He came from an ancient family of Cornwall. At the Restoration he was introduced into the royal household by King Charles II of England, whose favourite he had become, and he also entered the House of Commons as member for Helston, Cornwall. Although he very seldom addressed the House, and, when he did so, only in the briefest manner, he "gradually acquired a reputation as its chief if not its only financial authority." In March 1679 he was appointed a member of’ the Privy Council, and in the September following he was promoted, along with Viscount Hyde (afterwards Earl of Rochester) and the Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, to the chief management of affairs. Though he voted for the Exclusion Bill in 1680, he was continued in office after the dismissal of Sunderland, and in September 1684 he was created Baron Godolphin of Rialton, and succeeded Rochester as First Lord of the Treasury. After the accession of James II he was made chamberlain to the queen, Mary of Modena, and, along with Rochester and Sunderland, enjoyed the king’s special confidence. In 1687 he was named commissioner of the treasury. He was one of the council of five appointed by King James to represent him in London, when he went to join the army after the landing of William of Orange, in England, and, along with Halifax and Nottingham, he was afterwards appointed a commissioner to negotiate with the prince. On the accession of William, though he only obtained the third seat at the treasury board, he was in control of affairs. He retired in March 1690, but, was recalled in the following November and appointed first lord. While holding this office he for several years continued, in conjunction with John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, a secret correspondence with James II, and is said to have disclosed to James intelligence regarding the intended expedition against Brest. Godolphin was not only a Tory by inheritance, but had a romantic admiration for the wife of James II. He was mainly concerned for his personal security. After Fenwick’s confession in 1696 regarding the attempted assassination of William III, Godolphin, who was compromised, tendered his resignation; but when the Tories came into power in 1700, he was again appointed lord treasurer and retained office for about a year. Though not a favourite with Queen Anne, he was, after her accession, appointed to his old office, on the strong recommendation of Marlborough. He also in 1704 received the honour of knighthood, and in December 1706 he was created Viscount Rialton and Earl of Godolphin. Though a Tory, he had an active share in the intrigues which gradually led to the predominance of the Whigs in alliance with Marlborough. The influence of the Marlboroughs with the queen was, however, gradually supplanted by that of Abigail Masham and Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and with the fortunes of the Marlhoroughs those of Godolphin were indissolubly united. The services of both were so appreciated by the nation that they were able for a time to regard the loss of the queen’s favour with indifference, and even in 1708 to procure the expulsion of Harley from office; but after the Tory reaction which followed the impeachment of Henry Sacheverell, who abused Godolphin under the name of Volpone, the queen made use of the opportunity to get rid of Marlborough by abruptly dismissing Godolphin from office on 7 August 1710.
Godolphin owed his rise to power and his continuance in it under four sovereigns to his financial wizardry; he received support from Marlborough mainly because Marlborough recognised that for the continuance of England's foreign wars his financial abilities were an indispensable necessity. He is said to have been cool, reserved and cautious, with more concern for his own welfare than for political considerations. Nevertheless, he took little advantage of his opportunities for personal gain, and his style of living was unostentatious. When he died, his estate was more than £12,000.
Text originally from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.