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  Charles Spencer (1675–1722), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1720 Charles Spencer (1675–1722), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1720
Spencer, Charles, third earl of Sunderland (1675–1722), politician, was born on 23 April 1675, the second son of , and his wife, Lady Anne Digby (1645/6–1715), the youngest daughter of . He was born into politics and never left that arena from his earliest youth. He was educated at home; his tutor, Charles Trimnell, later bishop of Norwich and bishop of Winchester, remained a close friend and ally throughout his life. The death of his elder brother, Robert, in September 1688, made Spencer the heir to the peerage, and from then until his father's death he was known as Lord Spencer. The elder Sunderland, despised and reviled as the tool of James II, fled to the Netherlands in December 1688, and was followed by his family in April 1689, where Spencer studied at the University of Leiden. This was a formative period of his upbringing, and the political principles he imbibed in the Netherlands had much to do with his early political radicalism. Spencer was a precocious and highly intelligent young man. He mastered a number of foreign languages and developed a passion for learning and books that was to be a notable attribute throughout his life.

Entry into active politics

In April 1690, on the family's return to England, Spencer's father re-entered politics as political manager to William III, though his infamy was such that he could not be given office. His father's connections and eminence brought Spencer into contact with virtually all the leading politicians of the age. It also led to two successive marriages which brought him both wealth and important political liaisons. The first, on 12 January 1695, to Lady Arabella Cavendish (1673–1698), the daughter of , brought him a rich dowry of £25,000 and a brother-in-law who was the greatest boroughmongerer of the age— of the second creation. When Arabella died in 1698, his father contracted an even more important marriage for him with Lady Anne Churchill (1683–1716), the second and favourite daughter of his long-time political associate . The marriage took place on 2 January 1700.

As soon as he came of age in 1695, Spencer entered the House of Commons as member for Tiverton. His strong party loyalty has been commented on so widely by contemporaries that it cannot be questioned. He was characterized as a violent whig of ‘a disagreeable impetuosity and ungrateful manner of speaking’ (Buckinghamshire MSS, 508). At the same time he showed a natural talent for politics and quickly mastered the intricacies of parliamentary practice. His father had joined the tories following the death of Mary II in December 1694, but Spencer remained firmly attached to the whig leaders, especially the lord chancellor and their head, John Somers, Baron Somers.

By 1701 the tide of public opinion was turning against the tories, accelerated by Louis XIV's recognition of the Pretender on the death of James II in September 1701, and the whigs were returned to power. The change of the ministry was short-lived. The death of William in March 1702 and the accession of Anne resulted in her putting herself into the hands of her friends Marlborough and Sidney Godolphin, first Baron Godolphin. The two ministers endeavoured to steer a middle course between the two parties, though the queen's own predilections determined the return of the senior tory leaders to office as well. At this juncture the elder Sunderland died, on 28 September 1702, and Spencer succeeded to his estate and honours and took his seat in the Lords in the new parliament.

A junto whig in opposition

Sunderland, by his intelligence, the strictness of his principles, his record in the Commons, his keenness in debate, and his grasp of foreign and domestic affairs, sharpened by his stay in the Netherlands and his omnivorous reading, was marked out for a position of prominence. Above all he had a claim to membership in the chief counsels of the party because of his relationship with Marlborough. The whig leaders undoubtedly saw him as a means to return to power. Thus the junto, the ruling council of the whig party, gained a fifth member, replacing the defecting Charles Talbot, duke of Shrewsbury [see also ]. For the next thirteen years this structure of leadership remained unchanged, a powerful testimony to the durability of party even in its embryonic stage. Sunderland was also much in the confidence of Sarah Churchill, duchess of Marlborough, an outspoken whig and the confidante of the queen. Lady Sunderland, too, was the most actively political of the four Churchill daughters, and was widely celebrated and touted as the Little Whig.

Though the whigs were broken after their brief return to power in the autumn of 1701, they continued to hold the balance of power in the Lords. It was in this body, in which all their leaders were members, that they began to rebuild their party. Sunderland immediately took an active role in the Lords, though, with the conduct of the main business out of the hands of his party, he had little influence. He was active as a manager in the Lords to defeat the Occasional Conformity Bill in February 1703, to the embarrassment of his father-in-law, for the queen had the measure dear to her heart. He incensed the queen even more when he opposed the bill to allow her consort an allowance in the event she predeceased him. In the next session the whigs were presented with a golden opportunity to compromise Daniel Finch, second earl of Nottingham, the most active tory minister in the cabinet. In the summer of 1703 a French design to raise an army in Scotland to support an uprising was revealed. Dispatches from and to Nottingham were turned over to Sunderland by his former brother-in-law Newcastle, into whose hands they fell. Sunderland arranged a meeting of the junto lords in December to determine how to exploit Nottingham's apparent effort to conceal elements of the plot. A committee of whig lords was formed to investigate and Sunderland was actively involved. Although they were unable to pass a motion of censure, Nottingham was roughly handled and much incensed.

