After Thomas Gibson, c.1680-1751
oil on canvas
33 x 25 cm. (13 x 10in.)


Walpole, Robert, first earl of Orford (1676–1745), prime minister, was born on 26 August 1676 in the old manor house at Houghton, Norfolk, the fifth of the seventeen children of Robert Walpole (1650–1700), landowner and MP, and his wife, Mary (1654/5–1711), daughter of Sir Jeffrey Burwell, a Suffolk landowner. The Walpoles were a well-established and prominent gentry family in north Norfolk. Robert senior was an educated man who built up the library at Houghton. He also worked hard at improving the family estates, which were worth more than £2000 by the time of his death. In the years after the revolution of 1688 he sat in parliament for Castle Rising—his father, Edward (1621–1668), had represented King's Lynn in the early years of the Restoration—and he established himself as a whig.

At the age of six Robert was sent to study at Great Dunham under the Revd Richard Ransome. On 4 September 1690 he was admitted to Eton College, where he developed a close friendship with Henry Bland, for whom he later secured the deanery of Durham. The Eton register falsely recorded his age as twelve in order to qualify him as a king's scholar. He was duly elected to King's College, Cambridge, on 5 August 1695 and admitted on 22 April of the following year. While at King's, where his tutor was Francis Hare, later bishop of Chichester, he fell seriously ill with smallpox and was attended by Robert Brady, the tory historian and physician. According to his early biographer, Coxe, Walpole was ‘originally designed for the church’ (Coxe, Walpole, 1.5), but these plans were cut short by the death of his eldest brother, Edward, in 1698. His second brother, Burwell, had already been killed at the battle of Beachy Head in 1690, and under pressure from his father Walpole returned to Houghton to learn about the management of the estates to which he was now heir. He resigned his scholarship on 19 May 1698.

Marriage and private life

Once Walpole was settled at Houghton, the search began to find him a wife. Walpole and his father, assisted in their negotiations by Sir John Mordaunt, settled on Catherine (c.1682–1737), daughter of John Shorter, a Baltic timber merchant from Bybrook in Kent, and granddaughter of a former lord mayor of London. Her mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Sir Erasmus Philipps of Picton Castle. Walpole at this time was short and stout, with a tendency towards corpulence which became very marked in later life; Catherine was described by Coxe as ‘a woman of exquisite beauty and accomplished manners’ (Coxe, Walpole, 1.5). They were married on 30 July 1700 at Knightsbridge Chapel in London, Catherine bringing with her a dowry of £7000. The transformation of Walpole's life was completed in November 1700 by the death of his father, who left his son an estate considerably richer and more secure than he had inherited. However, Walpole did face financial pressures. He had to support his mother, who lived until 1711, two sisters, and two young brothers. Catherine preferred London to Norfolk and shared the extravagance of her grandmother, Lady Philipps. Her inclinations were probably shared by Walpole himself, who was keen to play a more prominent role in both political and social life. Having been elected to parliament in 1701, he quickly became part of a young, aristocratic whig circle, to which he was introduced by Charles, second Viscount Townshend, his Norfolk neighbour to whom his father had acted as guardian, and Lady Philipps, who was related to the Stanhopes. During their early years in London, the Walpoles lived with Lady Philipps in Berkeley Street, and only as Walpole's ministerial career advanced did they move, first to Dover Street in 1705 and then to 17 Arlington Street in 1715. Even so, their extravagant lifestyle meant that they were living well beyond their means—debts accumulated, lands were mortgaged and sold, and on one occasion Walpole was saved from imprisonment for debt only by a loan from his scrivener, Thomas Gibson.

In the early years of their marriage the Walpoles' relationship appears to have been happy. In Robert's only surviving love letter, dating from July 1702, he told Catherine that he had ‘that love, that tendernesse, for you, that are there any failings in you they are still perfections to me’ (Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole, 1.90). Between 1701 and 1706 they had two sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Robert (1701–1751), succeeded his father as earl of Orford, and was himself survived by one son, George (1730–1791). The second son, Edward (1706–1784), never married, but had four illegitimate children with Maria Clements. Of these, Laura married Bishop Frederick Keppel; Maria married first James Waldegrave, second Earl Waldegrave, and second William Henry, duke of Gloucester; and Charlotte married Lionel Tollemache, earl of Dysart. Of Walpole's daughters, the elder, Catherine, died unmarried after a long and painful illness in 1722, while the younger, Mary (d. 1731), married George Cholmondeley, Viscount Malpas and later earl of Cholmondeley. From about the time of Edward's birth in 1706, however, the relationship between Robert and Catherine deteriorated. They continued to live together and publicly appearances were maintained. Catherine continued to play the role of the wife of a leading politician. When she was singled out at court by Queen Caroline in 1727 immediately after the accession of George II, it was seen as an early sign that Walpole had not fallen out of favour.

In private, however, the marriage had broken down, the couple living virtually separate lives. In April 1716 Robert fell seriously ill, but this did not deter Catherine from making her annual trip to Bath. Her affairs became the talk of the town. The earl of Egmont claimed that ‘she was as gallant, if report be true, with the men as he with the women’ (Egmont Diary, 2.431). Lady Cowper even alleged that Catherine, with the connivance of Walpole himself, had an affair with the prince of Wales. Walpole's modern biographer J. H. Plumb believed that Horatio (Horace) Walpole (1717–1797), born on 24 September 1717, may well not have been Robert's son, though the allegation made in the early nineteenth century by Lady Louisa Stuart that he was the son of Carr, Lord Hervey, lacks any contemporary corroboration. Robert probably had numerous mistresses, including Carey Daye (d. in or after 1746), with whom he had a daughter, Catherine (d. 1775), about 1724. Little is known about either mother or daughter, though both were living in Chichester at the time of Walpole's death. It is likely that Carey Daye's successor was Maria (1702–1738), daughter of Thomas Skerrett, a London staymaker, and his first wife, Hester Stafford, widow of John Pleydell. According to contemporary gossip, Maria was procured for Walpole by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and it is possible that they first met at her house at Twickenham in summer 1724. Certainly their relationship was well established by the end of that year, as the first of their two daughters, Maria or Mary (d. 1801), was born in 1725. On his resignation in 1742 Walpole obtained for her a patent of precedence as the daughter of an earl, an act which, according to the ministerial whig William Hay, ‘brought more Odium on him than perhaps any Act of Power’ (Taylor and Jones, 176). In 1746 Lady Maria Walpole married Colonel Charles Churchill, the illegitimate son of General Charles Churchill. Their second daughter died before 1738.

In July 1725 Walpole's eldest son (then Lord Walpole) was appointed ranger of Richmond Park (TNA: PRO, E 403/2473, p. 44), but it was his father, as deputy ranger, who regularly retreated to the ranger's lodge at weekends to spend time with Maria Skerrett in what Hervey called ‘his bower of bliss’ (Hervey, 3.832). On 20 August 1737 Lady Walpole died at Chelsea, and she was buried at Houghton a week later. Within weeks rumours began to circulate that Walpole had married his mistress, but the ceremony probably did not take place until shortly before 3 March 1738. Scurrilous verses circulated on the subject of the minister's marriage to ‘a public whore’ (Egmont Diary, 2.471), though the scandal did not prevent the new Lady Walpole being presented at court. According to Bishop Hare, she brought with her a fortune of some £30,000, accumulated in large part by her father. The diplomatistHoratio Walpole observed that his brother's happiness was ‘wrapt up’ in Maria, whom he described as ‘a very sensible well-behaved modest woman’. Her death on 4 June 1738 following a miscarriage flung Walpole into a ‘deplorable and comfortless condition’ (Buckinghamshire MSS, 13, 17, 238), which continued for several weeks and from which he was diverted only by plunging himself into work.

Early political career

The death of Walpole's father on 18 November 1700 vacated his parliamentary seat at Castle Rising. Even before the funeral Walpole had written to Thomas Howard to secure his support at the by-election, but parliament was dissolved before the writ could be issued. He took the opportunity of the general election to stand as a candidate for Norfolk, but was decisively defeated and was returned for Castle Rising. From the moment Walpole entered the Commons, he began to play an active role in its proceedings. In his first session he took over from his brother-in-law, Sir Charles Turner, the management of a bill to establish a workhouse at King's Lynn and successfully piloted it onto the statute book. At the elections of 1702 he moved to King's Lynn, the constituency which he then represented continuously, except for a short break in 1712, until his elevation to the Lords in February 1742. At Castle Rising he exerted the family interest to secure the return of his tory uncle, Horatio Walpole. This prompted fears among Norfolk whigs that he was ‘turning with the wind’. The explanation, however, lay in Walpole's desperate need for cash—the consent of his uncle, as trustee to his mother and sisters, was necessary before he could raise money on property in Suffolk. In fact, there is no doubting his commitment to the whig cause in parliament. His closest connections at this time were with the Norfolk whigs, among whom his friend and neighbour the young Lord Townshend was emerging as a leading figure, and he developed a friendship with William Cavendish, earl of Hartington, who was for a while his fellow MP for Castle Rising. But he was also establishing a wider reputation as a rising politician, as revealed by his election as a member of the Kit-Cat Club in 1703, and he forged close relationships with other prominent young whigs, including James Stanhope and Spencer Compton.

By the time of the parliamentary session of 1704–5 Walpole was attracting attention as a leading whig performer in the Commons. His colleagues regarded his presence as essential for major debates, such as those on the address and the Occasional Conformity Bill, and even the Dutch agent in London noted that he was ‘un de ceux qui se distinguoient le plus parmi les Whigs’ (Hayton, 5.777). At the beginning of 1705 it was rumoured that he would be offered a place in government, and in June he was appointed to the Admiralty council ‘at the particular recommendation of Marlborough’ (ibid.). The office carried a salary of £1000 per annum, which did a little to ease Walpole's financial problems. But he was still desperately short of money, and in later years the duchess of Marlborough liked to recall ‘the beggary she first knew him in’ (F. Harris, 207). The Admiralty board offered Walpole the opportunity to impress Queen Anne's leading ministers, the earl of Godolphin and the duke of Marlborough, with his energy and efficiency, and over the next few years he became increasingly identified with the ‘Lord Treasurer's whigs’. He was exasperated, however, by the failings of the board, and even considered resigning in May. Despite this, in December 1708 he defended the Admiralty board, and particularly Admiral George Churchill, against an attack by both whigs and tories, justifying himself by saying to his friends that ‘he should be ashamed to sit at a board, and not be in a capacity to defend its proceedings’ (Bishop Burnet's History, 5.343).

In the reconstruction of the ministry following the resignation of Robert Harley in February 1708, Walpole's competence and moderation made him a natural choice as secretary at war, and he was appointed on 25 February. Walpole's support for the ‘duumvirs’, Godolphin and Marlborough, however, continued to provoke whig criticism, and at a meeting of the Kit-Cat Club in June 1708 Jacob Tonson called him ‘the greatest villain’ in the world for ‘forsaking his patrons and benefactors the juncto’ (Portland MSS, 4.493). Even as late as the end of 1709 Godolphin still saw Walpole as a possible ally against the junto, who were trying to dominate the ministry, but by this time Walpole, like Townshend and Devonshire, had moved back into the junto camp. As secretary at war Walpole once again demonstrated his capacity for business and the detail of administration. The office brought him into close contact with the duke of Marlborough, who formed a high opinion of him as ‘a very honest man’ (Hayton, 5.778), and it was almost certainly through Marlborough's influence that he was made treasurer of the navy in January 1710 while still continuing as secretary at war.

A few weeks previously, on 13 December 1709, Walpole had been appointed to the Commons committee responsible for drawing up articles of impeachment against the high-flying tory preacher Henry Sacheverell, whose sermon The Perils of False Brethren, denying that resistance had taken place in 1688, was regarded by many whigs as seditious. Walpole played a leading role in the trial, justifying the right of resistance in a major speech on the first article. Defending whig constitutional principles, he claimed that ‘To assert non-resistance in that boundless and unlimited sense, in which Dr. Sacheverell presumes to assert it, is to undermine the very foundations of our government’ (Hayton, 5.779). In a speech which delighted his fellow whigs, he went on to suggest that Sacheverell's arguments were designed to pave the way for a Jacobite restoration. Sacheverell was found guilty, but the whig triumph was short-lived. In the 1710 elections the tory campaign, based on the cry of ‘the Church in danger’, was fuelled by the Sacheverell prosecution. Managers of the impeachment were singled out as particular targets. At Norwich, where Walpole was standing for the county for the first time since 1701, the mob pelted him ‘with dirt and stones and drove him out of his tent, spoiling his fine laced coat which they told him came out of the Treasury’ (Holmes, 252). Two tories were elected and Walpole was decisively defeated, coming bottom of the poll with almost 400 votes fewer than his whig partner. Once again, however, he was returned for King's Lynn, though he never contested the county again.

Even before the elections the ministry's position had been deteriorating. Walpole himself became embroiled in the worsening relationship between Queen Anne and the Marlboroughs. When he advised the duke to accede to the demand that Samuel Masham, the husband of the queen's favourite, Abigail, be made a brigadier, the duchess suspected him of double-dealing. The suspicions were probably unfounded, as there is little concrete evidence that Walpole was trimming. On the contrary, when the earl of Sunderland was dismissed in June 1710, the first major casualty of Robert Harley's remodelling of the ministry, Walpole was one of several junior whigs who advocated a mass resignation. But his earlier moderation encouraged Harley, who considered him to be ‘worth half his party’, to try to detach him from the whigs (Hayton). In September 1710 Walpole was dismissed as secretary at war, but was allowed to retain the treasurership of the navy. When parliament assembled in November 1710, however, it soon became apparent that Walpole had committed himself to opposition to Harley's ministry. On 2 January 1711 he received a letter dismissing him as treasurer of the navy and on the same day led the whig attack in the Commons on the government's policy towards the war in Spain. He continued to play a prominent role in Commons debates through the rest of the session, Swift describing him as ‘one of the Whigs chief speakers’ (Swift, Journal to Stella, 2.442).

