Robert Walpole, born in 1676 to a member of the House of Commons and a wealthy heiress, is generally recognized as having been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain (the position did not technically exist at the time), though the date that his premiership began is the subject of some debate. Originally intending to join the clergy, Walpole returned home in 1698, following the deaths of his older brothers, to help manage the sizable estate he would inherit two years later.
Walpole began his political career two months after his father’s death, after being elected to parliament in Castle Rising as a member of the Whig party. The next year, he would move to King’s Lynn, where he would serve until leaving politics.
Following Queen Anne’s death in 1714, her distant German cousin ascended as King George I. The first George believed the Tories opposed his right of succession, and as a result, Walpole and the Whigs were able to gain greater influence over the Throne. Over the next several years, his favor in the Royal Family would wax and wane, and for a time, he would even resign his Cabinet posts to join the Opposition. By 1720, though, he had returned to the family’s good graces, largely in thanks to his role in resolving a dispute between George I and his son The Prince of Wales (the future George II). Walpole had also managed to make a powerful friend in the Prince’s wife Caroline.
When the South Sea Bubble bursted that year, Walpole had just divested himself of his shares in the Company at an enormous profit. When a committee investigated the crash the next year, Walpole managed to shield himself, as well as two of his allies, from allegations of corruption, and when they died and resigned, he came to hold the positions of First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons. As such, many people mark 1721 as the beginning of Walpole’s unofficial premiership, and his political influence continued to rise throughout the remainder of George I’s reign.
During the first few years of Walpole’s leadership, economic recovery was of great concern. In these hard times, he made significant gains in popularity through his policy of keeping Britain out of war. Without the expense of involving themselves in international conflicts, the government was able to reduce taxes.
When George II ascended following his father’s death in 1727, Walpole’s friendship with the new Queen Caroline was likely all that prevented his dismissal. Though his policy regarding war remained popular, he began to push other, less popular, pieces of legislation. He became a frequent target of periodicals and satires, and again, an Opposition began to form from the members of the Whig party.
In 1737, Walpole lost some of his influence over George II after Caroline’s death, and two years later he failed to prevent the escalation of a conflict with Spain over trade in the West Indies. In a time of war, there was significant concern within the Whig party that Walpole, aging and accustomed to peace, was unprepared for the task at hand.
When the party fared poorly in the 1741 general elections, Walpole’s influence was all but lost. In February of the next year, a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons forced his resignation from the premiership, just days after being made Earl of Orford. He died just over three years later.