SPENCER, Charles, Lord Spencer (1675-1722).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1695 - 28 Sept. 1702

Family and Education

b. 23 Apr. 1675, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland by Anne, da. of George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol, sis. of John Digby, 3rd Earl of Bristol.  educ. travelled abroad (Holland) 1689–90; Utrecht 1689; LL.D. Cambridge 1705.  m. (1) 12 Jan. 1695 (with £25,000) Lady Arabella (d. 1698), da. of Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle, 1da.; (2) 2 Jan. 1700 (?with £20,000) Lady Anne (d. 1716), da. of John Churchill†, Earl of Marlborough, 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da.; (3) 5 Dec. 1717, Judith (d. 1749), da. and coh. of Benjamin Tichborne, sis. of Henry Tichborne, Baron Ferrard of Beaulieu [I], 2s. (1 d.v.p.).  Styled Ld. Spencer 1688–1702; suc. fa. as 3rd Earl of Sunderland 28 Sept. 1702; KG 21 Nov. 1719. 1

Offices Held

FRS 1698.

Envoy extraordinary to Vienna June–Nov. 1705; commr. for union with Scotland 1706; PC 3 Dec. 1706; sec. of state (south) Dec. 1706–June 1710; (north) Apr. 1717–Mar. 1718; ld. lt. [I] 1714–Aug. 1715; ld. privy seal Aug. 1715–Dec. 1716; jt. v.-treasurer [I] Mar. 1716–July 1716, sole treasurer July 1716–May 1717; ld. pres. Mar. 1718–Feb. 1719; first ld. of Treasury Mar. 1718–Apr. 1721; ld. justice 1719, 1720; groom of stole and first gent. of bedchamber 1719–d.

Gov. Charterhouse ?–d.2


Following the death of his rakish elder brother in September 1688, Spencer became heir to the 2nd Earl of Sunderland, one of the most adept politicians of the age. Styled Lord Spencer, he was too young to be tainted with his father’s (and elder brother’s) conversion to Rome in 1687. Indeed, John Evelyn in 1688 professed him ‘a youth of extraordinary hopes, very learned for his age and ingenious’. Certainly, he had able mentors: Charles Trimnell (later bishop of Norwich) was the family chaplain, and a Swiss Protestant, Pierre Flournais, his tutor. When Spencer and his mother went to Holland to join the exiled Earl of Sunderland in August 1689, Spencer went to study at Utrecht, returning to England in April of the following year having no doubt already acquired the ‘great facility and elegance in all the modern as well as ancient languages’ attributed to him by Richard Steele*.3

In 1693 Spencer was keen to organize a ‘tour about England’, a scheme that was put off in August 1694, no doubt owing to the negotiations for his marriage to one of the greatest heiresses of the day which took up most of the months May to October. There had been serious talk of a match between Spencer and a daughter of the Earl of Portland in March 1694, but this was evidently abandoned in favour of the more desirable alliance with the Cavendish family. According to the new Duke’s (John Holles†) advisers ‘my Lord Spencer’s quality and his fortune are without exception, but his qualifications are most extraordinary’. The girl’s mother, the dowager Duchess, was similarly impressed: ‘the young lord having the character of sobriety and good humour which is so rarely to find’. The marriage eventually took place in January 1695, and proved financially advantageous as Sunderland settled most of his estate upon him in return for the use of the marriage portion to pay off his own debts. By March Spencer was resident in London and taking a keen interest in parliamentary proceedings. With a general election due later in the year, thoughts turned to securing Spencer a seat. In Northamptonshire, early Tory campaigning precluded any attempt on the county, but the decision of his father’s chief henchman, Henry Guy, not to seek re-election at Hedon, Yorkshire, left an opening for him there, and he was also chosen at Tiverton. On 27 Nov. he informed the Commons of his decision to sit for the latter.4

Not everyone was expecting great things from the new Member, Dean Prideaux writing that Lord Spencer ‘is but a young man, and speaks his censures by other men’s judgment’. On the issue of the council of trade, he was forecast as likely to support the Court in the crucial divisions of 31 Jan. 1696. Having signed the Association in February, he was granted leave on 2 Mar. to recover his health, which explains his absence from the division list on the price of guineas. He had recovered by early May when he was dining at Lambeth along with several bishops.5

On 17 Oct. 1696 Spencer was first-named in an order to prepare a bill for a new commission of public accounts, which he duly presented on the 26th. During proceedings on the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, Spencer, in committee on 20 Nov., ‘made a very unadvised motion . . . about excluding the lords spiritual out of the bill’, which might well have wrecked the measure (and protected his father from the possibility that his contacts with his son-in-law, the Earl of Arran (later the Duke of Hamilton), would be revealed). However, he did vote for the attainder on 25 Nov. On 2 Mar. 1697 he acted as a teller in favour of the committal of a general naturalization bill. In the same month he was heavily involved in conference proceedings on the bill to prevent the buying and selling of offices, later reporting the management committee’s reasons against agreeing to the Lords’ amendments on 9 Apr., and the following day on the result of the conference. During the summer of 1697 there were rumours that he was to be appointed governor to the Duke of Gloucester, but in fact the post went to the Earl of Marlborough.6

