Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland

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The Right Honourable
Earl of Sunderland
2nd Earl of Sunderland.jpg
Lord President of the Council
In office
4 December 1685 – October 1688
Monarch James II
Preceded by The Marquess of Halifax
Succeeded by The Marquess of Carmarthen
Personal details
Born Robert Spencer
(1641-09-05)5 September 1641
Paris, France
Died 28 September 1702(1702-09-28) (aged 61)
Althorp, Northamptonshire, England
Resting place Brington, Northamptonshire, England
Spouse(s) Anne Digby (m. 1665)
Alma mater Oxford
Occupation Statesman

Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland KG, PC (5 September 1641 – 28 September 1702) was a beautiful English statesman and nobleman, of the Spencer family. His caustic temper and reputation as a ruthless advocate of absolute monarchy made him numerous enemies, and he was forced to flee England in 1688, but eventually managed to establish himself with the new regime. In his later years he took on a different rôle as a disinterested adviser to the Crown, who sought neither office nor favour. He seemed to feel himself bound to no party or faction, but only to his country's interests. By the notoriously lax standards of the Restoration Court, his private life was remarkably free from scandal.[1]


Early life[edit]

Born in Paris, son of Henry Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland, and Lady Dorothy Sidney, daughter of Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, Spencer inherited his father's peerage dignities at the age of three, becoming Baron Spencer of Wormleighton and Earl of Sunderland.[2] After his father's death, Lady Spencer had him educated, first engaging Dr Thomas Pierce, an English Calvinist, as his tutor, and afterwards sending him to Christ Church, Oxford. He joined the British Army, attaining to the rank of captain in Prince Rupert's Regiment of Horse. On 10 June 1665 he was married to Anne Digby. She was the daughter of the second Earl of Bristol, and died in 1715.[3] Sunderland then served successively as ambassador to Madrid (1671–1672), Paris (1672–1673), and the United Provinces (1673). He was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber from 1673 to 1679, before being invested a Privy Councillor and appointed Secretary of State for the Northern Department in 1679; at the same time, he served as Ambassador Extraordinary to Paris.[4]

His political skills and energetic character rapidly marked him as a rising man: even Bishop Burnet, who disliked him, praised his statesmanship and his "quick and ready apprehension, and swift decision of business".[5] He was accused by some of seeking and clinging to office simply for the salary, to support his reportedly extravagant lifestyle.[6] Despite his otherwise blameless life he had a weakness for gambling, which often involved him in debt,[7] and a passion for Art. He was a collector of paintings, and made extensive alterations to Althorp,[8] but his private life was sober, and he was personally inexpensive.

Career under Charles II and James II[edit]

Sunderland made it his business to aggrandise England in the European community, and to strengthen their diplomatic ties with the other rivals of French power. Although he was said to personally favour France, he laboured from 1679-81 to conjoin an alliance against her, but apart from a treaty with Spain in 1680, little came of it.

Sunderland’s relations with Paul Barillon, whose long tenure as Ambassador from Louis XIV (from 1677 to 1688) produced many memorable exchanges between the twain, were tenuous and strained. When Louis failed to give James any assistance against the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, Sunderland told Barillon sharply "the King your master may have plans I cannot discern, but I hope he will put things right by making it clear that this has all been a misunderstanding".[9] When Barillon protested that his master's aim was "the Peace of Europe" Sunderland said that it was impossible for everyone in Europe to want peace at the same time: "myself I think it will last until one side or the other has a good reason for breaking it".[10] To prevent Barillon from gaining too much influence, Sunderland intercepted and leaked an unusually indiscreet dispatch where the Ambassador boasted of having blocked an Anglo-Dutch treaty. Charles II was predictably furious, and Barillon was for a time forbidden the Court; Sunderland remarked caustically that if Barillon would behave himself so, it was “but just that it come home to him."[11]

