Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
Horace Walpole 4th Earl of Orford
24 September 1717 – 2 March 1797
Horace Walpole 4th Earl of Orford was born in London, the youngest son of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and his wife Catherine. Like his father, he received early education in Bexley he was also educated at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge.
Walpole’s first friends were probably his cousins Francis and Henry Conway, to whom Walpole became strongly attached, especially Henry. At Eton he formed with Charles Lyttelton and George Montagu the “Triumvirate”, a schoolboy confederacy. More important were another group of friends dubbed the “Quadruple Alliance”: Walpole, Thomas Gray, Richard West and Thomas Ashton.
At Cambridge Walpole came under the influence of Conyers Middleton, an unorthodox theologian. Walpole came to accept the sceptical nature of Middleton’s attitude to some essential Christian doctrines for the rest of his life, including a hatred of superstition and bigotry. Walpole ceased to reside at Cambridge at the end of 1738 and left without taking a degree.
In 1737 Walpole’s mother died. According to one biographer his love for his mother “was the most powerful emotion of his entire life…the whole of his psychological history was dominated by it”. Walpole did not have any serious relationships with women; he has been called “a natural celibate”.
Walpole’s sexual orientation has been the subject of speculation. He never married, engaging in a succession of unconsummated flirtations with unmarriageable women, and counted among his close friends a number of women such as Anne Seymour Damer and Mary Berry named by a number of sources as lesbian. Many contemporaries described him as effeminate (one political opponent called him “a hermaphrodite horse”). Biographers such as Mowl explore his possible homosexuality, including a passionate but ultimately unhappy love affair with the 9th Earl of Lincoln. Some previous biographers have interpreted Walpole as asexual.
Walpole’s father secured for him three sinecures which afforded him an income: in 1737 he was appointed Inspector of the Imports and Exports in the Custom House, which he resigned to become Usher of the Exchequer, which gave him at first £3900 per annum but this increased over the years.
Upon coming of age he became Comptroller of the Pipe and Clerk of the Estreats which gave him an income of £300 per annum. Walpole decided to go travelling with Thomas Gray and wrote a will whereby he left Gray all his belongings. In 1744 Walpole wrote in a letter to Conway that these offices gave him nearly £2,000 per annum; after 1745 when he was appointed Collectorship of Customs, his total income from these offices was around £3,400 per annum.
Walpole went on the Grand Tour with Gray, but as Walpole recalled in later life: “We had not got to Calais before Gray was dissatisfied, for I was a boy, and he, though infinitely more a man, was not enough to make allowances”. They left Dover on 29 March and arrived at Calais later that day. They then travelled through Boulogne, Amiens and Saint-Denis, arriving at Paris on 4 April. Here they met many aristocratic Englishmen. In early June they left Paris for Rheims, then in September going to Dijon, Lyons, Dauphiné, Savoy, Aix-les-Bains, Geneva, and then back to Lyons.
In October they left for Italy, arriving in Turin in November, then going to Genoa, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, and in December arriving at Florence. Here he struck up a friendship with Horace Mann, an assistant to the British Minister at the Court of Tuscany and wrote Epistle from Florence to Thomas Ashton, Esq., Tutor to the Earl of Plymouth, a mixture of Whig history and Middleton’s teachings.
In February 1740 Walpole and Gray left for Rome with the intention of witnessing the papal conclave upon the death of Pope Clement XII (which they never did see). At social occasions in Rome he saw the Old Pretender James Francis Edward Stuart and his two sons, Charles Edward Stuart and Henry Stuart, although there is no record of them conversing.
Walpole and Gray returned to Florence in July. However, Gray disliked the idleness of Florence as compared to the educational pursuits in Rome, and an animosity grew between them, eventually leading to an end to their friendship.
On their way back to England they had a furious argument, although it is unknown what it was about. Gray went to Venice, leaving Walpole at Reggio. In later life Walpole admitted that the fault lay primarily with himself: “I was too young, too fond of my own diversions, nay, I do not doubt, too much intoxicated by indulgence, vanity, and the insolence of my situation, as a Prime Minister’s son, not to have been inattentive and insensible to the feelings of one I thought below me; of one, I blush to say it, that I knew was obliged to me; of one whom presumption and folly perhaps made me deem not my superior then in parts, though I have since felt my infinite inferiority to him”.
Walpole then visited Venice, Genoa, Antibes, Toulon, Marseilles, Aix, Montpellier, Toulouse, Orléans and Paris. He returned to England on 12 September 1741, reaching London on the 14th.
