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  Robert Spencer (1641–1702), by Sir Peter Lely, 1666? Robert Spencer (1641–1702), by Sir Peter Lely, 1666?
Spencer, Robert, second earl of Sunderland (1641–1702), politician, son of , and his wife, Lady Dorothy Sydney (1617–1684), daughter of the earl of Leicester, was born in Paris on 5 September 1641 ‘and was christened Robert after his grandfather Leicester’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 2). Two years after his birth his father was made earl of Sunderland by Charles I, only to die fighting for the king at Newbury in September. Robert therefore succeeded to the earldom as an infant, which was to mean that, unlike many politicians of the period, he never served as a member of the House of Commons.

Marriage and early career

Sunderland's widowed mother brought him up as a staunch Anglican, employing an ejected fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, Thomas Pierce, as his tutor. After going together to the continent in 1658 they returned in 1660 when Pierce was restored to his fellowship at Magdalen. Robert possibly accompanied him there as a student, for he was associated with the protest William Penn made at Christ Church against the wearing of the surplice. Certainly he accompanied Penn on a visit to France in 1661. Apart from a brief visit home in 1663 he remained on the continent until April 1665, spending time in Spain, Switzerland, and Italy as well as in France. His interlude in England was spent courting Lady Anne Digby (1645/6–1715), younger daughter of , with whom a marriage was arranged that summer. At the last moment, however, the groom panicked and fled abroad. By the time he got back to England his mind was made up, and he married Lady Anne on 9 June 1665. When they settled at Althorp, their seat in Northamptonshire, they virtually rebuilt it and used it for glittering social gatherings. Among those they entertained were prominent courtiers and politicians, including the dukes of York and Monmouth. This lavish lifestyle, and Robert's penchant for the gaming table, where he gambled for sums as big as £5000 a night, ran them into debt.

It also brought them into the world of high politics, with which their families were naturally connected. Sunderland and his countess were related to several leading figures, including and , who were his uncles, , who became his brother-in-law, and the Russells, earls of Bedford, of whom the fourth was the countess's maternal grandfather. The most political animal in late Stuart England, Robert Spencer was attracted into this world soon after his marriage, when he attached himself to the earl of Arlington, a friend of his wife's family. As long as the first earl of Clarendon was in power Arlington's influence was not an asset which could further his career, since the secretary of state led those who sought to remove the leading minister. After he succeeded in that task in 1667, however, his protégé could be advanced. In 1668 Arlington began to seek for Sunderland a diplomatic post, the usual appointment for an apprentice courtier. In June 1670, following the conclusion of the secret treaty of Dover, Sunderland went to France to convey Charles II's compliments to Louis XIV. Next year he went as envoy-extraordinary to Madrid, briefed with the task of preventing an alliance between the Dutch and the Spanish against the French. Although this was a useful experience of diplomacy it got nowhere, and Sunderland was relieved to be transferred to Paris from Madrid in May 1672. There he replaced Ralph Montagu as English ambassador. After spending time, and money, in Paris to little purpose Sunderland complained that the embassy was costing him too much. Although his complaints brought some financial relief from the Treasury, he was again relieved when, in March 1673, he received instructions to go as envoy to the congress of Cologne. He never got there, however, being prevented by illness, which led him to ask to be discharged from his official duties, and to return to England in September.

Shortly after his return Sunderland was made gentleman of the bedchamber with a salary of £1000, though this was never paid in full. For an ambitious and spendthrift politician neither the post nor the salary could be satisfactory. Now that his patron, Arlington, had fallen from favour Sunderland looked round for another, and found one in the king's new mistress, Louise de Keroualle, duchess of Portsmouth. ‘As I have always found your Lordship knew her better than any,’ observed Danby in 1679, ‘so I found that nobody knew so well how to manage her’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 18n.). His ability to manage her got him noticed not only by Danby but also by the king. Charles II used Sunderland as a go-between with the duchess in 1675 when he recognized her son as his and ennobled the child as duke of Richmond. In April 1677 and again in July 1678 Sunderland was employed as an envoy to Louis XIV. Though he failed to persuade the French king to renew his alliance with England, his diplomatic activities apparently impressed Charles II, for in February 1679 Sunderland became secretary of state.

Court politician

Sunderland's appointment placed him at the forefront of affairs. John Dryden recognized this when he dedicated his play Troilus and Cressida to the new ‘principall Secretary of State’. The playwright claimed that he could:
say without flattery [that] he had all the depth of understanding that was requisite in any able statesman, and all that honesty which commonly is wanting; that he was brave without vanity, and knowing without positiveness; that he was loyall to his Prince and a lover of his Country; and his principles were full of moderation, and all his Councils such as tended to heal and not to widen the breaches of the Nation. (Works of John Dryden, 13.220–21)
This was of course, despite Dryden's disclaimer, the grossest court flattery. Sunderland was more renowned for his hypocrisy than for his honesty, while so far were his principles ‘full of moderation’ that, as his biographer puts it, he ‘was nothing if not a man of extremes’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 332). He was an arrogant, cynical, hard-nosed politician, whose irascibility frequently wounded those who felt the lash of his tongue. ‘He wanted not this farther quality to make him universally odious’, commented Arthur Onslow (Bishop Burnet's History, 4.412n.). Bishop Burnet agreed that ‘he raised many enemies to himself by the contempt with which he treated those who differed from him’ (ibid., 2.18) yet acknowledged that ‘he had indeed the superior genius to all the men of business that I have yet known’ (ibid.). By this he meant a genius for appreciating the big picture rather than for taking pains. For Sunderland was a poor administrator, impatient of detailed application, which he left to subordinates. A hostile observer, of whom there were many, claimed to have been told by one of his underlings that ‘he never came to the secretary's office, but they carried the papers to him at his house, where he was usually at cards, and he would sign them without reading, and seldom asked what they were about’ (ibid.). Yet even his opponents admired the intellect of the ‘Proteus Sunderland’:
The deep Reserves of whose Apostate Mind,
No Skill can reach, no Principles can bind;
Whose working Brain does more Disguises bear
Than ever yet in Vision did appear.
(‘Advice to a painter’, Lord and others, 18)
Sunderland was ‘at the helm’, as Dryden put it, for the greatest crisis following the Restoration. The Danby ministry had collapsed under pressure from a country party which accused the minister of systematic bribery and corruption in order to create a court party to pursue policies inimical to England's interests. In particular it charged him with encouraging popery and arbitrary power by aligning England with France. The prospects of the accession of James after the death of his brother, Charles, however, had transcended concerns about Danby's policies following the outbreak of the Popish Plot in 1678. This raised the whole question of the succession of the Catholic duke, and brought on a campaign to exclude him from the throne. The first Exclusion Bill was to be introduced into parliament following the general election, which was under way when Sunderland was appointed secretary. Charles was so concerned at the threat it posed that he sent his brother out of the country to Brussels.

