WALPOLE, Hon. Horatio (1717-97), of Strawberry Hill, Mdx.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 5 Oct. 1717, 3rd s. of Robert, 1st Earl of Orford, and bro. of Hon. Edward Walpole. educ. Eton 1727-34; King’s, Camb. 1735-8; Grand Tour (France, Switzerland, Italy) 1739-41. unm. suc. nephew as 4th Earl of Orford 5 Dec. 1791.
Usher of Exchequer, comptroller of the pipe, and clerk of estreats 1738- d.
As the son of the great Sir Robert, Horace Walpole was predestined to enter Parliament, and did so at the first general election after coming of age. But in a long and full life, Parliament was merely one of his interests, and by temperament he was unsuited to the front rank of politics. He was, in his own words (to Mann, 7 Mar. 1754), ‘a person who loves to write history better than to act in it’, and was eminently fit to be the chronicler of his age. A rich and complex personality, acutely sensitive to moods and impressions, vulnerable and touchy, he found relief from inner tensions in incessant writing. Still, he was not a recluse: he was fascinated by the clash of personalities, which for him was the essence of politics, and at times felt compelled to take part. He preferred to work behind the scenes, and on behalf of others, rather than for himself; and, comfortably endowed with sinecures by his father, could leave off political activity whenever the strain became too much.
He inherited his politics as he inherited his seat in Parliament, and deemed himself a Whig in direct lineage from the Whigs of 1688. Yet he hated his father’s successors, Henry Pelham and Newcastle, and believed that they had betrayed Sir Robert Walpole in his hour of need. In his Memoirs of the reign of George II (iii. 85) he wrote:
Thinly, very thinly, were great men sown in my remembrance: I can pretend to have seen but five; the Duke of Cumberland, Sir Robert Walpole, Lord Granville, Lord Mansfield, and Pitt.
And he introduced his memoirs with a saying of Oxenstiern: ‘Do you not know, my son, with what little wisdom the world is ruled?’ After his father’s death Walpole did not identify himself with any political group, and rarely spoke in the House. Probably his closest political ties before 1760 were with Richard Rigby and Henry Fox, and at all times he worked tirelessly to advance the career of his friend and cousin, Henry Seymour Conway.
During the early years of George III’s reign it was primarily on Conway’s behalf that Walpole took an active part in politics. Both had voted against the Grenville Administration over Wilkes and general warrants; and on 21 Apr. 1764, at the King’s insistence, Conway was dismissed from his regiment and his place in the bedchamber. ‘I shut myself up in the country for three days, till I had conquered the first ebullitions of my rage’, wrote Walpole;1 and, joining the Opposition, he worked for the destruction of the Grenville ministry. When the Opposition took office in July 1765 Walpole was disappointed at not being offered a place (which he admits he would not have accepted), and hurt by Conway’s coldness and neglect. But he was resolved neither to quarrel with Conway nor to allow his disappointment to be known; and soon after the Rockingham Administration had been formed he went to Paris, remaining there until April 1766. Thus for these critical months Walpole’s narrative suffers by his being out of the country.
‘Though Mr. Conway had none of the warmth of friendship’, wrote Walpole,2 ‘yet he had more confidence in me ... than in any man living, and ... frequently trusted me afterwards with secrets that he reserved from his wife and brother.’ During the two years of the Chatham Administration Walpole, through his influence with Conway, played a key part in politics. It was he, more than any other man, who persuaded Conway to remain in office in July 1767, and thus saved the King from having to capitulate to the Opposition.3 The Duke of Grafton wrote of this period in his Autobiography (p. 140): ‘There was no one from whom I received so just accounts of the various factions ... than from Mr. Horace Walpole ... no person had so good means of getting to the knowledge of what was passing as himself.’ Walpole was more ambitious for Conway than Conway was himself; and when in December 1767 negotiations opened with the Bedford group and Conway resolved to resign the lead in the House of Commons, Walpole wearied of politics. He wrote in his Memoirs (iii. 91):
It was yet more lasting reflection that I made on the futility of politics. All my success and triumph in the preceding summer had lasted but five months. Conway was desirous to quit, and the Bedfords were to come into place. It determined me to busy myself no more in such delusive scenes. I had in the preceding winter notified to my constituents at Lynn that I would serve no more in Parliament. The door was thus already favourably open to me. Mr. Conway’s resignation would leave me at liberty to have done with politics. I took my resolution to abandon them with the present Parliament—a happy determination, and which I never found one moment’s cause to repent.
