Sunderland, Robert Spencer
SUNDERLAND, ROBERT SPENCER, 2ND EARL or (1640-1702), English politician, was the only son of Henry Spencer (1620- 1643), who succeeded his father, William, as 3rd Baron Spencer of Wormleighton in 1636. This barony had been bestowed in 1603 upon Sir Robert Spencer (d. 1627), the only son of Sir John Spencer (d. 1600) of Althorp, Northamptonshire, who claimed descent from the baronial family of Despenser. The fortunes of the family were founded by Sir John Spencer (d. 1522) of Snitterfield, Warwickshire, a wealthy grazier. His descendant, Sir Robert Spencer, the 1st baron, was in 1603, " reputed to have by him the most money of any person in the kingdom." Sir Robert's grandson, Henry, the 3rd baron, was created earl of Sunderland in June 1643, and was killed at the battle of Newbury when fighting for the king a little later in the same year. He married Dorothy (1617-1684), daughter of Robert Sidney, 2nd earl of Leicester. She was the Sacharissa of the poems of her admirer, Edmund Waller, and for her second husband she married Sir Robert Smythe. Their son Robert, the 2nd earl, was educated abroad and at Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1665 married Anne (d. 1715), daughter of John Digby, 3rd earl of Bristol; she was both a beauty and an heiress, and is also famous for her knowledge and love of intrigue. Having passed some time in the court circle, Sunderland was successively ambassador at Madrid, at Paris and at Cologne; in 1678 he was again ambassador at Paris. In February 1679, when the country was agitated by real or fancied dangers to the Protestant religion, the earl entered political life as secretary of state for the northern department and became at once a member of the small clique responsible for the government of the country. He voted for the exclusion of James, duke of York, from the throne, and made overtures to William, prince of Orange, and consequently in 1 68 1 he lost both his secretaryship and his seat on the privy council. Early in 1683, however, through the influence of the king's mistress, the duchess of Portsmouth, Sunderland regained his place as secretary for the northern department, the chief feature of his term of office being his rivalry with his brotherin-law, George Savile, marquess of Halifax. By this time he had made his peace with the duke of York, and when in February 1685 James became king, he retained his position of secretary, to which was soon added that of lord president of the council. He carried out the wishes of the new sovereign and after the intrigues of a few months he had the satisfaction of securing the dismissal of Lawrence Hyde, earl of Rochester, from his post as lord treasurer. He was a member of the commission for ecclesiastical causes, and although afterwards he claimed that he had used all his influence to dissuade James from removing the tests, and in other ways illegally favouring the Roman Catholics, he signed the warrant for the committal of the seven bishops, and appeared as a witness against them. It should be mentioned that while Sunderland was thus serving James II., he was receiving a pension from France, and through his wife's lover, Henry Sidney, afterwards earl of Romney, he was furnishing William of Orange with particulars about affairs in England.
In the last months of James's reign he was obviously uncomfortable. Although he had in 1687 openly embraced the Roman Catholic faith, he hesitated to commit himself entirely to the acts of the fierce devotees who surrounded the king, whom he advised to reverse the arbitrary acts of the last year or two, and in October 1688 he was dismissed by James with the remark " I hope you will be more faithful to your next master than you have been to me."
Sunderland now took refuge in Holland, and from Utrecht he sought to justify his recent actions in A letter to a friend in the country. He had been too deeply involved in 'the arbitrary acts of James II. to find a place at once among the advisers of William and Mary, and he was excepted from the act of indemnity of 1690. However, in 1691, he was permitted to return to England, and he declared himself a Protestant and began to attend the sittings of parliament. But his experience was invaluable and soon he became prominent in public affairs, a visit which William III. paid him at Althorp, his Northamptonshire seat, in 1691, being the prelude to his recall into the royal counsels. It was his advice which led the king to choose all his ministers from one political party, to adopt the modern system, and he managed to effect a reconciliation between William and his sister-in-law, the princess Anne. From April to December 1697 he discharged the duties of lord chamberlain, and for part of this time he was one of the lords justices, but the general suspicion with which he was regarded terrified him, and hi December he resigned. The rest of his life was passed in seclusion at Althorp, where he died on the 28th of September 1702. The earl was a great gambler, but he was wealthy enough also to spend money on improving his house at Althorp, which he beautified both within and without. His only surviving son was Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland (q.v.).
Lord Sunderland possessed a keen intellect and was consumed by intense restlessness; but his character was wanting in steadfastness, and he yielded too easily to opposition. His adroitness in intrigue and his fascinating manners were exceptional even in an age when such qualities formed part of every statesman's education; but the characteristics which ensured him success in the House of Lords and in the royal closet led to failure in his attempts to understand the feelings of the mass of his countrymen. Consistency of conduct was not among the objects which he aimed at, nor did he shrink from thwarting in secret a policy which he supported in public. A large share of the discredit attaching to the measures of James II. must be assigned to the earl of Sunderland.
The best account of Sunderland is the article by T. Seccombe in the Diet. Nat. Biog., which gives a full bibliography.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)