Sunderland played a major role in other moves made by the king to stave off the crisis. Thus he negotiated with leading opponents of the court a deal which led to the formation of a new privy council including them. Although the scheme was the idea of Sir William Temple, to whom it is usually attributed, Sunderland was responsible for its detailed implementation. His first involvement in high politics was to bring dissident elements, including Shaftesbury, leader of the first whigs, into government in an attempt to buy them off. Although this scheme failed to resolve the exclusion crisis, it gave Sunderland valuable experience in wheeling and dealing with politicians ostensibly opposed to the court. It was of these negotiations that Roger North recorded a curious anecdote about Sunderland's affecting a ‘court tune’: ‘Whaat, my laard, if his Majesty taarn out faarty of us, may not he have faarty athors to saarve him as well? And what maatters who saarves his Majesty, so lang as his Majesty is saarved?’ (DNB). North used the story to illustrate an affectation of Sunderland's which he claimed was adopted by others at court. It also records a very revealing maxim of Sunderland's, who clearly did not think it mattered who served the king as long as the king was served. It was one he was to apply not only to the circumstances of the exclusion crisis but to other political crises in the next two reigns.

Over the summer of 1679 Sunderland was associated with the earls of Essex and Halifax in a so-called triumvirate. They tried to sell to the whigs an idea of the king's to obviate exclusion. This was a scheme of limitations, whereby a Catholic successor would have to uphold the Church of England and work with parliament. James himself, who thought the whole whig campaign aimed ultimately at a republic, disliked limitations even more than the Exclusion Bill, arguing that they would transform the monarchy into a quasi-republic under the titular kingship of the duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son. When the idea failed to stop the Exclusion Bill in its tracks Charles prorogued parliament. Sunderland then persuaded him to dissolve it and hold fresh elections. When the privy council met to discuss this decision on 10 July, Shaftesbury and his cohorts angrily criticized those responsible for it. The dissolution put a strain on the coalition scheme, but it was the return of James from exile in Brussels that September which brought about its collapse.

Sunderland invited the duke back because the king had become dangerously ill. Although on his recovery Charles ordered his brother to remove himself again, this time to Scotland, he also sent Monmouth out of the country and dismissed Shaftesbury. James was furious at being exiled in Edinburgh, and accused Sunderland of failing to fulfil a promise that he should stay in England. He was prepared to attribute this to inexperience rather than treachery, telling the French ambassador ‘that Lord Sunderland, being new to politics, found himself in difficulties, and he lacked the boldness so necessary in these difficult times’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 32). He nevertheless ensured that Sunderland's influence in the ministry would be counterbalanced by that of his own protégé Laurence Hyde, who became first lord of the Treasury in November. Hyde was no more experienced in office than Sunderland. Indeed so green were they and their colleague Sidney Godolphin, with whom they formed the ministry, that they were known as ‘the Chits’. Throughout 1680 the ministry laboured to try to offset the results of the parliamentary elections, which had gone again in favour of the exclusionists. They persuaded the king to keep proroguing parliament to avoid an early meeting which would play into the hands of the whigs. This was not mere procrastination as they also made efforts to bring moderate members of both houses to accept the court line.

Sunderland's role in this strategy was to espouse an anti-French foreign policy, reversing his previous reliance on France and making a treaty with Spain. He even hoped that William of Orange could be persuaded to come to England before parliament met in order to demonstrate the court's commitment to an eventual protestant succession. In June 1680 the Chits held a conference at Sunderland's country house, at which they negotiated a deal with Halifax to lay before the houses when they met. Not only was William to be invited over but a scheme of limitations on a popish successor was to be proposed. When William refused to accept an invitation unless it was issued by the king, Charles obliged and sent one over to the Netherlands. Sunderland sent three letters about this on the same day, 21 July, to his uncle Henry Sidney at The Hague. These document the degree to which he was acting deviously in that tense summer. The first, known only to himself and his close colleague Godolphin, stressed that they alone knew ‘the best reasons for this journey’, whose aim was to ensure that ‘the King and his People must agree at their next meeting, and the King is convinced of it’. As the architect of the new alignment of England with Spain and the Dutch republic against France, Sunderland stressed that the most important point of the imminent session of parliament was to get it ‘to support the alliances the King has made for which it will be necessary to let them see that the thing is in earnest that those most concerned think so’. The most concerned, of course, was the prince of Orange. His presence was to show the houses the visible embodiment of the new anti-French foreign policy. ‘Another great point’, Sunderland continued, ‘is to settle Religion without meddling with the Succession’. This apparently referred to the limitations which Charles proposed to place on his brother's prerogative when he became king. The prince's presence was presumably to give his blessing to this scheme. He was also intended to mediate between:
the king and his people, by whose means all Jealousies may be removed either that the King has any intentions but what are for the good of the people or they any but to support the Government and religion now established. (Kenyon, ‘Charles II’, 99, 101)
The meaning of many passages in these letters is cryptic, partly because the context in which they were written, and which Sunderland assumed Sidney was aware of, cannot now be reconstructed, and partly because they were meant to be. But it seems that Sunderland wanted William to reconcile Charles with the whigs by showing that the king was not a supporter of popery and arbitrary power, while they were not crypto-republicans intent on making Monmouth a puppet king.

