300 Years of Leadership and Innovation: Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first ‘Prime Minister’ and the History of Parliament Online

Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford (1676-1745), Prime Minister; Jean-Baptiste van Loo; Government Art Collection via ArtUK

On 3 April 1721 Robert Walpole was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was not the first time that he had occupied these roles, however it was from this point that he is generally regarded as becoming the first ever ‘Prime Minister’. The title was initially bestowed upon Walpole as an insult, used to criticise Walpole’s improper rise to a position higher than some members of the royal family. A similar charge had been levelled against Robert Harley during his impeachment trial in 1715, something in which Walpole himself had been closely involved. In fact, in 1741 Walpole told the Commons “I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister” [W. Coxe, Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole]. However, the title gradually entered the parliamentary vernacular, and 300 years later, ‘Prime Minister’ is now used as the official title of the leader of Her Majesty’s Government

To mark this anniversary, The History of Parliament Trust has partnered with St James’s House to produce a volume about parliamentary leadership which is part of a two volume set entitled ‘300 Years of Leadership and Innovation‘. Due to be published on 22 September 2021, this publication celebrates leadership across the full spectrum of British society; from Parliament and Crown to captains of industry and innovation.

But this is not the first time this year that we have acknowledged the importance of this anniversary. Ahead of the publication date, we’re looking back through some of our recent blogs and videos exploring the life, rise, and career of Sir Robert Walpole, 300 years on…

So, who was Robert Walpole and why did he become the first ‘Prime Minister’? This video, created in collaboration with Royal Holloway, University of London, provides an overview of his career…

Crucially, Robert Walpole would not have risen to his position of power – and stayed there for so long – without his connections within Parliament. Back in April 2021 Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, explored the so-called ‘Robinocracy’ in this blog.

The Stature of a Great Man, or the Scotch Colossus, George Bickham the Younger, c.1762, British Museum

In this blog and the earlier video we note the importance of the South Sea Bubble, one of the biggest stock market crashes in British history, in establishing Walpole’s position at the top. Back in 2020 Dr Charles Littleton from our Lords 1715-1790 section looked into the economic phenomenon on its 300th anniversary on our blog.

The South Sea Scheme: speculators ruined by the collapse of the South Sea Company. Engraving by W. Hogarth after himself, 1721. (c) Wellcome Collection

These themes are explored by Dr Eagles in greater detail on our YouTube channel, when he sat down (virtually) with our Public Engagement Manager, Sammy Sturgess, to talk about Robert Walpole’s position as a leader. As you can hear, it was a complex route to becoming the ‘Prime Minister’…

Finally, we can’t talk about the Prime Minister without referencing No.10 Downing Street! Did you know that Robert Walpole was gifted the residence by George II in the 1730s and carried out substantial renovations to the property (and the buildings around it)? In this blog Dr Eagles explores the early history of one of Britain’s most famous homes.

A View of the West Front Horse Guards, with the Treasury and Downing Street Beyond; Wale, Samuel Wale; National Army Museum via ArtUK

You can find out more about some of the other notable leaders to have worked in the chambers of Westminster in the History of Parliament’s ‘Parliamentary Leadership’ YouTube series, as well as following our research on Twitter.

300 Years of Leadership and Innovation, produced in partnership with St James’s House, is available from 22 September. Find out more information here.

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