Spencer, Robert (1640-1702) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53
Spencer, Robert (1640-1702)

by Thomas Seccombe
1904 Errata appended.
Contains subarticle Henry Spencer, first Earl of Sunderland (1620–1643).

SPENCER, ROBERT, second Earl of Sunderland (1640–1702), only son and heir of Henry Spencer, first earl of Sunderland, by his wife Dorothy, the well-known ‘Sacharissa’ [see Spencer, Dorothy], was born at Paris on 4 Aug. 1640, and succeeded to the peerage as second earl of Sunderland three years later.

The father, Henry Spencer, first Earl of Sunderland (1620–1643), eldest son of William, second lord Spencer, and grandson of Robert Spencer, first lord Spencer [q. v.], matriculated from Magdalen College, Oxford, on 8 May 1635, and was created M.A. on 31 Aug. 1636. On 19 Dec. following he succeeded as third baron. When he was nineteen he married, at Penshurst on 20 July 1639, Lady Dorothy Sidney, and, having sojourned two years at Paris, he took his seat in the upper house in 1641. Though nominated lord lieutenant of Northamptonshire, he volunteered in the royal army when the king erected his standard. Charles I trusted him, and on 5 Sept. 1642 made him the bearer, along with his friend Falkland, of an offer of a composition which was submitted to but rejected by the parliament. He seems to have shared Falkland's belief in the crown, modified by distrust of the wearer of it. He wrote to his wife from Shrewsbury, on 21 Sept. 1642, that he would rather ‘be hanged’ than fight for the parliament, yet, ‘if an expedient could be found to salve the punctilio of honour, I would not,’ he says, ‘continue here an hour.’ A year later, on 20 Sept. 1643, he was killed by the side of the noble Falkland at the first battle of Newbury. Some three months before his death, while with the king at Oxford (and in consideration, it was stated, of a huge loan), he had been created Earl of Sunderland (patent dated 8 June). He was buried at Brington in Northamptonshire. A portrait by Walker is at Althorp (see Clarendon, Hist. iii. 347; Lloyd, Memoirs of Loyalists, p. 432: Sidney Papers, ii. 667; Gardiner, Civil War, i. 25).

As a boy Robert showed extraordinary promise, and his mother lavished the utmost care upon his education both before and after her second marriage in 1652 to Sir Robert Smythe. In order to make him a staunch protestant, she secured the services as tutor of Dr. Thomas Pierce [q. v.], the Calvinist divine, under whom the young earl studied the rudiments at home and languages abroad in company with his kinsman Henry Savile [q. v.], and his mother's brother, Henry Sidney (afterwards Earl of Romney) [q. v.], his junior by a few months. His close relations with the Sidneys and all their powerful connections, as well as his more distant relationship with the Saviles, the Coventrys, and Lord Shaftesbury, gave him at the outset of his career a strong position, which he sedulously improved by his own marriage, and later by the alliances which he made for his children. After a sojourn in Paris and in some of the Italian cities, Sunderland spent wellnigh two years in the south of France and at Madrid. Returning to England in the summer of 1661, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford. Before, however, he was matriculated he vindicated the soundness of his protestant training by joining the celebrated William Penn in an energetic demonstration in ‘Tom Quad’ against the wearing of the surplice, as recently prescribed by the authorities at the king's request. The ringleaders, including Penn, were rusticated, and Sunderland followed them into a voluntary exile. He renewed his association with Penn a few years later in Paris. After sowing some wild oats, he commenced in 1663 to pay his addresses to Anne, younger daughter of George Digby, second earl of Bristol [q. v.], by Anne, daughter of Francis Russell, fourth earl of Bedford; the young lady was not only a great beauty, but was also only surviving sister and heiress of John Digby, third earl of Bristol, to all of whose estates she succeeded in 1698. In spite of the great access of influence (more than of actual wealth) which the match held out, the negotiations seem to have dragged; the date was finally fixed for July 1663, ‘the wedding clothes made and everything ready;’ yet at this late hour, if Pepys may be believed, the bridegroom flinched from the prospect of matrimony to the extent of absconding with an intimation that he ‘had enough of it’ (Diary, 1 July 1663). Matters were nevertheless arranged, and the ceremony took place at St. Vedast's in the city of London on 10 June 1665. If the young earl's fears were due to a suspicion that he had met his match in duplicity, they were probably not unfounded. His bride was a ‘born intrigante,’ and her ‘commerce de galanterie’ with her husband's uncle, Henry Sidney, was somewhat later to afford a congenial theme to Barillon and his fellow-reporters of court intrigue.

Two years after his marriage, in June 1667, Sunderland received a commission in Prince Rupert's regiment of horse, and for a short period came into frequent contact with George Savile (afterwards Marquis of Halifax) [q. v.], who was serving in the same troop. His political activity at this time seems to have been limited for the most part to the paying of assiduous court to the royal mistresses. He invited Barbara Villiers [q. v.], well-known successively as Lady Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, to his seat of Althorp; and when in 1671 her star was paling before that of Louise Renée de Keroualle [q. v.], he asked the new favourite to his town house in Queen Street, and lost enormous sums to her at basset. In these diplomatic approaches he was ably seconded by his wife. At Euston in 1671, in conjunction with Lady Arlington, under the pretext of killing the tedium of the October evenings, Lady Sunderland arranged a burlesque wedding, in which Mlle. de Keroualle was the bride and the king the bridegroom (Forneron, Louise de Keroualle, pp. 72 sq.).