His prominence as a speaker aside, Swift dismissed Walpole as ‘one who is otherwise altogether obscure’ (Swift, History, 65). This judgement, however, is hardly borne out by the behaviour of the tories. First, Harley tried again to win him over in the summer of 1711, but failed. Then, when parliament reassembled in late autumn, they resolved to put him ‘out of the way of disturbing them in the house’ (Bishop Burnet's History, 6.100), William Bromley, the speaker, declaring that this was ‘the unum necessarium’ (Coxe, Walpole, 1.36). By the beginning of December it was known that the commissioners of public accounts had charges to bring against Walpole. On 21 December their report alleged that, while secretary of war, he had reserved part of two forage contracts for the army in Scotland for his friend and banker, Robert Mann, and that the other contractors had then bought out Mann's share for 500 guineas. More seriously, the bills for Mann's payment had been made out to Walpole, and in one case the receipt bore his signature. The commissioners therefore alleged clear proof that Walpole had been bribed. Mann swore that the money had all been paid to him, but when the case was debated in the Commons on 17 January 1712 a majority of more than fifty found Walpole guilty of ‘a high breach of trust and notorious corruption’ (Hayton, 5.782). He was then expelled from the house and committed to the Tower, though declining majorities in these votes reflected the partisan nature of the proceedings. Walpole continued to assert his own innocence, writing to his sister that ‘this barbarous injustice being only the effect of party malice, does not concern me at all and I heartily despise what I shall one day revenge’ (Plumb, 1.181). Most biographers have accepted his professions, but he was under great obligations to Mann, who had been his financial adviser since his father's death, and, as David Hayton has pointed out, Mann was committed to custody by the Commons for refusing to answer further questions from the commissioners of public accounts (ibid.).

Imprisonment turned Walpole into a national political figure and a whig martyr. He was visited daily by the leading whigs, a ballad composed in his honour described him as ‘the Jewel in the Tower’ (Coxe, Walpole, 1.39–40), and at the King's Lynn by-election he was triumphantly returned, defeating a local tory. The Commons promptly declared his re-election void, so even after his release from imprisonment on 8 July 1712 he was left without a seat in parliament. During this period he turned to pamphleteering. He probably contributed toMr Walpole's Case (1712), a refutation of the charges brought against him by the Commons. Then in 1713 he attacked the treaty of Utrecht and the commercial treaty with France in A Short History of the Parliament, which rapidly went through at least three editions. Horace Walpole later attributed many more pamphlets to his father, including Four Letters to a Friend in North Britain (1710) on the Sacheverell affair and The Debts of the Nation Stated and Considered (1711). Recent research, however, has demonstrated conclusively that these were the work of Arthur Maynwaring, although Walpole may have assisted with comments.

At the 1713 elections the tories, benefiting from public support for the peace, increased their majority. Walpole, however, was returned unopposed as MP for King's Lynn. His election address, subsequently published, contained a fierce attack on the ministry's foreign policy and provoked new efforts to expel him from the Commons. In the next session of parliament, he played a leading role for the whigs in all the major debates. On 18 March 1714 he opened the defence of Richard Steele against tory attempts to expel him from the Commons, delivering what colleagues agreed was his best ever speech. He continued to attack the Utrecht settlement, developed the whig case that the protestant succession was in danger ‘from the dubious conduct of some persons in high stations’ (Hayton, 5.783), and spoke out strongly against the Schism Bill, arguing that papists and nonjurors posed more danger to church and state than dissenters.

The Hanoverian succession and whig schism

The situation of the whig party was transformed by the accession of George I. The ministry constructed in late September and early October 1714 following the king's arrival in England was dominated by whigs: the only tory to receive major office was the earl of Nottingham as lord president of the council. There was considerable rivalry between the leading whigs for power and influence, but in the early months of the reign Townshend, secretary of state for the north, appears to have emerged as the English politician who most enjoyed the king's confidence. The relationship between Walpole and Townshend was now closer than ever, as Townshend had married Walpole's sister Dolly in July 1713. Walpole himself, however, was only appointed paymaster of the forces.

But in the House of Commons, Walpole quickly resumed the leading role in debates that he had played in Queen Anne's last parliament. The whigs enjoyed a comfortable majority, and they set about using it to consolidate their power and to attack the tory leadership. On 23 March, Walpole opened the first major debate of the new parliament by proposing the address to the king. It included a powerful denunciation of the former tory ministers and the treaty of Utrecht, and threatened those who had conspired to restore the Pretender with ‘condign punishment’ (Chandler, 6.13). Within a month Walpole had been elected chairman of the secret committee charged with investigating the peace negotiations and the conduct of the tory ministry. A serious illness prevented him from attending several meetings, but he was well enough to present the committee's report on 9 June and the next day impeached Viscount Bolingbroke of high treason. Similar charges were then laid against the earl of Oxford and the duke of Ormond, while the earl of Stafford was accused of high crimes and misdemeanours. The conduct of the trials was entrusted to the secret committee, which spent the next three months preparing the articles. The surviving reports suggest that Walpole was driving this process forward, and he reported the articles of impeachment against Oxford to the Commons on 7 July, followed by those against Bolingbroke, Ormond, and Stafford on 4, 5, and 31 August respectively.

By the time that parliament was adjourned on 21 September 1715 it was clear that Walpole had emerged as the leading spokesman for the ministry in the Commons, eclipsing his friend James Stanhope, the secretary of state for the south. Walpole's reward, and confirmation of Townshend's dominance within the ministry, came with his appointment in October as first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. This period, however, not only witnessed his rise to high ministerial office, but also saw a dramatic increase in his wealth. J. H. Plumb has calculated that between August 1714 and October 1717 over £100,000 passed through Walpole's hands, of which more than £60,000 was invested. The rest was spent, partly paying off old debts and mortgages and partly in lavish expenditure. A large part of the investments was probably Treasury and pay office surpluses; contemporary practice allowed Walpole to enjoy the interest on these sums. It is also clear that Walpole profited from intelligent investments. Even so, the source of his wealth—and he did suddenly become very rich—remains a mystery. What is more, the period from 1714 to 1717 merely laid the foundations for his aristocratic lifestyle. His vast spending on building, furniture, and pictures still lay in the future. It is unfortunate that so few of his financial papers have survived.

The dominance of Townshend and Walpole provoked suspicion and hostility among other whigs. First, there was a group of country whigs, such as Edward Wortley Montagu, for whom Walpole was tainted by corruption and consequently unfit to hold high ministerial office. Such men were clearly unconvinced that the charges made against him in 1711 were merely an expression of tory malice, but their concerns also prefigured the attacks made on him in the 1730s and perhaps reflect doubts about the sources of his new wealth. Second, various court whigs, notably the lord chancellor, Earl Cowper, believed that Townshend and Walpole were trying to dominate the ministry and monopolize the power of the crown. This belief was strengthened by the perception that Walpole was trying to fill the Treasury with his own creatures. Third, there was the earl of Sunderland, the youngest member of the junto, who felt slighted that he had received only the lord lieutenancy of Ireland on George I's accession and was little more content with his promotion to lord privy seal in September 1715. These discontents were to split the whig party and bring about the fall of Walpole and Townshend.

Matters came to a head during George I's visit to Hanover, for which he departed on 7 July, accompanied by Stanhope. They were followed in late summer by Sunderland, ostensibly to take the waters at Aix, but intent, as Walpole foresaw, on undermining the ministry. In the early summer Walpole was still recovering from a serious illness that had prevented him from participating in the debates on the Septennial Act, but it was foreign affairs, Townshend's province, that provided the focus for growing ministerial tensions. Sunderland exploited the reluctance of Townshend to support George I's desire for a more active policy in support of Hanoverian ambitions in the Baltic. He also worked on the king's suspicions of the prince of Wales, who had been appointed regent, insinuating that Walpole and Townshend were intriguing with him to undermine the king's authority. More surprisingly, Sunderland won support from Stanhope. Stanhope also came to favour more active British participation in the Great Northern War, and it is likely that he was particularly alienated from his old friends, as was George, by the delays in signing the Anglo-French alliance that he was largely responsible for negotiating. Finally, on 4 December, Stanhope sent a dispatch to London informing Townshend of the king's decision to dismiss him from the secretaryship of state and offering him the lord lieutenancy of Ireland. It was accompanied by a private letter to Walpole, urging him to persuade Townshend to accept the offer, but warning him that, if he did not, plans had been made to exclude the Townshend–Walpole faction from the ministry and reconstruct it around Stanhope and Sunderland.

Walpole was astonished, above all by Stanhope's conduct, which he found ‘unaccountable’ (Coxe, Walpole, 2.143). He and Townshend had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred. They had been totally ignorant of Stanhope's role in the intrigues at Hanover, and through the autumn they had continued to write frank letters to him confiding their fears about Sunderland and the Germans. After some initial hesitation, they decided to await the king's return and Townshend accepted the lieutenancy. Soon after the opening of the new session of parliament in February 1717, however, it became apparent that the divisions within the ministry could not be papered over. In the Commons, Walpole gave only lukewarm support to proposals for measures against Sweden following the revelation of its ambassador's involvement in plotting with the Jacobites, and some of his supporters voted against the court, reducing its majority to just four. When Townshend voted against the Mutiny Bill in the Lords, he was immediately dismissed. On the following day, 10 April, Walpole resigned, followed by a number of his whig allies, including Lord Orford, William Pulteney, Paul Methuen, and the duke of Devonshire.

Initially, Walpole appeared to eschew formal opposition, declaring on 16 April that he did not intend ‘to make the king uneasy, or to embarrass his affairs’ (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 7.449). He continued to support the proposals for reducing the interest on part of the national debt and establishing a sinking fund, though he did so as ‘a Country Gentleman’ (Chandler, 6.120). A clearer indication of his intentions was provided on 12 May, when Walpole supported the proposal of William Wyndham, a leading tory, that Andrew Snape, a prominent high-churchman, be invited to preach before the Commons on 29 May. The motion was carried by an alliance of tories and opposition whigs against the government by 141 votes to 131. The depth of the personal breach between Walpole and Stanhope became apparent to all on 20 May, when Stanhope launched a personal attack on Walpole, pointedly remarking that ‘he would content himself with the Salary and lawful Perquisites of his Office’ (ibid., 6.133). This provoked a violent quarrel and the house had to intervene to prevent the matter being taken further.

In so far as the origins of the whig schism lay in divisions over foreign policy, an element of political principle was involved. The same cannot be said about the behaviour of Walpole and Townshend over the next two years. To some extent whig opposition to the ministry was accorded legitimacy by the divisions within the royal family, which were formalized when the king ordered the prince of Wales to leave St James's in November 1717. The prince and princess set up an alternative court at Leicester House, where Walpole and Townshend were frequent visitors. But, in the Commons in particular, Walpole's efforts to harry the ministry led him to embrace the politics of faction to an extent that sometimes discomfited even his followers. Not only did he frequently co-operate with the tories, but he also abandoned positions which he had formerly held. In 1715 he had pressed vigorously for the impeachment of the earl of Oxford, claiming that it was essential that ‘the Ax was laid to the Root’ (Archbishop King papers, MS 1995–2008/2410). But in the 1717 session he stayed away from most of the meetings of the committee responsible for preparing the case, despite the fact that he was its chairman. His abandonment of whig principles was even more striking in January 1719, when he led the opposition in the Commons to the repeal of the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts, two anti-dissenting measures that he had condemned in the previous reign. According to one observer, he ‘bore harder upon the Court than any Tory durst attempt to do’, comparing its measures to those of James II (Taylor and Jones, 214).

Walpole's efforts to defeat repeal failed. In the next session, however, he found the perfect opportunity to embarrass the government in the Peerage Bill, a measure designed to limit the size of the House of Lords. His behaviour again appeared to many to be pure faction—Arthur Onslow recalled that Walpole cajoled his allies into opposing the bill, despite their belief that they would be acting in contradiction to whig principles. However, Walpole had played a prominent role in a pamphlet debate in the spring of 1719 about an earlier attempt by the ministry to legislate on this issue. Given the sentiments he had expressed in his Thoughts of a Member of the Lower House, he was already committed to opposing the bill that was introduced into the House of Lords on 25 November 1719. Speaking towards the end of the Commons debate on 7 December, Walpole condemned it as a blatant attempt by the ministry to secure its power in the upper house, and he played effectively on the ambitions of country gentlemen that their families might one day be raised to the peerage. But his main argument was that it would ‘subvert the whole constitution’ by destroying the ‘due balance between the three branches of the legislature’ (Coxe, Walpole, 1.123). The speech was possibly the best he ever delivered, and helped to secure the defeat of the bill by 269 votes to 177. Even Onslow admitted that it ‘had as much of natural eloquence and of genius in it as had been heard by any of the audience within those walls’ (Buckinghamshire MSS, 459).

Return to government and the South Sea Bubble

Six months after the defeat of the Peerage Bill, Walpole was back in the ministry. On 11 June 1720 he returned to office as paymaster-general of the forces, and on the same day his brother-in-law Lord Townshend was appointed lord president of the council. But it would be dangerous to draw the conclusion that these events were directly linked. While Walpole had demonstrated his ability to inflict a striking, if occasional, defeat on the Sunderland–Stanhope administration, he was far from controlling a majority in the Commons. What, then, led the two whig factions to sink their differences?

Unfortunately, little evidence survives to illuminate the motives of those who participated in the negotiations in spring 1720. Walpole and Townshend were probably motivated in large part by the recognition that their current tactics were leading nowhere. Their sense of weakness was doubtless increased by the scheme introduced into the House of Commons on 22 January 1720 for the South Sea Company to take over a large part of the national debt. If that scheme was a success—and in spring and early summer 1720 it appeared to be—then the burden of the national debt would be reduced and the position of the ministry strengthened. More puzzling, therefore, was the ministry's willingness to enter into negotiations, especially in the light of the animosity between Walpole and Sunderland. The desire to weaken the opposition in parliament surely played a part, especially in view of the king's desire to secure the payment of the civil-list debts, an issue which it would have been easy for Walpole to exploit. Also important was Walpole's ability to bring about a reconciliation in the royal family on terms acceptable to George I. As Lady Cowper observed, the prince of Wales was ‘guided’ by his wife, who had been ‘engross'd & Monopolis'd’ by Walpole ‘to a degree of shutting every body out & making her deaf to every thing [that] did not come from him’ (Cowper, diary, fols. 104v, 75r). The reconciliation was made public when the prince and princess were received at St James's on 23 April, and the whig schism was over.

Publicly, harmony had been restored among the leading figures of the whig party. There was ‘great hugging & kissing between the two old & two new Ministers’ and they were observed walking ‘all four with their Arms round each other to show they are now all one’ (Cowper, diary, fol. 99r). But the reality was that Walpole and Townshend were joining the Sunderland–Stanhope ministry as junior partners, and their public acknowledgement of this fact was crucial to their readmission to office. They had to wait another month before receiving their offices, Walpole was not a member of the cabinet, and they were unable to secure appointments for their allies. Of those who had left government with them in 1717, only Paul Methuen received a major office, as comptroller of the household. Even William Pulteney, one of Walpole's most loyal lieutenants in the Commons over the previous three years, was left out in the cold, creating a bitter resentment that contributed to his move into opposition in 1725.

Within weeks, however, the bursting of the South Sea Bubble had transformed British politics. Since the announcement of the scheme for the company to take over a large part of the national debt, there had been wild speculation in its stock. The price had risen from 170 at the beginning of March to a peak of 1050 on 24 June, accompanied by a more general stock market boom. In August the bubble burst. By 1 September the price of company stock had fallen to 775, and then to 290 by 1 October. The crash threatened the stability of public credit and also generated a clamour for revenge from those who had lost heavily in the fever of speculation.

