Henry Pelham was arguably one of Britain's most successful Prime Ministers, if not one of the best-known. He has perhaps been over-shadowed in historical retrospect by his brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle. Newcastle outlived his younger brother by 14 years and his neurotic yet engaging personality has tended to distract the attention of historians from the more solid, but less diverting virtues of Henry. In addition the existence in the British Library of several hundred volumes of Newcastle's papers provides an enduring testament to the duke's fascination with politics, whereas Pelham's personal papers have largely disappeared, and their original owner remains a somewhat shadowy figure.
Born at some time in early 1696, Pelham came from a sound whiggish family, whose fortune was made by the marriage of his father to Lady Grace Holles. The Pelhams were essentially middling Sussex gentry, but the Holles marriage brought extensive estates in the midlands and north and eventually made possible a successful request for the dukedom of Newcastle. However, the consequent wealth and power went to Henry's brother and like many younger sons he turned to politics for a career, after a conventional upbringing - Westminster, Hart Hall, a creditable appearance as a volunteer in the army which defeated the Jacobite rebels in 1715, and a spell on the continent. His brother's interest provided a seat in Parliament, first for the small borough of Seaford, then for the county of Sussex, and he was not slow to exploit the opportunities offered. In the judgement of that shrewd observer, the Earl of Chesterfield, 'he was a very inelegant speaker in Parliament, but spoke with a certain candour and openness that made him well heard and generally believed'. Also according to Chesterfield, he lacked 'either shining parts or any degree of literature'. But in the politics of Walpole's age, neither shining parts nor literature were prerequisites of success, and Pelham had alternative qualities. His obvious integrity and marked good sense strongly appealed to the independent country gentlemen whose support was crucial in the House of Commons. And at Whitehall his conscientiousness and vigour ensured his steady rise through a succession of minor offices to the upper echelons of government. He had other advantages too. His marriage in 1726 to Lady Katherine Manners, the daughter of the Duke of Rutland, was thought by contemporaries to be uncommonly happy and affectionate, but for all that it was based on careful calculation. At one stroke it brought £30,000 from the bride's father, a most generous settlement from the bridegroom's brother, and a still more secure place in that confederation of great landed families, on whom the Hanoverian line and the Whig oligarchy alike depended.
Pelham can readily be seen as the natural successor to his political mentor Sir Robert Walpole on the latter's fall in 1742. Yet in the last analysis he had to fight his way to the top. Though he became First Lord of the Treasury in 1743, he emerged as Prime Minister only in 1746 after a prolonged and desperate struggle with his rival Lord Carteret. Carteret possessed more brilliant talents, and above all had the strong support of the king himself, George II. But Pelham was firmly in control of the Commons, and by his experience and his connections in the City also had a firm hold of the national purse strings. 'No Pelham, no money', was the cry when George II actually attempted to replace him with a Carteret ministry in 1746. The result was complete victory for Pelham, and the establishment of a government so powerful that there was no opposition to speak of in either House of Parliament, a state of affairs which led Horace Walpole to remark that 'a bird might build her nest in the Speaker's chair, or in his peruke. There won't be a debate that can disturb her'. The Prime Minister's achievements during this period of stability were impressive. His ministry, having weathered the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, brought the unfortunate War of the Austrian Succession to a satisfactory close, and survived a succession of political squalls, many of them caused either by the irascible king or by his own unstable brother. It was not perhaps surprising that the newspapers dubbed Pelham Henry IX in recognition of his personal primacy in the politics of the day.
When he died in March 1754, according to the contemporary report as a result of immoderate eating and insufficient exercise, in fact from a serious skin infection, an entire political order passed away with him. George II himself was driven to observe, prophetically, 'Now I shall have no more peace'.
For his college, and his old tutor, Dr Newton, who was responsible for the incorporation of Hertford in 1740, Pelham is supposed to have maintained a lasting affection. But it cannot be said in retrospect that he did either much service. Accused of insufficient attention to the PrincipaI's preferment, he casually replied that Newton, who died in 1753, had never asked for anything. As for the college, he is supposed to have wished the Principal well in his unceasing endeavours to place Hertford on a secure footing for the future. But Newton's passionate campaign on behalf of the college brought him into a head-on conflict with Exeter, one of the few Whig colleges, and with many of Oxford's most prominent Whigs. In a university dominated by Tories, the friends of governments could ill afford to quarrel and Pelham was doubtless acutely aware that Newton was not helping the common cause by his activities. Moreover, the Prime Minister's brother was a Cambridge man, and a particularly loyal servant of his own university. While Pelham busied himself with the myriad cares of the Treasury and the Commons, Newcastle dispensed eclesiastical patronage with anything but an even hand. Both the brothers had been at Westminster, before the elder was despatched to Clare Hall, the younger to Hart Hall. Who can say what the consequences would have been for Oxford and particularly for Hertford, if the order had been reversed and Newton had had as his pupil one of the most incorrigible string-pullers in British political history, rather than one of its most capable Prime Ministers?