When the Occasional Conformity Bill was again passed by the Commons, Sunderland was one of the managers who defeated it in the Lords in December 1703. His detailed estimates on the vote testify to his assiduity and care for detail. Finally, when the tory commissioners of accounts put another junto lord, Edward Russell, earl of Orford, under fire, Sunderland unearthed a precedent from the reign of Charles II that encouraged the Lords to alter the panel when it came up for renewal, thus ensuring the bill's rejection and the lapse of the commission. When the session was over in spring 1704, Nottingham and his tory allies demanded the removal of Archbishop Thomas Tenison and Charles Seymour, sixth duke of Somerset, from the cabinet and another whig peer from office for opposing the Occasional Conformity Bill. In response Nottingham's offer of resignation was accepted, his allies dismissed, and the ministry altered. Sunderland was the leading whig candidate for office and was proposed as secretary to succeed Nottingham. But the queen was not ready to accept the whigs and the post went to Robert Harley, laying the grounds for the bitter enmity which later arose between him and Sunderland. In the autumn the whigs tried to install him as comptroller but were no more successful than before. When parliament reassembled in October, Godolphin and his colleagues were in a dilemma. The tory leaders were now bent on their destruction for being evicted from office. The whigs, likewise disappointed in being promoted, joined them in denouncing the queen's servants. At a critical debate in the Lords on 29 November on the state of the nation, principally on the implications of Scotland's Security Act, which seemed to ensure the end of the personal union, Godolphin capitulated, the whigs switched sides, and the government was saved. Sunderland was in the chair and helped to steer and temper the debate, which began the process leading to the Act of Union of 1707 and settled the whig-leaning character of the ministry.

Office under Anne

One proof of the rapprochement was the appointment of Sunderland as envoy-extraordinary to the Holy Roman emperor. The embassy was originally intended to mediate, in conjunction with the Dutch, between the insurgents in Hungary and the emperor. It was considered a thankless and unrewarding assignment, and Godolphin had been unable to recruit anyone for it. But with the death of Leopold I and the accession of Joseph I it was combined with a mission of condolences and congratulations. The junto lord Charles Montagu, Baron Halifax, proposed Sunderland as a means of edging him into office, and the queen agreed. The appointment, made on 17 June, gave him valuable insight into foreign affairs and first-hand knowledge of England's principal allies.

On his return at the beginning of 1706 Sunderland immediately attended parliament, where he was caught up in the debates on the Regency Act and spoke strongly on behalf of the court whig measure, allowing office-holders to retain their seats in the Commons during the six-month period for which parliament was to survive a dead monarch. When the session was over the whigs once more pressed their demands for a seat for Sunderland in the cabinet as secretary, the opening wedge in their return to office. Throughout the summer and autumn the pressure mounted. Godolphin, seeing no other option, advised the queen to capitulate, but secretly advised by Harley she adamantly refused. Harley also worked successfully to detach some of the moderate whigs from the junto, which weakened their efforts. Even when Marlborough returned from the continent he was unable to budge her. It was only resolved when Sir Charles Hedges resigned voluntarily as southern secretary to make way for him. On 3 December 1706 he finally received the seals of office.

As soon as Sunderland entered office he attacked his new duties with all the energy and enthusiasm that always characterized his activities. The job was demanding, requiring long hours in the office, preparing and often writing fair copies of letters to the English envoys abroad assigned to his department, acting as the queen's and cabinet's conduit to foreign powers and commanders in the field—especially onerous in wartime—co-ordinating preparations for expeditions, handling a large flow of domestic correspondence, and attending cabinet meetings. He also had to be in regular attendance on the queen, even when she was out of town at Windsor or elsewhere, and assiduously appear in parliament, where he was a principal government spokesman. On taking office, he was immediately engaged in preparing reinforcements to send to Spain, and it gave him an early exposure to the frustrations of dealing with bureaucrats. Initially he seemed to have moderated his behaviour, to the pleasant surprise of the queen. In the Lords he was a principal manager in the passage of the treaty of union with Scotland in 1707. He also was heavily involved in negotiations for the management of Scotland after the union, though when he was sidetracked for several weeks by illness he and the other whig leaders were outmanoeuvred by Godolphin, who kept control in his own hands. During 1707 Harley, violently opposed to Sunderland's appointment and the admission of more junto members to the cabinet, fought a rearguard action against them. Senior appointments in the church were the most visible battleground. As Harley had the ear of the queen, Godolphin and the junto were on the defensive. Sunderland entered into cabal with his whig colleagues several times during the summer, where they considered ways of forcing the queen's hand. It was not until early 1708 that the crisis was resolved. The espionage of one of Harley's clerks compromised him badly and the whigs took up the attack in parliament. Harley, garnering support from moderate whigs and tories, almost pulled off a coup, removing Godolphin, Sunderland, and their adherents, but it was finally aborted by the intervention of Marlborough.

