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Norfolk congresses (act. 1722–1741) were the sumptuous country-house gatherings of political friends hosted by Sir Robert Walpole at his Norfolk residence, Houghton Hall. The large parties of house guests invariably included Walpole's chief political intimates within his administration and a mix of other courtiers, aristocrats, bishops, and foreign ambassadors, as well as members of the neighbourhood squirearchy. The days were spent in a continuous round of feasting, drinking, hunting, lazing, and political talk amid the magnificent surroundings of Walpole's new Palladian mansion and its gardens and parkland. Country-house parties on the scale of those at Houghton were a relatively new phenomenon during the early eighteenth century, though in Walpole's case they were regarded as a vital aspect of his power-holding strategies, and were occasions when the cream of the whig establishment might gather outside the more restrictive confines of the royal court. Walpole had specifically wanted his new mansion to accommodate large numbers of staying guests, and although Houghton was not particularly large, he achieved, as one experienced country-house visitor noted, a stylish house ‘capable of the greatest reception for company’ (The Manuscripts of the Earl of Carlisle, HMC, 42, 1897, 85).

The name by which Walpole's Houghton parties were known seems to have entered regular political parlance during the late 1720s, having initially been coined, it would appear, in opposition print. A prose pamphlet published shortly before Christmas 1728, The Norfolk congress, or, A true and full account of their hunting, feasting and merry-making, presented a vividly satiric description of the Houghton house parties, laced with light-hearted allusions to the diplomatic problems confronting the congress of Soissons, which had convened in France during the summer. The pamphlet's memorable opening title seems to have caught on instantly and was widely adopted as the perfect epithet for Walpole's lavish Norfolk junkets.

Walpole appears to have begun holding some form of annual gathering at Houghton in the earliest years of his administration. In a letter to a ministerial colleague in July 1723 he spoke of Houghton as being ‘full of suitors, visitors and what not’ (BL, Add. MS 32686, fol. 274). Yet at this time his new mansion was only in the early stages of construction, the former house having been demolished in 1720, and it is not clear where his aristocratic guests would have been accommodated. The house was partly habitable by 1726, when the first sizeable house party took place, and was largely completed by 1729. There were two occasions during the year when guests were invited to Houghton en masse: in June or July, when Walpole spent about ten days there following the end of the parliamentary session; and in November, when he stayed for about a month. After George II's accession he usually set out for the latter visit the day after the king's birthday on 30 October. There is some indication that there were generally fewer guests at any one time during the summer visits, and that the autumn gatherings were in fact the full ‘congresses’ with upward of thirty guests including a strong contingent of government colleagues. It would also appear that these were mainly male gatherings, the only women present being a few members of the immediate Walpole family.

Although no list of house guests appears among Walpole's surviving papers the scattered information available elsewhere suggests there was an inner core of intimates who regularly made up the company at Houghton and who were central figures in the administration. There was Walpole's brother Horatio Walpole; his son Robert, Baron Walpole (c.1700–1751), who was to succeed Sir Robert as second earl of Orford; Sir William Yonge, one of the government's chief spokesmen in the House of Commons; Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, one of the two secretaries of state, and his brother Henry Pelham, the paymaster of the forces and another prominent Commons spokesman; Sir Charles Turner (1666–1738), who played an important backstage part in managing the government's financial business in the Commons, and who was Walpole's fellow MP for the nearby borough of King's Lynn; and Archibald Campbell, earl of Ilay (later third duke of Argyll), Walpole's minister for Scotland. There were also leading courtiers, several of whom were renowned for their love of the chase, such as Charles Fitzroy, second duke of Grafton, the lord chamberlain; Charles Lennox, second duke of Richmond, one of the king's bedchamber lords, and latterly master of the horse; William Cavendish, third duke of Devonshire (1698–1755), who was lord privy seal and afterwards lord steward of the King's household; William Anne Keppel, second earl of Albemarle; William Capel, third earl of Essex; Richard Lumley, second earl of Scarbrough (c.1688–1740); John West, seventh Baron de la Warr, an active government figure in the Lords; George Cholmondeley, Viscount Malpas (1703–1770; later third earl of Cholmondeley) , Walpole's son-in-law; and John Hervey, second Baron Hervey of Ickworth.

At various times the guests are also known to have included Thomas Coke, Lord Lovel (later earl of Leicester), who in the early 1730s was planning his own grand Palladian mansion a short distance away at Holkham; General Charles Churchill (d. 1745), one of Walpole's oldest friends and supporters, and MP for the Norfolk borough of Castle Rising; Arthur Onslow, the speaker of the Commons; Richard Edgcumbe, the joint vice-treasurer of Ireland and manager of the Cornish boroughs; Sir Thomas Robinson, a keen amateur architect; and Richard Arundell (c.1696–1758), an MP and another architectural savant, whom Walpole had appointed surveyor-general of the king's works and had consulted about the works at Houghton. Arundell was a close friend of Richard Boyle, third earl of Burlington, the pre-eminent exponent of Palladianism, whom Walpole also invited during the early 1730s to give his verdict as Houghton neared completion. Their association ended, however, when Burlington joined the lords who went into opposition in 1733 over Walpole's controversial excise scheme.

