Robert Walpole: Biography & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The British Prime Minister is one of the most powerful leaders in the world, but how was this position developed? In this lesson, we'll look at the life of Robert Walpole and see what impact he had on the establishment of this powerful position.

Robert Walpole

England has a monarch. You probably knew that. However, the monarch of England today doesn't actually have a lot of power. She does reign over the United Kingdom, but most important political decisions are actually made by the Prime Minister, the head of the UK's government. For a country that's so proud of its medieval kings and queens, it's kind of surprising that the UK gave so much power to a prime minister, so how did this happen?

The establishment of this office took a while to standardize, but no figure was as instrumental to the process as Robert Walpole. Walpole is generally considered the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. Rising to power in the 18th century, Walpole's career was crucial in transitioning England from a land of absolute monarchs to one where political power was a little more accessible.

Robert Walpole

Early Life and Entry into Politics

Robert Walpole was born in 1676 as one of 19 children. His father was a British politician associated with the political party called the Whigs. The Whigs were British statesmen who opposed the concept of an absolute monarchy, in which the king had total power. They wanted the lords and Parliament to have more direct governing power so for the time, they were a pretty radical group.

Robert was well-educated, took over his family estate, joined the Whigs, and in 1701, was elected to Parliament for the first of many terms. Recognized for his intelligence and charisma, he quickly rose to prominence and emerged as a mediator who tried to help the Whigs and the rest of the government get along. That was an important skill to have at this time because the conflicts between Whigs and their opponents (the Tories) were starting to turn violent.

Due to in-fighting in British politics, Robert was accused of corruption and briefly imprisoned. Then, the Queen died in 1714 and King George I took the throne. King George didn't like the Tories because he thought they opposed his claim to the crown. The Whigs quickly claimed power in the King's government, and Robert Walpole became one of the most influential leaders of the party and advisor to the king.

It was under George I that Robert Walpole was able to effectively establish the office of Prime Minister

Walpole as Prime Minister

In 1721, a corruption scandal in the king's Cabinet led to several members being kicked out, leaving Walpole as the single most powerful person left in the king's government. He was, in essence, the first minister (or prime minster) of the Cabinet. Walpole was soon named First Lord of the Treasury, effectively giving him control of British administration, and was also made the Leader of the House of Commons in Parliament.

Robert Walpole exercised great control over the House of Commons in Parliament

At this point, Robert Walpole had more control over British politics than any other non-royal person could have dreamed of. While he didn't officially hold the title of ''Prime Minister,'' he effectively exercised the power of that office beginning in 1721 and established a precedent that would lead to the formal creation of the title.

Throughout the rest of George I's reign, Walpole's power only grew and grew. When King George I was succeeded by King George II, Walpole survived the change of power and retained his position. Throughout this time, the power of the monarch slowly started decreasing, as more and more rights were given to Parliament.

However, there was opposition to Walpole's power. His most notable opponent was Lord John Townshend. An outspoken rival to Walpole's power, the Prime Minister worked to discredit Townshend and in 1930, Townshend was forced to resign from the king's government.

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