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole was born in Houghton Hall in 1676. Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, he intended to enter the Church but changed his mind and became active in politics instead.

Walpole, a Whig, was elected to the House of Commons in 1701. An outstanding orator, Walpole was appointed Secretary of War in 1708 and Treasurer of the Navy in 1710. After the collapse of the Whig government Walpole was accused of corruption and spent a short period in the Tower of London.

In 1714 Queen Anne became very ill. The true heir to the throne was James Stuart, the son of James II. Many Tory ministers supported James becoming king. However, James Stuart was a Catholic and was strongly opposed by the Whigs. A group of Whigs visited Anne just before she died and persuaded her to sack her Tory ministers. With the support of the Whigs, Queen Anne nominated Prince George of Hanover as the next king of Britain.

When George arrived in England, he knew little about British politics nor could he speak very much English. George therefore became very dependent on the Whigs who had arranged for him to become king. This included Walpole who was made Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715.

Walpole was such a powerful figure in the government he became known as Prime Minister, the first in Britain's history. He was also given 10 Downing Street by Prince George, which became the permanent home of all future Prime Ministers.

Walpole believed that the strength of a country depended on its wealth. The main objective of Walpole's policies was to achieve and maintain this wealth. For example, he helped the business community sell goods by removing taxes on foreign exports.

Walpole did all he could to avoid war, as he believed it drained a country of its financial resources. However, in 1739 Britain became involved in a war with Spain. George II was in favour of the war and became Britain's last king to lead his troops into battle. Walpole, who thought the war was unnecessary, did not provide the dynamic leadership needed during a war. The Tory opposition accused Walpole of not supplying enough money for the British armed forces. Walpole gradually lost the support of the House of Commons, and in February 1742 he was forced to resign from office.

Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, died in 1745.

Primary Sources

(1) J. Green, British History (1874)

Walpole was the first and he was the most successful of our Prime Ministers... He took off the duties from more than a hundred British exports... The wisdom of Walpole was rewarded by a quick growth of prosperity.

(2) A.L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938)

The policy of Robert Walpole and the Whigs was simple enough. First to avoid foreign wars as being harmful to trade. Then to remove taxes as far as possible, from the merchants and the manufacturers and place them upon goods consumed by the masses.

(3) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

Walpole attempted... to secure for the country a prolonged period of quiet prosperity... Some of the means he adopted were, as it seems to us now, wholly unworthy. When argument and persuasion failed, he was prepared to bribe members of parliament by giving them pensions, offices, and even money, to lend him their support.

(4) H. Arnold-Foster, A History of England (1898)

Walpole was in many ways a really great man, and England owes much to his wisdom and good government... There can be no doubt whatever that for many years Walpole bribed and bought the support of Parliament. It must be said, however, that the practice was common at the time, and that he was by no means the only person who adopted it... It is only just, to Walpole, to say that... he bought votes in order to enable him to carry out what he really believed to be the best and wisest policy for the country.

(5) G. Warner, British History (1923)

Walpole maintained till near the close of his ministry a policy of peace, which was very beneficial to England. In domestic affairs little happened... Walpole had no passion to lessen the sum of human misery at home. Such a statesman may make a nation prosperous, but he can never make a nation great.