Another peer who had left the government's ranks was Charles Townshend, second Viscount Townshend, who until 1730 had been principal secretary of state. Walpole and Townshend, who were brothers-in-law, had established a joint primacy in the ministry formed in 1721. But increasing differences between them over foreign policy, and a rising sense of mutual jealousy, soured what had once been a close political relationship and in 1730 Townshend resigned and retired to his Norfolk estate at Raynham. Lord Hervey believed that the building of Houghton rankled particularly deeply with Townshend, who had always regarded his own seat at Raynham as the ‘metropolis of Norfolk’ (Memoirs, 85). Once Townshend had removed himself from the scene of government, however, social amicability between the two men was soon restored and they would dine together at each other's houses during Walpole's summer visits to Norfolk, though as Townshend confided to an acquaintance, he avoided the November congresses.

The guests at Houghton were encouraged to spend their time as they pleased, though they were expected to take part in the daily fox hunting or hare coursing expeditions. Lord Ilay was one who preferred instead to spend ‘half the day in great quiet in the library’ where he was able to indulge his passion for botanical study (NL Scot., Saltoun papers, MS 16559, 12 Nov 1735). Most of the entertaining took place not in Houghton's grandly ornate state rooms but in the informal ‘rustic’ or ground-floor areas where various parlours and rooms were used for breakfast, ‘afternooning’, dinner, and supper, while the great arcade was ideal for strolling and conversation. Hervey noted how well this part of the house was suited ‘to foxhunters, hospitality, noise, dirt and business’ (Hervey and his Friends, 71). Apart from tours around the 700 acres of parkland and 40 acres of gardens, which were in the process of being laid out and planted, there were also excursions to sight-see and dine at the mansions of other Norfolk peers and gentry, such as Lord Lovel at Holkham, Lord Townshend at Raynham, Horatio Walpole at Wolterton, and Sir Andrew Fountaine at Narford. At the congress of November 1731 Walpole engineered a personal triumph through his inclusion of European royalty among his assembled guests. Duke Francis III of Lorraine, the future husband of the Habsburg heiress Maria Theresa—who himself would become her co-ruler as Holy Roman emperor in 1745—was on an extended visit to Britain at the time, and at Walpole's invitation spent several days at Houghton. On this occasion Houghton's state rooms, including the magnificent marble hall and the saloon, were put to full use and the ‘consumption from the larder and the cellar was prodigious’ (Carlisle MSS, 85). There was even a masonic meeting at Houghton, presided over by Lord Lovel as grand master of freemasons in England, at which Duke Francis, the duke of Newcastle, the earl of Essex, and General Churchill were each initiated into the senior degree of master mason.

Although the congresses provided the whig governing élite with opportunities for recreation and conviviality their underlying purpose was concerned with politics and power. The assemblages of ministers and grandees each November, before the opening of the parliamentary session in January, helped to reinforce ministerial solidarity and enabled government colleagues to plan their strategies. There was also a strong political focus on Norfolk, which, as Walpole's own county, it was essential to maintain as a whiggish stronghold, especially as whig and tory forces in the county were numerically even. To this end hospitality and goodwill were also extended to local whig gentlemen, country freeholders, and parsons. Within his Norfolk surroundings Walpole could bask in the ambience of a country gentleman, yet one whose power, wealth, and position as the king's first minister had elevated him to the grandest styles of aristocratic living.

It was inevitable that the congresses should be forced into public view by the opposition press, most notably by The Craftsman. Houghton was satirized as the chief headquarters of the ‘Robinocracy’ and its hedonistic delights were equated with the luxury and corruption that Walpole's opponents believed sustained him as prime minister. It was seen as the playground of an all-powerful, over-mighty subject, and The Norfolk Congress, a pamphlet of 1728, alluded to the similarity between Walpole and Henry VIII's chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. At its most sinister Houghton was seen as the secret meeting place of ministers where terrible work was done out of reach of parliamentary scrutiny, and the mere mention of Norfolk in opposition satire came to conjure up notions of Walpolian secrecy, covert government, and favouritism.

The closing days of the congress of November 1738 were clouded by the sudden death there of Sir Charles Turner, a regular Houghton guest whom Walpole regarded as ‘the oldest friend and acquaintance I had in the world … the best of men and the best of friends’ (BL, Add. MS 35586, fol. 137). Walpole and his ministerial colleagues delayed their return to London until after the funeral. It is not clear when the congresses took place during Walpole's remaining years in power, or indeed if any took place at all, in view of new political pressures that required parliament to meet in or about mid-November, rather than after Christmas. During the late 1730s the ministry became increasingly divided and demoralized over the question of war with Spain. Walpole's own reluctance to unleash hostilities gave way under public pressure to the views of his senior colleagues. These circumstances, together with the deterioration in Walpole's health and spirits, were liable to have made Houghton a far less inviting venue for conviviality and political talk in the final years before his fall from office in February 1742.

A. A. Hanham

Sources  

Lord Hervey and his friends, 1726–38, ed. earl of Ilchester [G. S. Holland Fox-Strangways] (1950) · J. H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole: the king's minister (1960) · M. Girouard, Life in the English country house (1978) · J. Black, Walpole in power (2001) · HoP, Commons, 1715–54 · Lord Hervey’s memoirs, ed. R. Sedgwick (1952)