The seeds for the destruction of the ministry were sown, however, and the alienation of the queen from the duchess of Marlborough, who was replaced in the queen's confidence by her dresser, Abigail Masham, exacerbated the situation. When parliamentary elections were held in May 1708, the tories and Harley, in disarray following their removal from office and embarrassed by the aborted Jacobite invasion of Scotland in February, were routed. Sunderland, who managed the transfer to London of Scots implicated in the invasion, used their presence to intrigue against Marlborough and Godolphin and elect a whig slate of representative peers for the new parliament. Marlborough and Godolphin triumphed over the whig challenge, returning twelve of the sixteen. The queen was so incensed that she demanded Sunderland's resignation, and only with the greatest difficulty was Godolphin able to persuade her to accept an apology instead. Sunderland was more successful in supporting a whig bill to abolish the Scottish privy council, considered a creature of the treasurer's. Aside from the elections and the Jacobite invasion, Sunderland's main concerns were foreign and military affairs. He had responsibility for France and southern Europe and was heavily engaged in planning and supervising the campaigns in Spain and Italy and an abortive attempt to land an expeditionary force on the Atlantic coast of France.

Flushed with their victory at the polls, the whigs were now determined to gain admittance for more of their leaders into the cabinet. When James Butler, second duke of Ormond, had resigned as lord lieutenant of Ireland, Godolphin was able to refuse their demands to replace him with Thomas Wharton, earl of Wharton, adding the post to the existing responsibility as lord president of Thomas Herbert, eighth earl of Pembroke. Sunderland now acted as intermediary between the whigs, Marlborough and Godolphin, and the queen. In return for the resignation of the queen's husband, Prince George, as lord high admiral, to be replaced by Pembroke, and the appointment of Somers as lord president and Wharton as lord lieutenant of Ireland, the whigs agreed to support the government's financial legislation. When the queen's obduracy put the whole scheme in jeopardy, it was saved by the death of Prince George on 28 October and the breakdown of her resolve. The appointments were made, Peter King, the whig nominee, was selected for speaker, and the legislative session at least started smoothly. But the contest for power between the treasurer and the court party and the whigs continued unabated. The whigs were able to dominate the hearings on controverted elections in the Commons, nullifying the elections of a number of tories, though Harley escaped their net. They also displaced several nominees of the treasurer in key committee posts. Sunderland continued to try to wrest control of Scotland from the treasurer, but appeals to seat the remaining whig candidates as representative peers failed. He did work actively to relocate the protestant refugees, known as the Palatines after their homeland, driven out of the Rhineland by France, and guided their Naturalization Bill through the house. The majority were sent on to Ireland and ultimately to North America. As his responsibilities extended to those territories, Sunderland also worked closely with Wharton in Dublin and spent long hours planning an expeditionary force to seize French Canada, only to see it held up and abandoned because of the pending peace negotiations. After the success of the allied campaign in 1708 and the bankruptcy of the French treasury, Louis XIV had made overtures for peace. This resulted in another apple of discord between Marlborough and Godolphin and the junto. The whigs wanted to secure Dutch support for the protestant succession and were willing to guarantee a series of Dutch-occupied fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands as a bar against a surprise invasion. The admission of Somers to the cabinet as lord president was especially important to the whigs, as it would give the former chancellor a role in any peace negotiations. Marlborough, who controlled British diplomacy in northern Europe, was wary of a barrier treaty which could be grounds for reprisal by the tories if they regained control of the government. The general found it expedient to accept a co-envoy to avoid sole responsibility. After several candidates were considered for the post, including Sunderland, the choice went to Charles Townshend, second Viscount Townshend. Townshend returned with a barrier treaty, but Louis XIV rejected the peace terms he was offered and the war continued. Meanwhile Sunderland and his junto colleagues were involved in a continuing series of disputes with Godolphin and the queen. They came to a head over the queen's reluctance to replace Pembroke with an Admiralty commission headed by Orford. Orford himself insisted upon certain guarantees that almost sank the scheme until he finally gave way, and the new commission passed the great seal in November.