It was Sunderland's determination to demonstrate his commitment to William and to dish whig support for Monmouth which apparently lay behind his otherwise inexplicable decision to support the second Exclusion Bill. For on the face of things it was to commit political suicide. The king had made it clear on more than one occasion that he would not stand for any alteration in the succession. Though he was persuaded by the privy council, led by Sunderland, to send his brother to Scotland on the eve of the parliamentary session, he did so with an ill grace, and again reiterated that he would not assent to exclusion. The whigs nevertheless eschewed limitations and introduced an exclusion bill in the new parliament. When the bill was first debated in the Commons on 6 November it did not name a successor. But in committee a clause was added to it to provide that the crown should descend as though James had died, which ensured the succession of William's wife, Mary, and scotched Monmouth's chances. Although it cannot be documented it can be deduced that Sunderland had worked hard behind the scenes to carry this clause. He apparently agreed with his uncle Henry Sidney that James ‘would never inherit the Crown … and if the succession is not settled somewhere, it will certainly turn to a Commonwealth’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.129). When the bill went up to the House of Lords, therefore, Sunderland was committed to its passage despite the king's disapproval. As he put it to Temple, who tried to dissuade him, ‘'twas too late, his honour was engaged, and he could not break it’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 64). Sunderland duly voted with the minority when the bill was thrown out. The king, who was present in the house, observed that his speech in support of the bill was ‘the kiss of Judas’ (ibid., 66). Charles marked the secretary down for destruction, but waited until he dissolved parliament on 18 January 1681 before dismissing him on the 24th. Sunderland was mortified, though he went to the third Exclusion Parliament at Oxford ‘with as good resolutions as if my usage had been contrary to what it was’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.180).

Within two years Sunderland was restored to favour. On 27 July 1682 he was allowed an audience by the king, when he kissed hands. In September he was readmitted to the privy council and on 31 January 1683 he again became secretary of state. This was the first of two returns to power which gave him the reputation of being the indispensable courtier, twice bounding back to the centre of politics after a disgrace. His redemption after being an exclusionist, however, was less spectacular a feat than his becoming the principal adviser to William III, after serving James II in the same capacity. Supporting exclusion could be forgiven even by Charles II, who allowed Godolphin to remain at the Treasury despite his also voting for the second bill. Admittedly the king excused him on the grounds that he had been misled by Sunderland. But if Sunderland's sin was unforgivable by Charles at the time, it was a lesser offence to James than support of limitations. Halifax, the architect of the defeat of the bill in the upper house, was paradoxically less appealing to James because he advocated limitations, even to the point of suggesting the duke's permanent exile in Scotland unless he converted to Anglicanism. When Sunderland cynically justified his vote on the grounds that the bill was bound to fail anyway, and that the alternative was to limit the prerogative, James was prepared to overlook his disloyalty and support his return to office. It was also supported by the duchess of Portsmouth, whose influence with the king had never been greater.

His acceptance at court meant that Sunderland was identified with the reaction which set in against the whigs. Although he took little part in the proceedings against them, he nevertheless acquiesced in the trials and executions of the Rye House plotters. These included his wife's cousin, Lord William Russell, and his uncle Algernon Sidney, whose death apparently hastened that of his own mother in 1684. This break with former political allies extended to the prince of Orange. When William saw Sunderland after his disgrace in 1681 he expressed appreciation of the earl's efforts on his behalf. On becoming secretary of state, however, Sunderland fell in with the court's rapprochement with France, reversing his previous pro-Dutch foreign policy. Thus along with the French he backed the Danes in their quarrel with the Dutch, a policy which led to the marriage of Princess Anne, James's younger daughter, to Prince George of Denmark in July 1683.

Sunderland's willingness to fall in with measures of the court he had not supported when in office inevitably makes his motives appear cynical. It could even seem that he missed the emoluments of office at a time when his extravagant social life was running him ever deeper into debt. At the time of his dismissal he had mortgaged estates in two counties to raise the collateral for debts of £16,000. His wife complained ‘we are on the point of ruin’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.185). Yet Sunderland was not in politics for the money. Had he embarked on a political career in order to enjoy its financial rewards he would have made survival a top priority. In fact he was in it for power, and he was prepared to gamble as recklessly in politics as he was at the gaming table. He had staked a lot on the last throw of the dice and had lost. Now he was back at the court casino he was determined to recoup his losses.

In order to do so Sunderland had to beat a formidable rival, Laurence Hyde, now the earl of Rochester. As first lord of the Treasury, Rochester was high in the king's favour for presiding over a significant improvement in the royal finances, which helped Charles manage without parliament. He was also the confidant of the duke of York, and when James returned from Scotland worked closely with him on the commission for ecclesiastical promotions. At first Sunderland ingratiated himself with his rival, claiming the ‘realest friendship imaginable’ (Correspondence of … Clarendon, 1.87). But when the first lord fell foul of the king, following accusations of peculation in the management of the hearth tax, Sunderland distanced himself from him and helped to manoeuvre Rochester out of the Treasury into the post of lord president in August 1684. Godolphin, Sunderland's closest colleague, succeeded as first lord. The following month Judge Jeffreys, whose appointment as lord chief justice Sunderland had procured, was admitted to the cabinet council. In the closing weeks of Charles II's reign, therefore, Sunderland came close to being the chief minister.

Then, in February 1685, Charles II suddenly died. Once again Sunderland had gambled and lost. Like many politicians of the day he assumed that the king would outlive his brother. He had gone along with Charles when he cooled towards James, even being implicated in the rumours that Monmouth was to be rehabilitated at court. He thus found himself wrong-footed at the outset of the new reign, and had to do some nimble footwork to earn the approval of James II. It seems that his preparations for the elections to parliament found favour with the king, especially when they contributed to the return of the most loyal House of Commons ever to sit under the Stuarts. Whatever the reason, Sunderland was retained in the office of secretary of state.

