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the first "Prime Minister" of Great Britain
Robert Walpole was born into a wealthy landowning family at Houghton, Norfolk, on August 26, 1676. He was educated at Eton College (1690-1695) and at King's College, Cambridge (1696-1698).
In 1701, Walpole succeeded his father in the House of Commons as MP for Castle Rising, Norfolk. He was subsequently elected by King's Lynn in 1702, and was continuously re-elected to the House of Commons until 1710. Walpole's political and oratorical skills quickly earned him favor, and by 1710 he had become Secretary at War and Treasurer of the Navy. He lost both offices in 1711, however, when the Whigs lost their majority to the Tories. In 1712, the new government convicted Walpole of accepting an illegal payment while Secretary at War, and he spent six months imprisoned in the Tower of London. He returned to Parliament in 1713, and became a vocal leader of the opposition.
The Tories lost favor after George I became king in 1714, and Walpole's political fortunes once again began to rise. He became First Lord of the Treasury in 1715, but resigned in 1717 due to disagreements within his party. He spent the next few years attacking the government of James Stanhope and Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, and building his influence within the House of Commons. In 1718, his influence brought about the defeat of the Peerage Bill, which sought to limit the House of Lords to 216 members. He was made Paymaster General in 1720, and his position was further strengthened by the collapse of the speculative South Sea Company that same year, which left many of his opponents in disgrace.
In 1721, Walpole became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer (a position which for all intents and purposes is equivalent to today's Prime Minister, a term which did not, however, come into actual use until 1905). His position as "Prime Minister" was secured by his response to a Jacobite conspiracy uncovered in April 1722. Known as the Atterbury Plot, after Francis Atterbury, the Tory bishop of Rochester, the conspiracy aimed to take control of the government, but failed. One conspirator was executed and Atterbury was exiled for life. Walpole used the episode to his advantage by branding all Tories as Jacobites, thus placing them in low esteem before the public.
As "Prime Minister," Walpole pursued a policy of peace abroad, low taxation, and reduction of the national debt. He left the direction of foreign affairs to others, and concentrated most of his efforts on controlling the House of Commons and on building his personal interests. He consistently defeated opposition by his superior debating skill, his power, his influence, and his constant attendance in the House of Commons. He became a Knight of the Bath in 1725, and was rewarded with the Garter in 1726.
Walpole's position was briefly threatened after George II took the throne in 1727 and tried to replace him with Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington. Walpole was able to secure the backing of Queen Caroline, however, and with her help quickly gained the king's favor. In 1735, George II made him a gift of 10 Downing Street, which has served as the permanent London residence of the British Prime Minister ever since.
The greatest threat to Walpole's power came in the late 1730's, when public sentiment for war with Spain began to rise. As that sentiment grew, and Walpole's insistence that war was unnecessary remained stalwart, his hold on the House of Commons declined. Finally forced to declare war in 1739, his ineffective handling of the conflict further eroded his support. His loss of influence, combined with failing health, prompted him to resign in February 1742. He was succeeded by Spencer Compton.
Having been created Earl of Orford just prior to his resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Walpole spent the rest of his life exerting his influence in the House of Lords. He died in London on March 18, 1745.
This page was last updated on March 18, 2017.