The next year was a crucial period in Walpole's political career, as he played the leading role in formulating and implementing the ministry's response to the crisis. By the middle of 1721 he had re-established Townshend and himself as key members of the administration. However, the image of Walpole as the far-sighted statesman, remaining aloof until summoned by the public to rescue the country from disaster, is simply inaccurate. To understand his role it is necessary to examine his personal finances, the policies he pursued for the restoration of public credit, and his responses to the political reverberations of the bubble.

As J. H. Plumb has demonstrated through a study of Walpole's surviving accounts, it is simply untrue that he made a fortune by purchasing South Sea stock and selling out at the top of the market. At the beginning of 1720 Walpole held almost £10,000 of stock, but he had sold all of that by 18 March, denying himself the opportunity of profiting from the rapid rise in its value over the next three months. He did not invest again until the third subscription in June, at a time when the price was approaching its peak. Indeed, far from making a profit out of South Sea stock, it seems likely that Walpole suffered a significant loss on his June investments, and he certainly lost £27,000 in loans to Sir Cesar Child and Lord Hillsborough who were bankrupted in the crash. The losses were probably more than balanced by the ‘small fortune’ (Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole, 1.309) that he made from other investments in 1720, particularly in insurance and the Royal African Company. But Walpole had no special insight into the weaknesses of the South Sea scheme. In summer 1720 he was saved from making significant losses on insurance stocks only by the prudence of his banker, Robert Jacombe, and as late as the end of August he was willing to commit further substantial sums to the South Sea Company. Through this period Walpole was also investing heavily in land in Norfolk. This might appear a sensible response to the fever of stock market speculation, but the bubble was also pushing up land prices, and at no other time in his career would Walpole have paid as much for the estates he purchased.

It is easy to exaggerate Walpole's importance in restoring public finances: time was more important than government action in bringing stability back to the markets. None the less, as an acknowledged expert in financial matters and one of the few members of the administration not tainted by association with the original legislation, Walpole played a leading role in ministerial and parliamentary deliberations about the crisis in late 1720 and through 1721. As early as November 1720 newspapers were referring to him as ‘the famous Mr. W—le’ (Dickson, 159). He recognized that, despite the clamour, the scheme had actually succeeded in its aim of altering the structure of the national debt and significantly reducing the burden of interest payable by the government. In the Commons he strongly resisted efforts by public creditors to get out of their agreements to purchase South Sea stock, securing the endorsement of this ‘Fundamental’ position on 20 December (Chandler, 6.225). Other early initiatives achieved less. Walpole was probably largely responsible for the so-called bank contract, drawn up after a meeting on 19 September, but it never took effect. The first comprehensive scheme, known to contemporaries as the ingraftment, was developed by Walpole with the assistance of Robert Jacombe in the autumn and embodied in legislation which passed into law in March 1721, but it was permissive only and never put into effect. Not until August 1721 was an act ‘to restore the publick Credit’ finally passed. Walpole again appears to have been ‘the main architect’ of the provisions, which forced the South Sea Company to disgorge its surplus stock and abandon its claims to be paid in full for what it had sold, while investors had to reconcile themselves to substantial losses (Dickson, 176).

From the time when parliament reassembled in December 1720, however, public attention focused on the campaign to punish the men responsible for the disaster, particularly the directors of the South Sea Company and those ministers implicated in the affair. Walpole felt no temptation to lead the call for revenge. Elections were due in 1722 and the destruction of the ministry could not be risked. Besides, his position in the closet would not be strengthened by joining an investigation directed at the king's favourite ministers and which might implicate the court itself in the scandal. Walpole set about doing what he could to defend the ministry. His task was made easier by the deaths of Stanhope and the two James Craggs, father and son. Even so, the South Sea directors had to be sacrificed to the popular clamour, as did John Aislabie, the chancellor of the exchequer. During the debate on Aislabie the opposition were quick to notice that ‘Walpole's corner satt mute as fishes’ (Coxe, Walpole, 2.210), an act that Aislabie resented for the rest of his life. Crucially, however, on 15 March, Sunderland was acquitted by 233 votes to 172 with Walpole leading his defence.

Walpole was widely seen as the principal ministerial figure obstructing the investigation into the Bubble. Nicknamed ‘the skreen’ (Coxe, Walpole, 2.216–17), he attracted widespread opprobrium and abuse. But through his conduct he had done much to re-establish the power of the Townshend–Walpole faction within the ministry, demonstrating to the king that, for the time being at least, he was essential to the continuance of the government. The rewards of office soon followed. After the death of Stanhope, Townshend was again appointed secretary of state on 10 February 1721. Moreover, despite his acquittal, Sunderland was too tainted to continue as first lord of the Treasury, and he was replaced by Walpole on 3 April.

Some historians have dated the beginning of the Townshend–Walpole ministry from this point, but there are problems with this analysis. Sunderland remained a powerful figure at court and he retained the office of groom of the stole, which gave him easy access to the king. He had ensured that one of his allies, John, Lord Carteret, succeeded Craggs in the other secretaryship, and throughout the next year many commentators continued to regard him as the leading minister. Barely a façade of harmony was preserved within the ministry, and rumours were common in London about Christmas 1721 that Walpole was on the verge of dismissal. The tensions became deeper as the 1722 elections approached—in several constituencies Walpole and Sunderland supported rival candidates. Walpole was not in a strong position to win this battle. Sunderland still enjoyed the trust of the king, who had no love for Walpole and was resolved that he ‘should not govern’ (Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole, 1.366). However, after a short illness Sunderland died on 19 April 1722. This date is a far more convincing starting point for the Townshend–Walpole ministry, as George I had little option in the short term other than to place himself in their hands.

Consolidation of power and management of the Commons

Walpole and Townshend had now established their dominance of the ministry, but their position was by no means secure. The king accepted them, but only faute de mieux. Indeed, a new rival for power was emerging in the person of Lord Carteret. As early as June 1722 gossip was circulating to the effect that he was now the favourite at court, one observer even remarking that he was ‘looked on as Premier at present’ (Portland MSS, 7.328). In this context Walpole can hardly have been reassured by the knowledge that he was widely distrusted among the whig party in parliament. In the House of Lords the ministry was faced by a small but vocal opposition, composed mainly of tories, but led by the former whig lord chancellor, Earl Cowper, which had been brought together in reaction to the extensive political corruption revealed by the South Sea Bubble. Similar sentiments were expressed by a small group of country whigs in the Commons, who condemned the abandonment of whig principles by Sunderland and Walpole. Their ideas were developed most effectively by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in the popular Cato's Letters, published initially in the London Journal in 1720–22. More generally, Walpole had damaged his whig credentials by co-operating with tories during the whig schism and screening men widely believed to be guilty during the South Sea crisis. Over the next year, however, he was able to exploit another political crisis to consolidate the position of the ministry.

On 21 April 1722, just two days after Sunderland's death, the ministry received intelligence from the French government about a Jacobite plot, better known as the Atterbury plot after one of its leaders, Francis Atterbury, bishop of Rochester. The plot had its origins in negotiations between Sunderland and some leading tories which had begun in early 1721 as part of his strategy to undermine Walpole. These contacts came to nothing and eventually the tories realized that they were being duped, but in their enthusiasm they had sent off an invitation to the Pretender. In November, Atterbury and a number of the other conspirators committed themselves to plans for a landing by the duke of Ormond, though by April 1722 it was increasingly clear that this scheme was impractical.

Walpole and Townshend acted immediately, and the opening of the posts produced a substantial amount of Jacobite correspondence. The ministers had a good idea who the leading Jacobites were, but as the conspirators went to ground and the letters dried up they lacked the proof needed for a prosecution or even to justify stationing troops in Hyde Park. Then, in the summer, Walpole had a great stroke of luck, as the intercepted letters of Christopher Layer, a minor plotter, revealed plans for a rebellion and the assassination of George I. This provided the justification for the arrest of Atterbury, Lord Orrery, and Lord North, as well as Layer. The evidence against Layer was clear and he was convicted of treason. His fantasies, however, were entirely unconnected with the plans of the Atterbury circle, and by the end of 1722 it was becoming clear to Walpole, as he carefully sifted the evidence, that there was not enough to prosecute Orrery and North and that even the case against Atterbury was too weak to risk a treason trial. Consequently, he decided to resort to the ‘arbitrary procedure’ (Bennett, 89) of a bill of pains and penalties, which simply required him to persuade parliament that it was expedient to punish a man dangerous to the state. Walpole managed to weave together the evidence from the two plots, Atterbury's and Layer's, into a continuous narrative, creating the impression that a dangerous rebellion had only just been averted. In May 1723 the bill was passed: Atterbury was deprived of his bishopric and banished. There is little doubt that he was guilty, but he was convicted on manufactured evidence.

The Atterbury plot strengthened Walpole's position enormously. Within the ministry the plot helped him to win the support of important figures such as the duke of Newcastle, who had previously been a supporter of Sunderland. In the Commons his playing of the Jacobite card rallied the whig party behind him and helped to re-establish his reputation as a defender of whig principles and the Hanoverian succession. Above all, his vigilance earned him more of the king's trust than he had ever enjoyed before. Moreover, the plot weakened the opposition to Walpole both within the ministry and in parliament. The trial left the tories cowed and dispirited and effectively brought to an end the activities of Cowper's opposition group in the Lords. The revelations of the Atterbury plot also contributed to the posthumous discrediting of Sunderland and, by association, his protégé Carteret, whose intrigues with the tories now appeared to have been very dangerous.

The plot also highlighted Walpole's skills as a parliamentary manager. It should be emphasized how important these were to his remaining one of the king's leading ministers for twenty years. A key element in Walpole's appeal to George I and George II was his ability to get the king's business through the Commons. Conversely, Walpole's prominence within the ministry was increased because, until the emergence of Henry Pelham in the 1730s, he was the only cabinet minister sitting in the Commons and therefore took the lead in defending government policy across the full range of its activities. He never underestimated the significance of the Lords and was at times personally involved in its management, but he recognized the Commons to be of greater importance for most regular government business, above all financial legislation. For this reason Walpole chose to eschew precedent and remain in the House of Commons. In June 1723 he refused a peerage, accepting one instead for his eldest son, Robert, though he did become a knight of the Bath on the restitution of that order in 1725 and then, the following year, a knight of the Garter. The latter honour was one of which he was particularly proud, as he was the first commoner to be instituted since the Restoration.

Many contemporaries and later historians have claimed that Walpole achieved his dominance over the Commons through the use of patronage. Places and pensions were distributed to MPs, making them dependent on the ministry and guaranteeing it a parliamentary majority. This analysis was propagated particularly effectively from 1726 in the pages of The Craftsman, which condemned Walpolean corruption and warned that the constitution was being undermined as parliament was reduced to little more than a rubber stamp for government policy. There is, indeed, no doubt that patronage did play a key role in Walpole's parliamentary management, or that he continued the development of the role of the first lord of the Treasury in its distribution and co-ordination. However, patronage was a blunt and limited tool of management, and there are two other reasons why he was so successful.

First, Walpole was a party leader as well as the king's minister. The reputation which he had acquired as a whig martyr in Anne's reign had been tarnished somewhat by events between 1717 and 1721, but through his exploitation of the Atterbury plot he had done much to re-establish himself as a politician committed to the defence of the revolution and the protestant monarchy. Some groups of whigs remained suspicious of Walpole's principles and motives, but he always retained the ability to appeal to party solidarity, especially by invoking the spectre of Jacobitism and portraying his administration as the only real defence for the Hanoverian succession. At moments of crisis, as, for example, in the immediate aftermath of the excise crisis in 1733, he exploited this appeal vigorously—some would say cynically—to rally support to the ministry. Second, the testimony of contemporaries makes it clear that Walpole possessed unrivalled abilities as a parliament man. The earl of Shelburne later recalled that Walpole was ‘eminently qualified’ for managing the Commons ‘by the plainness and soundness of his understanding, his steadiness, experience, and country conviviality’ (Fitzmaurice, 1.32). More revealingly, perhaps, a very similar assessment was made by one of the leaders of the opposition to Walpole, the earl of Chesterfield. He was:

both the ablest parliament man, and the ablest manager of parliament, that I believe ever lived. An artful rather than an eloquent speaker, he saw as 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 while he was speaking the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not. (Franklin, 114)

In this context his very public decision to decline a peerage assumes added significance. It not only revealed Walpole's assessment of the importance of the Commons in managing the king's business, but it also enhanced his standing there. As one contemporary noted, ‘Mr W. chooses to give nobility to others, rather than to accept it himself’ (John Wainwright to Timothy Thomas, 17 Nov 1723, BL, Add. MS 70400).

Building and collecting

Walpole's return to power in 1720 was reflected in his decision to rebuild the family home at Houghton. In 1700, 1716, and 1719 a certain amount of work had been undertaken modernizing the old house, and the decision to rebuild completely was taken no earlier than late summer 1720. The foundation-stone was laid on 24 May 1722 on a site a few yards to the east of the old house, and the exterior was completed in 1729, with the exception of William Kent's stables of 1733. The poverty of Walpole's heirs meant that Houghton Hall has survived remarkably intact through to the present. Unfortunately, however, relatively few sources survive to detail the building process, with the result that even the architect is not known with certainty. It is no more clear who was responsible for the design of the park, which included moving the village of Houghton and levelling the site, but it is likely that Charles Bridgeman played at least a major part.

There is little doubt that Walpole himself took a close interest in planning and building the new hall, which had to serve a variety of purposes. On the one hand, it ‘was a place of parade’, which could be used to receive and entertain state guests in suitable fashion. On the other hand, it was a country retreat for family and political allies. This dual purpose was, to some extent, reflected in the design of the house. The ground floor or, as Lord Hervey described it, ‘rustic story’ was ‘dedicated to fox-hunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business’. The first floor, by contrast, was ‘the floor of taste, expense, state and parade’ (Ilchester, 71). It contained the state rooms, decorated in rich, opulent fashion by Kent—the gold trimmings of the state bed alone cost £1219 3s. 11d.

Above all, Houghton Hall was a statement and celebration of Walpole's power and prestige as the king's minister. It was intended to rival, if not eclipse, the seats of both political allies and rivals, and there is little doubt that it served its purpose. Robinson not only wrote that ‘it is the greatest house in the world for its size, capable of the greatest reception for company’, but also claimed that the interior was ‘a pattern for all great houses that may hereafter be built’ (Carlisle MSS, 85). Indeed, such was the impression that the house made on contemporaries that it was the subject of ‘the first monograph on a British country house’, Isaac Ware's The Plans, Elevations and Sections of Houghton in Norfolk, published in 1735 (Moore, 24).