These diversions were interrupted by Sunderland's first political employment. He was despatched in September 1671 upon an embassage to Madrid, his object being to endeavour to neutralise Spain in the event of the impending war with the United Provinces. He was foiled in his object, and wrote slightingly of the Spaniards as totally occupied with points of precedency. ‘They talk of other business,’ he wrote, ‘but have none but how to get the hand of one another’ (several of his letters to Arlington are printed in Hispania Illustrata, London, 1703, 8vo). He seems to have left Madrid in March 1672 for Paris, where he acted for some time as ambassador extraordinary to the French king. Continuing his diplomatic career, he was sent in the following year (May 1673) to Cologne as one of the plenipotentiaries with a view to a general peace, which was, however, frustrated by the devices of the French. Returning home early in 1674, he was on 27 May admitted into the privy council at Windsor, and in October following appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles II. By his efforts Mlle. de Keroualle obtained, on 16 July 1675, a patent of nobility for her bastard by the king, Charles Lennox, first duke of Richmond [q. v.] In July 1678 upon Ralph Montagu, duke of Montagu [q. v.], leaving his post and hastening back to London in order to defend himself against the aspersions of the Duchess of Cleveland, Sunderland was named ambassador extraordinary in his stead, and thus incurred responsibility for some of the delicate negotiations leading up to the peace of Nimeguen. This was the last of his diplomatic appointments. He was henceforth to exercise a more and more preponderant influence within the small governing clique at Whitehall.

On arriving in England in February 1679, Sunderland found the eighteen years' parliament just dissolved. A new one was summoned to meet in March, and, as a preliminary measure of conciliation, the Duke of York was about to take his departure for The Hague. Of the old cabal, Danby and Arlington were under a cloud, and the reins of power seemed about to be seized by Shaftesbury, Essex, and Halifax, who were coquetting with Monmouth. The catholic party had been cowed by the outburst of protestant fury which Oates and the other sham informers had known how to evoke. Not a little depended upon the attitude of newcomers so able and influential as Sunderland and Sir William Temple, lately returned from The Hague. Sunderland's appearance as a new political planet was marked by the elaborate dedication to him on his arrival of Dryden's adapted ‘Troilus and Cressida; or Truth found too late.’

Danby was removed from the treasurership on 22 Feb., and Sunderland, having paid Sir Joseph Williamson 6,000l. for the reversion of his post, took the oaths as secretary of state for the northern department in the course of the same month. Upon Temple's projecting the reformed privy council of thirty members (April), an inner cabinet, consisting of Sunderland, Essex, Halifax, and Temple, was soon evolved to consult upon the ‘chief affairs that were then on the anvil,’ and ‘how they might best be prepared for the council or the parliament.’ In August, alarmed by the bold tactics of Shaftesbury and his superior influence over Monmouth, Sunderland joined Halifax, upon the sudden illness of Charles, in summoning the Duke of York to the king's bedside. The two prorogations following the dissolution of July 1679, joined to the uncertainty springing from the precarious health of the king, caused Halifax and Temple so much anxiety that both withdrew for a time from the court and from active intervention in politics. As a consequence, the direction of affairs fell largely to Sunderland, Godolphin, and Lawrence Hyde, a contemporary triumvirate, upon which was bestowed the contemptuous name of ‘The Chits’ (cf. Dryden, ‘Ballad on the Young Statesmen,’ Poems on State Affairs, 1716, i. 163). In the crisis Sunderland seems to have looked for guidance mainly to the Duchess of Portsmouth and the voice of the London mob. The duchess was convinced that Charles would not dare to support his brother much longer. The Londoners were ecstatic over Shaftesbury and Monmouth. James's supporters could augur little good from his being sent into Scotland, at the urgent instance of Sunderland, prior to the meeting of parliament on 21 Oct. 1680. As an opportunist, therefore, who desired above all things to retain office and its emoluments, Sunderland felt some amount of security in adopting the side of the exclusionists; but, as an additional precaution, he began carefully to cultivate relations with the Prince of Orange, through his uncle, Henry Sidney, the envoy at The Hague. He devised and communicated to Sidney several plans by which the prince was to render himself popular in England. In the meantime, with the view of immediately influencing Charles, he took the ill-advised step of ‘inspiring’ the States-General (with the connivance of William) to forward a highly presumptuous ‘memorial’ to the English monarch on the subject of the succession, praying him earnestly to settle it in a manner that would be acceptable to his protestant parliament and people. Such a piece of advice proved intensely distasteful to Charles and provoked his keen resentment, which fell in the first instance upon Sidney. When the Exclusion Bill, having passed the commons, was brought up to the lords (15 Nov. 1680), and defeated owing mainly to the exertions of Halifax, Sunderland filled the cup of his offence by voting for it, and his worst fears were realised by his being struck off the council early in February 1681.

