Robert Walpole

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He was an honorable man and a sound Whig. He was not, as the Jacobites and discontented Whigs of his time have represented him, and as ill-informed people still represent him, a prodigal and corrupt minister. They charged him in their libels and seditious conversations as having first reduced corruption to a system. Such was their cant. But he was far from governing by corruption. He governed by party attachments. The charge of systematic corruption is less applicable to him, perhaps, than to any minister who ever served the crown for so great a length of time. He gained over very few from the Opposition. Without being a genius of the first class, he was an intelligent, prudent, and safe minister. He loved peace; and he helped to communicate the same disposition to nations at least as warlike and restless as that in which he had the chief direction of affairs. ... With many virtues, public and private, he had his faults; but his faults were superficial. A careless, coarse, and over familiar style of discourse, without sufficient regard to persons or occasions, and an almost total want of political decorum, were the errours by which he was most hurt in the public opinion: and those through which his enemies obtained the greatest advantage over him. But justice must be done. The prudence, steadiness, and vigilance of that man, joined to the greatest possible lenity in his character and his politics, preserved the crown to this royal family; and with it, their laws and liberties to this country. [84]

Lord Chesterfield expressed scepticism as to whether "an impartial Character of Sr Robert Walpole, will or can be transmitted to Posterity, for he governed this Kingdom so long that the various passions of Mankind mingled, and in a manner incorporated themselves, with every thing that was said or writt concerning him. Never was Man more flattered nor more abused, and his long power, was probably the chief cause of both". [85] Chesterfield claimed he was "much acquainted with him both in his publick and his private life":

In private life he was good natured, Chearfull, social. Inelegant in his manners, loose in his morals. He had a coarse wit, which he was too free of for a Man in his Station, as it is always inconsistent with dignity. He was very able as a Minister, but without a certain Elevation of mind...He was both the ablest Parliament man, and the ablest manager of a Parliament, that I believe ever lived...Money, not Prerogative, was the chief Engine of his administration, and he employed it with a success that in a manner disgraced humanity...When he found any body proof, against pecuniary temptations, which alass! was but seldom, he had recourse to still a worse art. For he laughed at and ridiculed all notions of Publick virtue, and the love of one's Country, calling them the Chimerical school boy flights of Classical learning; declaring himself at the same time, No Saint, no Spartan, no reformer. He would frequently ask young fellows at their first appearance in the world, while their honest hearts were yet untainted, well are you to be an old Roman? a Patriot? you will soon come off of that, and grow wiser. And thus he was more dangerous to the morals, than to the libertys of his country, to which I am persuaded that he meaned no ill in his heart. ... His Name will not be recorded in History among the best men, or the best Ministers, but much much less ought it to be ranked among the worst. [86]

10 Downing Street represents another part of Walpole's legacy. George II offered this home to Walpole as a personal gift in 1732, but Walpole accepted it only as the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, taking up his residence there on 22 September 1735. His immediate successors did not always reside in Number 10 (preferring their larger private residences) but the home has nevertheless become established as the official residence of the prime minister (in his or her capacity as First Lord of the Treasury). [34]

Walpole has attracted attention from heterodox economists as a pioneer of protectionist policies, in the form of tariffs and subsidies to woollen manufacturers. As a result, the industry became Britain's primary export, enabling the country to import the raw materials and food that fueled the industrial revolution. [87]

Walpole is immortalised in St Stephen's Hall, where he and other notable Parliamentarians look on at visitors to Parliament. [88]

Walpole built Houghton Hall in Norfolk as his country seat.[ citation needed ] He also left behind a collection of art which he had assembled during his career. His grandson, the 3rd Earl of Orford, sold many of the works in this collection to the Russian Empress Catherine II in 1779. This collection—then regarded as one of the finest in Europe [89] —now lies in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In 2013 the Hermitage loaned the collection to Houghton for display following the original William Kent hanging plan, recently discovered at Houghton. [90]

The nursery rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin?" may allude to the fall of Walpole, who carried the popular nickname "Cock Robin". [91] (Contemporaries satirised the Walpole regime as the "Robinocracy" or as the "Robinarchy"). [92]

In the United States, the towns of Walpole, Massachusetts (founded in 1724), and Orford, New Hampshire (incorporated in 1761), take their respective names from Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford. [34] [93]

Walpole Street in Wolverhampton is named after Sir Robert Walpole. [93]

Walpole Island, named for Sir Robert Walpole, comprises an island and an Indian reserve in southwestern Ontario, Canada, on the border between Ontario and Michigan. It lies at the mouth of the St. Clair River on Lake St. Clair, approximately thirty miles (50 km) northeast of Detroit, Michigan, and of Windsor, Ontario.


Catherine Shorter

On 30 July 1700, Walpole married Catherine, daughter of John Shorter of Bybrook in Ashford, Kent. She was described as "a woman of exquisite beauty and accomplished manners". [12] Her £20,000 dowry was, according to her brother-in-law Horatio Walpole, spent on the wedding, christenings and jewels. [94] Together they had two daughters and three sons: [95]

Walpole's first wife Catherine died on 20 August 1737 and was buried in Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey. [95]

Maria Skerritt

Prior to the death of his first wife, Walpole took on a mistress, Maria, daughter of Thomas Skerrett (died 1734; an Irish merchant living in Dover Street, London). [101] She was a fashionable socialite of wit and beauty, with an independent fortune of £30,000. [102] Walpole had married her by March 1738. They had been living openly together in Richmond Park and Houghton Hall before 1728. [95] Maria had borne him a daughter, [95] also called Maria, who was no longer illegitimate after her parents' marriage and, as the daughter of an Earl, became Lady Maria Walpole. [103] In 1746, this daughter married Colonel Charles Churchill of Chalfont (1720–1812), illegitimate son of General Charles Churchill, and became the housekeeper of Windsor Castle. [95] [104] [note 1] Their daughter Mary became the second wife of Charles Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan, and had issue. His second wife died following a miscarriage on 4 June 1739. Walpole considered her "indispensable to his happiness", and her loss plunged him into a "deplorable and comfortless condition", which ended in a severe illness. [106]

See also


  1. Daughter of Maria Walpole Churchill and Charles, Sophia Churchill, married Horatio Walpole, a great-grandson of Robert Walpole. [105]

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Further reading

The Earl of Orford
Portrait by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, 1740
Prime Minister of Great Britain
In office
3 April 1721 11 February 1742

Primary sources

Parliament of England
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Castle Rising
With: Thomas Howard 1701
Robert Cecil 1701
The Earl of Ranelagh 1701–1702
Marquess of Hartington 1702
Succeeded by
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by Member of Parliament for King's Lynn
Served alongside: Sir Charles Turner
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for King's Lynn
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Secretary at War
Succeeded by
Preceded by Treasurer of the Navy
Succeeded by
Preceded by Paymaster of the Forces
Succeeded by
Preceded by First Lord of the Treasury
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chancellor of the Exchequer
Preceded by Paymaster of the Forces
Succeeded by
None recognised before
Prime Minister of Great Britain
Succeeded by
Preceded by First Lord of the Treasury
Preceded by Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Unknown Leader of the House of Commons
Peerage of Great Britain
New creation Earl of Orford
Succeeded by