At the 1741 general election Walpole was elected Whig Member of Parliament for Callington, Cornwall. He held this seat for thirteen years, although he never visited Callington. Walpole entered Parliament shortly before his father’s fall from power: in December 1741 the Opposition won its first majority vote in the Commons for twenty years. In January 1742 Walpole’s government was still struggling in Parliament although by the end of the month Horace and other family members had successfully urged the Prime Minister to resign after a parliamentary defeat.
Walpole delivered his maiden speech on 19 March against the successful motion that a Secret Committee be set up to enquire into Sir Robert Walpole’s last ten years as Prime Minister. For the next three years Walpole spent most of his time with his father at his country house Houghton Hall in Norfolk. His father died in 1745 and left Walpole the remainder of the lease of his house in Arlington Street, London; £5,000 in cash; and the office of Collector of the Customs (worth £1,000 per annum). However he had died in debt, the total of which was in between £40,000 and £50,000.
In late 1745 Walpole and Gray resumed their friendship.
Also that year the Jacobite Rising began. The position of Walpole was the fruit of his father’s support for the Hanoverian dynasty and he knew he was in danger, saying: “Now comes the Pretender’s boy, and promises all my comfortable apartments in the Exchequer and Custom House to some forlorn Irish peer, who chooses to remove his pride and poverty out of some large old unfurnished gallery at St. Germain’s. Why really, Mr. Montagu, this is not pleasant! I shall wonderfully dislike being a loyal sufferer in a threadbare coat, and shivering in an antechamber at Hanover, or reduced to teach Latin and English to the young princes at Copenhagen”.
Walpole’s lasting architectural creation is Strawberry Hill, the home he built in Twickenham, south west of London, which at the time overlooked the Thames. Here he revived the Gothic style many decades before his Victorian successors. This fanciful neo-Gothic concoction began a new architectural trend.
Walpole was a Member of Parliament for one of the many rotten boroughs, Castle Rising, consisting in underlying freeholds in four villages near Kings Lynn, Norfolk, from 1754 until 1757. At his home he hung a copy of the warrant for the execution of Charles I with the inscription “Major Charta” and wrote of “the least bad of all murders, that of a King”.
In 1756 he wrote:
I am sensible that from the prostitution of patriotism, from the art of ministers who have had the address to exalt the semblance while they depressed the reality of royalty, and from the bent of the education of the young nobility, which verges to French maxims and to a military spirit, nay, from the ascendant which the nobility itself acquires each day in this country, from all these reflections, I am sensible, that prerogative and power have been exceedingly fortified of late within the circle of the palace; and though fluctuating ministers by turns exercise the deposit, yet there it is; and whenever a prince of design and spirit shall sit in the regal chair, he will find a bank, a hoard of power, which he may lay off most fatally against this constitution. [I am] a quiet republican, who does not dislike to see the shadow of monarchy, like Banquo’s ghost, fill the empty chair of state, that the ambitious, the murderer, the tyrant, may not aspire to it; in short, who approves the name of a King, when it excludes the essence.
Walpole was worried that while his fellow Whigs fought amongst themselves the Tories were gaining power, the end result of which would be England delivered to an unlimited, absolute monarchy, “that authority, that torrent which I should in vain extend a feeble arm to stem”.
Early in 1757 old Horace Walpole of Wolterton died and was succeeded in the peerage by his son, who was then an MP for King’s Lynn, thereby creating a vacancy. The electors of King’s Lynn did not wish to be represented by a stranger and instead wanted someone with a connection to the Walpole family. The new Lord Orford therefore wrote to Walpole requesting that he stand for the seat, saying his friends “were all unanimously of opinion that you were the only person who from your near affinity to my grandfather, whose name is still in the greatest veneration, and your own known personal abilities and qualifications, could stand in the gap on this occasion and prevent opposition and expence and perhaps disgrace to the family”. In early 1757 Walpole was out of Parliament after vacating Castle Rising until his election that year to King’s Lynn, a seat he would hold until his retirement from the Commons in 1768.
Walpole was a prominent opponent of the decision to execute Admiral Byng.
Without a seat in Parliament, Walpole recognised his limitations as to political influence. He opposed the recent Catholic accommodative measures, writing to Mann in 1784: “You know I have ever been averse to toleration of an intolerant religion”. He wrote to Mann in 1785 that “as there are continually allusions to parliamentary speeches and events, they are often obscure to me till I get them explained; and besides, I do not know several of the satirized heroes even by sight”. His political sympathies were with the Foxite Whigs, the successors of the Rockingham Whigs, who were themselves the successors of the Whig Party as revived by Walpole’s father. He wrote to William Mason, expounding his political philosophy:
I have for five and forty years acted upon the principles of the constitution as it was settled at the Revolution, the best form of government that I know of in the world, and which made us a free people, a rich people, and a victorious people, by diffusing liberty, protecting property and encouraging commerce; and by the combination of all, empowering us to resist the ambition of the House of Bourbon, and to place ourselves on a level with that formidable neighbour. The narrow plan of royalty, which had so often preferred the aggrandizement of the Crown to the dignity of presiding over a great and puissant free kingdom, threw away one predominant source of our potency by aspiring to enslave America—and would now compensate for that blunder and its consequence by assuming a despotic tone at home. It has found a tool in the light and juvenile son of the great minister who carried our glory to its highest pitch—but it shall never have the insignificant approbation of an old and worn out son of another minister, who though less brilliant, maintained this country in the enjoyment of the twenty happiest years that England ever enjoyed.
