Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (26 August 1676 – 18 March 1745), normally known as Sir Robert Walpole, is generally regarded as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. The position of Prime Minister was only a de facto one, having no official recognition in law, but Walpole is nevertheless acknowledged as having held the de facto office due to the extent of his influence in the Cabinet.
Walpole, a member of the Whig Party, served during the reigns of George I and George II. His tenure is normally dated to 1721, when he obtained the post of First Lord of the Treasury; others date it to 1730, when, with the retirement of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, he became the sole and undisputed leader of the Cabinet. Walpole continued to govern until he resigned in 1742, making his administration the longest in British history.
Walpole's influence on the politics of his day was tremendous. The Tories became a minor, insignificant faction, and the Whigs became a dominant and largely unopposed party. His influence on the development of the uncodified constitution of Great Britain, however, was much less momentous, even though he is regarded as Great Britain's first Prime Minister. He relied primarily on the favour of the King, rather than on the support of the House of Commons. His power stemmed from his personal influence instead of the influence of his office. Most of his immediate successors were, comparatively speaking, extremely weak; it would take several decades more for the premiership to develop into the most powerful and most important office in the country.
Walpole's strategy of keeping Great Britain at peace contributed greatly to the country's prosperity. Walpole also managed to secure the position of the Hanoverian Dynasty, and effectively countervailed Jacobitism. The Jacobite threat was effectively put to rest, soon after Walpole's term ended, with the defeat of the rebellion of 1745.
Another part of Walpole's legacy is 10 Downing Street. George II offered this home to Walpole as a personal gift in 1732, but Walpole accepted it only as the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, taking up his residence there in 1735. His immediate successors did not always reside in Number 10 (preferring their larger private residences), but the home has nevertheless become established as the official residence of the Prime Minister (in his or her capacity as First Lord of the Treasury).
Walpole also left behind a famous collection of art which he had assembled during his career. This collection was sold by his grandson, the third Earl of Orford, to the Russian Empress Catherine II in 1779. This collection-which was regarded as one of the finest in Europe-now lies in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.