The impact of Houghton Hall was all the greater because it provided a setting for Walpole's magnificent art collection, which even the earl of Oxford was compelled to admire. His earliest recorded purchase was of two landscapes by Jan Griffier senior in April 1718; by 1736 he owned 421 pictures, of which at least 400 had been acquired by him. His taste mirrored that of the age, and the collection was particularly strong in Dutch, especially Flemish, works, while containing significant numbers of paintings from the French and Italian schools. Walpole also patronized contemporary artists, notably Charles Jervas, both as a portraitist and as a copyist, and the young William Hogarth, who painted a portrait of Horace Walpole aged ten. At Houghton, the old masters were concentrated in the salon and drawing room and included such masterpieces as Van Dyck's The Holy Family and Rembrandt's Abraham's Sacrifice. In 1739 George Vertue described Walpole's collection of ‘Paintings statues Busts &c’ as ‘the most considerable now of any in England’ (Moore, 48). Its importance was still recognized almost half a century later, when John Boydell published The Houghton Gallery, a collection of 162 prints after paintings at Houghton. It is hardly surprising that, when the third earl of Orford was considering selling the collection to raise money, it attracted the attention of Catherine the Great, who purchased about 180 pictures to add to her collection at the Hermitage for between £35,000 and £40,000.

For long periods, of course, Walpole resided not at Houghton, but in London. He continued to live at 17 Arlington Street until 1732, moving first to 32 St James's Square and then, in 1735, to 10 Downing Street, a residence accepted by Walpole from George II for the first lord of the Treasury. After his resignation in 1742 he returned to Arlington Street. It was, however, Orford House, which he occupied from 1715 as paymaster-general of Chelsea Hospital, that was his favourite London residence. Between 1715 and 1716 he employed Sir John Vanbrugh to enlarge the seventeenth-century house. He also extended the gardens at the expense of the hospital, adding a river embankment, orangery, and summer-house.

Minister of George I

Between 1720 and 1723 English politics had been dominated by financial and domestic affairs, and by the end of the parliamentary session of 1722–3 the Townshend–Walpole ministry was firmly established. Much of the credit for this has to be given to Walpole. However, a major rival, Lord Carteret, still occupied high office. Walpole had tried, but failed, to persuade the king to remove him from office in January 1723, and Carteret had an influential ally in Earl Cadogan, who was hoping to succeed his former patron, the duke of Marlborough, as captain-general. Once parliament had been prorogued, attention shifted to foreign policy, the province of Townshend, and over the next few months the struggle within the ministry was conducted largely in Hanover, for which George I departed, accompanied by both Townshend and Carteret, at the beginning of June. Throughout the summer and autumn Walpole was in a state of high anxiety, recalling, no doubt, how he and Townshend had been outmanoeuvred in 1716. In his desperation to secure an unequivocal demonstration of George I's support and favour, Walpole risked provoking the king by becoming needlessly involved in a dispute over Cadogan's right to command the Horse Guards.

At Hanover, however, Townshend succeeded in outmanoeuvring Carteret over relations first with Russia and then with France, and in particular over the negotiations to marry the daughter of Countess von Platen, the king's Roman Catholic mistress, into the Vrillière family. The sign of royal confidence for which Walpole was so desperate finally came in April 1724, after the king's return from Hanover, when Sir Luke Schaub, the ambassador to France and friend of Carteret, was recalled, to be replaced in May by Robert Walpole's brotherHoratio (Horace) Walpole. Schaub's dismissal was followed two months later by that of Carteret, who was compensated with the lord lieutenancy of Ireland. London gossip had suggested that the new secretary of state would be William Pulteney; instead the duke of Newcastle was appointed. Pulteney's disappointment undoubtedly undermined further his relations with Walpole, but it is far from obvious that it is evidence, as is often claimed, of Walpole's dislike for men of talent as his colleagues. Newcastle may have been fussy and a poor parliamentary speaker, but he was an energetic minister, and any man who can hold one of the highest government offices almost continuously for thirty-eight years hardly lacks ability. More revealing, therefore, might be Hervey's claim that Pulteney was also intriguing with Carteret in 1723 (Hervey, 1.9).

At the time of Carteret's appointment as lord lieutenant, Ireland was already deep in the crisis caused by the grant of a patent to mint copper halfpence to William Wood, a Birmingham ironmaster. Widely seen as a trick to ruin Ireland by draining it of bullion, the patent provoked strenuous opposition and prompted attacks on Ireland's constitutional dependence on Britain. Walpole later denied having any role in devising it, but late in 1723 he was determined to support it, partly because the opposition was challenging the king's right to issue such patents and partly because he believed it to be a sound measure that would benefit the Irish economy. In his view the problems stemmed from the shortcomings of the lord lieutenant, the duke of Grafton, the failings of Irish politicians, and the intrigues of Carteret with Lord Midleton, the Irish lord chancellor, in an attempt to undermine Walpole's credit with the king. The removal of Grafton in April 1724 and his replacement with a new viceroy apparently offered a solution. It says a lot about Walpole's attitude to Irish politics, therefore, that he did not believe that Carteret would succeed and instead saw his appointment as viceroy as a means of completing his disgrace. To Walpole's surprise, however, Carteret broke with Midleton and carried out the instructions of the ministers in London. But he warned them that, if they adhered to their policy, it would be impossible to persuade the Irish parliament to vote supply when it reassembled. With the same advice coming from more trusted sources in Dublin, such as the new primate, Hugh Boulter, Walpole finally capitulated and withdrew the patent in August 1725.

With Carteret sidelined in Dublin, the Walpole–Townshend faction was able further to consolidate itself in power. The major event in the session of 1725, however, was the resignation and subsequent impeachment of the lord chancellor, the earl of Macclesfield, who was found guilty of corruption for having sold masterships in chancery. Walpole's attitude towards the trial is difficult to discern. He ensured that some ministerialists were involved in its management, probably, as Onslow claimed, to prevent the inquiry being widened. But he showed little concern at Macclesfield's fall, doubtless glad that the removal of one of Sunderland's former allies had been accomplished so easily. That was certainly the interpretation placed on events by the French envoy, Chammorel. In March 1725 Lord Carleton, another member of the Sunderland faction, died and was replaced as lord president of the council by Walpole's old friend and former colleague as MP for Castle Rising, the duke of Devonshire. Then, in May, Walpole was finally able to persuade the king to dismiss Cadogan as master-general of the ordnance, appointing the duke of Argyll in his place.

Hitherto, in the government of Scotland, Walpole seems to have tried to maintain a balance between the two main whig factions, the Squadrone and the Argathelians, despite the fact that the duke of Roxburghe, the Scottish secretary of state and one of the leaders of the Squadrone, had been implicated in Carteret's intrigues. However, during summer 1725 serious rioting broke out in Glasgow in protest at the imposition of the malt tax. This incident was seized on by Walpole as an opportunity to undermine Roxburghe. Although there is little hard evidence to suggest that Roxburghe was behind the disturbances, Walpole's dispatches to Hanover accused him of supporting the protests against the tax and undermining the government's response to the crisis. He achieved his aim in August, when Roxburghe was dismissed and his office suppressed. Henceforth, the business of the Scottish secretary was undertaken by Newcastle and Townshend, but much of the responsibility for government policy and patronage in Scotland was handed over to the duke of Argyll and his brother, the earl of Ilay, who were to dominate Scottish politics for the rest of the Walpole ministry.

In the course of 1724 and 1725, therefore, the old Sunderland faction was effectively destroyed as a political force. But parliament's session of 1725 was also important for two events which did much to determine the nature of the opposition to Walpole over the next decade. First, on 8 April 1725 in a speech against a proposal for discharging the civil-list debts, Pulteney delivered a fierce personal attack on Walpole. He was dismissed from his office as cofferer of the household at the end of the session, and by the summer was ‘reckoned the head of the discontented party in England’ (Realey, 160). Second, a bill was passed for the restitution of Bolingbroke's estates—he had already been pardoned in 1723. Walpole supported the bill, but very reluctantly, and had to be ‘forced to submit’ (Onslow MSS, 515). Bolingbroke was well aware of Walpole's hostility, which he saw as the reason for his failure to obtain the full restitution of his rights that would have allowed him to resume his political career. For some months, however, Bolingbroke continued to hope for further concessions from the ministry, and it was not until summer 1726 that he began to work with Pulteney. The first major result of their collaboration was the publication on 5 December 1726 of the first issue of The Craftsman, the weekly newspaper that was to be the most effective organ of the opposition to Walpole through the next decade. In its pages Bolingbroke and Pulteney proclaimed an end to party divisions: ‘let the very Names of Whig and Tory be for ever buried in Oblivion’, called the issue of 24 April 1727 (The Craftsman, 1.252). Their aim was to create an opposition platform behind which both whigs and tories could unite in opposition to the corruption of Walpole and his allies.

The mid-1720s also saw the development of government policy along the lines which were to characterize the rest of Walpole's administration. As first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer Walpole's first responsibility was financial policy. In particular, he was faced with the massive burden of debt incurred during the French wars of 1689–1713. He set out, therefore, to reduce that burden, both through redeeming part of the national debt and by reducing the interest payable on the remainder. As has been seen, in 1717 he continued to support his proposals to establish a sinking fund, which would reduce the capital of the debt, even after he had gone into opposition, and he was quick to recognize that the South Sea scheme, by encouraging the holders of irredeemable annuities to exchange them for company stock, made a significant contribution to cutting interest payments. Between 1727 and 1730 the interest paid on government stock held by the three great financial companies—the Bank of England, the East India Company, and the South Sea Company—was further reduced from 5 to 4 per cent. Together, between 1721 and 1741, these measures contributed to the reduction of the national debt by £6.25 million net and the annual interest charge from £2.57 million to £1.89 million.

At the same time Walpole was keen to see the burden of taxation—or, more specifically, of the land tax—reduced. For most of his administration, he kept the land tax down to 2s. in the pound, even managing to reduce it to 1s. in 1731–2. In part, this was for political reasons. He was well aware of the way in which the high level of the land tax during the French wars had stimulated toryism among the country gentry, and thus keeping rates low was one means of underpinning the electoral position of his whig administration. But in part Walpole was acting out of principle. He objected to the land tax on the ground that it was paid by only one class, the landed gentry. The working out of these ideas in practice was seen most controversially in 1732, when the salt tax was reimposed in order to keep the land tax at 1s. More generally, Walpole's ministry saw the balance gradually shift from direct to indirect taxation. This trend can be seen as early as 1726 when higher current expenditure was funded not by increasing the land tax, as was normal in peacetime, but by raising a loan of £500,000 to be funded by a new tax on victuallers.

Another way of keeping taxes down was to improve the efficiency of the fiscal system. It was generally accepted that widespread smuggling reduced the yields from many customs duties. To combat this Walpole brought forward a proposal in 1723 to transfer the duties on tea, coffee, and chocolate from the customs to the excise. The scheme was successful, increasing revenue by £120,000 a year, and in 1733 Walpole tried to extend it to tobacco, a proposal that will be discussed later. Customs and excise duties, however, were not simply ways of raising revenue; they also offered mechanisms for the encouragement and regulation of trade. In keeping with contemporary ‘mercantilist’ theories Walpole acted in 1721 to remove many of the remaining export duties on manufactured goods and import duties on raw materials, and throughout his ministry he constantly emphasized his concern for overseas trade.

Walpole was also closely involved in developing the ministry's religious policy. Both the first lord of the Treasury and the senior secretary of state claimed the right to advise the king on the distribution of ecclesiastical patronage, and it was Walpole as much as Townshend who selected Edmund Gibson, bishop of London, as their ‘Church minister’ in 1723, saying ‘He must be Pope’ (BL, Add. MS 32686, fols. 326–7). The aim of whig policy through the next decade was, as summarized by Gibson, ‘to bring the Body of the Clergy to a liking of a Whig-Administration, or at least to an acquiescence in it, and a disposition to be quiet and easy under it’ (Hunt. L., Gibson papers, bound vol., no. 13). To this end the ministry pursued policies towards the church that led some to accuse it of adopting tory principles (Hervey, 1.3–4), and there was an element of truth in this. The memory of the Sacheverell affair was etched deeply on Walpole's mind and he feared the damage that a revival of the cry ‘The Church in danger’ could do to the stability of his administration. Consequently, he abandoned the religious liberalism of the Sunderland–Stanhope ministry and discountenanced the discussion in parliament of any question relating to the rights and privileges of the church or the extension of Toleration Act. However, to some extent the description of Gibson as ‘Walpole's Pope’, popularized by Horace Walpole, is misleading. Through the 1720s it was Townshend, rather than Walpole, who was apparently closer to the ‘Church minister’ and who was more involved in the day-to-day management of religious policy, helping Gibson to achieve the creation of the Whitehall preacherships and the regius professorships of history at Oxford and Cambridge.

Initially, too, Walpole was little involved in foreign affairs, though he was not as ignorant of them as is often made out. In 1723 he had been acting secretary of state in London; he could rely on the advice of his brother Horace, who was one of the leading diplomats of the period; and there is good evidence that he had a reading knowledge of French—the story that he conversed with George I in dog Latin is almost certainly apocryphal. But there is little doubt that the ministry's foreign policy was made by Townshend. In 1726 the Austrian envoy, Palm, commented that Walpole ‘does not meddle with foreign affairs, but receives accounts of them in general, leaving for the rest the direction of them entirely to Ld. Townshend’ (Cholmondeley (Houghton) correspondence, 1379). However, there are indications that from 1725 Walpole began to take more of an interest in European affairs. In that year, responding to the threat posed by the treaty of Vienna (1724) between Spain and the Habsburg emperor, Townshend concluded the alliance of Hanover with France and Prussia. For the next three years Europe organized itself into two great armed camps, and briefly war broke out between Britain and Spain in 1726–7. This caused problems for Walpole in the Commons. He not only had to find the money for military preparations, forcing him to increase the land tax from its normal peacetime rate of 2 s. to 4s. in 1727 and 3s. in 1728–9, but also had to defend a policy that was distrusted by many whigs, who had been brought up to believe in the necessity of allying with Austria to resist French aggression. Moreover, he clearly did not believe that the situation in Europe was as bad as it was portrayed, prompting rumours of tensions between Townshend and Walpole.

In the last years of George I's reign the Townshend–Walpole ministry stood high in the king's favour. The ministers' personal standing was revealed clearly by their appointment, in 1724 and 1726, as knights of the Garter. The evidence suggests that Townshend enjoyed the closer relationship with George, and some observers still saw him as the leading figure in the ministry. But even Walpole was honoured by the king in 1726 with two visits to his house at Richmond for dinner. The parliamentary opposition presented little threat to Walpole's position: its best parliamentary performance came in 1727 when it reduced the government's majority to 107. Court intrigues proved no more effective. Through the duchess of Kendal, Bolingbroke succeeded in presenting a memorial to the king and even obtained an audience, but his complaints against Walpole were dismissed as ‘bagatelles’ (Coxe, Walpole, 2.345). The only real threat to the supremacy of Townshend and Walpole came from the hostility of the prince of Wales.