Walpole was horrified by the French Revolution and commended Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: “Every page shows how sincerely he is in earnest—a wondrous merit in a political pamphlet—All other party writers act zeal for the public, but it never seems to flow from the heart”. He admired the purple passage in the book on Marie Antoinette: “I know the tirade on the Queen of France is condemned and yet I must avow I admire it much. It paints her exactly as she appeared to me the first time I saw her when Dauphiness. She…shot through the room like an aerial being, all brightness and grace and without seeming to touch earth”.
After he heard of the execution of King Louis XVI he wrote to Lady Ossory on 29 January 1793:
Indeed, Madam, I write unwillingly; there is not a word left in my Dictionary that can express what I feel. Savages, barbarians, &c., were terms for poor ignorant Indians and Blacks and Hyaenas, or, with some superlative epithets, for Spaniards in Peru and Mexico, for Inquisitors, or for Enthusiasts of every breed in religious wars. It remained for the enlightened eighteenth century to baffle language and invent horrors that can be found in no vocabulary. What tongue could be prepared to paint a Nation that should avow Atheism, profess Assassination, and practice Massacres on Massacres for four years together: and who, as if they had destroyed God as well as their King, and established Incredulity by law, give no symptoms of repentance! These Monsters talk of settling a Constitution—it may be a brief one, and couched in one Law, “Thou shalt reverse every Precept of Morality and Justice, and do all the Wrong thou canst to all Mankind”.
He was not impressed with Thomas Paine’s reply to Burke, Rights of Man, writing that it was “so coarse, that you would think he means to degrade the language as much as the government”.
His father was created Earl of Orford in 1742. Horace’s elder brother, the 2nd Earl of Orford (c.1701–1751), passed the title on to his son, the 3rd Earl of Orford (1730–1791). When the 3rd Earl died unmarried, Horace Walpole became the 4th Earl of Orford, and the title died with him in 1797. The massive amount of correspondence he left behind had been published in many volumes, starting in 1798. Likewise, a large collection of his works, including historical writings, was published immediately after his death.
Strawberry Hill had its own printing press, the Strawberry Hill Press, which supported Horace Walpole’s intensive literary activity.
In 1764, not using his own press, he anonymously published his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, claiming on its title page that it was a translation “from the Original Italian of Onuphirio Muralto”. The second edition’s preface, according to James Watt, “has often been regarded as a manifesto for the modern Gothic romance, stating that his work, now subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’, sought to restore the qualities of imagination and invention to contemporary fiction”. However, there is a playfulness in the prefaces to both editions and in the narration within the text itself. The novel opens with the son of Manfred (the Prince of Otranto) being crushed under a massive helmet that appears as a result of supernatural causes. However, that moment, along with the rest of the unfolding plot, includes a mixture of both ridiculous and sublime supernatural elements. The plot finally reveals how Manfred’s family is tainted in a way that served as a model for successive Gothic plots.
From 1762 on, Walpole published his Anecdotes of Painting in England, based on George Vertue’s manuscript notes. His memoirs of the Georgian social and political scene, though heavily biased, are a useful primary source for historians.
Walpole’s numerous letters are similarly useful as a historical resource. In one, dating from 28 January 1754, he coined the word serendipity which he said was derived from a “silly fairy tale” he had read, The Three Princes of Serendip. The oft-quoted epigram, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel”, is from a letter of Walpole’s to Anne, Countess of Ossory, on 16 August 1776. The original, fuller version appeared in a letter to Sir Horace Mann on 31 December 1769: “I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel – a solution of why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept.”
In Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (1768), Walpole defended Richard III against the common belief that he murdered the Princes in the Tower. In this he has been followed by other writers, such as Josephine Tey and Valerie Anand. This work, according to Emile Legouis, shows that Walpole was “capable of critical initiative”. However, Walpole later changed his views following The Terror and declared that Richard could have committed the crimes he was accused of.
- Some Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762)
- The Castle of Otranto (1764)
- The Mysterious Mother (1768)
- Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III (1768)
- On Modern Gardening (1780)
- A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole (1784)
- Hieroglyphic Tales (1785)