Sir Robert Walpole (1676)
On this date, August 26, 1676, the British statesman Sir Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford, was born in Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Educated at Eton College and Cambridge University, he entered Parliament in 1701 at the age of 25 and rose to become one of the greatest statesmen of eighteenth century England. His leap to power sprang from his handling of the Jacobite conspiracy of April 1722, the plot hatched by Francis Atterbury, the Tory bishop of Rochester, to take control of the government. Atterbury was exiled for life and Walpole used the episode to brand all Tories as Jacobites, which kept them out of office until 1770.
Walpole is considered the first “Prime Minister,” and he dominated English politics for twenty years, becoming the first to occupy the official residence at 10 Downing Street. Although quoted as saying, “Every man has his price,” this was directed at a particular political party – and Walpole himself was distinguished both for political cynicism and for incorruptibility in a corrupt age, according to his notice in the Dictionary of National Biography.
Although the same source refers to Walpole as “a sincere member of the Church of England,” his friends knew him to be a skeptic. His biographer, A.C. Euard,* says that Walpole “was a man whose life reflects a genial paganism, who regarded all creeds with the impartiality of indifference, and who looked upon all religion as a local accident and as the result of hereditary influences” and “a sceptic as regards religion.”
Lord Hervey’s Memoirs recount that when Queen Caroline was dying, and she refused final counsel by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Walpole said, “Let this farce be played out: the Archbishop will act it very well. … It will do the queen no hurt, no more than any good.” Walpole died in London on 18 March 1745.
* A.C. Euard, Sir Robert Walpole, 1878, pp.40, 446.
Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.