Born in Paris as the son of a prominent diplomat, Stanhope pursued a military career. Although he also served in Flanders and Italy, he is best remembered for his service in Portugal and Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession. He was the first British Governor of Minorca, which he captured from the Spanish in 1708.
In 1710 he commanded the British contingent of the Allied Army which occupied Madrid having won a decisive victory at the Battle of Zaragoza. Having then evacuated the Spanish capital, Stanhope's rearguard on the retreat to Barcelona were overwhelmed and forced to surrender at Brihuega.
Paroled, he returned to Britain and pursued a political career as a Whig. A supporter of the Hanoverian Succession he was rewarded with office by George I in 1714. As Southern Secretary he oversaw the negotiation of an Anglo-French Alliance. Emerging as the dominant figure in government after 1717 he led Britain to success in a new Spanish War and suppressed a Jacobite Rising in 1719. However the government was overtaken by the collapse of the South Sea Bubble and he died in office. He is occasionally mentioned as an alternative candidate to Robert Walpole as Britain's first Prime Minister.
Stanhope was born in Paris in 1673, the eldest of the seven children of Alexander Stanhope (1638–1707), and his wife Katherine (died 1718), the daughter and co-heir of Arnold Burghill, of Thinghall Parva, Withington, Herefordshire, by his second wife Grizell, co-heir of John Prise of Ocle Pyrchard, Herefordshire. He was educated at Eton College and at Trinity College, Oxford, where he matriculated in May 1688.
A little later he went to Italy where, as afterwards in Flanders, he served as a volunteer against France, and in 1695 he secured a commission in the English army. In 1701 Stanhope entered the House of Commons, but he continued his career as a soldier and was in Spain and Portugal during the earlier stages of the War of the Spanish Succession.