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Earl Of Wilmington

Prime Minister 1742 - 43

Spencer Compton, born 1673, son of the third Earl of Northampton, was educated at St Pauls School and Trinity College Oxford. He entered Parliament as MP for Eye in Suffolk in 1698. Showing an aptitude for the detail of government, he became chairman of the Committee of Privileges by 1705, and treasurer to Queen Anne's consort, Prince George of Denmark in 1707. Wilmington then worked as a royal councillor, as speaker and as paymaster general. He continued his early role as a general financial dogsbody for George I who succeeded to the throne after Queen Anne's death in 1714. From 1715, the great politician Robert Walpole was running government, and so effective was he in this role that he is often looked upon as Britain's first prime minister. Walpole served as first minister throughout George I's reign, and his authority was only seriously threatened when George I died in 1727. At this point it seemed as though the royal favourite Wilmington would be made first minister. But remarkably Walpole's administration survived the change of monarch, when previously a change of monarch had always entailed a change of political administration. Walpole, expert politician that he was, went on to work with George II for over ten years. Or rather he worked with the king's brilliant wife Caroline, the two of them cleverly making the king think that he was in control. Wilmington continued his accustomed role in the background.

Finally with the death of his great ally Queen Caroline, Walpole lost his grip on government and was forced to resign in February 1742. At this point the most able and influential man in Parliament was Edward Carteret, but Wilmington was a much more docile figure for George II to call. While Carteret actually got on with the business of government Wilmington served briefly as a figurehead leader in Parliament. He did little. The only act of parliament that was passed during his administration was the Place Bill, which limited the number of offices that an MP could hold. In June 1743 a complicated European power struggle known as the War of Austrian Succession began. During the war, George II fought at the Battle of Dettingen, the last time a British king led men into battle. Wilmington was there too, well away from the fighting, sitting in a coach. The following month Willmington died. Hanbury Williams then wrote of him:


See the dull important lord

Who at the longed for money board

Sits first but does not lead

His younger brethren all things make

So that the Treasury's like a snake

And the tail moves the head

(Quoted in The Prime Ministers ed Herbert van Thal P57)