When parliament met in autumn 1709, Sunderland and his colleagues had good reason to be pleased. Sunderland finally found the queen easy with him, though Marlborough attributed her co-operativeness to resignation rather than contentment. Sunderland had the pleasure of seeing the queen ratify the barrier treaty, which was essentially a whig project. Though the negotiations had technically lain in the department of Harley's successor, Henry Boyle, as northern secretary, Sunderland and Somers, in conjunction with Godolphin, had been responsible for its direction. Over Marlborough's strenuous objections they did not include a clause binding the Dutch to ‘no peace without Spain’, and the general, though a co-plenipotentiary, refused to sign. In parliament the spirit of the tories appeared to be broken. Legislation passed so quickly that all the money bills were in by Christmas and the funds voted were the greatest yet given. What finally undid Sunderland and his colleagues was an inflammatory high-church parson.

Sacheverell and the return to opposition

Dr Henry Sacheverell delivered a flaming sermon before the lord mayor of London on 9 November 1709. A high-church diatribe, it provoked the ministry into impeaching him to try to put quietus to the tory opposition. Opinion is divided as to whether Godolphin, who was singled out for attack by Sacheverell, or Sunderland was the strongest proponent, although the latter is usually given the responsibility for the débâcle that followed. Unquestionably Sunderland was on the attack. He made strenuous efforts to curb the tory press, closing down two short-lived newspapers and arresting Delariviere Manley for her slander against the government in the New Atlantis. Concurrently Harley was building a new coalition to challenge Godolphin and working secretly with the queen to undermine him. The first challenges came early in January, when the queen ignored Marlborough's recommendations in two senior military appointments. In retaliation the incensed Marlborough threatened to resign his commissions if the queen did not dismiss Mrs Masham. The general even proposed an address by the Commons to the queen for Masham's removal and, more audaciously, demanded his appointment as captain-general be made for life. The queen bestirred herself, however, and Sunderland alone among the chief ministers supported the ultimatums, so the duke gave way, and the queen and Harley won the first test. The next contest came over two church appointments, for two bishoprics which fell vacant in February. Sunderland immediately proposed candidates on behalf of the junto, but they were rejected.

It was the Sacheverell trial which now occupied everyone's attention. The government mobilized a strong team of prosecutors and won the battle but lost the war. For though Sacheverell was found guilty the punishment was so mild as to be without effect. The tories used the occasion of the trial to whip up demonstrations and riots. Sunderland as secretary was responsible for maintaining public order. He marshalled troops to quell the rioters and conducted several months of investigations to try to determine responsibility for the disturbances, but to no avail. Emboldened by her recent successes, the queen now peremptorily informed Godolphin that she was appointing Shrewsbury as lord chamberlain. Soon afterwards she insisted on adding Masham's brother to the list of colonels to be promoted general over Marlborough's objections. Most ominously of all, rumours began to circulate that Sunderland was to be dismissed. As the special object of both Harley's and the queen's hatred, the most vehement of the junto and the son-in-law of Marlborough, he was an ideal wedge to dislodge the government. Anne, acting on the advice of Harley, who in turn had won over Shrewsbury and the difficult Somerset, ordered Sunderland to turn in his seals of office on 13 June 1710. She offered him a pension of £3000 a year, as there was no proper reason for discharging him, which he refused. Godolphin was the next to go, replaced by a commission including Harley, who was also appointed as chancellor of the exchequer. The dissolution of parliament and a call for new elections brought the resignation of the rest of the whig ministers. Marlborough alone, isolated and abroad, remained.

For the next four years Sunderland now took on the leadership of the whigs in opposition. Godolphin was old and ailing, and died in 1712. Somers, though younger than Godolphin, was also increasingly infirm. The vain Halifax was wooed by Harley (who became earl of Oxford) and his colleague Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, and Orford went into retirement. Only Wharton displayed his usual energy and partisanship. Marlborough, urged by his friends to retain his command, could do so only by remaining detached from politics at home, and he eventually went into exile on the continent in November 1712. Sunderland worked vigorously for the party in the elections that took place in the autumn of 1710. When Marlborough, too, was disgraced, Sunderland was the natural person to reconstitute the alliance between his family and his friends. He seemed to have learned to exercise more self-control. Once out of office he became a frequent and respected speaker in the Lords. He was a consistent and effective debater during the dark days of the whigs from 1710 to 1714.