Agent of absolutism

Perhaps the main reason why Sunderland survived the crisis of James II's accession and remained at the very centre of his affairs until just before the revolution was that he was more sympathetic to the king's religious aims than other close advisers such as Rochester. Anglican tories were devoted to the hereditary succession and the Church of England, a devotion which would put intolerable pressure on them when they had to choose one or the other. Most chose the church. Sunderland, who had no strong religious beliefs, and was certainly not a staunch Anglican, felt no such dilemma. His loyalty was to the crown. As Bonrepos, a French envoy, observed:
the King is well aware of Lord Sunderland's character, that he is ambitious and capable of any sacrifice for ambition's sake; but though he has no great confidence in him he makes use of him, because he is more devoted to him than others and because he unhesitatingly falls in with all his plans for the establishment of the Catholic religion—though for himself he professes no faith at all and speaks very loosely about it. (Kenyon, Sunderland, 155)
Realizing that the king's attempt to obtain relief for his co-religionists from Anglicans was doomed to failure, he cultivated the Catholics at court. These were divided. Moderate Catholics, like Lord Belasyse, worried that James's zeal would cause a backlash when he died, and his protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, would succeed. Extreme Catholics, like Father Petre and Tyrconnell, were prepared to push the drive to Rome as fast as they could. Sunderland, perhaps realizing that the latter were more appealing to the king, threw in his lot with them. Thus early in the reign he made approaches to the earl of Tyrconnell and Father Petre. Above all he insinuated himself into the favour of the queen, Mary of Modena. ‘The Queen was artificially possessed by this lord’ maintained Sir John Reresby:
that the relations and friends of the King's first wife were in greatest favour, and had the best places, as Rochester, Clarendon, Dartmoth etc., whilst her friends, that was Queen Regent, had none soe considerable, of which nomber were reckned Lord Sunderland, Lord Chancellor, Lord Churchill etc. (Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, 401)
Ultimately Sunderland's cabal was to triumph over James's Anglican tory ministers, led by the king's Hyde brothers-in-law, the earls of Rochester and Clarendon. Rochester used the king's mistress, Catherine Sedley, as a counterpoise to the queen. Although it was to take him nearly two years to remove his rivals, Sunderland showed that in the end he had backed the right horse.

Over the summer of 1685 Sunderland entrenched himself in power. He presided over the suppression of Monmouth's rebellion and rewarded Jeffreys, the judge responsible for the brutal aftermath, by persuading the king to appoint him as lord chancellor. In October a dangerous rival, Halifax, was removed when James dismissed him for refusing to support the repeal of the Test and Habeas Corpus Acts. Sunderland was appointed to the post of lord president made vacant by Halifax's dismissal, a position he held together with the secretaryship. The only serious rival to Sunderland's ascendancy at the end of 1685 was the lord treasurer, Rochester. Although it was to take Sunderland another year to see him off, Rochester dated his decline and fall from the prorogation of parliament that November for not endorsing the commissions given to Catholics by the king, using his prerogative to dispense them from the Test Act. Rochester apparently disapproved of the dispensing power being used for that purpose. While Sunderland later insisted that he too objected to the practice, he does not appear to have registered his objections at the time. Nor does he seem to have done so with regard to the commission for ecclesiastical causes set up in 1686, on which he and Rochester sat, himself apparently accepting its legality, while his rival made clear his unease. It would have been a curious gnat to strain at when that summer Sunderland swallowed the camel of conversion to Catholicism. He finally undermined Rochester's credibility with the king by inducing James to attempt the treasurer's conversion too. Rochester responded by agreeing to hear a disputation between Anglican and Catholic divines, but when he declared that he had not been persuaded by the latter his days at the Treasury were numbered, and he was dismissed in January 1687. Meanwhile Sunderland had engineered the removal of Rochester's brother Clarendon from the lord lieutenancy of Ireland, and his replacement as lord deputy by the Catholic earl of Tyrconnell.

The breach with the Hydes shifted the balance of power in James's counsels from the Anglicans to the Catholics. Thus the Treasury was put into commission headed by the Roman Catholic peer Lord Belasyse, though the effective business was done by Sunderland's ally Godolphin. Although Sunderland's conversion had not yet been made public, the announcement by his eldest son, Robert, in April 1687 that he had converted to Rome helped to keep him well in with Catholic ministers. At the same time Sunderland was aware that a government which rested solely on Catholic support was too narrowly based to be viable. Having broken with the Anglicans he advised the king to make a conciliatory gesture to protestant dissenters. This was a difficult policy to advocate since James was convinced that most nonconformists were republicans who would disturb the peace of his kingdom. Sunderland had to persuade him that some at least would co-operate with the regime. James had already made an exception of the Quakers, doubtless because he accepted that as pacifists they were scarcely likely to rebel. Thus in 1686 he had released many from gaol, and had sent the Quaker leader, William Penn, to The Hague, but the mission was abortive. The prince and princess would agree to toleration, even for Catholics, but not to doing away with the Test Act. Sunderland capitalized on this concession by persuading the king to make his old acquaintance Penn deputy lieutenant in Buckinghamshire in November. Thus even before the dismissal of the Hydes there were signs of a rapprochement with dissenters. Sunderland was aware that they suffered along with the Catholics from the penal laws and Test Act. He therefore sought to consolidate the alliance with them by pursuing the goal of relieving them from the oppressive statutes.

Given the intransigence of the Anglicans in parliament to this measure Sunderland declined to advise the reconvening of that body, although he did string James along with the hope that they could be persuaded to change their minds. He did not, however, approve of the king's policy of closeting members. As he himself put it, ‘who was to get by closeting I need not say, but it was certainly not I, nor any of my friends’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.374–5). Nor did he support James's interference in the election of a president of Magdalen College, Oxford. His intervention in that business, which dragged on from April 1687 to the end of the year, was an exercise in damage limitation. Despite these disagreements with James the king still held him in high esteem, installing him as a knight of the Garter in May. This was perhaps because he did approve the king's declaration of indulgence or edict of toleration in April 1687. This concession suspended the penal laws against protestant nonconformists and Catholics alike. Aware that a principal objection to an edict as distinct from a statute was that it depended on the will of the king who issued it, and could be revoked by his successor, Sunderland sought to assuage dissenting scruples on that score by trying to get the heirs apparent, William and his wife, Mary, to agree to support the king in his repudiation of the acts when they came to the throne. To this end he pleaded with the Dutch envoy Dykvelt, but got no further than Penn had done the year before.

