Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Elector of Hanover, First Lord of the Treasury, King George I of Great Britain and Ireland, King George II of Great Britain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, Robert Walpole, South Sea Bubble
Rise to power
Soon after Walpole returned to the Cabinet, Britain was swept by a wave of over-enthusiastic speculation which led to the South Sea Bubble. The Government had established a plan whereby the South Sea Company would assume the national debt of Great Britain in exchange for lucrative bonds. It was widely believed that the company would eventually reap an enormous profit through international trade in cloth, agricultural goods, and slaves.
Many in the country, including Walpole himself (who sold at the top of the market and made 1,000 per cent profit), frenziedly invested in the company. By the latter part of 1720, however, the company had begun to collapse as the price of its shares plunged.In 1721 a committee investigated the scandal, finding that there was corruption on the part of many in the Cabinet.
Among those implicated were John Aislabie (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), James Craggs the Elder (the Postmaster General), James Craggs the Younger (the Southern Secretary), and even Lords Stanhope and Sunderland (the heads of the Ministry).
Both Craggs the Elder and Craggs the Younger died in disgrace; the remainder were impeached for their corruption. Aislabie was found guilty and imprisoned, but the personal influence of Walpole saved both Stanhope and Sunderland. For his role in preventing these individuals and others from being punished, Walpole gained the nickname of “The Screen”, or “Screenmaster-General”.
Premiership under George I
Under the guidance of Walpole, Parliament attempted to deal with the financial crisis brought on by the South Sea Bubble. The estates of the directors of the South Sea Company were used to relieve the suffering of the victims, and the stock of the company was divided between the Bank of England and East India Company. The crisis had gravely damaged the credibility of the King and of the Whig Party, but Walpole defended both with skilful oratory in the House of Commons.
Walpole’s first year as prime minister was also marked by the discovery of a plot formed by Francis Atterbury, the bishop of Rochester. The exposure of the scheme crushed the hopes of the Jacobites whose previous attempts at rebellion (most notably the risings of 1715 and 1719) had also failed. The Tory Party was equally unfortunate even though Lord Bolingbroke, a Tory leader who fled to France to avoid punishment for his Jacobite sympathies, was permitted to return to Britain in 1723.
During the remainder of George I’s reign, Walpole’s ascendancy continued; the political power of the monarch was gradually diminishing and that of his ministers gradually increasing.
In 1724 the primary political rival of Walpole and Townshend in the Cabinet, Lord Carteret, was dismissed from the post of Southern Secretary and once again appointed to the lesser office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
In Ireland, Lord Carteret used his power to secretly aid in the controversy over Wood’s Halfpence and support Drapier’s Letters behind the scenes and cause harm to Walpole’s power. Walpole was able to recover from these events by removing the patent. However, Irish sentiment was situated against the English control.Townshend, working with the king, helped keep Great Britain at peace, especially by negotiating a treaty with France and Prussia in 1725.
Walpole was not consulted and stated that Townshend was “too precipitate” in his actions. Great Britain, free from Jacobite threats, from war, and from financial crises, grew prosperous, and Robert Walpole acquired the favour of George I.
In 1725 he persuaded the king to revive the Knighthood of the Bath and was himself invested with the order, and in 1726 was made a Knight of the Garter, earning him the nickname “Sir Bluestring”. His eldest son was granted a barony.
Premiership under George II
Walpole’s position was threatened in 1727 when George I died and was succeeded by George II. For a few days it seemed that Walpole would be dismissed but, on the advice of Queen Caroline, the King agreed to keep him in office.
Although the King disliked Townshend, he retained him as well. Over the next years Walpole continued to share power with Townshend but the two clashed over British foreign affairs, especially over policy regarding Austria. Gradually Walpole became the clearly dominant partner in government. His colleague retired on May 15, 1730 and this date is sometimes given as the beginning of Walpole’s unofficial tenure as prime minister.
Townshend’s departure enabled Walpole to conclude the Treaty of Vienna, creating the Anglo-Austrian alliance.OppositionWalpole, a polarising figure, had many opponents, the most important of whom were in the Country Party, such as Lord Bolingbroke (who had been his political enemy since the days of Queen Anne) and William Pulteney (a capable Whig statesman who felt snubbed when Walpole failed to include him in the Cabinet).Bolingbroke and Pulteney ran a periodical called The Craftsman in which they incessantly denounced the Prime Minister’s policies. Walpole was also satirised and parodied extensively; he was often compared to the criminal Jonathan Wild as, for example, John Gay did in his farcical Beggar’s Opera.