During the remainder of Charles II's reign Sunderland's energies were taxed first to recover his place, and secondly to supplant Halifax in the royal favour. From the summer of 1682, when the Duke of York returned to St. James's, there was no possibility of mistaking the fact that a reaction in his and the king's favour had set in. The Duchess of Portsmouth recanted with alacrity, and when her reconciliation with James was cemented by the duke allowing her 5,000l. a year out of the post-office revenues, Sunderland hastened to follow her example and avow his errors. He persuaded her to induce the Duke of York to join her in a petition to the king on his behalf. Pleased to gratify his mistress without displeasing his brother, Charles finally agreed to listen to Sunderland's protestations. On 28 Aug. 1682 he kissed the king's hand, and next month he was readmitted to the privy council. Though mainly due to the Duchess of Portsmouth, this result was in part attributable to the astute overtures that Sunderland had for some time past been making to Barillon. He now saw perfectly, he told the ambassador, that a reconciliation between Charles and his parliament was a matter of impossibility, and that a closer union with France was the only right policy; from all relations with the Prince of Orange he had completely freed himself. This was enough for Barillon.

So successful was Sunderland in cultivating the influence of the Duchess of Portsmouth and Barillon that on 31 Jan. 1683 he was appointed in Conway's place to the (northern) secretaryship of state, and thereupon grew more and more successful in his rivalry of Rochester and of Halifax. Though the latter had married Sunderland's sister, the two statesmen had been estranged since the Exclusion Bill, and, in Burnet's terms, had come to hate each other beyond expression. Sunderland acquiesced in the executions of Russell and Sidney, and it was mainly through his influence that Jeffreys was promoted to be chief justice (29 Sept. 1683). As Rochester became discredited, Sunderland's opposition to Halifax became accentuated. Halifax was especially anxious for the summoning of a parliament to clinch the king's present popularity, and a large party among the courtiers thought that the prevailing dislike of nonconformists and suspicion of the nobles would insure a very favourable assembly. The project was successfully foiled by Sunderland, who expressed the views of Louis XIV as he learned them from the Duchess of Portsmouth and Barillon. His chief ally among English politicians was Godolphin. The view that they proposed to take of the prerogative approximated more and more to the ideal of the early Stuarts, and by some outspoken enemies Sunderland was contemptuously alluded to as ‘the calf's head.’ He managed to satisfy the Duke of York that the reason why he appeared for the exclusion (‘which he knew would not pass’) was to prevent the monarchy being reduced by limitations to a kind of dogeship (cf. Calamy, Life, i. 155). Sunderland naturally supported Jeffreys's scheme for the relief of loyal Roman catholics in prison in opposition to Halifax and North, another enemy whom he lost no means of harassing.

Upon the death of Charles II, Sunderland was one of the privy council who signed the order for the proclamation of James (cf. Thirtieth Rep. Deputy-Keeper of Public Records, App. pp. 306 seq.); but he and Godolphin were at first regarded as ruined in so far as the court was concerned. James had indeed good reason to suspect Sunderland of a sinister design against the legitimate succession during the weeks that preceded his brother's death. On the other hand, apart from the admiration that James had for his finesse, Sunderland's ‘command of connections and expedients’ made a powerful appeal to the new king. He soon showed that he meant to follow James's inclinations as closely as possible. When, therefore, upon Halifax's refusal, Sunderland promptly consented to vote for the repeal of the tests, James had no scruple in giving him the post of lord president (4 Dec. 1685) in addition to that of principal secretary of state. In order to show his zeal, Sunderland urged the greatest severity in the suppression of Monmouth's rebellion, and helped to stimulate Kirke's activity during the western assize. There can be little doubt that he would have greatly preferred Monmouth's death to his surrender. When Monmouth wrote to the king on 8 July he said that he could convince James of his devotion by ‘one word,’ and James himself in after time believed that this word was an exposure of Sunderland's treachery. The earl was present with Middleton at the interview which the king granted Monmouth, having previously, it is said, assured the latter of his pardon if he confessed nothing (cf. Clarke, Life of James II, ii. 34 sq.; Macpherson, Orig. Papers, i. 146). Rochester declared that Monmouth had proofs of intrigues both with himself and the Prince of Orange that would have been absolutely damning to Sunderland. Rochester also charged Sunderland (in a circumstantial story) with suppressing a last letter from Monmouth to the king; but evidence so hostile must be received with reserve.

These transactions were followed in January 1686 by the failure of Rochester's intrigue to exalt the influence of Catharine Sedley [q. v.], at the expense of the queen and the catholic camarilla, of which Sunderland rapidly acquired the confidence. He succeeded from the outset in entirely gaining the ear of the queen. He represented to her that the relatives of the king's first wife, Rochester and Clarendon, were the men whom the king delighted to honour, while her own friends were coldly regarded.