The last four years of Anne's reign, dominated by an Oxford-led ministry, were frustrating and even dangerous times for Sunderland and his colleagues. The tories were bent on destroying their opponents, no less vindictive than the whigs had been when in power. In investigations into the Spanish campaign, particularly the defeat at Almanza in 1707, Sunderland, as secretary responsible for Spain, was singled out for criticism. The whig concern for the Palatines and their naturalization also incited tory ire. The repeal of the naturalization was passed in the Commons in autumn 1710 but failed in the Lords, where the whigs possessed a frail majority. The Commons, frustrated by the rejection of the bill, passed condemnatory resolutions on Sunderland as the principal protector of the Palatines and even considered his impeachment. The idea was dropped when it was not supported by the court, as was consideration of an address to the queen asking that Sunderland be excluded from her councils forever. Another reversal of a whig landmark in which Sunderland had been heavily involved came with the repeal of the barrier treaty in 1711. In autumn 1711 Sunderland was one of the leaders in the Lords of the successful effort to pass a ‘No peace without Spain’ resolution to be sent to the queen as a threat to the tory ministry if they compromised the long-standing British war aims. As a quid pro quo for the support of Nottingham and his relations, Sunderland and the whigs agreed to betray their dissenter allies, and the infamous Occasional Conformity Bill was now passed. Other minor victories were won in parliament in the remaining years of the reign, notably the rejection of the commercial treaty with France proposed as part of the peace settlement, but it was divisions within the tories themselves, notably the competition between Oxford and Bolingbroke, that eventually denied them the support of the queen and prepared the way for the restoration of Marlborough and the whigs to power—thwarted only by the death of the queen herself before it could be consummated.

Office under George I

When George I succeeded to the throne in August 1714, Sunderland and Marlborough must have thought that their restoration to favour was at hand, but they soon discovered this was not to be the case. The king was wary of Sunderland's impetuous behaviour and Marlborough's ambition. Both found themselves excluded from the list of lords justices appointed to manage the country until the new king arrived. While the other junto leaders were assigned seats in the cabinet, Sunderland, though sworn of the privy council on 1 October 1714, was sidetracked with an appointment as lord lieutenant of Ireland and the prospect of political exile by having to take up his post in Dublin. The new whig ministry was headed by Townshend as northern secretary, the post to which Sunderland had made his claim, with James Stanhope as southern secretary. Though Townshend and Halifax, first lord of the Treasury, were the senior ministers in terms of influence with the new king, they were joined by the two Hanoverian ministers, Bothmer and Bernstorff, along with Marlborough, to make up the inner circle of advisers. Marlborough's diplomatic skills and personal charm allowed him to extend his influence with George I, which was to Sunderland's benefit.

When Wharton died in 1715 (in the same year as Somers and Halifax) Sunderland was encouraged by messages sent via the duchess of Marlborough through his wife that a more congenial post would be found him in London. Sunderland never made the voyage to Ireland, on the grounds of poor health, and on 28 August 1715 he succeeded Wharton as lord privy seal. Still frustrated by his exclusion from real power, he began to build a connection of other discontented whigs and some tories. At the same time he shared the distrust of Townshend and others of the prince and princess of Wales and the prince's favourite, John Campbell, second duke of Argyll, long a rival to Marlborough in the army. Sunderland and his father-in-law now worked behind the scenes to oust Townshend and assume control of the ministry. Their machinations were disrupted for a time in the first part of 1716, first by the death of Lady Sunderland, the duke's favourite daughter, on 29 April 1716. The duke in turn was felled by a paralytic stroke on 28 May, and though he made a partial recovery he never regained his health and influence. Nevertheless, the plans had been concerted, the king had been seduced, and after frequent consultation with his former in-laws and General William Cadogan, Marlborough's long-time deputy, Sunderland and Cadogan embarked for the continent. Sunderland travelled ostensibly to Aix-la-Chapelle, to take the waters, but from there went on to Hanover, where the king was in residence. During the king's absence the prince of Wales, as regent, along with his more popular and astute wife, ingratiated themselves with the public and the politicians. Able to converse comfortably in English, and much more social and hospitable than the reclusive king, they were represented by Sunderland as trying to curry favour with the public at the expense of the king. Townshend, who had remained in London in charge of the government, was further represented as being in conspiracy with the prince and princess. Townshend was also accused of working with his brother-in-law Robert Walpole, now first lord of the Treasury, to hold up the signing of a commercial treaty with France, to which the king was committed and for which Stanhope was responsible. Sunderland, following Marlborough's advice, won over the suspicious king and James Stanhope, the secretary in residence, as well. As a result, soon after the king returned Townshend was dismissed and Walpole and their followers resigned. The way was now clear for a wholesale reconstitution of the ministry. Stanhope moved to the Treasury, Sunderland succeeded Townshend as northern secretary on 15 April 1717, and, with Cadogan now the de facto head of the army, Argyll was also deprived of access to power. Stanhope, the son of a diplomatist, had spent a good part of his life abroad and was far more interested and comfortable with responsibility for foreign affairs than finance and patronage. Even though Sunderland had served in this capacity in the previous reign, Stanhope remained the dominant voice in foreign affairs. When the ministers presented to the imperial representative the draft of what became the Quadruple Alliance, in which the emperor, Charles VI, renounced all claims to the crown of Spain, Stanhope joined Sunderland in presenting the draft. As a consequence of Stanhope's clear preference to deal with foreign affairs, within a year he and Sunderland traded posts, on 20 March 1718, four days after Sunderland also assumed the post of lord president of the council. He was now in his element, in charge of patronage, domestic policy, and the management of parliament.

