Healing the Whig schism: 300 years on

Robin Eagles

Fractures within political parties are nothing new. In 1717, the apparent unity that the Hanoverian accession had instilled in the Whigs came to an end amid infighting over direction of policy and disagreement over who was to hold what post in the new administration.[1] It was a fissure that was to last almost three years.

Portrait of Queen Anne of England, 1706-1710.

The death of Queen Anne in August 1714 overturned – almost overnight – the ascendancy of the broadly Tory ministry, which had come in in 1710 under the leadership of Robert Harley, even though it included within its ranks courtiers of Whig origin such as the duke of Shrewsbury. By the early months of 1714, Harley (since promoted and hereafter known as earl of Oxford) was under pressure from the young turk members of the October Club,[2] many of whom identified with Viscount Bolingbroke[3] and Francis Atterbury, bishop of Rochester.[4]  

Just days before her death, Anne dispensed with Oxford’s services. Everybody expected that Bolingbroke would be appointed lord treasurer in Oxford’s place, but as she lay on her death-bed Anne surprised all by handing the staff of office to Shrewsbury. His appointment effectively closed off any possibility of the succession going to anyone other than the elector of Hanover (George I), while Anne’s death a matter of hours later ushered in a new Whig ministry by ensuring the fall of Bolingbroke, Atterbury and their adherents.

While Shrewsbury remained nominally in charge, real authority passed quickly into the hands of those who had courted the Hanoverians for years: Charles, 3rd earl of Sunderland; James Stanhope; Viscount Townshend; and Robert Walpole. By the summer of 1715 Shrewsbury and most of the senior members of Anne’s last administration had been dismissed, Bolingbroke was in exile, and Oxford in the Tower awaiting an impeachment trial.

Portrait of Charles Spencer 3rd Earl of Sunderland.

Historians have often marvelled at the apparent unity of the earlier Junto Whig grouping, which had emerged in the wake of the Glorious Revolution and members of which had held high office under William III and Anne.[5] The appearance of solidarity was, however, misplaced. Each man proved himself ambitious for his own preferment even if that meant abandoning the rest of the brotherhood, and it was only at moments of particular crisis that they were brought back together.

By the accession of George I the group was beginning to fragment once more. Wharton and Halifax both died in 1715, followed by Somers the following year, while Orford had effectively been in retirement for the majority of Anne’s reign and saw no reason to come out of it. That left Sunderland as the surviving leader of the group, who in the immediate aftermath of the Hanoverian succession got off to a decidedly wobbly start (George I had been extremely suspicious of rumours he was a republican, and had tried to send him to Ireland as lord lieutenant: Sunderland had refused to go). Over time, though, he was able to negotiate his way back into power.

At the head of the new ministry, and the target of Sunderland’s early attentions, was a triumvirate, comprising the soldier, politician and diplomat James Stanhope and the brothers-in-law Viscount Townshend and Robert Walpole. Once Sunderland had reclaimed his place, the four of them held the key offices of state: from 1715 Sunderland was lord privy seal; Stanhope and Townshend the two secretaries of state; Walpole, the head of the treasury commission and chancellor of the exchequer. In 1715 they were united in wreaking revenge on the previous Oxford administration and countering the threat to the new dynasty posed by the Jacobite rebellion. However, this apparent single-mindedness began to break down in1716. While the ministry had demonstrated its strength by repealing the triennial act and replacing it with the septennial act (which limited elections to once every seven years) this measure was not universally welcomed by their supporters.

Perhaps more importantly, divisions over foreign policy emerged as George I sought to embroil his new state in the Northern War to which Townshend was particularly opposed.[6] Stanhope, initially a junior partner, gradually moved from dependence upon Walpole and Townshend’s patronage to an alliance with Sunderland. The opportunity for this new alliance to make moves against their partners came when the king departed for Hanover. Stanhope went with him and Sunderland soon found an excuse to join them. There, they persuaded the king to alter the administration, resulting in Townshend’s dismissal early in 1717, followed soon after by Walpole. Townshend viewed Stanhope’s betrayal with undisguised bitterness:

Portrait of James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope (c.1673-1721).

My heart is so full with the thoughts of having received this treatment from you, to whom I have always been so faithful a friend, that you will excuse my not saying more at this time. I pray God forgive you; I do.[7]

Quite as important, though, was the loss to the ministry of a number of members of the Commons, who chose to join Walpole in quitting their posts. In the words of a contemporary commentator, this caused:

such a defection from the Court, especially in the House of Commons, that it was with the utmost difficulty the ministers carried on their affairs in Parliament.[8]

In parallel with the civil war within the Whigs, a similar drama was being played out within the ranks of the royal family. George I had come to Britain with his son and heir, George Augustus, Prince of Wales, Prince George’s wife, Caroline, and their daughters. By 1717 the prince was chafing at the restrictions placed upon him,[9] brought to a head by the birth of a new child. The king insisted that the duke of Newcastle (the lord chamberlain) should be one of the godfathers; the prince objected and there was some talk of an averted duel between them over it. Unwilling to accept such disloyalty from his son, the king ordered the Prince and Princess out of St James’s Palace, commanding that they leave their children to his direction. George and Caroline were forced to establish their own court elsewhere, eventually settling for Leicester House (in what is now Leicester Square). There they became a focus for the opposition, with Walpole and Townshend prominent among those courting the disgraced pair.