In attaining his proximate object—the abasement of Rochester—Sunderland was no less successful with the king. He commenced operations in November 1685 by circulating a story of a mysterious packet despatched by Rochester to the Prince of Orange. This deliberate invention he entrusted under pledge of profound secrecy to Barillon, knowing that it would lose nothing in the ambassador's next despatch, where it duly appeared under date 26 Nov. Again, when Rochester voted against the suspension of Compton, bishop of London (to which Sunderland gave his full support), he pointed out the danger of dissentients and the need for a united ministry, while he insinuated that sooner or later dissentients would have to be eliminated from the council. His master-stroke was played on 19 Dec. 1686, when he induced the king to confer on religious matters with Rochester, by insinuating that he had traced signs of religious trouble with indications of a yielding mood in the demeanour of that stalwart Anglican. The result of these overtures and their inevitable failure fulfilled his expectations, for Rochester was dismissed from the treasurership in the following January (1687). Almost simultaneously (1 Jan. 1686–7) he had the satisfaction of sending a letter of recall to Clarendon, directing him to resign the government of Ireland to Tyrconnel.

During 1686 James contemplated the appointment of a vicar-general to exercise the spiritual prerogatives of the crown in much the same manner as Thomas Cromwell exercised them under Henry VIII, and Sunderland expressed readiness to undertake the office, which could hardly have failed to throw much patronage into his hands; but eventually, in August 1686, he contented himself with a seat in the new ecclesiastical commission. Next year the king, feeling thoroughly dissatisfied with the results of the ‘closeting’ of members, determined to apply more drastic measures with a view to obtaining a well-affected parliament. In November 1687 the lists of sheriffs were revised, and Sunderland, by whose advice the king was constantly guided in such matters, was put upon the board for the regulation of municipalities, along with Jeffreys and Sir Nicholas Butler. He was elected a K.G. on 26 April in this year, and installed at Windsor on 23 May following.

Sunderland afterwards insisted that he did all in his power to prevent the king from removing the tests, from exerting the dispensing power, and from harassing the Anglican body. Prudence would doubtless have dictated such a course; but in order to retain his lucrative offices it was essential that he should show himself zealous in support of the king's personal policy, and there is no doubt that he identified himself with the Roman catholic vote at the council board. James himself credits him with the sentiment ‘As we have wounded the Anglican party, we must destroy it.’ It is more certain that when the repeal of the Test Act was staunchly opposed in the lords, he threatened to create the requisite number of new peerages by calling up the elder sons of such peers as were already his partisans. According to Halifax, he vaunted that rather than lose the vote he would make peers of the whole of Lord Feversham's troop. In order to conciliate the nonconformists, he proposed a number of ingenious expedients (Mackintosh, p. 195). He tried to throw the responsibility of some of his recommendations for the relief of Roman catholics upon the papal nuncio, D'Adda; but the astute Italian offered him no advice, merely promising him his own and the pope's prayers for his guidance.

The new year (1688) found Sunderland in an extremely difficult position. He had given in his adhesion to the victorious catholic party; but, so far from being unanimous, that party was split into three widely diverging factions. First, there were the Fabians, under the old catholic aristocracy, backed up by Ronquillo, the Spanish ambassador, who deprecated the rash policy of James in outraging public opinion. Then there was the anti-French party, headed by the papal nuncio, to which the queen gave adherence. Thirdly, there was the jesuit party, supported by Petre, by the Irish jesuits, and by all the resources of French intrigue. Sunderland was not fully in sympathy with any of them. He hoped that all might still go well if he were only promoted to the vacant post of lord treasurer. But he failed in this, either through Petre or the queen; and when the king seemed to be giving a decisive adhesion to the most dangerous courses by admitting Petre to the privy council, he became distracted with apprehensions. Petre, in the advice that he gave the king, drew more and more closely to France, and Sunderland realised that not only was Petre becoming a dangerous rival, but that the handsome pension which he had been in the habit of receiving from France was in danger. To gauge his precise position in relation to the turn affairs were taking, he had recourse to two characteristic devices. In the first place he proposed a reconstruction of the cabinet, by which the affairs of Scotland and Ireland, as well as internal matters, were to be referred to the nominal privy council, which Petre was not in the habit of attending; foreign affairs exclusively were to be reserved for the secret cabinet within the council. His second step was to demand a secret extraordinary gratuity from France in addition to his regular pension of sixty thousand livres (about 2,500l.) His pretext for preferring such a claim was the (pretended) success that had crowned his efforts in demanding the return to England of the three British regiments, which had been in Dutch pay since 1678; and he fortified this cool proposal by promises of further aid, more particularly in keeping down his master's own pecuniary claims upon Louis. The effrontery of the request astounded Barillon, but he would have been still more astonished had he known that through his wife and her gallant, Henry Sidney, Sunderland was regularly supplying the Prince of Orange with information as to the most secret transactions of the English court.