The failure to persuade William and Mary to acquiesce in the king's proposals for religious toleration temporarily lost Sunderland credit at court. He found himself outmanoeuvred by Catholic advisers, who urged James that the only way forward was to dissolve the parliament and to take steps to pack another with members who would support the repeal of the penal laws and Test Act. Sunderland was appalled by this strategy. He was more aware than his Catholic colleagues how damaging a dissolution would be to England's foreign relations. He also was less sanguine, and more realistic, about the prospects of packing a parliament to the extent that would be required. Consequently he held up the decision to dissolve for several weeks, and absented himself from the meeting of the privy council in July which took it. By the end of the month, however, he was back at court. He seems to have decided that, since parliament had been dissolved, then, despite the auspices being unfavourable, everything should be done to try to ensure that a general election would result in a House of Commons more inclined to do the king's bidding.

Sunderland's hand can be detected behind the preliminary changes in the lord lieutenancies, and the restoration of whigs to London livery companies from which they had been ousted by Charles II. In August he accompanied the king on an electoral tour of the west country. The result as far as Sunderland was concerned was to confirm him in his view that the prospects for a compliant parliament were bleak. Although some dissenters indicated their support, the bulk of the gentry were lukewarm or even hostile. But the king was convinced that his cause was popular. He even devised a crude public opinion poll, in which three questions were put to the magnates in the localities to test their approval of his policies. These began to be circulated by Sunderland in October, though it was to take months to sound out opinion throughout the country. Meanwhile in November a commission for regulation was established to preside over the purging of corporations, with a view to influencing parliamentary elections. Its work was supervised by Sunderland and his ally Jeffreys, together with Catholic regulators including Father Petre. Sunderland went along with this to the point of approving Father Petre's admission to the privy council in November, to the alarm even of moderate Catholics. Then in December Sunderland assured James that he would make his own conversion public whenever it seemed to be advantageous for the king.

Sunderland's apparent rashness at this point was another calculated gamble. Since the summer he had been concerned that James would not achieve his objectives before he died, and that the king's whole enterprise would collapse, taking him down with it. By December, however, it became known that the queen was pregnant. If she produced a girl, then the effect on the succession would be minimal. But if she gave birth to a boy, he would have precedence over James's daughters with his first wife. In the words of Sunderland's biographer ‘he had a fifty-fifty chance: double or quits on the turn of a card’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 168).

The campaign to pack parliament led to tensions in the cabinet council early in 1688. James, egged on by the Catholic cabal, was eager to put it to the test of an election as soon as possible. Sunderland, realizing that the outcome would be disastrous, advised postponing the polls as long as possible. In March he persuaded the king to put them off until after the summer. This victory for common sense was soon offset, however, by James's fateful decision, on reissuing the declaration of indulgence in April, to require the clergy to read it from their pulpits: ‘of which I most solemnly protest’, Sunderland claimed later, ‘I never heard one word till the King directed it in Council’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.375).

As in the Magdalen College case Sunderland tried to limit the damage that the refusal of the clergy to read the edict produced. Thus, when the issue of the seven bishops who petitioned the king to be excused from the duty was discussed in the cabinet, he argued that they had broken no law and should therefore not be prosecuted. But he was overruled by the Catholic cabal ‘and so unanimously that I was just sinking’, he observed, adding significantly, ‘and I wish I had then sunk’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.375). He surfaced at the birth of a son to James and his queen, at which he and his wife were present. A few days later he publicly announced his conversion to the Catholic faith. For his pains he was denounced as a ‘Popish dog’ by the mob as he made his way to give evidence at the trial of the bishops. The acquittal of the seven bishops created a crisis of confidence at court, discrediting those who had insisted on their prosecution. This played into Sunderland's hands. In July a Scottish observer wrote from London that he ‘is certainly the premier minister and tho in truth the King is not governed by any body I believe he hath more power with his Majesty than anybody’ (NL Scot., Yester MS 7011, James Hays to Tweeddale, 14 July 1688). His renewed influence was felt when the commission for ecclesiastical causes postponed its next meeting from August until December. Because of the revolution it never met again.

On 27 August, Sunderland wrote to Bevil Skelton in Paris ‘I believe there never was in England less thought of a rebellion, and when the parliament meets this will, I doubt not, be evident to all the world’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 208). The parliament, like the commission for ecclesiastical causes, never met. Sunderland wrote streams of letters in September endorsing some 105 candidates right up to the 16th, when writs were issued for an election. On 21 September, however, the rumours that the prince of Orange planned to invade, which had been circulating all summer, were finally confirmed. On 25 September the writs were recalled. The election was off. Both James and Sunderland panicked, and sought hastily to mend fences with the Anglican tories. ‘I laid hold of the opportunity to press the King to do several things which I would have done sooner’ Sunderland claimed later:
the chief of which were to restore Magdalen College and all other ecclesiastical preferments which had been diverted from what they were intended for; to take off my Lord Bishop of London's suspension; to put the counties into the same hands they were in some time before; to annul the Ecclesiastical Court; and to restore entirely all the Corporations of England. (Diary of … Sidney, 2.376)
When the prince of Orange's task force was turned back by storms in mid-October James resented having made these concessions. ‘I see God Almighty continues his Protection to me by bringing the wind westerly again’, he told the earl of Dartmouth on 20 October (Dartmouth MSS, 1.169). His resentment was taken out on Sunderland, whom the Catholic cabal accused of ruining him ‘by persuading him to make such shameful condescensions’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.377). On 27 October, James dismissed him. The dismissal took people by surprise. ‘This remove is somewhat misticall’ noted Sir John Bramston:
there are those that say he was not true to the King as he ought, and that the King, when he dismissed him, sayd ‘You have your pardon; much good doe it you. I hope you wilbe more faithfull to your next master than you have been to me’. (Autobiography, 327)

The comeback courtier

Between his dismissal and his flight to the Netherlands in December, Sunderland was swept along in a welter of events over which nobody had any control. At first he seems to have accepted that William's invasion left him with no alternative but to share the same fate as the king. Sensing that James would seek refuge in France for his wife and their infant son, he tried to ingratiate himself with the royal couple and also with Louis XIV. Thus he assured Mary of Modena that he would remain a staunch Catholic, which led the queen to regret his dismissal. He then sought asylum in France, but Louis declined to offer it. That led him to seek refuge in the Dutch republic instead. This sudden shift, while it can be ascribed simply to panic, also admits of a more profound explanation. Whether Sunderland read Hobbes's Leviathan or not, he certainly acted as though he had imbibed Hobbesian maxims. His allegiance was owed to the sovereign only so long as he could protect him. When protection was no longer forthcoming then allegiance was forfeited and could be transferred to another sovereign who could offer it. It was perhaps this philosophical outlook which led Sunderland to be described as ‘a second Machiavel’ (‘Faction display'd’, Lord and others, 662). His decision to escape to a protestant country delighted his wife, who put pressure on him to renounce his conversion to Catholicism. They spent much of November in London raising funds for a protracted exile. Quite when they decided to cut and run is uncertain, but early in December they made their way to Rotterdam.