As a sign of how far they were prepared to go to baffle the new ministry, when the trial of the earl of Oxford finally came on in the summer of 1717, Walpole, for whom it had been something of a pet project, withdrew from the process. The trial eventually collapsed in the Lords, with Oxford acquitted unanimously once Sunderland and the minority still ranged against him chose to quit the court rather than waste their votes.[10]

Engraving of Sir Robert Walpole, 1730.

For the next two and a half years these key members of George I’s early administration remained firmly at loggerheads. In 1719 Sunderland and Stanhope attempted (twice) to pass a new bill for reforming the House of Lords and were thwarted on both occasions by opposition in the Commons – fronted by Walpole.

In 1720, however, the fissure was gradually closed. Opposition to the ministry throughout 1719 had demonstrated to George I the potential threat of an opposition Whig Tory alliance to his reign, and no doubt encouraged efforts to bring Townshend and Walpole back into the fold. Moreover, in April, a formal reconciliation between king and Prince of Wales removed a significant point of focus for the Whigs, who had parted company with Sunderland and Stanhope and shortly after there was a meeting of senior Whigs at Sunderland’s London residence that brought to a close the split in the party. According to Julian Hoppit, the reason for the healing of the schism remains in its details obscure, and he speculates that perhaps both sides had at last given in to fatigue with the problems of, on the one hand, managing government business in the teeth of spirited opposition, and on the other, being excluded permanently from the fruits of office.[11]

What is more apparent is that, as the developing crisis over the South Sea Bubble came to light, the need to rally round became increasingly important. In June 1720 Walpole was restored to his earlier post of Paymaster General, while Townshend received a fillip with the office of Lord President of the Council. The death of Stanhope in 1721 removed a further barrier. Sunderland, exposed, was forced to accept an ever greater degree of power ceded to Walpole and by the time of Sunderland’s death in 1722, Walpole was the effective Prime Minister.

To find out more, please see:

Robin Eagles is the Editor of the House of Lords (1660-1832) section at the History of Parliament. The project’s progress can be followed via its blog and on twitter (@GeorgianLords). He has recently co-edited a book with Coleman Dennehy re-examining the career of Charles II’s influential minister, Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, which will be published later this summer.


[1] For the circumstances of the succession of the Hanoverian family to the British throne see Ragnhild Hatton, George I (Yale, rev. edn. 2001), pp. 93-110.

[2] For more on the ultra-Tory October Club, see H.T. Dickinson, ‘The October Club’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 33:2 (1970).

[3] Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, secretary of state in Queen Anne’s last ministry and protégé turned fierce rival of Oxford. For more see Robin Eagles, ‘”Void of all faith and honour?” The fall(s) and rise of Viscount Bolingbroke’, History of Parliament Online, https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2017/08/03/void-of-all-faith-and-honour-the-falls-and-rise-of-viscount-bolingbroke [last accessed 15 June 2020]

[4] After the death of Queen Anne, Francis Atterbury assumed effective leadership of the Tories. He was later forced into exile after being found guilty of involvement in a plot to overthrow George I.

[5] The Junto’s core comprised Thomas, Lord Wharton; John, Lord Somers, Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax; and Edward Russell, earl of Orford. They were later joined by Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, son-in-law of the duke of Marlborough.

[6] A conflict fought between Russia and Sweden and their allies: Britain joined the anti-Swedish alliance. See Hatton, George I, pp. 180-92.

[7] Biography of James Stanhope, History of Parliament Online,   https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1715-1754/member/stanhope-james-1673-1721 [last accessed 15 June 2020]

[8] Historical Manuscripts Commission, 14th Report part ix, p. 509.

[9] For more on the tensions between George, Prince of Wales, and his father see Andrew C. Thompson, George II: King and Elector, (Yale, 2011), pp. 48-58.

[10] For more on this see Clyve Jones, ‘The impeachment of the Earl of Oxford and the Whig Schism of 1717: four new lists’, in Clyve Jones and David L. Jones eds. Peers, Politics and Power: the House of Lords 1603-1911, (Hambledon, 1986).

[11] Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 379-404.


Figure 1. Portrait of Queen Anne of England, in a tinted engraving from an atlas commissioned by Augustus the Strong (Duke of Saxony), 1706-1710. The image is understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 2. Portrait of Charles Spencer 3rd Earl of Sunderland. The image is understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 3. Portrait of James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope, c.1673-1721. The image is understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 4. Engraving of Sir Robert Walpole, 1730. The image is understood to be in the public domain.

Banner Image. Crowds of people gather together, some in rooms, some on the streets. Engraving.. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

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