For the present, however, the success of these two manœuvres postponed any resolution that Sunderland may have dallied with to desert James at this juncture. He was beginning to see that the alienation of the episcopal party had proceeded too far. He nevertheless, on 8 June, signed the committal of the seven bishops. Personally he would have preferred the matter to be laid before the carefully packed parliament which was in contemplation for the spring of 1689. He was not a little impressed by the demeanour of the people upon the progress of the bishops to the Tower. But the charges of lukewarmness which were brought against him at the council board made it necessary for him to give decisive proof of his devotion. He had already compounded for his own delay by causing his eldest son to abjure protestantism, and now, in the week of the bishop's trial, he made public his own renunciation of the protestant religion. A little later, on 13 July, he appeared at mass in the king's chapel. During the bishops' trial, though suffering acutely from gout, he appeared in a wheel-chair to give evidence against the defendants. On 17 June, a week after the birth of the prince, he went to St. James's and pledged the king to the infant's health, in company with the papal nuncio. As soon as possible he paid his addresses to the queen, over whom he exerted a great ascendency, and impressed her with the idea that, now that she had a son, moderation was above all desirable, and that the conversion of England need not now be pressed, but should rather be proceeded with ‘very gently’ (Burnet). But, though assured of the queen's confidence, Sunderland was nevertheless cautiously preparing for the vicissitudes of revolution. Early in August Russell wrote to the Prince of Orange of a ‘Mr. Roberts, whose reign at court can hardly last a month, and who has grown so warm in your interests that I can hardly prevail on him to stay for his being turned out. … He has desired me to assure your highness of his utmost service.’ There seems excellent ground for identifying ‘Mr. Roberts’ with Robert Spencer, whose reign at court was threatened with curtailment by the intrigues of Petre.

The approach of danger impelled Sunderland to give free play to his duplicity. Princess Anne formed at this juncture a juster estimate of his character than of his motives. ‘You may remember,’ she says in a letter to her sister dated 13 March 1687–8, ‘I have once before ventured to tell you that I thought Lord Sunderland a very ill man, and I am more confirmed every day in that opinion. Everybody knows how often this man turned backwards and forwards in the last king's time, and now, to complete all his virtues, he is working with all his might to bring in popery. He does not go publicly to mass, but hears it privately at a priest's chamber, and never lets anybody be there but a servant of his; he is perpetually with the priests, and stirs up the king to do things faster than I believe he would of himself. His wife, adds the princess, ‘is just as extraordinary in her kind; for she is a flattering, dissembling, false woman, but with such a fawning and endearing manner that she will deceive anybody. Yet she will cheat, though it be for a little; and she has her gallants. … Sure there never was a couple so well matched as her and her good husband; for she is the greatest jade that ever lived, so he is the subtellest, workinest villain on the face of the earth.’

Sunderland's attitude and conduct when the crisis arrived were enigmatic. He laughed at Barillon's warnings, and when Bevil Skelton [q. v.] apprised the king of the threatened invasion, he ridiculed it as a chimera. More than any one else he was responsible for James's fateful refusal to accept aid from Louis in the form of a defensive squadron of French ships. He subsequently desired to take credit for this refusal from the Prince of Orange. His real motive was much more probably fear of the contemplated parliament, should it be discovered that, while in receipt of French money, he had admitted French ships into an English harbour. As in the time of the Exclusion Bill, he seems to have had a very imperfect idea of the state of feeling in the nation at large. Macaulay well calls him quick-sighted rather than far-sighted. With the fate of Monmouth before him, he was thoroughly sceptical about the success of an invasion. A much more brilliant prospect was indeed afforded him by the chance of giving a remedial turn to James's measures at home, and eventually acting as mediator between the king and the parliament. There is no doubt that with this aim in view in the early days of September he recommended to James the prompt summoning of a parliament, together with the restoration of the status quo ante at Magdalen College, the rehabilitation of Compton, and the undoing of the other grievous and oppressive measures of the last two years. It is possible that he might have even yet successfully carried out a policy of conciliation, but he had failed to reckon with the growing exasperation of Petre and the extreme catholic party, whose suspicions he could not allay. When, in the middle of October, he vehemently opposed the plan for the arrest of a number of suspected persons, the king was goaded by Petre to denounce, in no measured terms, his ‘want of spirit.’ Matters were brought to a climax when the original draft of the projected treaty between James and Louis was found missing from his custody. ‘There was doubtless,’ says Evelyn, ‘some secret betrayed which time may discover.’ Sunderland obtained on the same day (27 Oct.) his pardon for this delinquency and his dismissal. ‘You have your pardon,’ said the king; ‘much good may it do you. I hope you will be more faithful to your next master than you have been to me’ (Bramston, Autobiogr.) The pardon enabled him to borrow a large sum of money in support of his always tottering finances. With this and a considerable amount of bullion from the jewel office, after a temporary withdrawal to Althorp, he fled to Rotterdam, disguised in a woman's dress. This was apparently in November, and it was not until February 1689 that he was arrested by the Dutch authorities, a delay which seems to lend support to the belief of the court of St. Germain, that his arrest was deliberately arranged in order to mask his previous treacheries (Dangeau, Journal; cf. Muller, Wilhelm III und Waldeck, ii. 137). He was soon released by the Dutch authorities. From Amsterdam he wrote on 8 March a letter expressing ‘devotion’ to William (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1689–90, p. 16). Afterwards moving to Utrecht, he there concocted, in his own justification, ‘A Letter to a Friend in the Country, plainly discovering the Designs of the Romish Party and Others for the subverting of the Protestant Religion and the Laws of the Kingdom’ (s. sh. fol. licensed 23 March 1689). In this effusion of moral effrontery he insinuates that he accepted office under James from an idea that by so doing he could prevent great mischief. ‘I ought to have quitted it before, true; yet what were my motives? Certainly not mercenary; for I am much poorer now than when I commenced secretary under James.’ He claims great credit for having advised the king against severe measures in regard to Magdalen College, and in favour of measures of restitution when the alarm of an invasion could no longer be disguised, while he denies responsibility for a single act of Tyrconnel, though many of his letters of instructions are still in existence. He ends in a strain of nauseous hypocrisy: ‘My greatest misfortune has been to be thought the promoter of those things I opposed and detested. … I hope, I say, that I shall overcome all the disorders my former life has brought upon me, and that I shall spend the remainder of it in begging God Almighty that he will please either to put an end to my sufferings or to give me strength to bear them.’ The earl caused the letter to be translated into Dutch without delay (it is reprinted in Somers Tracts, 1813, x. 344).