Sunderland seems to have regretted his flight almost immediately, for his wife went back to England on 19 December. She took with her copies of a manuscript he had written justifying his collaboration with the regime of James II. One of these was left with a printer for publication in England, while Sunderland himself arranged for it to be printed in the Dutch republic. His Letter to a friend in London, plainly discovering the designs of the Romish party and others for the subverting of the protestant religion and the laws of the kingdom was an attempt to gain a sympathetic audience for his version of events. ‘I know I cannot justify myself by saying, though it is true’, he wrote, ‘that I thought to have prevented much mischief’ (Diary of … Sidney, 2.370). He nevertheless sought to demonstrate that he had tried to restrain the more extravagant schemes of the king. Some of his claims were justified, for he did attempt to limit the damage of James's attacks upon the Church of England. He also sought to mend fences with William, praising ‘the miracles he has done by his wonderful prudence, conduct and courage, for the greatest thing which has been undertaken these thousand years, or perhaps ever, could not be effected without virtues hardly to be imagined till seen nearer hand’ (ibid., 376).

Soon after his wife returned to Rotterdam in January 1689 Sunderland was arrested, after a tip-off to the authorities from Admiral Herbert, and thrown into prison. The indomitable Lady Sunderland appealed to Princess Mary to help release him, and when Mary got word to William his release was ordered. Sunderland was sycophantic in his gratitude, assuring the prince, who had just been offered the crown by the Convention in England, that he wished he could have been there to vote for it. It was too early, however, even for a chameleon like Sunderland to change his colours to the court of William and Mary. The best he could hope for was to be allowed to return to England undisturbed, which could not be effected until April 1690. Even then he was persona non grata at court, being exempted from the Act of Indemnity given the royal assent on 23 May. The Sunderlands had to retire to Althorp. In April 1691, however, they were summoned from their country house to the king's presence. There were rumours that William was going to appoint Sunderland to office, and these seemed to be confirmed when on 28 April he went to the House of Lords and took the oaths. Nothing came of them immediately, however, and the earl and countess returned to Althorp. There they found themselves in desperate financial circumstances. Their income was largely confined to the rents from their estates.

Shortly after the Sunderlands' return to England the Treasury sued Sunderland in the court of exchequer for the return of plate he had borrowed from the Jewel House. He wrote to the king to protest that he would have to sell land to pay the sum due, and William obliged by ordering the process to be suspended. In December, however, the commissioners for public accounts brought the matter up in the House of Commons, and also questioned the validity of a pension of £1000 a year which was paid to Sunderland. He went up to take his seat in the Lords in January 1692, presumably to look after his own interests. The king again intervened on his behalf, securing the payment of the pension in February, and waiving the requirement to return the plate in March.

Sunderland's increasing dependence on William perhaps partly explains why he was exempted from James's proclamation of pardon, which was proclaimed at St Germain in April. This removed the option of reconciliation with the former monarch, and made the earl totally dependent upon the new king. William realized this, and that not all English politicians, even those in office, were as free from Jacobitism. Sunderland's political instincts could be invaluable for the survival of the post-revolution regime, and his advice was increasingly sought from the spring of 1692. He urged William to drop his policy of offsetting tory and whig ministers in order to achieve a balanced ministry, and instead to swing the balance decisively in favour of the whigs. Arthur Onslow recalled many years later having:
heard from a great personage that when the earl of Sunderland came afterwards to be in king William's confidence, and pressing him very much to trust and rely more upon the whigs than he had done, the king said, he believed the whigs loved him best, but they did not love monarchy; and although the tories did not like him so well as the others, yet as they were zealous for monarchy, he thought they would serve his government best: to which the earl replied, that it was very true that the tories were better friends to monarchy than the whigs were, but then his majesty was to consider that he was not their monarch. (Bishop Burnet's History, 4.5n.)
William resisted Sunderland's advice until 1693. At the beginning of that year he made a partial move towards the whigs by appointing John Somers as lord keeper and Sir John Trenchard as secretary of state. Although Sunderland kept on insisting throughout the spring and summer that this was not enough, and that the other secretary, the earl of Nottingham, should be replaced by a whig too, William kept the tory peer in office, still retaining his penchant for employing ministers of both parties. That summer, however, the policy exploded in his face when a merchant fleet en route for Turkey was captured by the French. The loss of the Smyrna fleet provoked recriminations between Nottingham and the whigs, who blamed the secretary for having forced out of office the whig Admiral Russell, replacing him with incompetent tory cronies. William returned from the continent that autumn determined to get a grip on these divided counsels by following Sunderland's advice. Much to the dismay of Queen Mary, Nottingham was dismissed and the vacant secretaryship given to the whig earl of Shrewsbury. Russell was reinstated as lord admiral. ‘But the person that had the king's confidence to the highest degree’ observed Bishop Burnet:
was the earl of Sunderland, who, by his long experience, and his knowledge of men and things, had gained an ascendancy over him, and had more credit with him than any Englishman ever had: he had brought the king to this change of councils, by the prospect he gave him of the ill condition his affairs were in, if he did not entirely both trust and satisfy those, who, in the present conjuncture, were the only party that both could and would support him. (Bishop Burnet's History, 4.222)
Sunderland's scheme paid dividends in the parliamentary session of 1693–4. For, though the king had to accept the Triennial Act, after vetoing a bill the previous year, as the price of Shrewsbury's appointment as secretary, he also gave his assent to the bill creating the Bank of England. This whig measure showed William that the party meant business when it claimed to support his war effort more wholeheartedly than did the tories. But they began to demand more ministerial posts as the price of their continued support, and this challenged Sunderland's control. The first indirect attack upon him came in the next session, 1694–5, when his long-time ally Henry Guy, the secretary to the Treasury, was found guilty of accepting a bribe. The whigs began a campaign against corruption which resulted in Guy's being sent to the Tower and dismissed from his post. They then turned their attention to the venal speaker of the Commons, Sir John Trevor, another of Sunderland's allies, who was also found guilty of bribery and expelled the house. Sunderland attempted to retrieve his grip on the government by having the king dissolve parliament in the summer of 1695, hoping to influence the elections to his advantage. The campaign began with a visit from the king to Althorp, a visible sign of Sunderland's support in high places.

