PULTENEY, William (1684-1764).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1705 - 1734
1734 - 14 July 1742

Family and Education

b. Apr. 1684, 1st s. of Col. William Pulteney of Misterton, Leics. and bro. of Harry Pulteney. educ. Westminster; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1700; Grand Tour. m. 27 Dec. 1714, Anna Maria, da. and coh. of John Gumley of Isleworth, Mdx., 1s. 2da. all d.v.p. suc. fa. 1715; cr. Earl of Bath 14 July 1742.

Offices Held

Sec. at war 1714-17; P.C. 6 July 1716-1 July 1731, and from 20 Feb. 1742; ld. lt. E. Riding, Yorks. 1721-8; cofferer of the Household 1723-5; in Cabinet council without office 1742-6; first ld. of the Treasury 10-12 Feb. 1746; ld. lt. Salop 1761-d.


Pulteney was the heir to the Pulteney estate, lying between St. James’s Street and the Green Park, held from the Crown on a 99-year lease, bringing in £10,000 a year.1 His grandfather, Sir William Pulteney, M.P. for Westminster, had vested the estate in trustees, one of whom was Henry Guy, M.P. for Hedon, secretary to the Treasury till he was sent to the Tower for taking a bribe. Guy died in 1710, leaving his fortune to Pulteney, who soon afterwards acquired another by his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy glass manufacturer.

Returned for Hedon on Guy’s interest at the first opportunity after coming of age, Pulteney began his career as one of Walpole’s chief political associates, obtaining office with him at George I’s accession, and resigning to accompany him into opposition in 1717. The first sign of a rift between them appeared in 1718, when Pulteney did not conceal his disapproval of Walpole’s conduct in joining the Tories to force a reduction of the army.2 By 1720 the rift was so wide that Walpole not only excluded Pulteney from the negotiations for a reunion of the Whig party, but did not procure him a place in the reconstituted Government, merely offering him a peerage, which was indignantly refused. Pulteney showed his resentment by accusing Walpole in the Commons of changing his mind according as he was in or out of office (14 July 1721) and of allowing his attitude to financial questions to be affected by his investments in the Bank of England (16 Feb. 1722). He was temporarily appeased with a lord lieutenancy, the conversion of his lease of the Pulteney estate into a freehold, and a lucrative office, but in 1724 he was mortally offended at being passed over in favour of the Duke of Newcastle for the post of secretary of state.3 In the following session, on a proposal for discharging a civil list debt, he vented his resentment in a violent personal attack on Walpole, accusing him of increasing his fortune ‘by indirect means and corruption’ and of squandering public money on ‘pensions, bounties, or other gratuities’ to Members of Parliament. After opposing the proposal at every stage, he ended by voting for it,4 which did not save him from dismissal at the end of the session.

Pulteney now entered upon the great period of his career, his seventeen-year opposition to Walpole. ‘Formed by nature for social and convivial pleasure’, Chesterfield wrote of him,

resentment made him engage in business. He had thought himself slighted by Sir Robert Walpole, to whom he publicly vowed not only revenge, but utter destruction ... He was a most complete orator and debater in the House of Commons; eloquent, entertaining, persuasive, strong, and patriotic as occasion required; for he had arguments, wit, and tears, at his command.

Onslow, who presided over their long parliamentary duel, considered that Pulteney ‘certainly hurt Sir Robert more than any of those who opposed him’.5

In 1726 Pulteney, with his cousin, Daniel, and Bolingbroke, founded the Craftsman, which became the organ of the Opposition. In 1727, on a motion aimed personally at Walpole, he declared that ‘this Administration had done more to introduce corruption than ever was done before’ and that he would pursue it ‘to destruction’, an expression which he subsequently explained was to be understood in a purely parliamentary sense.6

At George II’s accession, when the King put his civil list up to auction, the highest bidder was Pulteney, but his bid was not accepted. ‘Denied leave to stand candidate upon the interest of the Court for Westminster, never consulted in the closet, and always very coldly received in the drawing-room,’ he returned to opposition. In 1729, taunted with opposing the Government because he was out of employment and wanted to get in again, he declared

that he was so far from desiring employments that he took pains to get rid of that he had, and, should any be offered him again, his refusal would show that he did not accuse the Administration out of any such view.

Later that year he told Lord Hervey, whom he was trying to bring over from the Court, that the time was ripe for ‘a parliamentary popular Government’, that is, a republic, or at least a change of King, ‘putting a new one under new restrictions.’ Lashing himself into a rage, he predicted that during the forthcoming session,

as stout as our shitten monarch pretends to be, you will find we shall force him to truckle and make his great fat-arsed wife stink with fear.7

Next year he joined with Sir William Wyndham to form an organized Whig-Tory Opposition, christened ‘the Patriots’.