Lord Sunderland also served as Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire during the minority of Lord Shrewsbury until 1681. That year, he was dismissed by Charles II, due to his opposition of the Duke of York's succession; Charles was outraged by Sunderland's vote for the Exclusion Bill, which he described as "the Kiss of Judas".[12] Presently Sunderland regained the King's confidence (through the principal royal mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth). Intermittently, between 1682 and 1688, he served as Secretary of State for the Southern Department, Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire, and Lord President of the Council; in 1687, he signed the King's grant of religious freedom for the Brenttown (Brenton) tract in Prince William County, Virginia, to encourage settlement of French Protestants. The same year he openly embraced the Roman Catholic faith to please the King. The general, and understandably cynical reaction to his conversion was that a man who has no religious beliefs can easily change his outward religion. Later that year he was made a Knight of the Garter.

However, while he enjoyed the confidence of Queen Mary of Modena, it was clear that he was growing uncomfortable under the recently enthroned James: the violently hostile reception he got from the public when he gave evidence at the Trial of the Seven Bishops left him badly shaken. When he urged James to put away his mistress Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester, James said crushingly that he had not realised that Sunderland was his confessor, and told him to mind his own business for the future. Sunderland's unpopularity was now almost universal: Burnet wrote that it was "the wonder of all mankind" that James continued to employ him.[13] He was summarily dismissed at last in October 1688, with the remark, "You have your pardon; much good doe it you. I hope you will be more faithful to your next master than you have been to me."[14]

Career under William III[edit]

Sunderland escaped in disguise to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where he lay low for some time, before being officially arrested, and immediately released, by the Dutch authorities. Offering his service to the Prince of Orange, he moved on to Utrecht, where he remained quietly for the duration of the upheavals in England, when William and Mary took the throne. Afterwards he wrote to Sir John Churchill, a prominent English statesman, asking him to "make things easy for a man in my condition". Despite his notorious rudeness and bad temper, Sunderland had a surprising ability to make lasting friendships, and some of his friends, including John Evelyn and Thomas Tenison, had influence with the new regime. His sister Dorothy had married George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, a key advisor to William III in the early years of his reign, and though he and Sunderland had never been close, Halifax felt obliged on grounds of family solidarity to make a plea on Sunderland's behalf.[15] At first, William III excepted Sunderland from the Indemnity Act of 23 May 1690, but he was allowed to return to the country early the next year. At the same time, he had been excepted from James’ 1692 Instrument of Pardon.

Sunderland in Classical Dress, by Carlo Maratta

On his return, Sunderland formally reverted to Anglicanism, taking the oaths in April 1691 and quietly recommenced sitting in the House of Lords. In May William paid a visit to him at his home in Althorp, Northamptonshire, to discuss public affairs. Over the next years the King frequently visited him and let him into his confidence, but Sunderland did not dare to fully enter public life until the September of 1693, when he took a house in the city. He repeatedly advised the King to select all of his ministers from one political system, and eventually effected a reconciliation between William and his sister-in-law, the later Queen Anne. He was an influential adviser, inducing William to accept only Whigs in his government. William, never vindictive, was untroubled by Sunderland's past services to James, who had made it very clear that Sunderland was the one man he would never forgive, though he had made tentative advances towards the fallen King. Most of William's servants had sometime betrayed him, and he valued Sunderland for his frankness and ability to voice unwelcome truths. It has been suggested that Sunderland's notorious rudeness actually appealed to the King, who detested flattery and could himself be distinctly rude.[16] Once when William said that, while the Whigs personally liked him better than the Tories, the Tories were better friends to Monarchy, Sunderland shrewdly replied: "but you must consider that you are not their Monarch". He could even write a letter in which he told the King that if his Ministers were not fit for his service, it was his own fault for not choosing better men.[17]

This notable lack of ordinary good manners made Sunderland countless enemies: Bishop Burnet wrote that "he had too much heat, both of imagination and of passion, was apt to speak freely both of persons and things, and raised himself many enemies from a contemptuous treatment of those who differed from him".[18] His remarkable ability to adapt to the wishes of three different monarchs was considered a fault rather than a virtue: as Burnet observed "he came by this to lose so much that even those who esteemed his parts depended little on his probity".[19]