The emergence of the great man

The beginning of the prince's dislike of Walpole probably stemmed from the terms negotiated by Walpole for the reconciliation in the royal family in 1720. Certainly by 1726 it was common knowledge that the prince ‘treats him very distantly and coldly, to say the least of it, and shows his dislike to him on every possible occasion’ (Foreign View of England, 175). The unexpected death of George I on 11 June 1727, while travelling to Hanover, suddenly made the opinions of the new king of the utmost political importance. Walpole himself took the news to the king and queen at Richmond on 14 June and received the curt instruction, ‘Go to Chiswick and take your directions from Sir Spencer Compton’ (Hervey, 1.22). This was no surprise: it was generally expected that Walpole would be dismissed and replaced by Compton, the speaker of the Commons and the prince's treasurer. Walpole was of the same opinion, confessing to Arthur Onslow that he would be content with any place at court, ‘even with the Comptroller's staff’ (Buckinghamshire MSS, 517). However, later that day Compton sought Walpole's assistance in drafting the new king's declaration to the privy council, and the following day George II was discussing the civil list with Walpole. Walpole exploited his opportunity. By 15 June the French ambassador was reporting that the old ministry would remain in office, and within three weeks Compton, recognizing that his credit was declining, ‘left off the constancy of his attendance’ on the king (King, 454).

Why had Walpole survived, despite the universal expectation that he would be replaced? Links with the prince of Wales's court had been kept open through the mid-1720s, notably through the duke of Devonshire, Walpole's friend and lord president of the council, who was welcome at Leicester House, and the prince's own friends were not excluded from preferment—the earl of Scarbrough, for example, received the Garter. Of much more significance, however, was Walpole's continuing friendship with Queen Caroline. Unlike many politicians, including Compton, he had never cultivated the new king's mistress, Henrietta Howard, recognizing that she exercised no political influence. As he said, in a phrase that illustrates his occasional coarseness of speech, Compton ‘took the wrong sow by the ear … I the right’ (Hardwicke, 6). Certainly, Walpole and a number of contemporary commentators saw his continuance in power as a demonstration of Caroline's influence at the beginning of the new reign. Lord Hervey also emphasized the importance of Walpole's undertaking to obtain parliamentary approval for a civil list of £800,000 a year for George II, £100,000 more than his father, plus £100,000 for the queen. This ‘exorbitant augmentation’ (Hervey, 1.34) was certainly pleasing for the king, but it is important not to place too much weight on it. The real significance of the new civil list was that it provided a timely demonstration for George of Walpole's unrivalled ability to secure the support of the Commons for the king's business, reiterating the message that he was receiving from his wife.

Walpole had retained his position, but in some respects it was weaker than in the last years of George I's reign. Individuals over whom he had little influence were rewarded with places. Scarbrough became master of the horse, while Augustus Schulz replaced Viscount Malpas, his own son-in-law, as master of the robes. Another of Walpole's loyal lieutenants, Sir William Yonge, was dismissed as a Treasury commissioner. Most significantly, Compton retained his office of paymaster and was raised to the peerage as Lord Wilmington, remaining a brooding presence in the ministry, his continued favour with the king demonstrated when he became lord president of the council in 1730. Even in the church Walpole's influence was curtailed by the queen's insistence on the appointment of the high-churchman and former tory Thomas Sherlock to the bishopric of Bangor. Walpole himself appears to have felt vulnerable, complaining in late 1727 that, while he enjoyed ‘great credit’ with the king, he was ‘struck at’ by those who had been disappointed at the beginning of the reign (King, 455–6).

Most contemporaries, however, interpreted Walpole's situation very differently. His survival as the king's minister appeared to be a remarkable demonstration of his political dominance, and it is from this point that it is possible to date a real shift in the popular perception of Walpole. The description of him as ‘the great man’ can be found as early as 1725 (Various Collections, 8.390), but it became a commonplace only after the accession of George II. In July 1727 The Craftsman coined the phrase ‘the Robinocracy’ to describe the Walpolean regime (The Craftsman, 2.78). Then, on 29 January 1728 John Gay's The Beggar's Opera opened in London and became an overnight success. The political satire of this work was much more pointed and personal than anything in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Audiences found it easy to draw parallels between both the highwayman Macheath and the thief-taker Peachum on the one hand and Walpole on the other. Henceforth the link between the thief and the corrupt statesman became a familiar trope in opposition literature, drawing especially on the popular accounts of the life of Jonathan Wild, the notorious mastermind of the London underworld executed in 1725 and the model for Gay's Peachum.

Walpole's growing prominence was accompanied by a decline in Townshend's profile, and a rift began to develop between the two men. The death of Lady Townshend, Walpole's sister Dorothy, on 29 March 1726 had broken the closest personal connection between them. Matters deteriorated so far that, by the end of the decade, one quarrel led them to lay hands on each other and then on their swords before being parted by colleagues. In part, the sources of the breach lay in foreign policy, over which Walpole and Townshend quarrelled, if not over their shared aims—reconciliation with Austria and less dependence on France—then certainly over the approach and the cost.

Walpole's victory over Townshend was not inevitable. During the early years of the new reign various rumours circulated about the reconstruction of the ministry. Townshend wanted to replace Newcastle as secretary of state with his ally Chesterfield as a means of strengthening his hold over foreign policy and weakening Walpole's position. Conversely, Walpole saw Devonshire's death as an opportunity to oust Townshend by making him lord president. The major weakness in Townshend's position was his lack of influence at court. His relationship with George II gradually improved and the king was not prepared to dismiss him. But crucially the Caroline–Walpole axis held firm, giving Walpole an immense advantage over his rival. The prolonged period of ministerial instability finally ended with Townshend's resignation on 16 May 1730, a recognition of the fact that he had lost what Bishop Gibson described as the ‘competition for power’ between them (St Andrews University Library, Gibson MS 5315).

Arguably, it is not until this point that Walpole should be regarded as having established himself as prime minister. It was, indeed, only in the 1730s that this phrase began to be used commonly, not only by the opposition but also, albeit less frequently, by ministerial MPs and even the pro-government press. Only after Townshend's resignation can it be convincingly claimed that Walpole monopolized the counsels of the king or dominated the administration and its policies. A clear demonstration of his power came within weeks when he secured the dismissal of Carteret as lord lieutenant of Ireland. Even more revealing, in some ways, was his increasingly active role in foreign policy. During the summer of 1730 he was helping to draft instructions to British envoys, and when the second treaty of Vienna was signed in March the following year, concluding a new alliance between Britain and Austria, it was portrayed in the press very much as Walpole's achievement.

Paradoxically, the same session that saw Walpole emerge as George II's prime minister also witnessed a marked increase in the size and effectiveness of the parliamentary opposition. The position of the ministry after the 1727 elections was stronger than at the dissolution, and its critics in 1728 and 1729 were able to make little impression on the government's majority. At the beginning of 1730, however, it soon became clear that Walpole would face a reinvigorated opposition. The main force of the opposition attack came on 10 February, when Sir William Wyndham surprised the Commons with revelations that Dunkirk harbour had been repaired contrary to the provisions of the treaty of Utrecht. According to Hervey, this put the whole house ‘in a flame’ and the ministry was ‘stronger pushed than they had ever been on any occasion before’ (Hervey, 1.116). Walpole managed to have the debate put off until 27 February, by which time he was able to deflect criticism of the administration by producing an undertaking from the king of France that the works at Dunkirk would be demolished. However, in the midst of the crisis he failed by ten votes to secure the defeat of the Place Bill, an opposition proposal intended to limit the number of government office-holders sitting in the Commons.

The growing effectiveness of the opposition can be explained in part by better leadership and organization bringing together dissident whigs and tories, and in particular by the role of Bolingbroke, a fact that Walpole himself recognized and exploited in the Dunkirk debate. Other factors included the struggle within the ministry between Walpole and Townshend; the growing concern both inside parliament and outside, particularly in the City of London, about the ministry's foreign policy, especially the French alliance; and, most significantly, the prominence of political corruption as a critique of the ministry. As has been seen, this analysis of the Walpolean regime stretched back through the Macclesfield impeachment to the South Sea Bubble—indeed, opposition MPs were still fond of referring to Walpole's sojourn in the Tower during Anne's reign. But in the late 1720s and early 1730s it appeared to some that an ever more pervasive stink of corruption was hanging over the government. In 1729–30 a Commons committee uncovered a pattern of extensive abuse in the management of gaols, which was felt to reflect badly on the administration, especially when it came to be suspected that it was screening judges who might be implicated. In 1732 another Commons investigation revealed widespread fraud in the management of the charitable corporation, as a result of which Sir Robert Sutton was expelled from the house. Walpole again appeared tainted, seeking to ‘skreen’ Sutton and ensuring that no further punishment was inflicted on him (Hanham, 325). In the same session more frauds were revealed in the sale of the confiscated estates of the earl of Derwentwater. In the eyes of opposition writers, however, it was not only the Walpolean polity that was corrupt, but also Walpole himself. From around 1730 the personal attacks on Walpole became more pointed, and it is from this time that representations of him became common in the rapidly developing culture of satirical prints. A good example is a print of 1730, which drew an explicit parallel between Walpole and Colonel Francis Charteris, a notorious rake convicted of rape but controversially pardoned by the king (Langford, Walpole, 60–61).

The crises of 1733 and 1736

During the sessions of 1731 and 1732 the parliamentary opposition tried to maintain the pressure on Walpole—in both sessions place bills passed the Commons, only to be defeated by the ministerial majority in the Lords. Walpole, however, was generally successful at containing the threat. First, the conclusion of the second treaty of Vienna between Britain and Austria in March 1731 undermined the opposition critique of the government's foreign policy by re-establishing the ‘old system’ and bringing to an end the Anglo-French alliance. Second, the alliance allowed Walpole to discharge the Hessian troops, whose employment had been a focus for criticism in earlier sessions. Third, the reduction of tension in Europe enabled him to appeal to the country gentry and the more independently minded back-benchers by reducing the land tax. That this strategy was not quite as straightforward as it seemed, however, was revealed in 1732, when Walpole proposed reimposing the salt tax in order to bring down the land tax to 1s. in the pound and even hinted at the possibility of abolishing it. This proposal provoked fierce opposition, and the government's majority fell to a mere twenty-nine. The salt duty had been abolished only two years earlier, and in part the Commons were antagonized by the attempt to reverse a measure enacted for the benefit of ‘the poor Artificers and Manufacturers’ (Chandler, 7.52). But, more significantly, MPs were alarmed by the re-establishment of a revenue department that provided significant ministerial patronage and by the hints of the abolition of the land tax, which was valued by the country gentlemen as a tax that was voted annually, administered, and collected by them, and thus outside direct government control. These concerns were particularly significant in the light of events in the following year.

The parliamentary session of 1733 witnessed the most serious crisis for the Walpole administration until his fall in 1741–2 in the defeat of the Tobacco Excise Bill, a major plank in his fiscal strategy. In outline, Walpole's proposals were simple and broadly similar to the legislation introduced for tea, coffee, and chocolate in 1723. First, all tobacco and wine (the legislation relating to wine was never introduced) were to be placed in the king's warehouse until all duties had been paid. Second, the existing customs duties, payable on import, were to be replaced for the most part by excise duties, payable when the goods were removed from the warehouse for consumption. There were sound commercial and colonial reasons for introducing the Tobacco Excise Bill. The Virginia tobacco planters were lobbying for precisely such a measure, and there were even hopes that the system of bonded warehouses would stimulate trade by encouraging the development of London as a ‘free port’. There is little doubt, however, that fiscal and broader political concerns were more important in ministerial reasoning. Walpole clearly saw it as an essentially technical measure that would increase government revenue, perhaps by as much as £300,000 a year, by curbing fraud and smuggling. That was a significant sum and would assist Walpole in his aim of keeping the land tax low. With trade booming and agricultural prices subdued, it appeared equitable to shift part of the tax burden away from land. But in the year before a general election there was a clear political dimension to the legislation, and there is no doubt that Walpole believed it would be a vote winner among the landed gentry.

However, Walpole had blundered. His excise proposals provoked massive opposition. Some of this came from retailers and traders who were concerned that the legislation would subject them to inspection by excise officers. Far more important, however, was the hostility of the wine and tobacco merchants, both in London and in the major provincial ports. Many if not most of them were heavily implicated in fraud, and thus the legislation represented an attack on a powerful pressure group with a vested interest in the existing system. When the London tobacco merchants met in January, they succeeded in raising £300 to fund their campaign against the bill. More generally, the excise legislation revived issues which had been raised during the debates on the salt tax in the previous year. Opposition propaganda made much of fears that the Tobacco Bill was merely the first step towards a ‘general excise’, a charge denied by Walpole. But underlying this was a concern about the expansion of the excise service, whose ‘arbitrary’ powers of search were seen as a threat to English liberties. In this context Walpole's proposals, far from appealing to the country gentlemen by reducing their tax burden, appeared to be an attempt to concentrate power still further in the hands of an already over-mighty, and possibly corrupt, state.

Walpole's next miscalculation was to press ahead with his proposals. He had plenty of time to change tack: the drafting of the bill did not begin until January 1733. However, he did not do so, continuing to believe his scheme attractive. In March, when the proposals were introduced into the Commons against the background of large demonstrations in Westminster, it appeared likely that he would get away with it, securing relatively comfortable majorities of sixty-one and sixty in a full house. However, when parliament resumed in April after the Easter recess, his majority collapsed. On 10 April it fell to just seventeen on a motion to receive the City of London's petition against the bill. This was the occasion on which Walpole did so much to alienate City opinion by describing the petitioning merchants as ‘sturdy beggars’ (Egmont Diary, 1.363). But the decision to drop the bill had already been made, and on the following day Walpole proposed that further discussion should be postponed until 12 June, by when the house would be in recess. During the celebrations in the City that night Walpole was burnt in effigy by the mob.

If the origins of the excise crisis revealed Walpole's political failings, its aftermath highlighted his skills. On 11 April, Walpole was mobbed in the court of requests after the abandonment of the bill. The next day this riot was complained of in the Commons, Walpole himself recounting ‘the design made upon his life’ (Egmont Diary, 1.362). The episode was then effectively exploited to turn parliamentary opinion against the opposition, as members reacted against what was portrayed as an attempt to influence its liberty of speech. Later in the month the opposition tried to push home its advantage by launching an inquiry into frauds in the customs service. On the evening before the vote to select members of the committee, Walpole summoned his supporters to a meeting in the Cockpit and delivered a speech in which he appealed to ‘Whig principles’ and raised the spectre of Jacobitism (Hervey, 1.182), implying that the revolution settlement itself was under threat. According to Hervey, his performance was so effective that ‘for two or three days there seemed to be a resurrection of that party spirit which had so long been dormant’ (ibid., 1.184), and the court list was carried by the comfortable majority of eighty-five.

