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Sir Robert Walpole

1721 - 1742

Our history begins with the man who is broadly recognised to be the first Prime Minister, having displayed all the qualities and capacities that modern Prime Ministers are expected to perform. Beyond just being the first, however, Walpole really is a giant of history as a statesman and character.

Effectively inventing the office of Prime Minister, Walpole held power for longer than any of his successors, much to the agitation of his enemies. The opinion of political journalist Andrew Gimson - in his Gimson's Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to Johnson - is that Walpole demonstrated the ability to dominate the House of Commons for over two decades and worked the system so well that he kept those enemies out of power.

Born in Norfolk in 1676, Walpole was the third son and fifth child of his father, also of the same name, who was a member of the local gentry and MP for Castle Rising in the House of Commons - a constituency later represented by his son. Young Robert left Eton College in 1696 and on the same day matriculated at King's College, Cambridge. A portrait of the short, fat and jovial figure that occupies the place of Britain’s first PM hangs there in splendour.[1] After two years Walpole left Cambridge following the death of his elder brother to help his father administer the family estate – which he would inherit after the latter’s death in 1700. A letter from the time makes out that the Walpole estate consisted of nine manors in Norfolk and one in Suffolk.[2]

Early in 1701, Walpole secured his father’s old seat, which he eventually left in 1702 to represent King’s Lynn – a pocket borough that would re-elect him for the rest of his career.[3]

As a member of the Whig party, Walpole held several offices in the early eighteenth century, including member of the Admiralty Board, secretary of war and, in 1709, treasurer of the navy. An article from Historic UK has this to say about his early career: He was an important intermediary character, reconciling the differences within the government with his conciliatory approach. His academic skills combined with his political composure proved to be very useful and he was quickly recognised as an asset for the Cabinet.[4]

His bouncing from office to office was temporarily halted in 1710, however, as the Tories accused him of corruption and venality, impeaching him in the House of Commons and finding him guilty in the Lords, before imprisoning him in the Tower of London.[5] During his confinement he became something of a political martyr, visited by all the major Whig figures.[6] He was soon re-elected for his constituency of King’s Lynn after his release.


References/ Further Reading: [1] [2]

[3] [4] [5] [6].

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