1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford

Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford
English politician
(1676-1745)




SIR ROBERT WALPOLE, EARL OF ORFORD (1676-1745), prime minister of England from 1.721 to 1742, was the third but eldest surviving son of Robert Walpole, M.P., of Houghton in Norfolk, by Mary, only daughter and heiress of Sir Jeffery Burwell, of Rougham, in Suffolk. The father, a jolly old squire who revelled in outdoor sport and the pleasures of the table, transmitted to his son the chief traits in his own character. The future statesman was born at Houghton on 26th August 1676, and was sent to Eton and to King's College, Cambridge, where he was admitted as scholar cn 22d April 1696. At this time he was destined, as a younger son, for the church, but his two elder brothers died young and he became the heir to an estate producing about £2000 a year, whereupon in May 1698 he resigned his fellowship, and was soon afterwards withdrawn by his father from the university. His education lasted sufficiently long, however, to enable him to gratify the tastes of the county members in parliament with the usual quotations from Horace, though in classical attainments he was excelled by Pulteney, Carteret, and many others of his contem-poraries in politics. On his father's decease the electors of the family borough of Castle Rising returned him in January 1701 to the House of Commons as their repre-sentative, but after two short-lived parliaments he sought the suffrages of the more important constituency of King's Lynn (1702), and was elected as its member at every subsequent dissolution until he left the Lower House. From the first he took a keen interest in the business of the House, and not many months passed away before his shrewdness in counsel and his zeal for the interests of the Whigs were generally recognized. In March 1705, accord-ing to the statement of Archdeacon Coxe, he was appointed one of the council to Prince George of Denmark, the inactive husband of Queen Anne, and then lord high admiral of England. Complaints against the administra-tion of the navy were, then loud and frequent (Burton's Queen Anne, ii. 22-31), and the responsibilities of his new position tested his capacity for public life. His abilities proved equal to the occasion, and justified his advancement, in succession to his life-long rival Henry St John, to the more important position of secretary-at-war (February 1708), an office of recent creation but in time of war of great responsibility, which brought him into immediate contact with the duke of Marlborough and the queen. With this post he held for a short time (1710) the treasurership of the navy, and by the discharge of his official duties and by his skill in debate became admitted to the inmost councils of the ministry. He could not succeed, however, in diverting Godolphin from the great error of that statesman's career, the impeachment of Sacheverell, and when the committee was appointed for elaborating the articles of impeachment Walpole was called upon to act as one of the managers for the House of Commons. On the wreck of the Whig party which ensued upon this fatal mistake, Walpole shared in the general misfortune, but neither cajolery nor menace could induce him to retain office, and he took his place with his friends in opposition. His energies now shone forth with irresistible vigour ; both in debate and in the pamphlet press he took up the cause of the ejected ministry, and in revenge for his zeal his political opponents brought against him an accusation of personal corruption. On these charges, now universally acknowledged to have proceeded from party animosity, he was in the spring of 1712 expelled from the House and committed to the Tower. His prison cell now became the rendezvous of the Whigs among the aristocracy, while the populace heard his praises commemorated in the ballads of the streets. The ignominy which the Tories had endeavoured to inflict upon him was turned into augmented reputation. At the dissolution of 1713 the faithful electors of King's Lynn again placed their trust in him, and during this parliament, the last summoned by Queen Anne, he took the leading part in defence of Steele against the attacks of the Tories.
With the accession of George, the Whigs regained their supremacy, and for nearly half a century they retained the control of English politics. The prizes fell to the victors, and Walpole obtained the lucrative if unimportant post of paymaster-general of the forces in the administration which was formed under the nominal rule of Lord Halifax, but of which Stanhope and Townshend were the guiding spirits. A committee of secrecy was appointed to inquire into the acts of the late ministry, and especially into the peace of Utrecht, and to Walpole was entrusted the place of chairman. Most of his colleagues in office were members of the House of Lords, and the lead in the Commons quickly became the reward of his talents and assiduity. Halifax died, and after a short interval Walpole was exalted into the conspicuous position of first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer (11th October 1715). Jealousies, however, prevailed among the Whigs, and the German favourites of the new monarch quickly showed their discontent with the heads of the ministty. Townshend was forced into resigning his secretaryship of state for the dignified exile of viceroy of Ireland, but he never crossed the sea to Dublin, and the support which Sunderland and Stanhope, the new advisers of the king, received from liim and from Walpole was so grudging that Townshend was dismissed from the lord-lieutenancy (April 1717), and Walpole on the next morning withdrew from the ministry. They plunged into opposition with unflag-ging energy, and in resisting the measure by which it was proposed to limit the royal prerogative in the creation of peerages Walpole exerted all his powers. This display of ability brought about a partial reconciliation of the two parties among the Whigs. To Townshend was given the presidency of the council, and Walpole once again assumed the paymastership of the forces (June 1720). On the financial crash which followed the failure of the South