The key to the collapse in the ministry's majority during the passage of the bill was its failure to ensure the attendance of its own supporters, and the main reason for this was the crisis at court. A number of influential figures, including lords Chesterfield, Stair, Bolton, Clinton, and Scarbrough, made clear their opposition to the bill. They intrigued in the closet and spread rumours outside it, encouraging the belief that the support of the king and queen was wavering. Despite the claims of Hervey (Hervey, 1.149), there are hints that George II's confidence in Walpole was shaken. In any event, it was perceptions that mattered, and in this context the dismissal of Clinton and Chesterfield from their court offices on 13 April provided the public reaffirmation of royal confidence in Walpole that was crucial to re-establishing his position in the Commons.

Walpole had demonstrated that he could not be brought down on a single issue like the excise, and despite opposition pressure in the 1734 session his majority remained solid. He even risked attempting to defeat Samuel Sandys's ‘Place Bill’ in the Commons, which he succeeded in doing, albeit by only thirty-nine votes. Outside parliament, however, the reverberations of the crisis continued to be felt. The flood of propaganda continued, with more being published in the year after the defeat of the bill than in the months before. In particular, there was an explosion in the production of satirical prints attacking ministerial corruption and arbitrary power, in which Walpole himself was a familiar figure, often easily identified by his Garter star. The issue of the excise, and continuing fears of a general excise, dominated the campaign leading to the elections of 1734, at which the opposition were determined to defeat ‘the villain Walpole’ (Hanham, 393). There was a massive movement of opinion against the government in the large, open constituencies; even the country gentry, who had most to gain from the reduction of the land tax, were roused by fears of a general excise. There is little doubt that, in what was one of the most contested elections of the century, most of the electorate voted against Walpole's ministry. In the counties and large towns the opposition did very well. But in the smaller boroughs the ministry made its influence felt, as it did in Scotland and Cornwall, with the result that Walpole was able to face the new parliament in 1735 with a majority of over ninety.

Reviewing the excise crisis, the earl of Egmont commented that ‘it may be foretold that Sir Robert Walpole's influence in the House will never be again so great as it has been’ (Egmont Diary, 1.361). This view has been shared by many historians, encouraging a tendency to portray his fall as a long process beginning in 1733. There is clearly an element of truth in this interpretation. From 1733 Walpole constantly had to work with a substantial opposition which knew that, given the right issue, it could defeat the minister. He was never again to enjoy the easy parliamentary dominance of the years before 1730. However, the contrast is relative. Walpole continued as prime minister for another eight years, and through most of that period he remained the dominating figure of politics, apparently unassailable in parliament, his power explicable to his critics only as the product of widespread corruption. Certainly, the opposition entered the new parliament divided and disillusioned. Despite their electoral success their strength in the Commons was no greater than in the previous parliament, while in the Lords they were weakened by the defeat of their supporters in the elections of the Scottish representative peers. William Pulteney made some half-hearted overtures to the ministry, Bolingbroke retired to France, and Walpole faced no significant problems in the first session of the new parliament.

The next major crisis faced by Walpole occurred in the 1736 session. In character it was very different from that of 1733: at no time was the ministry itself threatened, but it did severely disrupt Walpole's religious policy. The roots of the crisis lay in the rising tide of whig anti-clericalism through the early 1730s and in the growing pressure from the dissenters for the repeal of the Test Act. These pressures created problems for Walpole in his relations with the church, and in particular with his ‘Church minister’, Bishop Gibson. For Gibson, a crucial element in the church–whig alliance that he had been promoting since the early 1720s was ministerial support for the revolution settlement in the church, by which he meant a limited toleration for dissenters accompanied by a test act. In the early 1730s Gibson came to believe that Walpole was not doing enough to discourage the succession of anti-clerical initiatives which came before parliament in those years. In fact, in 1733 and 1734 Walpole was working hard to discourage the dissenters from applying to parliament for a repeal of the test. Even so, Gibson's complaints may not have been without foundation. Some of Walpole's favourite pamphleteers, including William Arnall and Thomas Gordon, were prominent in the anti-clerical campaigns, and Walpole may have been unwilling to rein in the attacks of some of his supporters on the church and clergy for fear of alienating anti-clerical whigs and strengthening further the parliamentary opposition.

Events came to a head with the introduction of three measures into parliament in 1736—a motion for the repeal of the test, the Mortmain Bill, and the Quaker Tithe Bill. There is little doubt that Walpole expected that debate on religious issues would emphasize divisions between whigs and tories, and this is certainly what happened in the Commons. During the debates about the test, Walpole adhered to the church–whig alliance by opposing repeal. But ministerial arguments on this occasion ‘that this was not a proper time’ (Taylor and Jones, 21) were hardly reassuring to clerical opinion, especially in the light of Walpole's support for the repeal of the Irish Test Act in 1733. The other two proposals, however, left the tories isolated in opposition. The Mortmain Bill, an attack on high-church corporate philanthropy, passed into law despite considerable clerical disquiet. The Quaker Tithe Bill proved even more controversial. Walpole had given assurances to the Quakers that he would support this measure to provide limited relief for those Friends who suffered through their conscientious refusal to pay tithes. He saw the bill as a limited and relatively uncontroversial extension of the toleration, but, as in 1733, he had miscalculated. To Gibson and most of the bishops and parochial clergy it represented a serious assault on the legal rights and privileges of the church. Gibson co-ordinated a vigorous public campaign against the bill, which was eventually defeated on its second reading in the Lords, with all the bishops present voting against.

The Tithe Bill affair created serious problems for Walpole. First, it threatened to undermine a religious policy which had been remarkably successful during the previous thirteen years in persuading the clergy that the church was safe in whig hands. Second, the support of the bench of bishops was crucial for the maintenance of ministerial majorities in the upper house. As in 1733, however, Walpole, having done much to create the crisis, demonstrated his political skills in extricating himself from the consequences of it. Among the bishops Gibson was denounced as the ‘Ringleader of Sedition’ (St Andrews University Library, Gibson MS 5303) and singled out for attack, provoking his resignation as ‘Church minister’. Meanwhile, Walpole worked hard to restore his links with other bishops, such as Thomas Sherlock and John Potter, who became archbishop of Canterbury the following year. Anti-clerical attacks on the church in parliament stopped, and in 1739 Walpole even took advantage of another motion by the dissenters for repeal of the Test Act to affirm unequivocally his support for the existing constitutional settlement. In retrospect the Tithe Bill appears merely as a blip in the story of whig rapprochement with the church, though at the end of the 1730s a small group of bishops could be found in regular opposition to Walpole, alienated at least in part by his religious policy.

Through this period, however, arguably the major issue facing Walpole and the ministry was the British response to the War of the Polish Succession that had broken out in 1733. The British government refused to intervene in support of Austria in her struggle with France, despite its obligations under the treaty of Vienna. Walpole's policy was determined in part by concerns of parliamentary management: he wished to avoid any continental entanglements that would involve expense. However, the policy of non-intervention was made much easier by the absence of any clearly perceived threat to British interests. What is much less clear is how far this policy was Walpole's. The traditional interpretation, drawn largely from Hervey's Memoirs, is that Walpole had to struggle hard to maintain the policy of neutrality against fierce opposition from the king and queen. More recent research, however, suggests that the views of Walpole and the king, though different in emphasis, were not that far apart, and that George was certainly not a strident advocate of intervention. It is, indeed, difficult to give much credit to the idea that Britain could have intervened, given the domestic political situation, though there is no doubt that this policy carried a price in the later 1730s, when she was left without any major ally on the continent.

Scotland, the court, and the ‘new opposition’

In 1737 the opposition once again attacked Walpole's financial policy. On 21 March Sir John Barnard, MP for the City of London, proposed a motion to reduce the interest on part of the national debt from 4 to 3 per cent. This was a subtle move, as the proposal appeared to be an extension of Walpole's own efforts to reduce the burden of the national debt. But if Walpole had supported it, he would have risked conceding the initiative in fiscal affairs to the opposition and at the same time alienating the financial interest in the City. Initially, therefore, he prevaricated, and Barnard's initiative opened up unexpected divisions among the supporters of the ministry. However, the opposition overplayed its hand, which allowed Walpole to oppose the second reading, securing its defeat by the comfortable majority of 115. Divisions within the opposition, partly a legacy of the previous year, were starkly revealed by this vote. However, the 1737 session also witnessed debates on two controversial issues that were to cause significant problems for Walpole in the longer term.

The first was the affair of Captain John Porteous. Porteous had been in command of the Edinburgh city guard in 1736 when it had fired on a crowd of demonstrators, killing six people. For this action he was tried and found guilty of murder. Following a royal reprieve ordering a stay of execution, however, a highly organized riot took place in the city, seizing Porteous from gaol and hanging him. In 1737 the opposition in the Lords, led by Carteret, exploited concern about the collapse of law and order in Edinburgh to call for a parliamentary inquiry into both Porteous's trial and the subsequent riot. There is no doubt that the opposition's motive was, as Edward Harley observed, ‘to ruin Sir R. Walpole with the Scotch’ (Taylor and Jones, 30). Walpole was certainly placed in a very difficult position. In the Lords, Newcastle and Hardwicke supported the introduction of a bill of pains and penalties to punish Edinburgh, but it was opposed by the duke of Argyll, the earl of Ilay, and all the Scottish peers. Walpole, fearful of losing the support of the Scots in the Commons, made it clear that he was prepared to see the bill emasculated, with the result that, when it passed into law, the only penal clause remaining was one debarring Andrew Wilson, the provost of Edinburgh, from holding public office.

The affair hinted at deeper tensions within the ministry. In part, Hardwicke and Newcastle were concerned with vindicating the rule of law in Scotland, but it was also widely suspected that they were pursuing a feud with Ilay. It is difficult to know whether there is any truth in these claims, but there is no doubt that the Porteous affair saw Newcastle and his allies within the ministry adopt a more independent attitude than hitherto. More seriously, the opposition strategy to alienate the Scots from the ministry paid dividends. Ilay abstained when the Lords voted on the bill. His brother, Argyll, by contrast, denounced it and was not reconciled by the Commons amendments. From this point he moved steadily into outright opposition to Walpole, finally being dismissed from his colonelcy of the Horse Guards in 1740. Some Scottish MPs followed his lead, but in the longer term this was less of a problem for Walpole than the considerable influence which he was able to exert in the 1741 elections, preventing the ministry from securing its usual clean sweep in Scotland.

The second major event to disrupt the 1737 session of parliament was the debate over the prince of Wales's allowance. Relations between the prince and both his parents and the ministry had been deteriorating for some time. During the excise crisis he had talked ‘violently and publicly against Sir Robert’ (Stopford-Sackville MSS, 1.157), but he had been reluctant to go into opposition and had supported the administration in Cornwall during the 1734 elections. Matters finally came to a head following his marriage, when the whig opposition proposed a motion to increase his allowance from £50,000 to £100,000, the sum that George II had enjoyed as prince of Wales. This motion was well calculated to embarrass Walpole. Many of the more independent whigs were sympathetic to the prince, remembering that the settlement of the civil list in 1727 had notionally included £100,000 for the prince's household. Younger members of the ministry, including Newcastle and Hardwicke, were concerned about the consequences of a total breach at court and urged reconciliation. However, George II and Caroline were resolutely opposed to making any concessions to their son. Before the debate commentators were predicting that the opposition would secure a majority of up to forty, and Walpole himself believed that, if the motion passed, ‘it was to be followed by another to send him to the Tower’ (Egmont Diary, 2.356). With great difficulty he persuaded the king to offer to settle £50,000 a year absolutely on the prince together with a jointure for the princess. As Walpole expected the prince rejected this composition, but when the offer was revealed in the debate it helped to secure a majority of thirty against the motion, though even this narrow victory was only achieved thanks to the abstention of forty-five tories.

In September 1737 the breach in the royal family became irreparable. Frederick established his own court, first at Norfolk House and then at Leicester House, and from this point he became ever more closely identified with the opposition to the ministry and particularly to Walpole, whom they marked out as ‘the chief object of their resentment’ (Hervey, 3.839). The following year Pope referred to the ‘New Opposition’ (Correspondence of Alexander Pope, 4.143). In many respects the group that coalesced around the prince of Wales was different from the parliamentary opposition of the early 1730s. Pulteney and Carteret were never quite trusted at Leicester House. Instead, Chesterfield emerged as one of the leading figures, along with the group of young Cobhamite whigs, among whom George Lyttelton and William Pitt were prominent. Common Sense replaced The Craftsman as the leading opposition journal, preaching a ‘broad-bottomed’ programme of party co-operation against the corruption and self-interest of Walpolean government that was subtly different from The Craftsman's rhetoric about the end of party distinctions.

As in the late 1720s and early 1730s the opposition attracted a number of influential writers. Late in 1738 Bolingbroke, back in England again, wrote his exhortatory treatise, The Idea of a Patriot King, which appears to have circulated in manuscript among Frederick's circle. The ideas developed by Bolingbroke of a patriot prince who would heal party divisions, stamp out corruption, and reinvigorate the nation were common currency among opposition writers. In the late 1730s they appeared in a whole series of works, including David Mallet's Mustapha, Henry Brooke's Gustavus Vasa, James Thomson's Edward and Eleanora, and Richard Glover's Leonidas. Henry Fielding, who had already cruelly satirized Walpole as Quidam in his 1737 play The Historical Register, also became an active opposition propagandist, editing and writing for the influential newspaper The Champion, which was first published in November 1739.

The weakening of Walpole's position in 1737, however, should not be exaggerated. The defection of the prince of Wales had little immediate effect on his parliamentary position, and even the developing literary and newspaper campaign seems to have caused him scant concern: government subsidies to the press declined considerably in the years after 1735. The real significance of the prince's opposition to Walpole became apparent only in the 1741 elections, when he threw his influence in Cornwall against the ministry. Indeed, many contemporaries believed that the greatest threat to Walpole in 1737 was the death in November of Queen Caroline, widely seen as his most committed supporter at court and the key to his influence over the king. According to Hervey, even Walpole himself feared that his position would be undermined. As in 1727, however, those who predicted his fall were disappointed, as George appears to have become if anything even more committed to his minister.

