Whig Split

Last updated
James Stanhope, a former military commander, led the government Whigs during the split. James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope by Johan van Diest.jpg
James Stanhope, a former military commander, led the government Whigs during the split.

The Whig Split occurred between 1717 and 1720, when the British Whig Party divided into two factions. One in government, led by James Stanhope while the other in opposition was dominated by Robert Walpole. It coincided with a dispute between George I and his son George, Prince of Wales, with the latter siding with the opposition Whigs. It is also known as the Whig Schism. [1]



Following the Hanoverian Succession in 1714, the Tory government previously led by Robert Harley was ousted and the new King George I appointed a Whig-dominated ministry, commencing the fifty year Whig Oligarchy. This new government successfully resisted the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion which aimed to establish the exiled James on the throne.

Growing tension between leading ministers in 1716 was increased during George's visit to his native Electorate of Hanover that summer. He was accompanied by his Secretary of State James Stanhope. While on the Continent, Stanhope played a major role in negotiating the Anglo-French Alliance reversing Britain's historic opposition to the French Crown. Stanhope also supported George over the Great Northern War, in which Hanover was trying to annexe both the Dutchy of Bremen and smaller Duchy of Verden. The outcome of this was a British fleet under John Norris being sent to the Baltic to support Russia against Sweden. This was much criticised for subordinating British interests to those of Hanover, something which had specifically been ruled out in the Act of Settlement.


After falling out with his father King George, his son George, Prince of Wales joined with the Opposition Whigs. Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) - George II (1683-1760) when Prince of Wales - RCIN 404389 - Royal Collection.jpg
After falling out with his father King George, his son George, Prince of Wales joined with the Opposition Whigs.

The developing hostility also involved Walpole's brother-in-law and close political ally Lord Townshend. Townshend was removed from his role supervising Britain's foreign policy, but was transferred to be Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to soften the blow. However in April 1717 Townshend was dismissed from the government after voting against it in the Lords over its anti-Swedish policy. Walpole, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his supporters promptly resigned from the government and the split became formal. [2] With his ally, the Earl of Sunderland, Stanhope took over full control of the government as First Minister. To boost the ranks of their ministry he briefly appointed the playwright Joseph Addison as Secretary of State. [3]

The disharmony was increased when Prince George and his father, whose relationship had often been strained, had a dramatic falling out. This occurred when the Duke of Newcastle, a young minister, had a misunderstanding with the Prince and believed he had been challenged to a duel by him. [4] The King responded angrily and in consequence Prince George and his wife Caroline of Ansbach were banished from St James's Palace, forced to leave behind their three daughters. They took up residence at Leicester House, spending their summers at Richmond Lodge near the River Thames, and established a rival court to George. This attracted politicians hostile to the Stanhope government, particularly the opposition Whigs. Both the Jacobites and foreign powers opposed to Britain tried to take advantage of the royal rift. [5]

Walpole and his followers allied with the Tories, to whom they had recently been bitterly opposed, to oppose new proposals by Stanhope's government. A significant victory for the opposition came with the government failure to impeach Harley, now Lord Oxford, for his role in the Peace of Utrecht. After two years imprisonment in the Tower of London, he was released in July 1717. Walpole strongly attacked funding the new war with Spain, fought in alliance with France. He joined with Tories to support reductions in military spending.

A particularly significant victory occurred in 1719 when the Peerage Bill was defeated. This was a proposal to perpetually limit the membership of the Lords to existing members and their heirs, drawn up partly in response to Harley's controversial creation of a dozen new peers in 1711 to create a Tory majority in the Whig-dominated House of Lords. As Stanhope had recently been made an Earl by the King, Walpole mockingly suggested he was "now desirous to shut the door after him". [6]


Although in 1719 the Duke of Newcastle had suggested that Walpole was so close to the Tories, that at the next election the Whig government would have little trouble in portraying them as part of a single party with the Jacobites [7] by 1720 the Whig rivals began to move towards each other again. A formal reconciliation was agreed between the King and his son.

Both Walpole and Townshend returned to office in June 1720, becoming respectively Paymaster of the Forces and Lord President of the Council. Stanhope continued as first minister. Despite assurances given to her by Walpole, the Princess and her husband were not given full access to their children. Although she remained politically aligned with him, the Princess considered that she had been exploited by Walpole during the reconciliation.


After reconciling with his Whig opponents, Sir Robert Walpole became the Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742. Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford by Arthur Pond.jpg
After reconciling with his Whig opponents, Sir Robert Walpole became the Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742.

During the scandal over the South Sea Bubble, many prominent Whigs were forced to leave office. Although Walpole had not been involved in the management of the bubble, he defended those who had. Two months after Stanhope died while himself defending the government's conduct in the House of Lords, Walpole was appointed to replace him. Led by Walpole at the 1722 general election the Whigs won a decisive victory. His premiership lasted for over twenty years, firmly establishing the Whig Party's ascendancy. Walpole was subsequently accused of hypocrisy for attacking in opposition many of the same policies that he later advocated in government. [8]

In the 1730s, a fresh group of Whigs split off to form the Patriot Whigs and established a working alliance with the Tories. In 1742 their combined strength was sufficient to bring down the Walpole government. However Whig dominance continued under Henry Pelham, a long-standing minister under Walpole, and his successor the Duke of Newcastle.

Related Research Articles

The Whigs were a political faction and then a political party in the parliaments of England, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Between the 1680s and 1850s, the Whigs contested power with their rivals, the Tories. The Whigs merged into the new Liberal Party in the 1850s, though some Whig aristocrats left the Liberal Party in 1885 to form the Liberal Unionist Party, which merged into the Liberals' rival, the modern day Conservative Party, in 1912.

