Battle of Cartagena de Indias, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Cornwall, Earl of Orford, Elector of Hanover, First Lord of the Treasury, Frederick-Louis, House of Commons, King George II of Great Britain and Ireland, Prince of Wales, Robert Walpole
Walpole secured the support of the people and of the House of Commons with a policy of avoiding war. He used his influence to prevent George II from entering the War of the Polish Succession in 1733, because it was a dispute between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs. He boasted, “There are 50,000 men slain in Europe this year, and not one Englishman.” By avoiding wars, Walpole could lower taxes.
After the general elections of 1734, Walpole’s supporters still formed a majority in the House of Commons although they were less numerous than before. He maintained both his parliamentary supremacy and his popularity in Norfolk, his home county.
In 1736 an increase in the tax on gin inspired riots in London. The even more serious Porteous riots broke out in Edinburgh after the King pardoned a captain of the guard (John Porteous) who had commanded his troops to shoot a group of protesters. Though these events diminished Walpole’s popularity, they failed to shake his majority in Parliament.
The year 1737 saw the death of Walpole’s close friend Queen Caroline. Though her death did not end his personal influence with George II, who had grown loyal to the Prime Minister during the preceding years, Walpole’s domination of government continued to decline.
His opponents acquired a vocal leader in the Frederick Louis, the Prince of Wales who was estranged from his father, the King. Several young politicians including William Pitt the Elder and George Grenville formed a faction known as the “Patriot Boys” and joined the Prince of Wales in opposition.
Walpole’s failure to maintain a policy of avoiding military conflict eventually led to his fall from power. Under the Treaty of Seville (1729), Great Britain agreed not to trade with the Spanish colonies in North America. Spain claimed the right to board and search British vessels to ensure compliance with this provision. Disputes, however, broke out over trade with the West Indies.
Walpole attempted to prevent war but was opposed by the King, the House of Commons, and by a faction in his own Cabinet. In 1739 Walpole abandoned all efforts to stop the conflict and commenced the War of Jenkins’ Ear (so called because Robert Jenkins, a Welsh mariner, claimed that a Spaniard inspecting his vessel had severed his ear).
Walpole’s influence continued to dramatically decline even after the war began. In the 1741 general election his supporters secured an increase in votes in constituencies that were decided by mass electorates but failed to win in many pocket boroughs (constituencies subject to the informal but strong influence of patrons).
In general the government made gains in England and Wales but this was not enough to overturn the reverses of the 1734 election and further losses in Cornwall where many constituencies were obedient to the will of the Prince of Wales (who was also Duke of Cornwall). These constituencies returned members of parliament hostile to the Prime Minister.
In the new Parliament, many Whigs thought the aging Prime Minister incapable of leading the military campaign. Moreover, his majority was not as strong as it had formerly been, his detractors—such as William Pulteney, earl of Bath, and Lord Perceval—being approximately as numerous as his supporters. Behind these political enemies were opposition Whigs, Tories and Jacobites.
Walpole was alleged to have presided over an immense increase in corruption and to have enriched himself enormously whilst in office. Parliamentary committees were formed to investigate these charges. In 1742 when the House of Commons was prepared to determine the validity of a by-election in Chippenham, Walpole and others agreed to treat the issue as a motion of no confidence.
As Walpole was defeated on the vote, he agreed to resign from the Government. The news of the naval disaster against Spain in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias also prompted the end of his political career. King George II wept on his resignation and begged to see him frequently.
As part of his resignation the King agreed to elevate him to the House of Lords as the Earl of Orford, Viscount Walpole and Baron Walpole of Houghton in the County of Norfolk, this occurred on 6 February 1742. Five days later he formally relinquished the seals of office.
Although no longer First Lord of the Treasury, Walpole remained politically involved as an advisor. His former colleagues were still pleased to see him, perhaps in part because he retained the king’s favour. After his resignation, his main political roles were to support the government by means of advice, to dole out some patronage and to speak on the ministry’s behalf in the Lords.
Lord Orford was succeeded as Prime Minister by Lord Wilmington in an administration whose true head was Lord Carteret. A committee was created to inquire into Walpole’s ministry but no substantial evidence of wrongdoing or corruption was discovered.
Though no longer a member of the Cabinet, Orford continued to maintain personal influence with George II and was often dubbed the “Minister behind the Curtain” for this advice and influence. In 1744 he managed to secure the dismissal of Carteret and the appointment of Henry Pelham whom he regarded as a political protégé. He advised Pelham to make use of his seat in the Commons to serve as a bridge between the King and Parliament, just as Walpole had done.
During this time, Walpole also made two interventions in the Lords. The first was in January 1744 in the debate on Hanoverian troops being kept in British pay. Walpole prevented them from losing the troops. In his second intervention, Walpole, with fear of a Jacobite-inspired invasion in February 1744, made a speech on the situation.
Frederick, Prince of Wales, usually hostile to Walpole, warmly received him at his court the next day, most likely because his father’s throne, and the future of the whole Hanoverian dynasty, was at risk from the Stuart Pretender.
Along with his political interests in his last years, Walpole enjoyed the pleasures of the hunt. Back at his recently rebuilt country seat in Houghton, Norfolk, such pastimes were denied him due to “dismal weather”. He also enjoyed the beauties of the countryside. His art collection gave him particular pleasure. He had spent much money in the 1720s and 1730s in building up a collection of Old Masters from all over Europe. Walpole also concerned himself with estate matters.
His health, never good, deteriorated rapidly toward the end of 1744; Orford died in London in 1745, aged 68 years; he was buried in the parish church of St Martin in Houghton, Norfolk.
His earldom passed to his eldest son Robert who was in turn succeeded by his only son George. Upon the death of the third Earl, the earldom was inherited by the first Earl’s younger son Horace Walpole, who is now remembered for his many thousands of insightful letters, published in 48 volumes by Yale University Press.