Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin, was a senior politician whose career spanned the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III and Anne. Godolphin was primarily a political manager and his links to any political party was tenuous. Godolphin’s primary political expertise was in finance and he can be considered one of the leading Treasury men of the era.
Sidney Godolphin was the third son of Sir Francis Godolphin who was a wealthy land owner. Born into such a privileged family it was expected that Godolphin would attend Oxford University. He was also a member of the Royal Court where from 1662 to 1672 Godolphin served as Page of Honour to Charles II. In 1675 he married Margaret Blagge who was Maid of Honour to the Duchess of York. However, the marriage was short-lived as she died in 1678.
Godolphin was under the patronage of the 2nd Earl of Sunderland and he voted to exclude from the throne the Duke of York, the future King James II. Under Charles II, Godolphin served as Commissioner to the Treasury and Secretary of State for the North. In 1684 Godolphin became Baron Godolphin and was appointed Commissioner of the Treasury. He held this position until 1689 – serving James II, the man he had voted to exclude from the throne. It was a sign of his ability that James kept him in such an important position.
In fact, Godolphin was a non-party man who had a significant gift for financial and administrative matters. In many senses he was a modern-day civil servant as opposed to a politician. Because of his seeming political neutrality, Godolphin could act as a manager between the Crown and Parliament or between the Crown and the two political parties of the day – the Whigs and Tories. Godolphin was also more than capable of bringing together groups that held very diverse political ideas.
Probably the best example of the esteem that Godolphin was held in with regards to his financial and managerial abilities came in the 1688 Revolution. He served James II right up to the time William of Orange advanced on London. It was Godolphin, along with Halifax and Nottingham, who met William at Hungerford on December 8th 1688. When he returned to London, James had fled. In the subsequent debates as to what to do after this, Godolphin argued to retain James as king but with his powers carried out by a Regency. However, Parliament argued that James had abdicated the throne and offered it to William and Mary who subsequently became William III and Mary II.
Regardless of his loyalty to James, William appointed Godolphin Commissioner to the Treasury in 1690. He held this position until 1696. In was during these years that a ‘financial revolution’ occurred with the creation of the National Debt (1693) and the Bank of England (1694). However, Godolphin had become unhappy with the politics of the time and in February 1696 he resigned.
Godolphin returned to government in December 1700 when he once again was appointed 1st Commissioner of the Treasury – a post he held for one year.
When Anne became Queen, Godolphin was appointed Lord Treasurer (May 1702); a position he took with some reluctance. He found that politics was dominated by three men – himself, Robert Harley and the Duke of Marlborough. His primary focus in the reign of Anne was to find the finance needed for the Spanish War of Succession without crippling the economy. He proved to be a skilful operator and in 1706 he became an Earl. Politics took its course and when Anne turned to the Tories in 1710, Godolphin’s political career was over. The Tories had not been supportive of the war believing that it was making a number of Whigs extremely wealthy at the expense of the nation. Godolphin was associated with the war and paid the price.
Outside of politics and finance, Godolphin had a keen interest in gambling and horse racing and he is credited with pioneering race horse breeding at Newmarket, Suffolk.
Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin, died on December 15th 1712.