|Sir Robert Walpole, (1721-1742)
Walpole was educated at Eton College and Cambridge University and entered Parliament in
1701 at the age of 25. Within 10 years he was secretary at war and treasurer of the navy. When
the Tories came to power in 1710 he lost his office. He became leader of the opposition in the
Commons and a Tory target. He was convicted of graft in 1712 and sent to prison by the Tories,
but was back in Parliament in 1713. His star began to rise again in 1714 after George I became
Before becoming 'prime minister' in 1721, Walpole was first lord of the treasury in the
government dominated by James Stanhope and Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland. While
at that post, he introduced the first sinking fund (1717), but resigned his office shortly thereafter.
He returned in 1720 as paymaster general and was first lord of the treasury for a second time in
1721 prior to becoming prime minister.
His position as prime or first minister was solidified 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 was to have taken control of the government, but was aborted. One
conspirator was executed and Atterbury was exiled for life. Walpole used the episode to
advantage, branding all Tories as Jacobites. The resulting public sentiment not only gave
Walpole a secure hold on his new post, but effectively kept the Tories out of office until 1770.
From the Atterbury plot onwards, Walpole was the single most influential politician in England
for a period of 20 years. He played the game of influence and power brokering very well. To
protect his position he engineered the resignations of his rivals, Carteret (1724) and Townshend
(1730). After George II took the throne, Walpole survived an attempt by the king to replace him
with Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, by securing the backing of Queen Caroline.
Remembered for little in the way of legislation or leadership, Walpole was the first prime minister
to occupy the official residence at 10 Downing Street. He took up residence there in 1735 and
its proximity to Parliament, a mere five minute walk, surely contributed to Walpole's longevity. It
was said that while he was an accomplished debater he dominated the Commons by his
ever-presence, most other members of Parliament making the trip to London infrequently.
Walpole concentrated on building influence in the House of Commons and held sway by force
of personality, leaving the administration of foreign affairs to others. His support of the status quo
and propensity for doing little, led to criticism from William Pitt. His attempt to raise the excise
tax on wine and tobacco, to shift the tax burden from landowners to merchants, failed due to
widespread opposition. After being forced into war with Spain in 1739, his hold on the Commons
waned. He resigned in 1742 due to failing health. He was named Earl of Oxford, a newly
created title, and served in the House of Lords till his death in 1745.
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