26th August 1676. First Prime Minister?

‘All those men have their price’, reflects Sir Robert Walpole’s confidence in his widespread patronage which included his revival in 1725 of The Order of the Bath.

Walpole who is generally regarded as the first de facto British Prime Minister was born Today in 1676. 

In the beginning the use of the term Prime Minister (PM) was taboo for in 1741 when the nature of government was under attack Walpole told the Commons, ‘I unequivocally deny I am the sole Prime Minister’.

The use of the term PM at the time implied a measure of favouritism within the royal circle, so when Robert Harley a favourite of Queen Anne was impeached in 1715, one of the charges was the self-aggrandisement use of this term, as it was regarded the Monarch’s prerogative title.

Stamp issued 2011.

Stamp issued 2011.

As a Whig he was to hold Office by presiding at Cabinet for twenty-one years (1721-42), surviving like many in that age, on corruption.(1)

Before 1693 the principal officers of state were chosen and fired by the monarch, but after the 1688 Glorious Revolution a new power base was created now monarchs were dependent on parliament. William III thus selected a Ministry from the Whigs who had a majority in the Commons.

Also the Commons were becoming dominant over the Lords which gave a potential opening for an ambitious politician who could deliver control of parliament for the monarch: Walpole as an MP was to become that man.

By 1715 Walpole was First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor and importantly had two things in his favour. Firstly the early King Georges had little or no English requiring conversation in ‘Dog-Latin’.

Secondly he was in office as First Lord of the Treasury an inordinate period (1721-42) thus giving him time to become dominant in government by 1730.

His ability to carry Crown business in the Commons with the aid of patronage which he traded for parliamentary support of the tiny electorate, and control over the Treasury, gave him the support of the monarch and the country.

Regarding the development of the office of PM, ‘How power grew it is difficult to trace with precision’, so said former Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne to Victoria in 1841. What is certain their hold on the office is tenuous as we have seen in 2016 when David Cameron resigned.

(1) The last ten years of Walpole’s administration saw £50,000 in bribes to newspapers, who were dependent on such income since a Newspaper Tax barred the masses from getting ideas above their station.


William Pitt the Younger appointed at 24 can be regarded as the first to hold office in a sense we would recognise rather than as a nominee of the king. Whilst he could be dismissed by the King, even though enjoying Parliament’s confidence, he was the ‘efficient’ head of his cabinet.

Pitt died 23rd January 1806 at the age of 46.


history.blog.gov.uk/Institution -of -prime-minister.




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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