Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland

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The Right Honourable
The 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)
Occupation Statesman

Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland KG, PC (5 September 1641 – 28 September 1702) was an English statesman and nobleman from the Spencer family. His sarcasm and bad temper, and his reputation as a ruthless advocate of absolute monarchy, made him numerous enemies, and he was forced to flee abroad in 1688, but he later underwent a political rehabilitation. In his last years he appeared in a somewhat different light as a disinterested adviser to the Crown who neither sought nor wished for political office. By the 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] He joined the British Army, reaching the rank of captain in Prince Rupert's Regiment of Horse. He married Anne Digby (died 1715), daughter of the Lord Bristol on 10 June 1665,[3] then proceeded to serve successively as ambassador to Madrid (1671–1672), Paris (1672–1673), and the United Provinces (1673). He served as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber from 1673 to 1679, then was 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]

Career under Charles II and James II[edit]

Although it has been said that he was by nature a Francophile, Sunderland worked hard to find other allies for England; in 1679-81 he planned a great anti-French alliance, involving all those European powers not already tied to France, but apart from a treaty with Spain in 1680, little came of it. The long tenure of Paul Barillon as Ambassador from Louis XIV between 1677 and 1688 produced many memorable exchanges between the two men, although Sunderland's famous bad temper on at least one occasion caused Barillon to tell him to compose himself. When Louis failed to give any assistance against the Monmouth Rebellion 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".[5] 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".[6] To prevent Barillon gaining too much influence, Sunderland intercepted and leaked an unusually indiscreet dispatch where the Ambassador boasted of having blocked an Anglo-Dutch treaty. Barillon was for a time forbidden the Court; Sunderland said uncharitably that if Barillon would play such tricks "it is but just that they come home to him."[7]

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".[8] Presently he regained the king's confidence (through his 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. That year, he was also made a Knight of the Garter. However, while he enjoyed the confidence of 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 in future to mind his own business. He was summarily dismissed 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."[9]

Career under William III[edit]

Sunderland fled to Utrecht in the Netherlands, and 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 the 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.[10] At first, King William III excepted Lord Sunderland from the Indemnity Act 1690, but by 1691, he was allowed to return to the country. He began sitting in the House of Lords, and soon enough, King William paid a visit to his home in Althorp, Northamptonshire, to discuss public affairs. Lord Sunderland advised him to select all of his ministers from one political system, and eventually effected a reconciliation between King William and his sister-in-law, later Queen Anne. He was an influential adviser, causing William to accept only Whigs in his government. William was untroubled by Sunderland's past services to James- James had made it very clear that Sunderland was one man he would never forgive- and valued him for his frankness and willingness to voice unwelcome truths. Kenyon suggests that Sunderland's notorious rudeness actually appealed to the King, who detested flattery and could himself be notably rude.[11] When William said that while the Whigs liked him personally 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 even got away with writing 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.[12]

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. He tracked down Elizabeth, whom he had not seen since 1684 and persuaded her at last to consummate the marriage. Unfortunately the servants alerted her brother Charles, who had Clancarty arrested. There was a furore which gravely embarrassed Sunderland, but seems to have amused the King, who drily said 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 lived out their lives.[13]

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", and he eventually retired from public life in December of that year. Sunderland died in 1702 at Althorp, where he led a secluded life, and he was succeeded by his only surviving son, Charles.[14]


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,[15] 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 alleged lack of political principles, was a devoted husband and father. They had at least five children.[16]

At least two other children are considered to have died young.

See also[edit]


  • Kenyon, J.P. Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland 1641-1702 Longmans Green and Co. London 1958 Reprinted by Gregg Revivals 1992


  1. ^ Kenyon p.8
  2. ^ Kenyon p.3
  3. ^ Kenyon p.8
  4. ^ Kenyon p.23
  5. ^ Kenyon p.118
  6. ^ Kenyon p.119
  7. ^ Kenyon p.40
  8. ^ Kenyon p.66
  9. ^ Kenyon p.226
  10. ^ Kenyon p.228
  11. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Stuarts 1966 (Fontana ed.) p.174
  12. ^ Kenyon p.317
  13. ^ Kenyon p.302
  14. ^ Kenyon p.328
  15. ^ Diary of Samuel Pepys 1 July 1663
  16. ^ 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
Preceded by
Leoline Jenkins
Secretary of State for the Southern Department
Succeeded by
The Earl of Middleton
Preceded by
The Marquess of Halifax
Lord President of the Council
1685 – 1688
Succeeded by
The Marquess of Carmarthen
Preceded by
The Earl of Dorset
Lord Chamberlain
1695 – 1699
Succeeded by
The Duke of Shrewsbury
Honorary titles
Preceded by
The Duke of Monmouth
Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire
1679 – 1681
Succeeded by
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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The Earl of Northampton
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