“From wickedness or from weakness”: the beginning of the end for Sir Robert Walpole

During July we welcomed year 12 student Thomas O’Donoghue to the History of Parliament office, to carry out a work experience placement with our research and outreach teams. During his time, Thomas worked with Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, to explore an attempt in 1741 to topple Sir Robert Walpole from power. Here Thomas writes about the impact of two key speeches given in the House during this year…

On 13 February 1741, Sir Robert Walpole’s enemies made their most daring assault on the man who had dominated British politics for two decades: they proposed a motion in the House of Lords calling for a “Humble Address” to King George II. This address suggested that Walpole should be removed “from His Majesty’s Presence and Councils for ever.” While this motion was ultimately handily defeated – sources agree it was by at least 40 votes – it represented a growing weakness in the government, and the previously near-unassailable Walpole was now revealed to be mortal.

Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, 1676-1745
(c) National Portrait Gallery

Just months before this debate, the War of the Austrian Succession had broken out when the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor (Emperor Charles VI) had died without a clear heir. This contributed greatly to the increasing sense of Walpole’s fallibility: Walpole’s opponents argued that he had failed to maintain a European balance of power and had allowed the House of Bourbon (which controlled France and Spain) to achieve dominance over the House of Habsburg (which controlled much of central and eastern Europe). Re-examining the speeches by two of the greatest statesmen in the Lords at that time, can give us an idea of the debate and the arguments in favour of each side.

The main proponent of the motion, and the first speaker in favour of it, was Lord Carteret (later 2nd Earl Granville). An opponent of Walpole since being forced out of government in 1725, he began his speech by contending that Walpole was the primary (or even sole) power in the government. He argued that this was not only “inconsistent with the Constitution” but also meant that responsibility for the actions of the government fell on Walpole’s head in particular. Carteret argued that while it was uncertain whether Walpole’s actions arose from “weakness or wickedness”, it was clear (to Carteret at least) that Walpole had repeatedly failed to advance the interests of Britain abroad. He highlighted two specific incidents. The first had occurred in 1725. The courts of France and Spain had become estranged after the French called off an arranged marriage between Mariana Victoria, eldest daughter of Philip V of Spain, and Louis XV, the young King of France.  This provoked anger in the Spanish royal court, and so Spain arranged an alliance with Austria. Both countries requested Britain’s presence as mediator, but Walpole’s government declined the offer. According to Carteret, this was emblematic of the administration’s unwillingness to do “any Thing that might disoblige the Court of France.”

Carteret also highlighted Walpole’s refusal to enter into the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735) as evidence of British unwillingness to support her Austrian ally against the Bourbons. Carteret declared that by British inaction, “the power of the House of Austria was diminished, the power of France increased, and the whole System of Europe turned upside down.” As Britain attempted to demonstrate that she had entirely recovered from the successive crises of Civil War, Glorious Revolution and Hanoverian Succession, keeping France and her Bourbons from achieving total continental supremacy became a primary goal of many leading political figures in Britain – and Walpole’s enemies charged him with utter failure in this regard.

John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, 1690-1763
(c) National Portrait Gallery

Carteret’s speech was followed by one by Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle. A protégé of Walpole for two decades, he was Secretary of State for the Southern Department (a precursor to the Foreign Office), and stood by Walpole until the very last days of his premiership. A foundational part of Newcastle’s defence of Walpole was a rejection of Carteret’s assertion that Walpole bore responsibility for every action taken by the government. For example, he reminded the House that the 1725 Treaty of Hanover, which formed a defensive alliance between Britain, Hanover, France, and Prussia, had not been signed by Walpole and Walpole himself was not even present at the conference.

Newcastle’s speech can be seen as a summary of the overall attitudes of Walpole’s government towards foreign policy, and particularly with regard to the 1731 Treaty of Vienna. This Treaty, negotiated by Newcastle himself, established the Anglo-Austrian Alliance that would hold firm for two decades, and it ensured peace on the Continent (admittedly only for two years) without British military involvement. This latter part is crucial – Walpole’s government was, it was argued, committed to maintaining an army sufficient to defend Britain but without becoming engaged in foreign conflicts unless it was absolutely necessary. Newcastle reinforced this point later in his speech when he argued that the lack of a British defence of Gibraltar was justified because negotiations and treaties were a better way of solving issues than conflict, even in situations when Britain had been attacked. Newcastle’s speech encapsulated the policy goals of Walpole’s government, and demonstrated that even as Walpole’s power began to wane, his closest allies had not yet deserted him.

Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st duke of Newcastle, 1693-1768

The motion to remove Walpole ultimately failed convincingly. But it was a show of force: it demonstrated there was at least substantial opposition to Walpole, and it was an indication that the mood of Parliament and the country at large was beginning to shift. We can see this motion, and its failure, as the beginning of the end for Walpole. His parliamentary enemies were coalescing in a way they had not managed since the Excise Crisis, and the tide was also turning amongst the political nation. Just two months after this debate, a general election was held in which Walpole’s government Whigs lost 44 seats to the opposition Whigs and only just clung on to a majority; a year later, Walpole was out of office.

We can see this debate as a precursor to the increasing personalization of government, as the role of Prime Minister developed and became more formalized – Walpole’s rise and fall would prove to be emblematic of the careers of his successors, even to the present day. We can also chart the differences. One major contrast between the fall of recent Prime Ministers and this abortive attempt to remove Walpole is the location of the struggle. Modern battles of this sort occur primarily in back rooms or in the House of Commons – but in this period, before the threatened defanging of the Lords in 1832 and the actual removal of power in 1911, we can see that the Lords remained a genuinely equal political body. We can see overall, therefore, that while the structures around politics and the respective powers of the Houses have changed, the fundamental battles have remained the same. The forces of intra-party disagreements, foreign policy disasters and a poor election showing that triggered Walpole’s decline have forced the resignation of countless Prime Ministers since. Perhaps not all that much has changed in the last three centuries!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s