Birthplace: Houghton, Norfolk, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Martin Churchyard, Houghton Hall, Norfolk, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Head of State, Politician
Executive summary: UK's first Prime Minister
Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, Prime Minister of England from 1721 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 of Whig politics 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 the 26th of August 1676, was an Eton colleger from 1690 to 1695 and was admitted at King's College, Cambridge, as scholar on the 22nd of 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producing about £2000 a year, whereupon on the 25th of May 1698 he resigned his scholarship, and was soon afterwards withdrawn by his father from the university. In classical attainments he was excelled by Pulteney, Carteret, and many others of his contemporaries in politics.
On his father's death in November 1700 the electors of the family borough of Castle Rising returned him (January 1701) to the House of Commons as their representative, but after two short-lived parliaments he sought the suffrages of the more important constituency of King's Lynn (July 23, 1702), and was elected as its member at every subsequent dissolution until he left the Lower House. From the first his shrewdness in counsel and his zeal for the interests of the Whigs were generally recognized. In June 1705 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 administration of the navy were then loud and frequent, and the responsibilities of his new position tested his capacity for public life. His abilities justified his advancement, in succession to his lifelong rival, Henry St. John, to the more important position of secretary-at-war (February 25, 1708), 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 innermost 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 in December 1709 for elaborating the articles of impeachment Walpole was nominated one of the managers for the House of Commons. On the wreck of the Whig party which ensued, Walpole shared in the general misfortune, and in spite of the flattery, followed by the threats, of Harley he took his place with his friends in opposition. His energies now shone forth with irresistible vigor; both in debate and in the pamphlet press he vindicated Godolphin from the charge that thirty-five millions of public money were not accounted for, 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 January 1712 expelled from the House and committed to the Tower of London. 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 endeavored to inflict upon him was turned into augmented reputation. In the last parliament of Queen Anne he took the leading part in defense of Sir Richard Steele against the attacks of the Tories.
After the accession of King George I, the Whigs for nearly half a century retained the control of English politics. 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, with a view to the impeachment of Harley and St. John, 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 on the 19th of May 1715, and after a short interval Walpole was exalted into the conspicuous position of first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer (October 11, 1715). Jealousies, however, prevailed among the Whigs, and the German favorites of the new monarch quickly showed their discontent with the heads of the ministry. 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 him and from Walpole was so grudging that Townshend was dismissed from the lord-lieutenancy (April 9, 1717), and Walpole on the next morning withdrew from the ministry. They plunged into opposition with unflagging energy, and in resisting the measure by which it was proposed to limit the royal prerogative in the creation of peerages (March to December 1718) Walpole exerted all his powers. This display of ability brought about a partial reconciliation of the two sections of 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 assume a more prominent place in public life. At this crisis in England's fortunes Stanhope and James Craggs, the two secretaries of state, were seized by death, John Aislabie, the chancellor of the exchequer, was committed to the Tower, and Sunderland, though acquitted of corruption, was compelled to resign the lead. Walpole, at first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer (April 1721), became with Townshend responsible for the country's government (though for some years they had to contend with the influence of Carteret), the danger arising from the panic in South Sea stock was averted by its amalgamation with Bank and East India stock, 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 in 1723; 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 in April 1724 as its lord-lieutenant by his triumphant rivals. The continent was still troubled with wars and rumors 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 favor. His eldest son was raised to the peerage as Baron Walpole (June 10, 1723) and he himself became a Knight of the Bath on the 27th of May 1725, and was rewarded with the Garter in May 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 King George II, and in the person of Queen Caroline, the discreet ruler of her royal spouse, the Whig minister found a faithful and lifelong 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 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 labors 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 to check smuggling and avoid fraud by levying the full tax on tobacco and wine when they were removed from the warehouses for sale. 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 spirits remained unquenched, as the incessant attacks in the Craftsman showed, 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 umimpaired, 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, to regulate the London theaters. That year, however, heralded his fall from power. His constant friend Queen Caroline died on the 20th of November 1737, 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 known as "the patriots" had seceded from parliament in March 1739, but at the commencement of the new session, in November 1739, they returned to their places with redoubled energies. The campaign was prosecuted with vigor, 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. After the ministry had sustained some defeats on election petitions, the voting on the return for Chippenham was accepted as a decisive test of parties, and,as Walpole was beaten in the divisions, he resolved on 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. Although he withdrew to Houghton for a time, his influence over public affairs was unbroken and he was still consulted by the monarch. He died at Arlington Street, London, on the 18th of March 1745 and was buried at Houghton on the 25th of March. With the permanent places, valued at £15,000 per 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 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 and grand-daughter of Sir John Shorter, Lord Mayor of London, who died in 1737, having had issue three sons and two daughters, and in March 1738 to Maria, daughter of Thomas Skerret, a lady often mentioned in the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. He was succeeded in his earldom and other titles by his eldest son Robert (1701-1751), who had been created Baron Walpole of Walpole in 1723; the 3rd earl was the latter's only son George (1730-1791), "the last of the English nobility who practiced the ancient sport of hawking", and the 4th earl was the famous Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the great Sir Robert. Horace Walpole died unmarried on the 2nd of March 1797, when the earldom became extinct, but the barony of Walpole of Walpole passed to his cousin, Horatio (1723-1809), who had already succeeded his father, Horatio Walpole, 1st Baron Walpole of Wolterton in that barony. In 1806 he was created earl of Orford, and this title still remains in the possession of his descendants, Robert Horace Walpole (b. 1854) becoming the 5th earl in 1894. When Horace Walpole died his splendid residence at Houghton and the Norfolk estates did not pass with the title, but were inherited by George James Cholmondeley, 4th earl and afterwards 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley.
Father: Robert Walpole
Mother: Mary Burwell
Wife: Catherine Shorter (m. 1700, d. 1737, 5 children)
Wife: Maria Skerritt (d., childbirth, former mistress)
Son: Horace Walpole
High School: Eton College (1695)
University: Cambridge University (1696)
UK Prime Minister (1721-42, de facto)
UK Leader of the House of Commons (1721-42)
Chancellor of the Exchequer (1721-42)
Chancellor of the Exchequer (1715-17)
UK Member of Parliament (1713-45)
UK Member of Parliament (1701-12)
Knight of the British Empire Knight of the Bath (1725)
Knight of the British Empire Knight of the Garter (1726)
Impeached 1712 (found guilty)
Corruption 1712 (convicted, six months imprisonment)
Inmate: Tower of London
Risk Factors: Obesity
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