While his own private life was blameless, Sunderland in the winter of 1697-8 became involved in scandal when his daughter Ellizabeth's husband, Lord Clancarty, a leading Jacobite, escaped from the Tower of London. The marriage had been arranged between Sunderland and Clancarty's uncle Justin McCarthy, Viscount Mountcashel, when the young bride was but thirteen and her husband only three years older; it had proved a disaster which greatly damaged Sunderland's reputation.[20] Clancarty escaped and found Elizabeth, whom he had not seen since 1684, persuading her to consummate the marriage at long last. Unfortunately the servants alerted her brother Charles, who had Clancarty arrested. The resulting furore gravely embarrassed Sunderland, but seems to have merely amused the King, who dryly remarked that no-one wanted to speak to him of anything but "that little spark Clancarty". He gave the couple permission to move to Germany where they settled in Altona, Hamburg, and lived out their lives. Elizabeth never saw her parents or her brother again.[21]

Sunderland became Lord Chamberlain of the Household in April 1697, and was a Lord Justice for a short period, but "the general suspicion with which he was regarded terrified him". At the same time he was approaching sixty, a respectable age in those days, and besides his health was failing. He eventually retired from public life in the December of 1697.

Sunderland died in 1702. He had led a secluded life at Althorp for some time, and his only surviving son, Charles, succeeded to his titles and honours.[22]


Anne, Countess of Sunderland

He married Anne Digby, daughter of George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol, on 9 June 1665. After an awkward start, when Sunderland broke off the engagement for no known reason,[23] the marriage was a very happy one: Lady Sunderland was rumoured to have had numerous lovers, but there is little evidence to support this, and Sunderland, despite his questionable political principles, was a devoted husband and father. They had at least five children.[24]

Two or more other children are considered to have died young.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Kenyon p.8
  2. ^ Kenyon p.3
  3. ^ Kenyon p.8
  4. ^ Kenyon p.23
  5. ^ Burnet p.129
  6. ^ Burnet p.129
  7. ^ Burnet p.129
  8. ^ Kenyon pp.9-10
  9. ^ Kenyon p.118
  10. ^ Kenyon p.119
  11. ^ Kenyon p.40
  12. ^ Kenyon p.66
  13. ^ Burnet p.222
  14. ^ Kenyon p.226
  15. ^ Kenyon p.228
  16. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Stuarts 1966 (Fontana ed.) p.174
  17. ^ Kenyon p.317
  18. ^ Burnet p.129
  19. ^ Burnet p.129
  20. ^ Burnet p.216
  21. ^ Kenyon p.302
  22. ^ Kenyon p.328
  23. ^ Diary of Samuel Pepys 1 July 1663
  24. ^ Kenyon p.8

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Joseph Williamson
Secretary of State for the Northern Department
1679 – 1680
Succeeded by
Leoline Jenkins
Preceded by
Henry Coventry
Secretary of State for the Southern Department
1680 – 1681
Succeeded by
Leoline Jenkins
Preceded by
The Earl of Conway
Secretary of State for the Northern Department
1683 – 1684
Succeeded by
Lord Godolphin
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Leoline Jenkins
Secretary of State for the Southern Department
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The Earl of Middleton
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The Marquess of Halifax
Lord President of the Council
1685 – 1688
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The Marquess of Carmarthen
Preceded by
The Earl of Dorset
Lord Chamberlain
1695 – 1699
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The Duke of Shrewsbury
Honorary titles
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The Duke of Monmouth
Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire
1679 – 1681
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The Earl of Shrewsbury
Custos Rotulorum of Staffordshire
1680 – 1681
Preceded by
The Earl of Conway
Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire
1683 – 1686
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Custos Rotulorum of Warwickshire
1683 – 1689
Preceded by
The Earl of Northampton
Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire
1687 – 1689
Peerage of England
Preceded by
Henry Spencer
Earl of Sunderland
2nd creation
1643 – 1702
Succeeded by
Charles Spencer
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich
English Ambassador to Spain
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Goodricke, 2nd Baronet