In 1731 he published a pamphlet couched in terms so offensive not only to Walpole but to the King that he was struck out of the Privy Council.8

During the excise bill crisis in 1733 the leaders of the Opposition were so confident of Walpole’s fall that they drew up a ministry to succeed him, in which Pulteney figured as first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer. But in 1736 Walpole was still going strong, while Pulteney, partly from ill-health, partly ‘from being weary of the opposing part he had so long unsuccessfully acted’, hardly attended the House of Commons. Next year he

listened to and encouraged a sort of treaty that was underhand carrying on to make him a peer, buy his silence, and give him rest, but when it came to [the point] he could not stand the reproach he thought he should incur by striking this bargain, and, with that irresolution that was always the predominant defect in his conduct, went on without having courage sufficient either to quite make it or quite break it.9

His attitude was not changed by the opposition successes at the general election of 1741, after which he declared that

he was weary of being at the head of a party; he would rather row in the galleys; and was absolutely resolved not to charge himself with taking the lead.10

According to Speaker Onslow, it was owing to Pulteney’s fear of the Pretender,

and not a little too because of his great fortune, which might be at stake, that he had often some checks of conscience, and very melancholy apprehensions, lest his violence against the Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, and joining for that purpose with those supposed to be the enemies to the Government, might not weaken the foundations of it, and give too much advantage to them who were thought to mean its destruction.11

When, on Walpole’s fall, Pulteney was invited by the King to form a new Administration, with himself at the Treasury, he refused to accept any employment, contenting himself with a seat in the Cabinet. He explained a year later:

When I declined accepting (though extremely pressed by all my friends) of any employment whatsoever on the late change of affairs in England, ... I had then taken a pretty firm resolution never to concern myself with public affairs any more. I had been long tired with a tedious and disagreeable opposition, and was resolved, whenever I could get fairly and honourably out of it, never to engage on either side any more; that is, I was resolved to have as little to do with Courts as possibly I could, and determined to have nothing to do against them. This insignificant situation for myself I have at length happily compassed and I am resolved most indolently and steadfastly to persevere in.

In the ensuing negotiations, instead of insisting on a total change of Government, he stipulated for a majority in the Cabinet, but succeeded in securing the admission of only five opposition representatives compared with 13 members of the late ministry. In his own words,

When the late minister came to be at last fairly run down and got the better of ... almost everybody in the Opposition expected some employment and a total change of hands; scarce any person (though never so inconsiderable) but had carved out some good thing for himself, and many there were who thought they had a right to be consulted in the proper changes that were to be made. When this was found not to be the case and that the negotiation was fallen absolutely into Lord Carteret’s and my hands, many were disappointed and dissatisfied. A schism was immediately made by some of the most considerable of our friends, and some were persuaded to forsake us, who happened to have the management of affairs in our hands, for no other reason but because we had got it. This ... soon weakened us and gave strength to the Court again; but what is the hardest of all is that these very people, who thus deprived us of the power of extending the bottom and providing for many of them, grew angry with us that more were not preferred, though they were the only means of hindering it.12

His ‘authority, weight, consideration, and power ... in the House of Commons’ remained so great that there was ‘no withstanding it’, till at the end of the session, having obtained places for all his personal followers, he agreed to take a peerage, thus reducing himself to ‘an absolute nullity’, ‘a mere lord with one vote, and his influence in the House of Commons quite at an end’.13

Pulteney, now Earl of Bath, made more than one attempt to recover the opportunity which he had thrown away in 1742. Only eighteen months after refusing the Treasury he applied for it when it fell vacant on the death of Lord Wilmington (Spencer Compton), who had been put into it as a stop-gap. But his application was unsuccessful, as was his attempt in February 1746 to form an Administration, which collapsed in 48 hours for lack of parliamentary support. He spent the rest of his life in retirement, consoling himself with the pleasures of avarice, to which he had always been notoriously, indeed scandalously, addicted. When he died, 7 July 1764, he was worth £400,000 in money and £30,000 a year in land, half from his own and half from an estate which he had virtually stolen from the Newport family.14

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Author: Romney R. Sedgwick


  • 1. Survey of London, xxix. 26-28; Sir Dudley Ryder’s diary, 18 Oct. 1739, Harrowby mss.
  • 2. Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, i. 138; Mahon, ii. p. lxi.
  • 3. Coxe, Walpole, i. 356-7, 717; Hervey, Mems. 9.
  • 4. Knatchbull Diary, 9, 16 Apr. 1725.
  • 5. Chesterfield, Characters (1777 ed.) 24-26; HMC 14th Rep. IX, 467.
  • 6. Knatchbull Diary, 7 Mar. 1727, 3 Apr. 1728.
  • 7. HMC Egmont Diary, iii. 339; Hervey, 31, 37, 106-7.
  • 8. Coxe, i. 361-5.
  • 9. Hervey, 169-70, 529, 667.
  • 10. Coxe, iii. 576.
  • 11. HMC 14th Rep. IX, 466.
  • 12. Bath to Stair, 11 Feb. 1743, Add. 35458, ff. 24-25.
  • 13. Hervey, 945, 949, 953.
  • 14. Chesterfield Letters, 2603; see under NEWPORT, Henry.