Joint head of the ministry

For the next three years Sunderland and Stanhope, with the king's full confidence, controlled the ministry, both at home and abroad. It is difficult to determine the respective roles and authority of the two senior ministers. Stanhope was fully occupied with foreign affairs, a charge he found congenial. It also permitted him to resume his trips abroad to negotiate directly on behalf of the king. Sunderland, who was also experienced in diplomacy, found domestic politics more to his liking and took the lead mending fences at home, managing patronage, entertaining members of parliament, and acting as the ministry's chief liaison to the parties. As secretary Stanhope had shared that office with Joseph Addison, a weak and ineffectual minister. When Stanhope was elevated to the peerage, on 12 July 1717, this left the leadership of the house in weak hands and unable to withstand the attacks of Walpole and his party. When Sunderland took the Treasury he was replaced by James Craggs the younger, a much more supple and able politician, who shared the management of the Commons with John Aislabie as chancellor of the exchequer. But then the split in the whig ranks was soon followed by a split in the royal family.

In December 1717 the prince of Wales, in arranging for the christening of his son, decided that the child would have only royal sponsors. But Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, as lord chamberlain, and with the king's support, asserted his prerogative and also stood sponsor at the ceremony, to the prince's dismay. Words were exchanged, the duke misinterpreting the prince's remarks, and the prince was ordered to apologize by the king. Failing to do so, the prince was banished from court, care of his children was assumed by the king, and the prince and princess were isolated from the court and the ministers for more than two years. Walpole, Townshend, and their adherents now rallied around the prince, who thus legitimized their opposition and began a tradition that was to create a precedent repeated in the next two reigns. For Sunderland and Stanhope it left their ministry in a precarious position, as the opposition was joined by the lord chancellor, William, first Earl Cowper, and other politicians loyal to the heir apparent and his supporters. Though Stanhope tried to dissuade Cowper from resigning, it was Sunderland who delivered him the king's ultimatum, that he either absent himself from the prince's court or give up his post. The ministers now planned a series of measures to bolster their position. The Septennial Act, passed in 1716, gave the whigs an extra four years to consolidate their power before submitting to elections for the Commons. Early in 1717 the ministers began to sound their supporters among the bishops about plans to repeal the Occasional Conformity Act. They also discussed a plan to reform the two English universities, both tory strongholds, by placing the appointment of all officers, heads of houses, members of colleges, and so on, in the hands of the king. Stanhope even wanted to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts in so far as they affected protestant dissenters, but Cowper was equivocal and Sunderland was opposed. No action was taken at the time. In December 1718 Stanhope, now more confident, introduced a bill repealing both the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts as well as modifying the Test Act. Sunderland seconded it, but, in its course through the Lords, Cowper, now in opposition, moved to strike the clause affecting the Test Act, and Stanhope, under pressure from Sunderland, gave way. In this altered state it passed both houses, though not without vociferous opposition from Walpole. The Relief Act of 1719 clarified provisions of the Corporation Act and, in conjunction with regular Indemnity Acts, allowed many protestant dissenters to remain members of corporations without having to conform to the established church. A bill to reform the universities was drawn up but not submitted after other reform schemes were rejected in parliament. But the great cause célèbre of the session was the Peerage Bill, a measure to limit the number of members in the Lords and convert the sixteen representative peers of Scotland into a hereditary group of twenty-five. The ostensible justification was to forestall a repeat of Oxford's simultaneous creation of twelve peers in 1711 to gain a majority in the Lords. But the real justification had as much to do with the desire of Sunderland and Stanhope to bar the prince of Wales from adopting a similar scheme on his accession with the potential of overturning their base of power in the Lords. It was also a means to prevent the king's German favourites from acquiring peerages. The opposition was so strong that Stanhope withdrew the bill in April. But the ministers were determined to persevere. The Peerage Bill, the Universities Bill, and even the repeal of the Septennial Act were considered over the summer. In the last-named case this probably meant permitting parliament to sit at the pleasure of the king with a mandatory dissolution only upon the death of the sovereign, which was the practice in Ireland. When the Peerage Bill was reintroduced the following session it passed the Lords but was voted down in the Commons, the victorious opposition once again led by Walpole. With this defeat Sunderland and Stanhope abandoned the rest of their reform measures. Sunderland's attention now turned to consolidating the national debt and reducing the burden of interest, a process begun by Walpole before his departure from the Treasury. At the beginning of 1720 the chancellor of the exchequer, John Aislabie, introduced into the Commons a scheme proposed by the South Sea Company to take over the unfunded national debt, which passed in April, over the strong opposition of the Bank of England, and sent South Sea stock soaring.