Lady Sunderland wrote several letters to her friend the diarist Evelyn, in which she made edifying allusion to her husband's penitence. Her letters became even more pathetic when it was announced to her in July 1689 that parliament had decided to except Sunderland, as one of the ecclesiastical commissioners, from the Act of Indemnity, an act which, having been revised, was confirmed by William on 23 May 1690. He was similarly excepted from James's instrument and offer of pardon in 1692. Long before this, however, he had convinced William that his services were indispensable. He crossed over to England early in 1691, and on 26 April again declared himself a protestant. William saw him on 13 May. He seems to have feared that he might on his reappearance in parliament receive some marked affront. He waited, therefore, until a day to which the houses stood adjourned, and on which they met merely for the purpose of adjourning again, when he stole down to Westminster to take the oaths and sign the declaration against transubstantiation. He did not venture to attend the king to chapel until the following February (Luttrell). Next month an instrument was shuffled through the treasury releasing him from liability for the eight thousand ounces which he had ‘borrowed’ from the jewel office. He now began to attend parliament with regularity. He said very little, but he had never been conspicuous as a speaker. ‘The art in which he surpassed all men was the art of whispering.’

By means of the same infinite tact by which he had governed James, he soon became paramount as the director of the internal policy of William. Several of his old subordinates obtained important offices, notably Trevor and Bridgman, while the chief secretary, Henry Sidney, was entirely under Sunderland's influence; this influence, though its possessor remained without office, rapidly became irresistible. In August 1692 William spent a night at his house at Althorp. Rumour was constantly busy with his name, and the post that he would have in the administration was a common topic of coffee-house politicians. In September 1693 he took a large house in St. James's Square (‘Norfolk House’), and became regular in his appearances at court.

His advice was largely directed towards an innovation, the adoption of which proved of the utmost moment in the development of the British constitution. Though the motive was different, it was in substance the same advice he had given to James as to the advantages of a homogeneous administration. His opinion was that so long as the king tried to balance the two parties against each other and to divide his favour equally between them, both would think themselves ill-used, and neither would afford the government a steady support. The king must make up his mind to show a marked preference to one or the other. The reasons, both general and personal, for preferring the whigs were then insisted upon. William's own predilection was for the opposite plan of balancing the two parties in an administration with the idea of exercising a controlling influence over both, and it was with great hesitation that he allowed himself to listen to Sunderland's arguments. Gradually, however, a united whig ministry was evolved in substantial accordance with his plan. The tory leaders, Nottingham, Trevor, Leeds, and Seymour, were one by one dismissed. Godolphin alone of the old tories of Charles's reign remained at Whitehall, and his resignation was ultimately brought about by Sunderland's skilful management. Wharton admitted this feat, from which the whigs themselves had shrunk, to be a masterpiece of diplomacy. Scarcely less adroit, however, was the reconciliation which Sunderland effected between the king and the Princess Anne. He prevailed upon the princess to write a letter of condolence to the king at the new year (1695) immediately after Mary's death, and, when she went to Kensington in person, he insured her a reception of marked civility. In this way, by terminating the quarrel between the king and heir-apparent, he rendered a real service to his master. In October in this year William paid him the compliment of staying the better part of a week at Althorp. Considerable surprise was expressed that in the next session, against the known wish of the king, he should have supported the scheme for a parliamentary council of trade; the fact showed the nervous apprehension he was under of aggravating the powerful whig majority. But shattered as his nerve was, Sunderland still felt a craving for the excitements and the spoils of office. It was not enough that, after all his crimes, he was still enjoying the splendours of Althorp, a pension from the privy purse, and the confidence of his sovereign about the most important affairs of state. When, therefore, Dorset resigned the post of lord chamberlain on 19 April 1697, men were not surprised to hear that Sunderland had been appointed in his stead. Three days later he was named one of the lords justices who were to administer the kingdom during William's absence in the summer.