George II of Great Britain King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1727 to 1760

George II was King of Great Britain and Ireland, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) and a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire from 11 June 1727 (O.S.) until his death in 1760.

George I of Great Britain King of Great Britain and Ireland (r. 1714-27), Elector of Hanover (r. 1698-1727)

George I was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1 August 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) within the Holy Roman Empire from 23 January 1698 until his death in 1727. He was the first British monarch of the House of Hanover.

Robert Walpole First prime minister of Great Britain

Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, was a British statesman and Whig politician who is generally regarded as the de facto first prime minister of Great Britain.

Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke 17th/18th-century English politician and Viscount

Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke was an English politician, government official and political philosopher. He was a leader of the Tories, and supported the Church of England politically despite his antireligious views and opposition to theology. He supported the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 which sought to overthrow the new king George I. Escaping to France he became foreign minister for the Pretender. He was attainted for treason, but reversed course and was allowed to return to England in 1723. According to Ruth Mack, "Bolingbroke is best known for his party politics, including the ideological history he disseminated in The Craftsman (1726–1735) by adopting the formerly Whig theory of the Ancient Constitution and giving it new life as an anti-Walpole Tory principle."

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne and 1st Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne, was a British Whig statesman, whose official life extended throughout the Whig supremacy of the 18th century. He is commonly known as the Duke of Newcastle.

James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope British general and politician

James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope was a British soldier, diplomat and statesman who effectively served as Chief Minister between 1717 and 1721.

Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend British Whig statesman

Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, was an English Whig statesman. He served for a decade as Secretary of State for the Northern Department, 1714–1717, 1721–1730. He directed British foreign policy in close collaboration with his brother-in-law, prime minister Robert Walpole. He was often known as Turnip Townshend because of his strong interest in farming turnips and his role in the British Agricultural Revolution.

Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1742 to 1743

Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, was a British Whig statesman who served continuously in government from 1715 until his death. He sat in the English and British House of Commons between 1698 and 1728, and was then raised to the peerage and sat in the House of Lords. He served as the prime minister of Great Britain from 1742 until his death in 1743. He is considered to have been Britain's second prime minister, after Robert Walpole, but worked closely with the Secretary of State, Lord Carteret, in order to secure the support of the various factions making up the government.

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer British politician (1661-1724)

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, KG PC FRS was an English and later British statesman of the late Stuart and early Georgian periods. He began his career as a Whig, before defecting to a new Tory Ministry. He was raised to the peerage of Great Britain as an earl in 1711. Between 1711 and 1714 he served as Lord High Treasurer, effectively Queen Anne's chief minister. He has been called a Prime Minister, although it is generally accepted that the de facto first minister to be a prime minister was Robert Walpole in 1721.

Tories (British political party) Major political faction then party in the United Kingdom from 1678 to 1834

The Tories were a political faction in the parliaments of England, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Between the 1670s and 1830s, the Tories contested power with their rivals, the Whigs.

Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, was appointed Secretary of State for the Northern Department by George I of Great Britain in September 1714. He was the de facto leader of this Whig administration as Northern Secretary until 1717, when he was demoted to Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in favour of the first Stanhope–Sunderland ministry, after being outmanoeuvered by his rival Whigs. This Whig Split would last until 1720.

The Patriot Whigs, later the Patriot Party, were a group within the Whig Party in Great Britain from 1725 to 1803. The group was formed in opposition to the ministry of Robert Walpole in the House of Commons in 1725, when William Pulteney and seventeen other Whigs joined with the Tory Party in attacks against the ministry. By the mid-1730s, there were over one hundred opposition Whigs in the Commons, many of whom embraced the Patriot label. For many years, they provided a more effective opposition to the Walpole administration than the Tories were.

Harley ministry British government

The Harleyministry was the British government that existed between 1710 and 1714 in the reign of Queen Anne. It was headed by Robert Harley and composed largely of Tories. Harley was a former Whig who had changed sides, bringing down the seemingly powerful Whig Junto and their moderate Tory ally Lord Godolphin. It came during the Rage of Party when divisions between the two factions were at their height, and a "paper war" broke out between their supporters. Amongst those writers supportive of Harley's government were Jonathon Swift, Daniel Defoe, Delarivier Manley, John Arbuthnot and Alexander Pope who clashed with members of the rival Kit-Kat Club.

In British politics, a Whig government may refer to the following British governments administered by the Whigs:

5th Parliament of Great Britain

The 5th Parliament of Great Britain was summoned by George I of Great Britain on 17 January 1715 and assembled on the 17 March 1715. When it was dissolved on 10 March 1722 it had been the first Parliament to be held under the Septennial Act of 1716.

Hanoverian Tory British political grouping

Hanoverian Tories were Tory supporters of the Hanoverian Succession of 1714. At the time many Tories favoured the exiled Jacobite James Francis Edward Stuart to take the British and Irish thrones, while their arch rivals the Whigs supported the candidacy of George, Elector of Hanover.

Peerage Bill Proposed British law of 1719

The Peerage Bill was a 1719 measure proposed by the British Whig government led by James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope and Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland which would have largely halted the creation of new peerages, limiting membership of the House of Lords.

Impeachment of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford Event in British politics

The Impeachment of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford was a legal process in the Kingdom of Great Britain when the former First Minister Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford was impeached and sent to the Tower of London in 1715. Harley was accused of a number of crimes including high treason for his time in office, with charges particularly focusing on his role in the 1713 Peace of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession.


  1. Jones p.90
  2. Black p.11
  3. Pearce p.83
  4. Harris p.135
  5. Paul p.28
  6. Hill p.66
  7. Black p.17
  8. Black p.16