The elections resulted in a whig majority in the Commons, but one which saw a division between court and country whigs. The court whigs supported the whig ministers whom Sunderland had helped to promote, but who now wished to elbow him aside to make room for more of their type. The country whigs were suspicious of the whig ministers, dubbing them the junto, and accusing them of betraying their principles for power. Sunderland apparently saw in the country whigs allies in his own struggle with the junto. Thus in the new session of parliament he went along with their schemes to create a commission of trade nominated by the Commons, rather than a Board of Trade appointed by the crown, and to set up a land bank to offset the Bank of England. Neither scheme succeeded in anything other than irritating the king and the junto. In 1696 these divisions in whig ranks temporarily closed in response to the issues raised by the Jacobite Sir John Fenwick. Fenwick accused members of the government of plotting to restore James II. Sunderland, one whose loyalty to William was undoubted, conducted the government's answer to Fenwick's charges. But where he wanted Fenwick to be repudiated the junto wanted him to be eliminated. They introduced the bill of attainder against him which eventually resulted in his execution, a procedure which Sunderland opposed.

Once Fenwick was out of the way the rift between Sunderland and the junto re-opened. The earl outmanoeuvred the whig leaders by allying with the duke of Shrewsbury against them. Shrewsbury had been reluctant to be appointed secretary of state in 1693, and, though he had been elevated in the peerage to a dukedom the following year, still was semi-detached from the court. He had been the most alarmed at Fenwick's allegations, even threatening resignation over them until warned that this would make him appear guilty of them. When the affair resulted in exonerating him he felt grateful to Sunderland rather than to the junto. Early in 1697 he went to London, where he and Sunderland were quickly regarded as the two most powerful men in the government. At that time Sunderland held no ministerial post, being regarded as a minister behind the curtain. On 19 April, however, he was appointed to the office of lord chamberlain, which the king had purchased from the earl of Dorset for £10,000 to offer him as a gift. On 22 April, two days before the king's departure from England, he was named as one of the lords justices to govern the country in William's absence. He spent the summer handling the English end of the negotiations which were to result in the treaty of Ryswick in September.

Sunderland expected trouble when parliament met in December. There had already been murmurings about his appointments as lord chamberlain and lord justice in the fag end of the previous session. The peace strengthened the hands of the country whigs, who came to town determined to attack the government's intention of retaining a large peacetime army, and singled out Sunderland as their chief target. On 11 December a member linked the retention of the army with that of Sunderland as chief minister, ‘a man who was the standard bearer of despotism in the last two reigns’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 297). Similar remarks were made in subsequent debates. They seem to have rattled Sunderland, who tried to hand in his resignation to the king three times in December, but was refused. In desperation he handed his gold key of office to James Vernon, one of the secretaries of state, on 26 December, saying he had the king's permission to resign. This was a subterfuge, for William had made no such commitment. Indeed he still refused to accept Sunderland's resignation, and Vernon kept the key until 1699. But Sunderland never officiated again as lord chamberlain.

Elder statesman

If Sunderland felt that by stepping down he would be removed from the political firing range he was soon to be undeceived. For early in 1698 he found himself caught up in a scandal involving his Jacobite son-in-law, the earl of Clancarty. Clancarty had gone through a marriage ceremony with Elizabeth Spencer, the daughter of the Sunderlands, in 1684. But he had quickly repented of it, and returned to his native Ireland, where he declared himself a Roman Catholic and married again according to the rites of that church. In 1690 he had been captured by the English at the siege of Cork and imprisoned in the Tower. He had escaped in 1694, however, and joined James II as his gentleman of the bedchamber at St Germain. In December 1697 he was in London, where he sought out his first, protestant, wife and was reconciled with her to the point of consummating their marriage. Her brother , following the death of Robert in 1688 now the eldest son of the Sunderlands, was informed of Clancarty's presence with Elizabeth at Norfolk House. Lord Spencer obtained a warrant for his brother-in-law's arrest, which was promptly executed, confining Clancarty to Newgate prison. ‘This heady mixture of sex and treason’, writes Sunderland's biographer, ‘intoxicated the public, who did not know which to denounce as the greater monster, Clancarty or Spencer’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 302). Sunderland took his son's side against his son-in-law, though he did ask the king to pardon Clancarty. His daughter then enlisted Godolphin and Lord and Lady Marlborough on her side. The affair thus split the family and threatened to alienate some of Sunderland's political allies. Fortunately for him it ended in March when William pardoned Clancarty and granted the unfortunate couple a pension of £1000 a year, on condition that they lived abroad. In May, therefore, they left England to live in Germany.

The problems raised by the Clancarty affair occupied Sunderland for the first six months of 1698 to the exclusion of other political concerns. It was not until 8 July that he appeared at court. While in London he announced that he still thought that only the junto could do the king's business, and that ‘if he was disagreeable to them, or any way obnoxious, he would return to Althorp and not come to town for seven years’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 306). In fact they wanted little to do with him, especially as they were planning their campaign in the general election which was held that summer. Sunderland therefore did retire to Althorp, not for seven years but for eighteen months. However, he did not retire completely from politics in Northamptonshire, his advice being frequently given and occasionally sought, so that he was still thought of as a grey eminence behind the turbulent ministerial changes between 1698 and 1700. His next appearance in London in December 1699 was to attend to the final arrangements for the marriage of his son Charles to Lady Anne Churchill, daughter of the earl and countess of Marlborough. Lord Spencer's first wife, Lady Arabella Cavendish, daughter of the duke of Newcastle, had died in June 1698. Where he was said to be inconsolable his mother lost no time in seeking out another desirable match, putting the proposition to Lady Marlborough that July. The negotiations were held up by Lord Marlborough's objections to Spencer's radical whig politics, but eventually the wedding took place in January 1700.