Foreign policy and war, 1738–1741

The parliamentary session of 1738 saw the emergence of an issue which was to prove fruitful for the opposition over the next few years and which ultimately played an important role in the disintegration of the Walpole administration. A range of problems—British possession of Gibraltar, the establishment of the new colony of Georgia, and the depredations committed by Spanish coastguards against British merchants trading with South America and the Caribbean—combined to turn government policy towards Spain into a major subject of debate in both press and parliament. These issues could be exploited effectively by the opposition, uniting under the banner of an expansionist, imperial patriotism and standing up for British mercantile and commercial interests against a pusillanimous ministry that was only too ready to betray them. Once more, satirical prints provided a particularly vivid summary of the opposition's case; in one, Walpole was portrayed standing by while a Spaniard removed the claws from the British lion. Allegations of Spanish depredations against British shipping proved particularly explosive, dominating debates in the Commons through March 1738. It was on this occasion that Captain Robert Jenkins helped to whip up anti-Spanish feeling by producing his pickled ear which, he claimed, had been cut off by Spanish coastguards. Walpole was anxious to deter the Commons from any action that would ‘make a War unavoidable’ (Chandler, 10.199), and ultimately persuaded it to reject Pulteney's aggressive resolutions by a comfortable majority. He was, however, obliged to commit the ministry to resolutions which denounced Spanish depredations and attempts to interrupt British commerce with the Americas.

Walpole was committed to securing a peaceful settlement of the disputes with Spain. When parliament reassembled in February 1739, however, the opposition immediately attacked what it saw as the unsatisfactory provisions of the convention of El Pardo signed in the previous year, and in particular the continued assertion by the Spanish of a right of search of British vessels. The ministry's majority collapsed, and on 8 March in the vote of thanks for the convention Walpole secured victory by only twenty-eight votes in a house of nearly 500. When the Lords had debated the convention eight days earlier the prince of Wales had voted against the administration for the first time, and the opposition had mustered seventy-four votes in the biggest Lords division of the Walpole period.

Walpole's position was not as weak as these votes might suggest, and the debates on the convention obscured deep divisions within the opposition. These differences were exacerbated when parliament reassembled in November 1739. By that time the convention had collapsed, largely as a result of the South Sea Company's refusal to pay its debts to the Spanish government, and Britain had declared war against Spain. Now that the clamour for war had been satisfied, Walpole and his ministry were clearly going to enjoy a breathing space. But Pulteney's enthusiastic support for the speech from the throne alienated many of the tories, who were ‘heartily angry’ with him (Colley, 226).

In the short term, therefore, the outbreak of war impeded the opposition's campaign against Walpole, but it also did little for the unity of the administration. Tensions had been growing for some time within the ministry between Walpole on the one hand and Newcastle and Hardwicke on the other. The latter were critical of Walpole's pacific attitude and favoured a more aggressive policy towards Spain, and by the summer of 1739 the split in the cabinet was common knowledge in London. The disagreements between ministers were exacerbated by the appointment of Lord Hervey as lord privy seal in April 1740. Newcastle, who detested Hervey, was infuriated by Walpole's ‘indifference’ and threatened to resign—an action from which he was dissuaded only by Hardwicke. The affair deepened the ‘resentment’ between Newcastle and Walpole, Newcastle complaining bitterly of ‘the natural jealousy of his temper’ (Yorke, Life and Correspondence, 1.231), while Walpole lamented ‘how hard it was for him to serve with Newcastle’ (BL, Add. MS 32692, fol. 450). After the collapse of the convention Walpole agreed only reluctantly to the declaration of war, and according to Henry Etough, his chaplain and the author of an early memoir, his policy having failed, he ‘applied for leave to resign’ and remained in office only at the insistence of the king (BL, Add. MS 9200, fol. 68v). However, Walpole appears effectively to have abdicated responsibility for the conduct of the war: in October 1740 he told Newcastle, ‘This war is yours, you have had the conduct of it, I wish you joy of it’ (Yorke, 1.251). His attitude may have had something to do with his poor health, but with Newcastle acting as de facto war minister it is clear that Walpole was increasingly marginalized from the major policy decisions of the ministry over which he presided.

Under the pressure of war, further divisions opened up within the government. By spring 1740 the earl of Egmont was reporting that there were three parties at court, the third consisting of ‘Lord Wilmington [formerly Spencer Compton], Duke of Dorset and their friends’ (Egmont Diary, 3.141). Wilmington, of course, having failed to displace Walpole in 1727, had never been an enthusiastic supporter of the ministry and owed his post as lord president of the council largely to the support of the king. However, his ‘party’ now began to flirt ever more openly with the opposition. In 1740 George Bubb Dodington, a former protégé of Walpole, threw in his lot with the opposition and was dismissed from the Treasury board. Even after this, however, relations between Wilmington and Dodington remained cordial. But the real significance of this group did not lie in the support that it could muster in the Commons, which was very limited. Rather, the fact that court politicians so close to the king were distancing themselves from Walpole communicated a powerful message about the prime minister's waning power to the wider political world.

The opposition were very conscious of the divisions within the ministry and tried to exploit them. By Christmas 1739 some of ‘the Leaders of the Opposers’ had overcome their suspicions of each other and agreed to concentrate their attacks on Walpole personally, by ‘using the word Minister in the singular Number in both Houses; and making it as familiar to name him there, as in Print or in private conversation’ (Taylor and Jones, 164). In the press this approach was very effective, particularly as the ministry's war policy appeared increasingly muddled and ineffective following the early success of the capture of Porto Bello. The production of satirical prints increased rapidly, many focusing on Walpole himself, depicting him unflatteringly as ‘the English Colossus’ and comparing him with Julius Caesar, Cardinal Wolsey, and Piers Gaveston. In parliament, however, the strategy was less successful. As so often in the past, place bills offered an effective line of attack; in January 1740 Walpole's majority was reduced to sixteen. The following month, however, when Pulteney tried to revive the issue of the convention as a prelude to impeachment, Walpole was able to rally his supporters. He deliberately applied the question ‘personally to Himself, Called upon those who were his Freinds to stand by Him. Said He was now upon his Tryal; and desired either Acquittal or Judgment’ (ibid., 44). At the end of the debate, the opposition motion was comfortably defeated by 247 votes to 196.

Despite this failure, on 13 February 1741, in the final session of parliament before the general election, the opposition attempted again to isolate Walpole from his colleagues. In both the Commons and the Lords motions were introduced requesting the king to remove Walpole ‘from his majesty's presence and counsels for ever’ (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 11.1242). Proposing the motion in the Commons, Samuel Sandys launched a wide-ranging attack on the whole conduct of the government's foreign policy since the 1720s. He further claimed that Walpole had ‘usurped a regal power, … possessed himself of a place of French extraction, the place of sole minister’, and engrossed ‘ev'ry branch of government into his own hands’ (ibid., 11.1244–5). It is unlikely that Pulteney, Sandys, and their allies expected to be able to bring Walpole down; rather, they were hoping for a propaganda victory that could be exploited in the election campaign. However, the ‘motion’ proved to be a serious miscalculation, once more revealing deep divisions within the opposition. Seventy-eight tories and dissident whigs either voted against the motion or abstained, largely because they objected to an attempt to condemn a man without bringing specific charges against him. Consequently, the final weeks of the parliament were dominated by recriminations within the opposition. Moreover, the pro-Walpole press appeared to have been revived by recent events, and for the first time an effective series of pro-ministerial satirical prints was published, drawing attention to the failure of the motion.

The fall of Walpole, 1741–1742

While the parliamentary opposition was deeply divided, in retrospect it is the weakness, not the strength, of Walpole's position that is most apparent as the elections of 1741 approached. Between the opening of parliament in 1735 and its dissolution in 1741, the number of tories and dissident whigs had increased by thirty, reducing the ministry's nominal majority in the Commons to forty-two. The conduct of the war provided an issue which the opposition could exploit, but, unlike the Excise Bill in 1733, could not be defused by Walpole's own actions. Moreover, his position within the ministry was far more vulnerable than it had been at any time since Carteret's dismissal as secretary of state, and his vulnerability was increased by the fact that he was at best a reluctant supporter of his own administration's war policy.

In some respects the 1741 elections went better for the ministry than might have been expected. Through most of England and Wales it appears to have slightly improved its position. However, the gains were not enough to reverse the losses to the opposition between 1735 and 1741 and they were, moreover, more than counterbalanced by what happened in Cornwall and Scotland, where the consequences of the defections of the prince of Wales and duke of Argyll were finally made clear. Contemporaries found it difficult to calculate the balance of parties in the new parliament, partly because there were 148 new members. However, Newcastle estimated that Walpole had a majority of only fourteen in the Commons, a verdict endorsed by most modern historians, who place the majority at between sixteen and eighteen. By autumn 1741 it was obvious that, as the earl of Ilay remarked, he was facing ‘a very warm session’ (Jones, ‘Fall of Walpole’, 105).

Events before the opening of parliament on 1 December increased the pressure on Walpole and his colleagues. The war against Spain was going badly. In April 1741 a combined naval and military attack on Cartagena was a disastrous failure, a fact that Admiral Edward Vernon did not hesitate to blame on the ministry. Events in the West Indies, however, were now competing for public attention with the situation in Europe, where Frederick II's seizure of Silesia at the end of 1740 had precipitated an attempt by France to dismember the Austrian empire of Maria Theresa. Opinion in Britain was galvanized by the plight of the queen of Hungary, as Maria Theresa was known, but British efforts to rally support for Austria were undermined in October 1741 by the decision of George II, as elector of Hanover, to conclude a treaty of neutrality between the electorate and France. As Newcastle recognized, the king's actions brought the issue of Hanoverian influence over British policy to the forefront of political debate, and he believed that it would be ‘impossible to prevent a parliamentary enquiry into this conduct’ (Hill, 222). By the beginning of November the press was full of the issue, Horace Walpole, the prime minister's son, believing that it ‘threatens to be an Excise orConvention’ (Walpole, Corr., 17.187).

The new parliament opened promisingly for the ministry when it secured a majority of forty-five in the Lords in a debate on the address. In the Commons, however, its position was much less secure. In December, Walpole's candidate for the chairmanship of the crucial Commons committee of privileges and elections, Giles Earle, was defeated by the opposition candidate, George Lee. There is no doubt that Walpole committed a serious tactical error: Earle had made himself unpopular, and many ministerialists had expected him to propose someone more impartial. On 18 December, Walpole did manage to rally his supporters to reject a series of opposition motions for correspondence relating to diplomatic negotiations, but the year ended badly in a string of narrow defeats on the Westminster election petition. One of the biggest problems facing Walpole at this time was the abstention of normally reliable MPs, including Dorset's son, Lord John Sackville, and Charles Hanbury Williams. As the earl of Hartington observed, ‘some stay away to see how things will turn out’ (Devonshire MS 260.10, 17 Dec 1741).

Walpole's own strategy at this time is difficult to determine. Some of his followers were unduly optimistic about the mood of parliament. The duke of Newcastle, by contrast, was exasperated by Walpole's inaction over Christmas, complaining of the ‘fatal obstinacy of one single man, resolved to ruin, or rule the State’ (Owen, 27). Indeed, relations between the two men grew so bad that the king was obliged to intervene and instruct them to make up their quarrel. Newcastle, however, had a point. Walpole's only initiative was to try to heal the breach at court, but the prince of Wales rejected the offers made to him, informing his father that Walpole's removal from power was the precondition for any negotiations. Consequently, Walpole himself emerged ever more clearly as the key to resolving the crisis. When parliament reassembled, he did succeed in defeating Pulteney's motion for a secret committee to investigate the conduct of the war, Walpole himself making an impressive and memorable speech. But the margin of victory in what was essentially a motion of confidence was so small—253 votes to 250—that it was clear that normal government business could no longer be conducted in parliament. A week later, on 28 January, the ministry was again defeated by one vote on the Chippenham election petition, and Walpole was finally persuaded to resign by his family and ‘some of his particular friends’ (Walpole, Corr., 17.319). On 2 February, following a second defeat on the Chippenham election, ‘Sir R. Walpole went out of the House immediately … and never returned; plainly foreseeing he could never for the future carry any Question in that House’ (Taylor and Jones, 176). He finally resigned the seals of office on 11 February, having been created earl of Orford on 6 February. He also obtained from the king a pension of £4000 per annum, though he did not apply for it for more than two years, and secured a warrant giving his illegitimate daughter by Maria Skerrett the precedence of an earl's daughter. These final acts of power not only ‘disgusted the nobility’ but were also viewed even by loyal ministerialists such as William Hay as ‘an Abuse of the Kings favour’ (ibid.).

Last years

One factor influencing Walpole's decision to resign was his desire to maintain whig government. He recognized that his resignation would facilitate the reconstruction of the ministry around his former supporters, ‘the old corps’ (Coxe, Pelham, 1.92), and this was precisely what happened. It is likely that Newcastle, Pelham, and Hardwicke had maintained discreet contacts with Carteret and Pulteney at least since the outbreak of war, and these now developed into formal negotiations. Walpole's colleagues saw the possibility of detaching the Carteret–Pulteney group from the rest of the opposition, and especially from the tories. Carteret was made secretary of state in place of Harrington, Sandys became chancellor of the exchequer, while Wilmington succeeded Walpole as first lord of the Treasury. Pulteney, who had often proclaimed that he had no ambition for office, was rewarded with the earldom of Bath. Meanwhile, the prince of Wales was persuaded to endorse the new ministerial arrangements by agreeing to a reconciliation with his father, and he also gave assurances to Walpole that he would not ‘be molested in any shape, or upon any account’ (Coxe, Walpole, 3.594).

Parliament had been adjourned for two weeks to allow for the reconstruction of the government, and when it reassembled on 18 February feelings against the new earl of Orford were still running high. Part of the reason for this was that Orford was believed to be the minister ‘behind the curtain’ (Egmont Diary, 3.248), a perception that was industriously cultivated by the tories. On 9 March, Lord Limerick proposed a motion for a secret committee to inquire into the conduct of Walpole's administration during the previous twenty years. The old corps, however, stood firm behind their former leader, and in the absence of Pulteney, Sandys, and some of Frederick's servants the motion was narrowly defeated by two votes in a very full house. But the leaders of the opposition were determined not to let the issue rest, and two weeks later Limerick introduced another proposal for a committee of inquiry, restricted now to the last ten years of the ministry. Even so, Orford's opponents secured at best a limited triumph, winning the vote by only 252 votes against 245. When the house came to select the members of the committee on 26 March, Pelham adopted a moderate approach, including some of the less violent tories and opposition whigs on the court list. His policy was vindicated, when five old corps whigs were elected and all of Orford's most bitter opponents were defeated.

The results of the committee's proceedings were distinctly underwhelming. Its investigations focused on the granting of government contracts, corrupt influence in elections, and misappropriation of secret service money, but as William Coxe pointed out in 1798, hard evidence was confined to the appointment of customs officials in Weymouth and one contract for furnishing money to pay troops in Jamaica. This outcome was not, perhaps, surprising. Examination of the secret service accounts was difficult and made more so by the mixed composition of the committee. But its work was also hampered by what one leading opposition figure called efforts ‘to Screen’ the former minister (Taylor and Jones, 59). On 1 December 1742, at the beginning of the next session of parliament, Lyttelton attempted to revive the committee, but his efforts failed, with the earl of Bath now declaring openly that he was opposed to any further persecution of Orford.