After their setbacks in parliament, Sunderland and his colleagues now realized the danger of their position and the need to bring back the dissident whigs in order to maintain their control of the government. A further issue was the interference of the king's Hanoverian ministers, especially Bernstorff, who it was believed was working to unseat them. For their part Walpole and Townshend recognized that, however effective they were in debate and in thwarting the ministry's measures, it was unlikely they would return to power so long as Sunderland and Stanhope retained the king's confidence. An accommodation was reached. In April Walpole was readmitted as paymaster-general and Townshend as lord president. Though still in lesser roles, they were at least back in office; Stanhope and Sunderland had consolidated the ministry's control of parliament, the Germans were forced to decamp, and the king and his son were reconciled, though barely so.

The contest for the king's favour and control of the government now was focused in the court rather than in parliament. But a new crisis caused a dramatic change in the political scene. After South Sea stock skyrocketed in price in June 1720, following its assumption of the unfunded national debt, the price began a rapid decline in July [see ]. By September its bankers ceased payments, a panic ensued, and parliament, which convened in December, was out for blood. Sunderland, as first lord of the Treasury, was especially vulnerable. A series of accidents combined with parliamentary hostility to weaken the ministry. Stanhope died on 5 February 1721, following a stroke while vigorously defending the government in the Lords the previous day, and was succeeded as northern secretary by Townshend. The younger James Craggs died of smallpox on 16 February and was succeeded as southern secretary by a Sunderland ally, John Carteret, second Baron Carteret. Aislabie was expelled from the Commons on 8 March, and the elder James Craggs died (a possible suicide) on 16 March. Though Sunderland was cleared of corruption after a long debate in the Commons on 15 March, thanks to a brilliant defence by Walpole, the price of his deliverance was his resignation. He was succeeded by Walpole.

Death and assessment

Sunderland was now on the defensive, but by taking the post of groom of the stole he retained his access to and also the confidence of the king. For the next year there was a running battle between Sunderland and Walpole for control. Each had supporters in key cabinet posts. The final test came with the dissolution of parliament in March 1722 and the ensuing elections. Sunderland sought support wherever he could find it. Most significant was his concerted effort to win the backing of the tories, even the Jacobites. To do so he resumed negotiations with Bolingbroke, exiled since 1715 in France. Bolingbroke had negotiated with successive ministers for a pardon and in turn offered to bring the Jacobites into the fold and declare allegiance to George I and his successors. The pardon was drafted, and in the election contests Sunderland entered into cabal with the Jacobites and every possible ally to return members of parliament who would follow his lead rather than Walpole's. But the success of his efforts was never to be determined, for Sunderland fell ill and died of pleurisy on 19 April 1722 at his London residence, Sunderland House, Piccadilly, just as the returns began to trickle in. By default Walpole now succeeded as premier minister. Sunderland was buried on 1 May at Brington, Northamptonshire, near his country seat of Althorp.

Sunderland is a study in contrasts. In his youth a fierce and vehement partisan, in his maturity he became a supple, if not devious, skilled politician, in contrast to Stanhope, who was never at ease in the Commons and never learned to curb his temper. Sunderland's dealings with the Jacobites raises questions about his principles, but he was regarded as personally honest in office, a rare quality in an Augustan politician. Though he was married three times, questions have been raised about both his and Stanhope's sexual preferences. He and his first wife, Lady Arabella Cavendish, had one daughter, Frances (d. 1742), who married [see under ]. With his second wife, Lady Anne Churchill, he had three sons and two daughters. His eldest son, Robert (b. 1701), succeeded him as fourth earl of Sunderland, but died on 15 September 1729. His second son, , succeeded his brother as fifth earl of Sunderland, and in 1733 became, in succession to his aunt (Marlborough's eldest daughter, Henrietta), third duke of Marlborough. The third son, John (1708–1746), succeeded to the Althorp estate when Charles became duke of Marlborough, and was father of John Spencer, first Earl Spencer. Sunderland's daughter Anne (d. 1769) married William Bateman, first Viscount Bateman, and Diana (d. 1735) became the first wife of . His three children with his third wife, Judith Tichborne, whom he had married on 5 December 1717, all predeceased him. After his death Judith married . She died on 17 May 1749.