Walpole is one of the greatest English letter writers, and his correspondence gives a unique picture of English life in the second half of the eighteenth century: social, political, and intellectual. But of necessity his letters deal with the events of the moment; a more considered narrative is to be found in his Memoirs, written for posterity and not published till after his death. Badly edited, and printed with excisions and alterations, they have been unjustly deprecated by historians.
The Memoirs of the reign of George II cover the period from 1751 to 1760; they were begun in 1751 and finished in 1763. Both historically and artistically they are inferior to the Memoirs of the reign of King George III. The style is too affected, too consciously literary, nor was Walpole at the centre of the events he describes; still, they are the most important source for the debates and personalities of the Parliament of 1754-61. The Memoirs of the reign of King George III, which cover the years from 1760 to 1772 and were written between 1766 and 1772, are a much more careful and finished work and a historical document of the highest importance. After 1772 Walpole kept only a journal: that for 1772-1783 was published as Last Journals; a further journal for 1783-1791 has not been published.
Walpole thus explains (ibid. i. 162) his purpose in writing the Memoirs of the reign of King George III:
It is my part to explain, as far as I could know them, the leading motives of actions and events; and, though the secret springs are often unfathomable, I had acquaintance enough with the actors to judge with better probability than the common of mankind, and where these memoirs are defective or mistaken, still they may direct to the inquiry after sounder materials, and prove a key to original papers that may appear hereafter.
Careful, intelligent, and painstaking, Walpole is an admirable reporter of events and of his reactions to them, but before truth can be revealed three levels of error have to be removed. First, is the level of conscious bias. He did not pretend to write impartially, and no one will accept uncritically his portraits of men whom he disliked; still, sound judgment and shrewd observation is mixed with prejudice, and there is often a foundation of fact for what has been regarded as mere gossip. Secondly, there are the errors resulting from lack of information. He did not see into all corners of the political scene. His account of the Bute and Grenville Administrations, when he was for most of the time in opposition, is not as accurate as that for the following three years when his closest friends were in high office. After Walpole left Parliament, and more particularly after Conway left the Cabinet, the value of his narrative drops considerably.
These are errors from which no chronicler is exempt. But there is also in Walpole a third level of error, peculiar to himself, a fantasy unconsciously derived from his early years and impressed on the events of his maturity. The Memoirs of the reign of King George III are introduced with a quotation from Horace, omitted in the published version:
Ilion, Ilion, Fatalis incestusque judex Et mulier peregrina vertit In pulverem.
The story of Bute, the wicked minister, and the Princess Dowager, the foreign woman, and their plan ‘to raise the standard of prerogative’ is the theme of the Memoirs of the reign of King George III, a Gothic romance with no foundation in fact; and the Memoirs end, appropriately for the romance, with the death of the Princess, an event significant to Walpole but of no consequence in history. ‘I paint what I felt’, he wrote, ‘and I warrant my veracity, of which my feelings were the symptoms.’
After leaving Parliament Walpole remained a close observer of the political scene, strongly opposed to the American war and in later years to the French revolution. His prime interests were the study of English antiquities, his house at Strawberry Hill, and his private press. Strawberry Hill was an attempt to reintroduce what he conceived to be the Gothic style in domestic architecture, and housed a collection of antiquities remarkable even in an age of great collectors.4 He never took his seat in the House of Lords, and died 2 Mar. 1797.