Sea scheme, the public voice insisted that he should j assume a more prominent place in public life. At this crisis in England's fortunes Stanhope and Craggs were seized by death, Aislabie, the chancellor of the exchequer, was committed to the Tower, and Sunderland, though acquitted of corruption, was compelled to resign the lead. Walpole. as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer(Aprill721), became withTownshendresponsible for the country's government (though for some years they had to contend with the influence of Carteret), and during the rest of the reign of George I. they remained at the head of the ministry. The hopes of the Jacobites, which revived with these financial troubles, soon drooped in disappointment. Atterbury, their boldest leader, was exiled; Bolingbroke, in dismay at their feebleness, sued for pardon, and was permitted to return to his own country. The troubles which broke out in Ireland over Wood's patent for a copper coinage were allayed through the tact of Carteret, who had been banished as its lord lieutenant by his triumphant rivals. The Continent was still troubled with wars and rumours of wars, but a treaty between England, Prussia, and France was successfully effected at Hanover in 1725. England was kept free from warfare, and in the general prosperity which ensued Walpole basked in the royal favour. His eldest son was raised to the peerage as Baron Walpole (10th June 1723), and he himself became a knight of the Bath in 1725, and was rewarded with the Garter in 1726. Next year the first King George died, and Walpole's enemies fondly believed that he would be driven from office, but their expectations were doomed to disappointment. The confidence which the old king had _reposed in him was renewed by his successor, and in the person of Queen Caroline, the discreet ruler of her royal spouse, the second George, the Whig minister found a faithful and life-long friend. For three years he shared power with Townshend, but the jealous Walpole brooked no rival near the throne, and his brother-in-law withdrew from official life to the groves of Norfolk in May 1730. Before and after that event the administration was based on two principles, sound finance at home and freedom from the intrigues and wars which raged abroad. On the Continent congresses and treaties were matters of annual arrangement, and if the work of the plenipotentiaries soon faded it was through their labours that England enjoyed many years of peace. Walpole's influence received a serious blow in 1733. The enormous frauds on the excise duties forced themselves on his attention, and he proposed some arrangements by which the income resulting to the national exchequer from the duties on wine and tobacco might be largely increased. His opponents fastened on these proposals with irresistible force, and so serious an agitation stirred the country that the ministerial measure was dropped amid general rejoicing. Several of his most active antagonists were dismissed from office or deprived of their regiments, but their spirit remained unquenched, and when Walpole met a new House of Commons in 1734 his supporters were far less numerous. The Gin Act of 1736, by which the tax on that drink was raised to an excessive amount, led to disorders in the suburbs of London; and the imprisonment of two notorious smugglers in the Tolbooth at Edinburgh resulted in those Porteous riots which have been rendered famous in the Heart of Midlothian. These events weakened his influence with large classes in England and Scotland, but his parliamentary supremacy remained unimpaired, and was illustrated in 1737 by his defeat of Sir John Barnard's plan for the reduction of the interest on the national debt, and by his passing of the Playhouse Act, under which the London theatres are still regulated. That year, however, heralded his fall from power. His constant friend Queen Caroline died, and the prince of Wales, long discontented with his parents and their minister, flung himself into active opposition. Many of the boroughs within the limits of the duchy of Cornwall were obedient to the prince's will, and he quickly attracted to his cause a considerable number of adherents, of whom Pitt and the Grenvilles were the most influential. The leading orators of England thundered against Walpole in the senate, and the press resounded with the taunts of the poet and pamphleteer, illustrious and obscure, who found abundant food for their invectives in the troubles with Spain over its exclusive pretensions to the continent of America and its claim to the right of searching English vessels. The minister long resisted the pressure of the opposition for war, but