Sidney Godolphin

The English statesman Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin (1645-1712), was head of the Treasury during the first great 18th-century war against France and successfully financed the most costly military and naval operations undertaken by England to that time.

Younger son of an old Cornish family, Sidney Godolphin was born about June 15, 1645. While a young man he served in the royal household, on two diplomatic missions, and as a member of Parliament before finding his real vocation at the Treasury. He was given a peerage by Charles II in 1684, and Charles relied on him during the last years of his reign. "Sidney is never in the way," he said, "and never out of the way."

During the reign of James II, which followed that of Charles, Godolphin was overshadowed by that king's Catholic advisers. He was, however, one of the last to desert James II, who was deposed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James's Dutch successor, William III, also recognized Godolphin's ability and twice made him head of the Treasury (1690-1696, 1700-1701). The Godolphin and Marlborough families had great influence with Princess Anne, the heiress to the throne, and in 1698 Godolphin's son was married to Lord Marlborough's daughter.

Soon after Anne became queen (1702), England plunged into war with France. The Queen placed Marlborough in charge of the war and Godolphin at the head of the Treasury, where he had the important task of financing Marlborough's campaigns. Relying on long-term borrowing, he successfully found ways and means to conduct a long and successful war without endangering the government's credit—a notable achievement. He was also a leader in negotiating the Treaty of Union with Scotland, whereby that country became an integral part of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain (1707).

Godolphin was less successful as a politician. Known as a churchman and Tory in previous reigns, he was forced to break with the Tories over the conduct of the war. As he relied more heavily on the Whigs, with their support among Nonconformists and the commercial and financial interests, he lost the support of his Church and Tory associates. Eventually he was forced to break with his most useful political associate, Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons and later secretary of state. Disliking Godolphin's growing alliance with the Whigs, Harley schemed to supplant the Marlborough-Godolphin administration with one of his own. He finally succeeded, using his influence with the Queen and profiting from general discontent over the prolonging of the war. Godolphin, who had been made an earl in 1706, was dismissed in August 1710. Two years later, on Sept. 15, 1712, he died at the London home of his friend Marlborough.

Further Reading on Sidney Godolphin

Sir Tresham Lever, Godolphin: His Life and Times (1952), a biography, is not adequate on the financial aspects or on the party politics of the period. P. G. M. Dickson, The Financial Revolution in England (1967), is excellent. Robert Walcott, English Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century (1956), and Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (1967), cover party politics from contrasting viewpoints. Many of Godolphin's letters to Marlborough are printed in William Coxe, Memoirs of John, Duke of Marlborough (3 vols., 1818-1819; 2d ed., 6 vols., 1820).

Additional Biography Sources

Dickinson, William Calvin, Sidney Godolphin, Lord Treasurer, 1702-1710, Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1990.

Sundstrom, Roy A., Sidney Godolphin: servant of the state, Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1992.

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