Little Bits of History

Robert Walpole

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 4, 2013
Sir Robert Walpole

Sir Robert Walpole

April 4, 1721: Sir Robert Walpole becomes the First Lord of the Treasury and essentially the first Prime Minister of Great Britain under King George I. The first use of the term “Premiere Ministre” was by Cardinal Richelieu in 1624 and was seen as a derogatory term by Sir Walpole who never used it. Walpole, eventually the Earl of Orford, was the senior member of the commission of the treasury and therefore the First Lord. He wielded such influence that he was the de facto PM even though the term was not officially used in a government document until 1905.

Walpole was the third son and one of 17 children, 8 of whom died in infancy. His only surviving elder brother died in 1698 and Robert left King’s College to return to the family estate at the age of 24. He entered the political arena as member of the Whig party three years later and rose through the ranks. He is said to have been a large and imposing man who was not averse to “playing politics.” There have even been accusations of bribery and corruption. Walpole retained power after George I died and backed the rise of George II to the throne.

George II gave Sir Walpole the house at Number 10 Downing Street. He did not accept it as a personal gift, but rather as the place for all future First Lords to live as they served their country. It remains the house used by Prime Ministers of the UK. The brass letterbox holds the title for the house’s occupant – “First Lord of the Treasury.” Walpole moved in during 1735 after extensive redecorating. He joined the Downing Street house and one overlooking the Horse Guards, gutted the buildings and rebuilt them to match his status.

Walpole held office for 20 years and 314 days, the longest of any British PM. George Canning served as PM for only 119 days in 1827 when he suddenly died on August 8, ending his term as the shortest of all PMs. Three other PMs served less than a year. There were more who served for over a decade with Margaret Thatcher serving 11 years and 209 days and Anthony Blair served for 10 years and 56 days.

“Oh, do not read history, for that I know must be false.” – Robert Walpole

“Compared to, say, a prime minister of England, a president has actually astonishingly few legal powers. A prime minister of England can take England to war all by himself. He doesn’t have to have a vote in Parliament, nothing. The President of the United States has to get a Declaration of War.” – David Frum

“The monarchy is so extraordinarily useful. When Britain wins a battle she shouts, “God save the Queen.” When she loses, she votes down the prime minister.” – Winston Churchill

“Once, when a British Prime Minister sneezed, men half a world away would blow their noses. Now when a British Prime Minister sneezes nobody else will even say ‘Bless You.'” – Bernard Levin

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: 10 Downing Street is located in the City of Westminster, London and is the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government. The building contains about 100 rooms and has a courtyard in the back with a terrace overlooking a half-acre garden. There is a private residence on the third floor and a kitchen in the basement. The other floors are used for conferences and meetings as well as reception areas for foreign and domestic dignitaries. It is next to St. James’s Park and close to Buckingham Palace (the residence of the monarch) and the Palace of Westminster (the meeting place of both houses of parliament). The main house was built by Sir George Downing between 1682 and 1684. Downing was a spy for Oliver Cromwell and later for Charles II. Gaining wealth in this occupation, he was able to buy desired real estate and build lavishly.

Also on this day: US Flag – In 1818, the US adopted a new flag.
Strike While the Iron is Hot – In 1871, Mrs. Potts’ Sad Irons were patented.
Tippecanoe – In 1841, the first sitting US President died.

One Response

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on April 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    About: “first use of the term”- If the term is used or not the position was being done by somebody;so, saying that Walpole becomes the first Prime Minister of Great Britain under King George I is very inaccurate. Walpole was,as Barack Obama does today, refued to admit to the merits of those that were different than he- unless they gave him something in return-money or a title or anything. Walpole was one of the first prominent politicians who engaged in the selfishness side of now-modern day politics. This was pointed it out to me by Winston Churchill who said that he was untouchable in one breath and then in the next said that he did smile if somebody gave him a good cigar.

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