Considerable uneasiness was felt among honest politicians at the time of the appointment, but little was said until the following December, when, in a debate upon the king's demand for a strong peace establishment, the remark that ‘no person well acquainted with the disastrous history of the last two reigns can doubt who the minister is who is now whispering evil counsel in the ear of a third master,’ let loose all the fear, jealousy, and hatred with which Sunderland was regarded. The junto, though they owed him much, were more than cold in his defence. Montagu frankly compared him to a fireship, dangerous at best, but even more dangerous as a consort than when showing hostile colours. The efforts of his own satellites, such as Trevor, Guy, and Duncombe, were quite ineffectual to protect him, and on his own part he exhibited a panic fear. William appealed in vain to the junto to come to the rescue, and an address to the king to remove such an evil adviser was impending, when Sunderland voluntarily and in haste resigned (26 Dec. 1697). His friends, who had come to discuss the situation, encountered him on his return from Kensington without the badge of office. He might at least, they urged, have waited till the morrow. ‘To-morrow,’ he exclaimed, ‘would have ruined me. To-night has saved me.’ A sanguine view was encouraged by the knowledge that his old influence with the king was unimpaired, and that he would still enjoy the emoluments of the office, the duties of which, until October 1699, were mainly performed by his secretary (cf. Luttrell; Vernon's Letters, pp. 466–9).

A few weeks after this storm in January 1698, his peace was disturbed by his son-in-law, the Jacobite refugee, Lord Clancarty [see Maccarthy, Donough], seeking an asylum at his house in St. James's Square. His hiding-place was betrayed to the government by his brother-in-law, Lord Spencer, and Sunderland expressed the heartiest approval of his son's conduct. As, however, his statements were generally framed to conceal the truth, it is difficult to know if he had any part in the transaction or what he really thought of it. His public life was drawing to a close, but he had a diplomatic triumph when, in January 1700, he effected the marriage of the same son, Charles, to Lady Anne Churchill, the second and favourite daughter of Marlborough. He promised (without much thought to the performance) that in all political matters his son should be guided solely by Marlborough's superior wisdom. Though he was graciously received by the new sovereign on 11 April 1702, Sunderland did not long survive William. He was taken dangerously ill at Althorp on 22 Sept., died on 28 Sept., and on 7 Oct. was buried with his ancestors at Brington.

According to Burnet, ‘this earl’ had a superior genius to all the men of business he had known; but even Burnet found some difficulty in justifying William's preference for an adviser so unscrupulous. Sunderland's portrait was happily hit off in four lines in a lampoon (one of the many imitations of Dryden) entitled ‘Faction Displayed’ (in which Sunderland is Cethego):

    A Proteus, ever acting in disguise;
    A finished statesman, intricately wise;
    A second Machiavel, who soar'd above
    The little tyes of gratitude and love.

(State Poems, 1716, iv. 90). He came to be regarded by his contemporaries with much the same detestation that Lord Shelburne (‘Malagrida’), with less reason, was regarded a century later. He may not have greatly surpassed Wharton in profligacy or Marlborough (whom he resembled in the politic use that he made of women) in treachery; but he combined with both these qualities a deep-seated cynicism and a particularly cunning and repulsive form of hypocrisy. With the possible exception of Northumberland in Edward VI's reign, it is doubtful whether English history has to show a more crafty and unprincipled intriguer. In him the extravagance and rapacity that characterised the Restoration courtiers reached a climax. Inordinate as was his love of gaming, he yet found means out of his numerous pensions and emoluments to adorn Althorp with fine paintings, and to decorate with magnificence the ‘symmetrical interior’ so highly praised by Duke Cosmo III of Tuscany in 1669, and by John Evelyn in 1673. The exterior was practically rebuilt during 1688; and the second earl further laid the foundations of the splendid library which long reflected lustre upon his house. Evelyn records his recent purchase in March 1695 of the unique mathematical collection of Sir Charles Scarborough [q. v.] Apart from his passion for cards, and the fact, related by Lord Dartmouth, that he transacted much of his routine business in a most haphazard way at the gaming-table, little is known of Sunderland's personal characteristics; but he is said to have been the introducer about 1678 of a very curious style of pronunciation—a ‘court tune,’ in which, according to Roger North, the vowel sounds were distended in this fashion: ‘Whaat, my laard, if his maajesty taarns out faarty of us, may he not have faarty others to saarve him as well, and whaat maatters who saarves his maajesty so long as his maajesty is saarved;’ and he persisted in this singular form of affectation until it was adopted and exaggerated by Titus Oates and other of the baser sort of politicians.