Sunderland stayed in town for the rest of the parliamentary session. The king apparently asked him to stay to use his skills as a manager to try to persuade Robert Harley, the leader of the country whigs, to enter the government. At this stage Harley was not tempted, though the following year he was to be brought into the administration. Sunderland strengthened his ties with Harley to the extent of voting in the Lords in support of the country bill to resume William's grants in Ireland to courtiers. This so annoyed the king that Sunderland felt it best to stay out of his way after the bill received his reluctant assent. William's difficulties that spring, however, were such that he sought out Sunderland to help bolster his collapsing ministry. On 14 May they had an audience at Hampton Court in which the earl agreed to do his best to bring the duke of Shrewsbury back into business. But when his overtures to Shrewsbury were rebuffed he retired to Althorp at the end of the month. In response to the king's entreaty to return he replied that he would keep ‘his resolution of not stirring from Althorp and … by the grace of God that he will meddle no more’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 317).

In fact Sunderland was meddling once more by the beginning of August. The death of the duke of Gloucester, Princess Anne's only son and heir, on 30 July reopened the question of the succession. William was determined to settle it in the house of Hanover. Sunderland advised him that the only way to secure that objective was to reconstruct the ministry around Harley, and to dissolve parliament so as to give the reconstructed ministry a majority in the House of Commons. William followed the advice, Sunderland handled the approach to Harley through his old colleague Henry Guy, a largely tory ministry was duly appointed, and early in 1701 a new parliament was convened. When it met it passed the Act of Settlement which provided for the accession of the house of Hanover. The tories, however, used the opportunity to pay off scores with William, for example by inserting clauses forbidding the Hanoverian monarchs from going abroad without the consent of parliament, and prohibiting foreigners from holding office under them or receiving property from them. They also unleashed an attack upon the junto, impeaching them for their part in the negotiation of the partition treaty in 1700, whereby William had attempted to prevent the whole of the Spanish empire from descending to one claimant on the death of Carlos II. Their partisanship was made blatantly obvious when they included the earl of Portland in the impeachment proceedings, but not the tory earl of Jersey who had been as involved in the treaties. Sunderland, though he was on good terms with Portland, had no high opinion of him. Nevertheless he felt that by including the earl in their censures of the junto the tories had overreached themselves. ‘O silly, silly—had they left alone Lord Portland’, he protested, ‘they might have hanged the other three in a garret’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 315).

William was mortally offended at these flagrant attacks upon himself and his favourite, and wrote from the Netherlands to ask Sunderland's advice. He advised him to reinstate the junto. The king did not immediately accept this advice, but when Louis XIV played into whig hands by recognizing James II's son as king of England he determined to make ministerial changes and to dissolve parliament. Somers wrote to Sunderland inviting him to London to help in the reconstruction of the ministry, but he declined, sending a detailed memorandum instead.

William's death in March 1702 must have reminded Sunderland of his own mortality. For he was clearly suffering from a heart condition which left him short of breath on exertion of any kind. The accession of Queen Anne also brought to power his allies Godolphin and the Marlboroughs. On 11 March he wrote to the earl of Marlborough ‘all I wish is to die quietly, with the hopes that my country may not be miserable, which I shall do, if the Queen governs as she says’ (Kenyon, Sunderland, 326). Sarah, Marlborough's countess, used her influence with the queen to obtain for him a pension of £4000 a year. His wife wrote to Sarah on 1 June to ask if the arrears owing to him from William's reign could also be paid. To the end Sunderland was in financial difficulties. His last letter, written on 26 August, was to thank Sarah for her kindness. Soon afterwards his heart condition confined him to bed at Althorp, where he died on 28 September. He was buried at Brington on 7 October.

W. A. Speck


J. P. Kenyon, Robert Spencer, earl of Sunderland, 1641–1702 (1958) · J. P. Kenyon, ‘Charles II and William of Orange in 1680’, BIHR, 30 (1957), 95–101 · Diary of the times of Charles the Second by the Honourable Henry Sidney (afterwards earl of Romney), ed. R. W. Blencowe, 2 vols. (1843) · Bishop Burnet's History · G. de F. Lord and others, eds., Poems on affairs of state: Augustan satirical verse, 1660–1714, 7 vols. (1963–75), vol. 6 · The works of John Dryden, 13: Plays: All for love, Oedipus, Troilus and Cressida, ed. M. E. Novak and others (1985) · The autobiography of Sir John Bramston, ed. [Lord Braybrooke], CS, 32 (1845) · The correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and of his brother Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, ed. S. W. Singer, 2 vols. (1828) · Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, ed. A. Browning, 2nd edn, ed. M. K. Geiter and W. A. Speck (1991) · The manuscripts of the earl of Dartmouth, 3 vols., HMC, 20 (1887–96) · NL Scot., Yester MS 7011 · DNB


BL, Althorp papers, Add. MSS 61126, 61486–61490, 61501 |  BL, corresp. with T. Chudleigh, B. Skelton, and others, Add. MSS 32680–32681, 41803, 41809–41811, 41823–41824, 41831–41835, passim · BL, corresp. with Lord Danby, Egerton MS 3326 · BL, corresp. with H. Sydney, Add. MSS 32680–32681 · TNA: PRO, Baschet transcripts, 31/3/144–178 · U. Nott., letters to earl of Portland and William III, MSS PWA 1208–1280 · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Edmund Poley, OSB MS 1


P. Lely, portrait, 1660, Althorp, Northamptonshire · P. Lely, portrait, 1666?, Althorp, Northamptonshire [see illus.] · school of Kneller, c.1680, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire · N. Dixon, miniature, c.1690, Boughton House, Northamptonshire · P. Lely, portrait (as a young man), Knole, Kent · C. Maratti, portrait, Althorp, Northamptonshire · portrait, Penshurst Place, Kent