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Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, KG PC (August 26, 1676 – March 18, 1745) was a British statesman and Whig politician who is generally regarded as the de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Walpole was born in Houghton, Norfolk, in 1676. One of 19 children, he was the third son and fifth child of Robert Walpole, a member of the local gentry and a Whig politician who represented the borough of Castle Rising in the House of Commons, and his wife Mary Walpole, the daughter and heiress of Sir Geoffrey Burwell of Rougham, Suffolk. Horatio Walpole, 1st Baron Walpole was his younger brother.

As a child, Walpole attended a private school at Massingham, Norfolk. Walpole entered Eton College in 1690 where he was a King’s Scholar. He left Eton on April 2, 1696 and matriculated at King’s College, Cambridge on the same day.

Robert Walpole Prime Minister of Great Britain

On May 25, 1698, he left Cambridge after the death of his only remaining elder brother, Edward, so that he could help his father administer the family estate to which he had become the heir. Walpole had planned to become a clergyman but as he was now the eldest surviving son in the family, he abandoned the idea.

In November 1700 his father died, and Robert succeeded to inherit the Walpole estate. A paper in his father’s handwriting, dated 9 June 1700, shows the family estate in Norfolk and Suffolk to have been nine manors in Norfolk and one in Suffolk.

Political career

Like his father, Robert Walpole was a member of the Whig Party from the gentry class. He was a country squire and looked to country gentlemen for his political base.

Walpole’s political career began in January 1701 when he won a seat in the English general election at Castle Rising in Norfolk. He left Castle Rising in 1702 so that he could represent the neighbouring borough of King’s Lynn, a pocket borough that would re-elect him for the remainder of his political career. Voters and politicians nicknamed him “Robin”.

In 1705, Walpole was appointed by Queen Anne to be a member of the council for her husband, Prince George of Denmark, Lord High Admiral. After having been singled out in a struggle between the Whigs and the government, Walpole became the intermediary for reconciling the government to the Whig leaders.

His abilities were recognised by Lord Godolphin (the Lord High Treasurer and leader of the Cabinet) and he was subsequently appointed to the position of Secretary at War in 1708; for a short period of time in 1710 he also simultaneously held the post of Treasurer of the Navy.

Queen Anne died in 1714. Under the Act of Settlement 1701, which excluded Roman Catholics from the line of succession, Anne was succeeded by her second cousin, the Elector of Hanover, George I.

King George I of Great Britain and Ireland, Elector of Hanover

George I distrusted the Tories, who he believed opposed his right to succeed to the Throne. The year of George’s accession, 1714, marked the ascendancy of the Whigs who would remain in power for the next fifty years. Robert Walpole became a Privy Councillor and rose to the position of Paymaster of the Forces in a Cabinet nominally led by Lord Halifax, but actually dominated by Lord Townshend (Walpole’s brother-in-law) and James Stanhope.

Walpole was also appointed chairman of a secret committee formed to investigate the actions of the previous Tory ministry in 1715. Lord Oxford was impeached, and Lord Bolingbroke suffered from an act of attainder.

The resignation of Sunderland and the death of Stanhope in 1721 left Walpole as the most important figure in the administration.

On April 3, 1721 he was appointed First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. Walpole’s de facto tenure as “prime minister” is often dated to his appointment as First Lord of the Treasury in 1721, though he himself rejected that title (it was originally a term of abuse), stating in 1741: “I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister.”

His brother-in-law Lord Townshend served as Secretary of State for the Northern Department and controlled the nation’s foreign affairs. The two also had to contend with the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, Lord Carteret. Townshend and Walpole were thus restored to power and “annihilated the opposing faction”.