By his wife, Lady Anne Digby, Sunderland had issue three sons and four daughters. The eldest son, Robert, lord Spencer, baptised on 2 May 1666 at Brington, and brought up, like his father, with the utmost care, matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on 2 Sept. 1680, obtained a commission as major in the 3rd troop of horse-guards in October 1685, and was sent as envoy to Modena in August 1687, to bear messages of condolence on the death of the queen's mother. After a riotous and profligate life, devoted mainly to gambling and duelling, he died unmarried at Paris on 5 Sept. 1688. Scamp though he was, Lady Sunderland exerted all her wiles to obtain as a wife for him one of the staid daughters of Sir Stephen Fox [q. v.], the latter being one of Sunderland's chief creditors. This purpose she tried to effect, much against his will, through her trusted ally and correspondent, John Evelyn. As a friend to Sir Stephen, Evelyn was much relieved when he firmly declined the ‘honour’ as ‘too great.’ The second son was Charles, third earl of Sunderland [q. v.]; and the third, Henry, died an infant. Of the daughters, Lady Anne (1666–1690) was the first wife of James Douglas, earl of Arran, and afterwards fourth duke of Hamilton [q. v.]; and Elizabeth married, on 30 Oct. 1684, Donough Maccarthy, earl of Clancarty [q. v.]; Isabella died unmarried in 1684; and Mary died in childhood.

After her husband's death Lady Sunderland continued to live at Althorp, where she died on 16 April 1716. She was a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne, as to Queen Mary of Modena. Her letters to such varied correspondents as Evelyn, the Earl of Romney, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Lady Russell are a proof that in cleverness and versatility she was scarcely, if at all, inferior to her husband, whose intrigues she had during his lifetime seconded with rare ability. Almost simultaneous with her letters to her lover we have lucubrations from her to Evelyn deploring her husband's apostasies, and asking for a list of pious works to employ in the education of her children.

Her portrait, by Sir Peter Lely, preserved in the Windsor Gallery (of which there is a replica at Althorp), was engraved by T. Wright for Mrs. Jameson's ‘Beauties of the Court of Charles II.’

A portrait of Sunderland by Carlo Maratti, now at Althorp, was engraved for Walpole's ‘Royal and Noble Authors’ (iv. 5). It shows a subtle and rather effeminate countenance, the features of which bear a strange resemblance to those of his wife. Another engraving of this picture was executed by R. Cooper after a drawing by R. W. Satchwell. Less distinctive is another portrait of Sunderland by Sir P. Lely, of which an anonymous engraving (to which is appended a facsimile autograph) is in the print-room at the British Museum.

[There is no full biography of Sunderland. Short memoirs appear in Collins's Peerage, vol. i. s.v. Marlborough, in the introduction to Blencowe's edition of Henry Sidney's Correspondence, and in the Penny Cyclopædia, xxiii. 296–8. For the early portions of his career: Burnet's Own Time; North's Examen; H. Savile's Letters; Temple's Memoirs; Bulstrode Papers, p. 147; Christie's Life of Shaftesbury; Cartwright's Sacharissa; and the histories of Eachard, Ranke, and Lingard are of special value. For his career under James II, the autobiographies of Bramston and Reresby, the Clarendon Correspondence (ed. S.W. Singer), the Hatton Correspondence, Dalrymple's Memoirs, and the Journal de Dangeau supplement the Life of James II; Roberts's Life of Monmouth; Lonsdale's Memoirs of the Reign of James II; Ralph's History of England; the specially valuable History of the Revolution by Mackintosh; and the works of Ranke and Macaulay; the latter embodies the reports of Barillon, Van Citters, and L'Hermitage (Addit. MS. 17677). For the later period there is—in addition to the Shrewsbury Correspondence, ed. Coxe, 1821 (containing many of Sunderland's letters), Prinsterer's Archives de la Maison d'Orange, 2nd ser. vol. v. passim—Harris's William III; Boyer's William III, and the Lives of Marlborough by Coxe and Lord Wolseley. See also very numerous references in the first four volumes of Luttrell's Brief Hist. Narration of State Affairs; G. E. C[okayne]'s Peerage; Doyle's Official Baronage; Dalton's English Army Lists; Sanford and Townsend's Great Governing Families of England, i. 366; Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors, iv. 5–9; Dibdin's Ædes Althorpianæ, 1822; Neale's Seats, 1820, iii. 38 (with a list of the splendid collection of portraits at Althorp); Magalotti's Travels of Cosmo III, 1821, p. 248; Dasent's St. James's Square, pp. 69, 218, 235; Mrs. Jameson's Beauties of the Court of Charles II, pp. 147–58; Dryden's Works, ed. Scott, vi. 231; Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence, passim; Grammont's Memoirs, ed. Vizetelly; Lives of the Norths, ed. Jessopp; Cooke's History of Party, vol. i.; Torrens's History of Cabinets; Cunningham's Lives of Illustr. Englishmen, iv. 31; autograph letters of Sunderland and his wife are in Mr. Alfred Morrison's Collection, Cat. 1892, pp. 208–10; Addit. MSS. 28094, 25079, 25082, and 28569, freq.]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.255
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
368 ii 18 Spencer, Robert, 2nd Earl of Sunderland: for in the autumn of 1640 read on 4 Aug. 1640 (Sloane MS. 1782, ff. 16-22 b).
369 ii 6f.e.  for 1685 read 1675