at the close of 1739 he abandoned his efforts to stem the current, and with a divided cabinet was forced, as the king would not allow him to resign, into hostility with Spain. The Tory minority had seceded from parliament, but at the commencement of the session, in November 1739, they returned to their places with redoubled energies. The campaign was prosecuted with vigour, but the successes of the troops brought little strength to Walpole's declining popularity, and when parliament was dissolved in April 1741 his influence with his fellow-countrymen had faded away. His enemies were active in opposition, while some of his colleagues were lukewarm in support. In the new House of Commons political parties were almost evenly balanced. Their strength was tried immediately on the opening of parliament. The Bossiney election went against him by six votes; a member of the opposition was elected as chairman of committees by a majority of four; and the ministry was twice defeated over the Westminster election. The voting on the return for Chippenham was accepted as a decisive test of parties, and, as Walpole was beaten on a preliminary point in connexion with the return, he resolved upon resigning his places. On the 9th of February 1742 he was created earl of Orford, and two days later he ceased to be prime minister. A committee of inquiry into the conduct of his ministry for the previous ten years was ultimately granted, but its deliberations ended in nought, and Walpole was allowed to spend the rest of his days in retirement at Houghton. There he died 18th March 1745, and in its parish church he was buried on March 25. With the permanent places, valued at £15,000 pej annum, which he had secured for his family, and with his accumulations in office, he had rebuilt the mansion at great expense, and formed a gallery of pictures within its walls at a cost of £40,000, but the collection was sold by his grandson for a much larger sum in 1779 to the empress of Russia, and the estate and house of Houghton, a vast and gloomy edifice described in the Art Journal for March 1887, passed to Lord Cholmondeley, the third earl having married the premier's younger daughter. Walpole was twice married,—in 1700 to Catherine, eldest daughter of John Shorter, who died in 1737, having had issue three sons and two daughters, and in 1738 to Maria, daughter of Thomas Skerret, a lady often mentioned in the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague.
Civil wars at home and the protracted struggle with France on the Continent had produced in Englishmen an intense desire for peace, and, in their remembrance of the constant disputes under the previous two sovereigns over the succession to the throne, the great majority of them cheerfully consented to the rule of the electors of Hanover. Walpole knew the disposition of his country-men, and he gratified their tastes by consistently acting both in ecclesiastical and civil affairs on the principle quieta non movere. He had profited by the lesson of the ill-fated prosecution of Sacheverell, and while he was prime minister the Church of England slept in peace without fear of danger from her enemies. The followers of dissent ranged themselves behind his banner, but they were fed by promises rather than by actual concessions, and the wisest among them were contented with permission to worship vrn-

disturbed. His aim ever was to maintain peace abroad and quiet at home, and the chief blot on his ministerial career is that through love of office he allowed himself to be drawn into the war with Spain. In business matters he was methodical; his judgment was sound in financial affairs; and his speeches were marked by clear-ness of expression. Pope, who loved him not, has borne witness to his merits "in the happier hours of social pleasure," but neither in private nor in public life were his manners refined or his estimates of men and women exalted. "All these men have their price " was his estimate of members of the House of Commons, and although he gathered together at Houghton many of the master-pieces of painting he was not a lover either of art or of letters. All the eminent writers of the day were opposed to his rule, and at his fall his jealous spirit had driven into opposition every politician of repute. Great as his faults were, his character was suited to the temperament of the period within which he lived, and during his tenure of office his country advanced in prosperity by leaps and by bounds.
His life is written by Archdeacon Coxe In three ponderous folios, and has more
recently been described in one volume by Mr Ewald. (W. P. C.)







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