The highly eventful Parliament of 1715 was dominated by the political struggles occasioned by the transition to the new royal dynasty, the House of Hanover, following the death of Queen Anne on 1 August 1714. The new parliament should have run a three-year course to 1718, but the passage of the Septennial Act in 1716 extended its life, and that of each succeeding parliament, from three years to seven. The law was not to be changed again until the Parliament Act of 1911 which shortened the period between general elections from seven to five years.
In the months before the elections took place in January 1715, George I, on the advice of his Whig ministers, initiated a near-complete purge of Tories from every level of office-holding. Everywhere, Tories were regarded as potential supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty, and their places were filled by Whigs whose loyalty to the protestant succession was beyond question.
The Tories attempted to raise their old electoral war cry of ‘the Church in danger’ but found themselves soundly and humiliatingly defeated. The election did much to give the sanction of legitimacy to the new dynasty. As far as can be ascertained, 341 Whigs and 217 Tories were returned, almost an exact reversal of the result achieved in 1713. Across the 314 English, Welsh and Scottish constituencies, there were around 120 contests, though the voting figures are known for much fewer. Although the Tories lost 19 of their county seats, they maintained their strength in the English and Welsh counties, whereas the Whigs gained considerably in the borough constituencies.
Viscount Townshend, one of the two secretaries of state and chief ministerial spokesman in the Lords, had emerged as the king’s chief minister. Leading the Whig ministry in the Commons was James Stanhope, one of the two secretaries of state. But during the first session Stanhope’s abilities were outshone by those of Robert Walpole, the paymaster-general, and in October 1715 Walpole – who was also Townshend’s brother-in-law – was promoted to first lord of the treasury. The growing dominance of Townshend and Walpole within the ministry soon provoked the jealousy of other leading Whigs, notably Stanhope and the earl of Sunderland. Differences and intrigues over foreign policy led to Townshend’s dismissal from the government in April 1717 followed by Walpole’s resignation. Sunderland was appointed in Townshend’s place as secretary of state. Walpole, Townshend and their parliamentary followers took themselves into opposition, causing an open split within the Whig ranks and opening a period known as the ‘whig schism’. The bitter public breakdown of relations between the king and his heir enabled the Townshend-Walpole faction to use the prince of Wales’s court as their political base and rallying-point.
For the next three years the ministry was jointly led by Stanhope and Sunderland. Stanhope’s elevation to the Lords in July 1717 left the ministry in the Commons to be led nominally by the new secretary of state Joseph Addison, but in practice by the abler junior ministers, James Craggs junior and John Aislabie. Walpole and his associates carried on a campaign of harassing the ministry whenever opportunity allowed, and frequently found themselves voting alongside the Tories. This included an attack in 1717 on one of Sunderland’s allies, Lord Cadogan, for alleged corruption.
The loss of Whig support steadily weakened the ministry, and in April 1720 Walpole, Townshend and several of their supporters were readmitted to office, though in Walpole’s case, only to the lesser position of paymaster-general. In the early months of 1721, however, the crisis thrust upon the ministry by the South Sea Bubble, coupled with the sudden deaths of both secretaries of state, Stanhope and Craggs, plus Walpole’s cool-headed programme of financial reconstruction, initiated a further shift in the balance of power within the ministry and the House of Commons. In April 1721, with Townshend already reinstated in his former post of secretary of state, Walpole replaced Sunderland as first lord of the treasury. This did not, however, place him in immediate command, either over the ministry, or in the Commons.
The first session of the 1715 Parliament had been much taken up with the punishment of Queen Anne’s chief ministers allegedly for negotiating in secret with the Jacobite court-in-exile concerning the succession. In the midst of these proceedings came news in June 1715 that the Pretender had actually landed in Scotland, requiring new emergency measures such as the Riot Act and the suspension of Habeas Corpus. The rebel lords were impeached and tried in January 1716. Before the session closed, a Septennial Bill was passed, prolonging the life of this and each future parliament to seven years. It was a bold and calculated move to dampen the ‘rage of party’ and so consolidate the Whig grip on the reins of power. Similarly, Stanhope’s 1718 Act to repeal the occasional conformity and schism laws sought to reward dissenters for their loyalty to the new Whig regime, as well as appeal for their future support. But the Peerage Bill, in which the ministry aimed to curtail the royal prerogative of creating peers, was denounced as arrogant and was defeated in 1719 on both the occasions it was introduced.