There is no evidence to substantiate the opposition's claims that Orford continued to act as a minister ‘behind the curtain’, but he still retained his interest in politics, giving his advice and support freely to his former colleagues, and especially to his former protégé Henry Pelham. In August 1743, following the death of Wilmington, he urged Pelham to accept the offer of the Treasury ‘however circumscrib'd, conditional or disagreeable’ (Owen, 171), as it would provide a firm basis on which to consolidate his power. When Pelham's appointment was announced, he offered his hearty congratulations together with detailed advice on how to undermine the position of Carteret and Bath by drawing support from the Cobhamite, broad-bottom whigs. His suspicion of the tories, however, was as strong as ever, and he warned Pelham to ‘Whig it with all opponents that will parly; but 'ware Tory!’ (Coxe, Pelham, 1.93). Orford's interventions in debates in the Lords were infrequent and not always effective: in what may have been his last parliamentary speech on 16 April 1744, he failed miserably to secure the reversal of the lord chancellor's judgment in the case of Le Neve v. Norris. But he could still be an effective politician. Contemporaries were all agreed that it was his lobbying behind the scenes that secured the ministry's victory in the debates on the employment of Hanoverian troops at the end of January 1744.

At the beginning of November, as the struggle for power between Earl Granville (as Carteret had now become) and the Pelhams reached its crisis, George II sent a message to Orford to ask him to come to London to give his advice. Orford agreed to make the journey as soon as he could, but in his reply made it clear that he disapproved of Granville's foreign policy. When pressed further by another message, Orford explicitly declared his support for the Pelhams—he appears never to have shared the animosity of his son Horace for his former colleagues—and advised the king to accept the views of the majority of the cabinet. By the time that Orford arrived in London, the crisis had been resolved by the resignation of Granville. However, by this time his health was deteriorating rapidly. He had suffered from urinary gravel at least from 1718, and by 1744 he seems to have been almost constantly ill. After the painful journey from Houghton to London in November, his condition worsened. In mid-December he began to take large quantities of Dr Jurin's lixivium; this had the effect of dissolving the stone, which Orford passed on 4 February. By now, however, he was beyond recovery. For some weeks he continued in severe pain, relieved only by large doses of opium. In his last hours he showed no fear of death, but nor does his attitude appear to have been one of traditional Christian resignation. He finally died at his house at 5 Arlington Street on 18 March 1745, and was buried in the parish church at Houghton on 25 March. It is possible that Jurin's treatment had serious side effects, and a pamphlet war broke out after his death in which both his surgeon, John Ranby, and probably Jurin were involved, but a more recent medical assessment of his illness concludes that he died of ‘kidney failure after impaction of a large stone in the bladder outlet’ (Spriggs, 427). At his death, according to Horace Walpole, he was ‘very poor: his debts, with his legacies which are trifling, amount to fifty thousand pounds. His estate, a nominal eight thousand a year, much mortgaged’ (Walpole, Corr., 19.32). In fact, the legacies amounted to considerably more than £10,000, and in a study of the Walpole family finances Plumb has argued that the debts were ‘of no great significance in relation to Walpole's total estate’ (Plumb, ‘Walpoles’, 204).


Viewed from one perspective, Walpole stands at the end of a long line of leading ministers—men like Wolsey, Burghley, and Buckingham—who made a personal fortune during their years of royal service. No first minister after Walpole was to build a country house like Houghton. From another perspective he stands at the beginning of a line of modern ministers of the crown: as every schoolboy was long taught, he was the country's first prime minister. Some nineteenth-century constitutional writers went further, arguing that Walpole established the system of ‘parliamentary government’ presided over by Peel and Russell (Kemp, 128). Such claims would gain little support from modern historians, all too aware of the enormous differences between the political systems of the early Hanoverian and Victorian periods. However, the idea that Walpole was the first prime minister remains one of the truisms of British constitutional history, and it has much to commend it. The phrase ‘prime minister’ can be found before the rise of Walpole, but it was only during his ministry, and particularly in the years after 1727, that its use became commonplace, not only by the minister's opponents but also by his supporters.

The development of the position of prime minister was an expression of the new conditions of the post-revolutionary political system, and one of the best definitions of the role in the early eighteenth century is provided by Clayton Roberts: ‘He monopolized the counsels of the King, he closely superintended the administration, he ruthlessly controlled patronage, and he led the predominant party in Parliament’ (Roberts, Growth of Responsible Government, 402). The emphasis on parliamentary management is important, as it highlights what distinguishes early eighteenth-century prime ministers from first ministers, like Danby, in the pre-revolutionary period. Of Walpole's predecessors, both Robert Harley and the earl of Sunderland might be thought to have a better claim than Walpole to be the first prime minister. Both were described as ‘prime ministers’ by contemporaries and it can be argued that they fulfil Roberts's criteria, though Harley probably never regarded himself as the leader of the tory party and Sunderland shared power with Stanhope for much of his ministry. What really made Walpole different was his longevity in office. He occupied the post of first lord of the Treasury, which by the nineteenth century had come to be associated with the office of prime minister, for twenty-one years, and he had no serious rival for dominance of the administration for eleven. Consequently, it was during Walpole's ministry that the phrase ‘prime minister’ passed into common usage.

In part, Walpole's political longevity had little to do with him. The decision of George I and George II that they could not trust the tories as a party forced those monarchs to restrict their choice of ministers to whigs. In part, his success can be attributed to good fortune, including the death of some of his most powerful whig rivals. But Walpole was also an outstanding politician. He was very much at home in the intimate world of the early Hanoverian court, a fact that is too often neglected. What has been much more readily recognized by historians is his pre-eminence as a parliamentarian. He was one of the first politicians to recognize the importance of the Commons in the early eighteenth-century constitution, and there is no doubt that his decision to remain in the lower house throughout his premiership was crucial to his success. It is hardly coincidental that all the most successful prime ministers of the eighteenth century—Walpole, Pelham, North, and Pitt—were members of the Commons. His real skill, however, lay in his ability to link court and Commons. As Romney Sedgwick observed, he performed the ‘dual role of “minister with the King in the House of Commons” and “minister for the House of Commons in the Closet” his influence in each place being strengthened by his influence in the other’ (Sedgwick, 1.41).

Walpole's contemporaries were very aware that he was different, even if they were not sure how. He dominated the public consciousness in a manner that no politician had ever done before. In part, this was simply a reflection of the extent and durability of Walpole's power. But it was also a consequence of the rapid development of the press during the early eighteenth century. The Walpole years saw not only the appearance of newspapers like The Craftsman, but also the emergence almost from nothing of an indigenous industry producing satirical prints, as a result of which visual representations of the prime minister became familiar to a large part of the population, if only from the windows of print shops. The effectiveness of the pro-ministerial press should not be underestimated. Pamphlets defending the prime minister and his policies poured from the press, and he attracted the support of some of the period's leading political pamphleteers, including Thomas Gordon, John, Lord Hervey, and Benjamin Hoadly. Even at the time, however, it often appeared that the opposition had the better of the argument. No ministerial newspaper could rival the circulation of The Craftsman in the late 1720s and early 1730s or of Common Sense at the end of the 1730s. In retrospect, moreover, Walpole's critics often appear to have been even more effective. One reason for this is because so many of the period's canonical authors—Swift, Gay, Pope, Fielding, Thomson—were critics either of Walpole or of Walpolean society.

It can be argued that Walpole attracted criticism both because of his role as an ‘early modern’ royal favourite and as a ‘modern’ prime minister. On the one hand, his enormous wealth, flaunted most visibly in the construction of Houghton, prompted attacks. To many it seemed obvious that he was abusing power and exploiting the state to enrich himself and his family, a perception which helped to underpin the common parallel between Walpole and Jonathan Wild. To some extent Walpole was the victim of a shift in perceptions of public morality; among the next generation of politicians both Henry Pelham and William Pitt were able to make political capital out of their refusal to benefit personally from government service. On the other hand, his political methods were denounced as corrupt by the opposition. He was portrayed as using the patronage available to the ministry, government offices and pensions, to buy support of members of both houses of parliament and of the electorate. In this way Walpole was not only corrupting individuals, but he was also destroying the balance of the constitution by securing for the crown an illegitimate and corrupt influence over the legislature.

Thus, opposition writers created an image of a regime, the Robinocracy, permeated by the stench of corruption, an image reinforced by Walpole's obvious love of power and his ruthless efforts to secure a monopoly of it for himself and his followers. This interpretation has informed a tradition of criticism that can be identified throughout the historiography of the two and a half centuries following Walpole's death, though for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was supplemented by disapproval of his private morality, his open liaison with Maria Skerrett, and the vulgarity, even lewdness, of his conversation. The most recent, and in many respects the most sophisticated, exposition of this tradition can be found in E. P. Thompson's Whigs and Hunters, which draws a dark picture of Walpole as a nasty little eighteenth-century mafioso presiding over a country that had ‘something of the sick quality of a “banana republic”’. According to Thompson, Walpole's greatest achievement was ‘his systematizing of the means of corruption, with unusual blatancy’ (Thompson, 197, 214).

In his biography of Walpole, Archdeacon Coxe observed that ‘While he was in power, he was reviled with unceasing obloquy, and his whole conduct arraigned as a mass of corruption and political depravity’ (Coxe, Walpole, 1.753). But soon after his fall a more positive view began to emerge, helped by the tributes of former opponents like Pitt and Chesterfield. By the end of the eighteenth century he was being acclaimed by the economist and political writer Josiah Tucker as ‘the best commercial Minister this Country ever had’ (Tucker, 222), while Edmund Burke admitted him into the whig pantheon, proclaiming him ‘an intelligent, prudent, and safe minister’, who ‘governed by party attachments’ (Works, 3.50). This reappraisal of Walpole culminated in 1798 with the appearance of Coxe's massive biography—ever since the starting point for all serious study of its subject, and still the only full-scale treatment of his whole life. In an interpretation which continues to exert an enormous influence over our understanding of Walpole, Coxe emphasized his parliamentary skills, his pursuit of peace, and his financial administration. Through the nineteenth century the portrayal of Walpole as a sound manager of the nation's finances and the architect of the sinking fund allowed him to be seen as the precursor of the political tradition represented by the younger Pitt, Peel, and Gladstone.

In his influential survey of eighteenth-century England first published in 1878, William Lecky tried to present a balanced picture of Walpole, reflecting both his achievements and the corruption of his administration. But his overall appraisal was strikingly positive—Walpole stood in ‘the foremost rank of politicians’, and his achievement lay:

in establishing on an impregnable basis a dynasty which seemed to be tottering to its fall, in rendering … the House of Commons the most powerful body in the State, in moderating permanently the ferocity of political factions and the intolerance of ecclesiastical legislation. (Lecky, 328)

Most twentieth-century commentators tend to agree with this judgement. Walpole may not have been a great reformer like the younger Pitt, an inspiring war leader like Chatham, or an original political thinker like Burke, but he was a supreme exponent of the art of politics. Thus, the dominant themes of J. H. Plumb's major unfinished biography, political and financial management, are familiar to readers of Coxe and Lecky. Plumb plays down Walpole's failings—he excuses as necessary or legitimate by the standards of the day practices frequently denounced as corrupt—but his assessment of Walpole's achievement is remarkably similar to Lecky's. For Plumb, Walpole was the architect of the political stability that made the eighteenth century in England so different from the seventeenth:

aided both by events, and by the tidal sweep of history, a politician of genius, Robert Walpole, was able to create what had eluded kings and ministers since the days of Elizabeth I—a government and a policy acceptable to the Court, to the Commons, and to the majority of the political establishment in the nation at large. (Plumb, Political Stability, 158)

In the last quarter of the twentieth century historians began to cut Walpole down to size. Paul Langford's Excise Crisis, for example, raised important doubts about his political skills, demonstrating conclusively that the crisis developed from a serious miscalculation by Walpole himself. At the same time, growing scepticism is being expressed about Plumb's portrayal of Walpole as the architect of political stability. Instead, there is a tendency to see him as the beneficiary of a series of longer-term political, constitutional, and financial developments which he was able to exploit with some skill and a great deal of luck (Roberts, ‘Political stability’). Inevitably, this makes Walpole's historical significance even more difficult to explain. He was not a great reformer or war leader. He has no claims to be an architect of empire. Nor, despite his pre-eminence in the Commons, was he a great orator. But if this appears a curiously negative assessment of Walpole, that impression perhaps stems from a preoccupation with measuring a politician's achievements. Walpole is a crucial figure in British history because, for twenty years, he dominated the political scene and the political consciousness of the nation in a way in which very few politicians have done before or since. Later historians have appropriated the opposition's description of his tenure of power, and he remains the only prime minister to have given his—or her—name to his period of office, the Robinocracy.

Stephen Taylor   DNB

Artist biography

Gibson, Thomas (c.1680–1751), portrait painter, is of obscure origins. He was appointed a founder director of Godfrey Kneller's academy in London in 1711. According to the painter Thomas Highmore, Sir James Thornhill sometimes applied to Gibson to sketch for him in his large pictures figures in action. Vertue, who was on terms of great friendship with Gibson and who was one of his pupils at Godfrey Kneller's academy, recorded that other artists were offended with Gibson because he refused to raise his prices. He also stated that due to serious illness he was obliged to sell his pictures privately among his friends about 1729–30 and to retire from practice to Oxford. He subsequently returned to London about 1732 and is said to have resumed his practice. He died in London on 28 April 1751, aged about seventy-one. At the Society of Antiquaries there is a portrait of Vertue by Gibson, painted in 1723 (engraved by Vertue himself); at the Royal Society a portrait of John Flamsteed the astronomer. A number of his portraits are in Oxford, including portraits of Flamsteed and John Locke (Bodl. Oxf.) and a portrait of Archbishop Wake (Christ Church picture gallery). His last recorded works are a portrait of Augusta, princess of Wales, and a group portrait of her children, painted in 1742. Many of his portraits were engraved by J. Faber, J. Simon, G. White, G. Vertue, and others, including those of Sir Robert Walpole, Admiral Sir Charles Wager, Dr Henry Sacheverell (1710; Magdalen College, Oxford), Robert, Lord Molesworth, and the Revd Samuel Clarke. Further examples of Gibson's work are in the collections of the Society of Antiquaries, the National Maritime Museum, Lambeth Palace, the Royal Society, and Orleans House Gallery, London; and the Bodleian Library, Christ Church, and Magdalen College, Oxford.

L. H. Cust, rev. Sarah Herring  DNB