‘The Story of Parliament’: The office of Prime Minister in the 18th Century

Earlier this year the History published ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of parliament in Britain’ to mark the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s parliament in 1265. The book is a brief introduction to the full 750 years of parliamentary history, aimed at the general reader, and available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament bookshop.

On this blog we are publishing some tasters of ‘The Story of Parliament’ from a number of the academics who contributed to the book. Our fourth post looks at the origins of the Prime Minister’s office in the 18th century, now of course the most important political post in the country.

This article was originally written by Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section.

Rober Walpole
Robert Walpole by John Michael Rysbrack, terracotta bust, 1738 © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2126.

One of the most significant political developments of the 18th century was the emergence of the office of prime minister. Sir Robert Walpole (1722-42) is normally credited with being the first effective holder of the office, though Walpole never styled himself as such. He owed his position to holding in combination the offices of the first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, as well as being the principal government spokesman in the Commons. It was the first of these offices that was to become synonymous with the premiership. Walpole was notorious for presiding over a system based on corruption, but his significance was not so much the extent of his authority – it could be argued that the Earl of Godolphin (Lord High Treasurer from 1702-10) or Robert Harley (Lord High Treasurer from 1711-14) had wielded more extensive control over appointments – but his ability to maintain his position from the House of Commons for such a lengthy period. After Walpole’s fall and following the short-lived ministry of the Earl of Wilmington, the effective inheritor of Walpole’s mantle was Henry Pelham (1743-54), who again presided over the ministry from the Commons.

Government in the 18th century, though, remained a collaborative affair with the king at times a very active partner. During the remainder of the century, only three prime ministers managed the government from the lower house: George Grenville (1763-65), Lord North (1770-80) and William Pitt (1783-1801, 1804-06). The other eight were all senior figures in the House of Lords, though the Duke of Portland (1783) for one was merely a figurehead presiding over the so-called Fox-North coalition. Even in the nineteenth century many prime ministers led the government from the Lords: only in the twentieth century did it become the firm convention for the position to be held by an MP.


‘The Story of Parliament’ is available at the Parliamentary bookshop for £14.99. You can purchase it here.

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