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 sec