Condemned by Jonathan Swift and others for his intemperate and precipitate behaviour, Sunderland became the most subtle and successful of politicians. Although devious and pragmatic, he was a zealous defender of liberty in his youth and eschewed corruption in terms of personal enrichment from government coffers. He was a man of learning and taste, vying with his arch-rival Oxford for the mantle of the greatest book collector and connoisseur in Britain of his time. Because of the confiscation and destruction of his personal papers on the orders of Walpole, and the similar fate of the papers of many of his colleagues, including Somers, Halifax, Cowper, and Walpole himself, the full extent of his management and manoeuvres in the troubled and dangerous political tempests of the early Hanoverian period will never be precisely known. It is safe to say that few equalled him for sheer brilliance, audacity, astuteness, and shrewdness in the politics of his age.

Henry L. Snyder


H. L. Snyder, ‘Charles Spencer, third earl of Sunderland, as secretary of state, 1706–1710: a study in cabinet government and party politics in the reign of Queen Anne’, PhD diss., U. Cal., Berkeley, 1963 · B. Williams, Stanhope: a study in eighteenth-century war and diplomacy (1932) · J. P. Kenyon, Robert Spencer, earl of Sunderland, 1641–1702 (1958) · W. Michael, England under George I, 2 vols. (1936–9) · The manuscripts of the earl of Buckinghamshire, the earl of Lindsey … and James Round, HMC, 38 (1895) · A. Cunningham, The history of Great Britain, 2 vols. (1787) · H. L. Snyder, ‘Godolphin and Harley: a study of their partnership in politics’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 30 (1967), 241–71 · H. L. Snyder, ‘The duke of Marlborough's request of his captain-generalcy for life: a reexamination’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 45 (1967), 67–83 · H. L. Snyder, ‘The defeat of the Occasional Conformity Bill and the tack: a study in the techniques of parliamentary management in the reign of Queen Anne’, BIHR, 41 (1968), 172–92 · H. L. Snyder, ‘The pardon of Lord Bolingbroke’, HJ, 14 (1971), 227–40 · H. L. Snyder, ‘Queen Anne versus the junto: the effort to place Orford at the head of the admiralty in 1709’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 35 (1971–2), 323–42 · W. Coxe, Memoirs of the life and administration of Sir Robert Walpole, earl of Orford, 3 vols. (1798) · The Marlborough–Godolphin correspondence, ed. H. L. Snyder, 3 vols. (1975) · Diary of Mary, Countess Cowper, ed. [S. Cowper], 2nd edn (1865) · J. H. Plumb, Sir Robert Walpole (1956–61), vol. 1 · W. A. Speck, The birth of Britain (1994) · P. Langford, Public life and the propertied Englishman, 1689–1798 (1991) · W. Coxe, Memoirs of John, duke of Marlborough, 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1818–19) · The Wentworth papers, 1705–1739, ed. J. J. Cartwright (1883) · J. Carswell, The South Sea Bubble (1960); repr. (1961) · G. M. Trevelyan, England under Queen Anne, 3 vols. (1930–34); repr. (1948) · H. R. Snyder, ‘Party configurations in the early eighteenth century House of Commons’, BIHR, 45 (1972), 38–72 · Evelyn, Diary · F. Harris, A passion for government: the life of Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1991) · S. N. Handley, ‘Spencer, Charles’, HoP, Commons, 1690–1715


BL, letters, Add. MS 28056 · BL, household and personal accounts, A18 · Bodl. Oxf., journal · Hunt. L., papers relating to New York and New Jersey |  BL, Blenheim MSS · BL, letters to James Dayrolle, Add. MS 15866 · BL, corresp. with Francis Manning, Add. MSS · BL, corresp. with Sir John Norris, Add. MSS 28141, 28153, 28155, passim · BL, Portland MSS · BL, corresp. with George Stepney, Add. MSS 61502, 61534, 61651 · CAC Cam., corresp. with Thomas Erle · CKS, corresp. with Lord Stanhope · Herts. ALS, letters to Lord Cowper · Herts. ALS, Panshanger MSS · NA Scot., letters to duke of Montrose · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Polwarth · Spencer Research Library, Lawrence, Kansas, Simpson–Methuen corresp. · TCD, corresp. with William King


G. Kneller, oils, c.1700, NPG · G. Kneller, portrait, 1720, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire [see illus.]