In these days when financial news is often headline news, perhaps today’s politicians should look back at a former Lynn MP, Sir Robert Walpole.
Generally regarded as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain – although the title wasn’t in official use in the 18th century – he made his divided, war-prone country rich and free of war – and busily in profit – for most of the 20 years he led it. Let’s take a closer look at this extraordinary man.
Sir Robert Walpole was the Second Earl of Orford; the first Prime Minister of Britain; a Knight of the Garter and (to him, the greatest honour) “Bob of Lynn”. He served as its Whig member from 1701-1741.
He didn’t challenge an empire like Boudicca or settle a sea-war like his close relation Nelson.
He didn’t have visions like Richeldis of Walsingham or Julian of Norwich. He wasn’t the first heretic burned for his beliefs like William Sawtrey of Lynn. He didn’t lose a Protestant head like Anne Boleyn of Blickling. He didn’t help inspire a revolution like Tom Paine of Thetford.
He didn’t revolutionise agriculture like his brother-in-law ‘Turnip’ Townshend of Raynham. He didn’t mother autobiography like Margery of Lynn; grandmother the Austen novel like Fanny Burney or wicked-stepfather the gothic novel like his son Horace.
Horace spoke of his “heart’s laugh” and said “it would do you good to hear him.” The big burly boisterous fellow liked a drink and ‘talked bawdy’ at table. Even Alexander Pope, one of his nastiest critics, liked him in ‘his happier hour of social pleasure’.
Queen Caroline is witness that his friendships were unusually warm and both personal and political counsel treasured by her and the king. And this from their initial position of hostility.
He was underestimated as a red-faced country bumpkin with a thick and lifelong Norfolk accent whose political career began unpromisingly in the Tower of London (after the South Sea Bubble scandal).
The age we name after him – the age of “the fop, the beau, the rake, the dandy, the mistress and the courtesan” – lacks ‘improving’ role models and war heroes and is often untaught in schools. But he is perhaps the most extraordinary Norfolk personage of all.
As well as his political achievements, the palace he built at Houghton Hall was so magnificent it was the gift later offered to Wellington from a grateful nation. And turned down for being “too far from London,” its glory half-hidden under a West Norfolk bushel, like Walpole.
The Whigs’ most settled principle was preventing Queen Anne’s brother, Prince James Edward Stuart, the Jacobite ‘Pretender,’ from ascending the throne. They favoured Prince George: German, more interested in Hanover, and a distant cousin, but Protestant. The Stuart-cleaving Tories had a majority but found James Edward’s Catholic faith at odds with the populace and their own Anglicanism. Their dilemma let the Townshend-and-Walpole-led Whigs in for an Age – “the Age of Walpole”.
In 1721, Lynn’s MP was appointed First Lord of the Treasury, not Prime Minister. The term would not be officially recognised for 200 years and was first used, of Walpole, as a term of abuse.
The great Commons attack that destroyed him in 1741 began “according to our constitution, we can have no sole and prime minister ... every officer of the state has his own proper department, and no officer ought to meddle in the department of another.”
And, in the Lords, “Such an officer ... is inconsistent with the constitution of the country and destructive of liberty in any government whatsoever.”
So ended the first man to get to the top of what Disraeli called the ‘greasy pole’, stayed longer than any since and did more good there than many.
And the first letter “Bob of Lynn” opened every morning was from his gamekeeper. In 40 years, his heart never left Houghton.
n The magnificent Hall, monument to a great man and a forgotten age, is well worth a visit.
n For Walpole Walks in Lynn contact Dr Paul Richards firstname.lastname@example.org: minimum number is 10 up to 20; tour of about 90 minutes at £4 a head/donation for a Lynn charitable cause.
n Houghton Hall is open until October 19 (Wednesday, Thursday, Sundays 11am-4.45pm, last admission to the house 4pm and although the house closes at 4.45pm the garden and shop do not close until 5.30pm; gates open 10.30am - 4pm; visit the website http://www.houghtonhall.com