Friends reunited? The end of the Whig Schism

In the summer of 1720 a schism that had divided the Whig Party into competing factions was finally healed. Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow in the House of Lords 1715-90 section, considers how this came about and how those involved were compensated or rewarded to help reunite them.

A previous blog has described the origins of the Whig Schism of 1717, as an example of a governing party dividing into hostile factions. How, though, was this fissure resolved so that the Whigs could dominate government for the next half century? The Schism lasted three years and this June marks the tercentenary of the party’s uneasy reintegration. It is a fit time to consider the circumstances and effects of its conclusion.

The split had been based on two rival groupings that developed as the Whigs took control of the government from George I’s succession in 1714. One side was headed by Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, and James Stanhope (later Earl Stanhope); the other by Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, and his brother-in-law, Robert Walpole. In the course of 1716 Sunderland and Stanhope had undermined Townshend and Walpole’s influence resulting in a series of resignations and dismissals in early 1717. Sunderland and Stanhope emerged triumphant but were faced in Parliament by a hostile group of their very able former colleagues.

The House of Commons: the Speaker, Arthur Onslow, calling upon Sir Robert Walpole (left) to speak. Stipple engraving by R. Page after W. Hogarth and J. Thornhill. (c) Wellcome Collection

Out of office, Walpole and Townshend mounted a campaign to obstruct government business and by early 1720 the ministry had suffered a number of notable reverses. After weeks of edgy negotiations and careful planning, on 23 April there was a formal reconciliation between the king and the Prince of Wales. This awkward public ceremony removed one difference between the government and the opposition Whigs, who had looked to the prince as a figurehead. Three days later there was a meeting at Sunderland’s London townhouse where the different Whig factions agreed, through gritted teeth, to work together and share office.

From late May rumours were rife about the shape of the new ministry that would be constructed to reintegrate the opposition Whigs. It was initially reported that Walpole would be given an Irish post, but in June he returned to one of his former offices, replacing Henry Clinton, 7th earl of Lincoln, as paymaster-general. At the same time Townshend was made lord president of the council, as the 2nd duke of Devonshire declined resuming the place he had resigned in 1717. Another opposition Whig, Charles Fitzroy, 2nd duke of Grafton, was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland in the place of Charles Powlett, 2nd duke of Bolton.

Those who had adhered to the ministry now ousted to make way for opposition Whigs did not leave empty-handed. Lincoln, whom the Prussian resident thought was out of his depth in his post, was placated with a pension and eventually, in April 1721, with induction as a knight of the garter. Evelyn Pierrepont, duke of Kingston, supplanted by Townshend as lord president of the council, was merely shunted on to the prestigious but less powerful office of lord privy seal. June 1720 also saw one of the largest alterations in the composition of the peerage in George I’s reign, a direct result of the ministerial changes. The king’s generous coronation honours on 19 October 1714 had included fourteen creations or promotions in the peerage, and there were a further ten in late June-early July 1716. The only other comparable period of concentrated royal munificence was from 9 to 18 June 1720, when there were six such honours. Among these were three promotions of existing peers: the earls of Dorset and Bridgwater to dukedoms, and Viscount Castleton to an earldom.

There were also creations of three peers. Matthew Ducie Moreton was a Gloucestershire landowner and MP who in April 1717 had been appointed by the Sunderland-Stanhope ministry vice-treasurer of Ireland. He now had to make way there for Sir William St Quintin, bt, who had resigned from the Treasury board with Walpole in 1717. Ducie Moreton was quickly compensated with a title as Baron Ducie. Another of Walpole’s followers who had left the Treasury with him was his brother-in-law Sir Charles Turner, bt. A place was made for him in the new Treasury commission, but John Wallop, who himself had only come into the Treasury in 1717, was left out. He too was quickly soothed with a title, as Viscount Lymington. Of a long-established Hampshire family, he later superseded Charles Powlett, 3rd duke of Bolton, as the Walpole ministry’s chief agent in that county. He was made earl of Portsmouth after Walpole’s fall, another title serving as compensation following the defeat of the ministry with which he had associated himself. Hugh Boscawen, of a prominent Cornish family, was nephew of both Sidney Godolphin, earl of Godolphin and John Churchill, duke of Marlborough. He had held the court office of comptroller of the household since 1714, but was forced to relinquish this for Walpole’s ally Paul Methuen, another former Treasury official. He was created Viscount Falmouth, or ‘Foulmouth’, as his enemies inevitably dubbed him, and continued to dominate Cornish politics, albeit ineffectively, for the government. Lord Hervey, admittedly never a generous commentator, thought him ‘a blundering blockhead’.

Ironically, these three MPs who were rewarded with peerages in June 1720 had all the previous December supported the peerage bill, which had sought to curtail the creation of new peers. They were thus the first beneficiaries of the defeat of the bill for which they had so loyally argued. Walpole for his part had helped bring down the bill with a barnstorming speech portraying it as an invidious bar to the recognition of talented commoners. The opposition Whigs who argued for the openness of the peerage received little at the end of the Schism, either in office or titles. The Whig settlement of June 1720 was uneven in its distribution of rewards. Neither Townshend or Walpole was initially reinstated to the offices he had held at the time of the Schism, and no one associated with them received a peerage until 1723. In June 1720 there was little to suggest to contemporaries that Walpole would shape Britain for over 20 years as first lord of the Treasury and ‘prime minister’.


Additional reading:

Julian Hoppitt, A Land of Liberty: England 1689-1727, 397-407

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