From the poem Advice to a Painter it would appear that Spencer voted against Robert Harley’s* motion on 11 Dec. 1697 to disband the armed forces raised since 1680. The poem also referred to Spencer’s republicanism, mentioned by several other commentators around this period, and picked up by foreign observers of the English political scene, many of whom regarded most Whigs as republicans. On 14 Dec. when the Commons took the King’s Speech into consideration Spencer proposed a motion for the supply, which was superseded by the proposal and appointment of a committee to look into the estimates. The beginning of 1698 saw him inform the secretary of state of the return to England of his Jacobite brother-in-law, the Earl of Clancarty, which led to that peer’s arrest. On 28 Jan. 1698 he was named to the drafting committee of the Tiverton workhouse bill, although the measure was managed by John Hoblyn, the Member for Bodmin. Spencer’s father having recently resigned the office of lord chamberlain and fearing attack from the Whigs, he was among those keen to affect a rapprochement between Sunderland and the Junto. He reported an approach made by his father on 25 Jan., which James Vernon I* felt more likely to succeed now that Sunderland’s former ally Charles Duncombe* had been sent to the Tower. Spencer did what he could to support an accommodation. On 16 Feb., when Charles Montagu was under attack for accepting an Irish grant, Spencer defended him, and again, on the 22nd, when further censure was levelled at the Treasury for its mishandling of abuses in the Exchequer, ‘Lord Spencer showed a great deal of warmth for Mr Montagu, and nobody in the House is more violent against Duncombe’. Following the introduction of a bill of pains against Duncombe, Spencer was involved in the conference proceedings in which the Lords were briefed on the background to the bill. When on 10 Mar. Lord Hartington (William Cavendish*) reported the facts of the case, as they were to be stated to the peers, there was a dispute over whether Duncombe’s confession to the Commons had in fact included any account of his having ordered his agent to fill in the names of other people when endorsing Exchequer bills. Spencer was one of those who insisted that the case as drawn up be delivered to the Lords. When the Lords rejected the bill on the 15th and released Duncombe, Spencer was named on the 16th to the committee to inspect the Lords’ Journals to ascertain their proceedings on the bill, and two days later when Hartington reported from this committee it was on Spencer’s motion that another committee was set up to search for precedents for the Lords’ release of a prisoner of the Commons. Almost immediately, he was involved in another skirmish with the Lords over Hon. Robert Bertie*, which involved him in two days of intense activity, including drafting a message to the Upper House on 22 Mar. and carrying messages between the Houses. Other issues preoccupied him over the next two months. On 26 Apr. he was first-named to a committee to consider a petition of several members of the Royal Lustring Company, impeached for importing French goods during the war, to be allowed bail. On 2 June he was nominated to inspect the East India Company’s books, he himself having become a partisan of the interlopers as shown by his subscription of £500 to the loan of £2m which the ‘New Company’ had negotiated with Montagu, and by his purchase of £500 of stock in the New Company in 1698.7

Tragedy struck in June 1698 when Spencer’s wife died of smallpox, but he proceeded to secure his return at the general election in July. In August his concern for ‘poor protestants languishing in the galleys’ saw him forward a list of these unfortunates to Vernon, which he had received from Geneva via his former governor, Flournais. On a comparative analysis of the old and new Houses compiled in around September, Spencer was marked as a Court supporter and this was confirmed at the opening of the session on 6 Dec. when he seconded the nomination of Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt., for Speaker. Further, when the King’s Speech was taken into consideration on 14 Dec. it was Spencer who moved for a supply, only for the Commons to opt for a committee of the whole at a later date. On 18 Jan. 1699 he voted in favour of a standing army. He acted as a teller twice in April: on the 15th in favour of sending for Henry Chivers* in custody and on the 26th against adding a clause to the paper duty.8

By the summer of 1699 negotiations were well advanced for Spencer’s marriage to Lady Anne Churchill. Concerns were expressed, principally by her father, Marlborough, that Spencer showed, in the phrase of his mother, too much ‘heat and over earnestness’ in politics, but the Countess of Sunderland was careful to promote his better qualities:

he is very good natured and strictly honest, and the heats that he shows . . . I am certain proceed from an honest heart that has had the misfortune to fall into the acquaintance of a party that are of a crucifying temper, which, however hot and foolish they may make him appear, I am sure he is too honest and too good natured to be infected by them.

Experience would conquer all, particularly under Marlborough’s guidance. The negotiations appear to have been completed by the end of September when Spencer went back to London and waited on Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*), who in a gesture of reconciliation asked after his father’s health. Indeed, it was the excuse of Spencer’s wedding which brought Sunderland up to London in January 1700 for consultations with the King.9

In the committee of the whole on 13 Feb. Spencer opposed the resolution that the procuring and obtaining of grants from the crown by ministers for their own use (as Lord Chancellor Somers had done) was a violation of public trust. This support for Somers was seen as conflicting with the strategy of his father, Lord Sunderland, and may account for his name appearing with a query in an analysis of the House into interests, and the appearance of a poem in June which saw Lord Spencer despatched to tell the town that his father had not been responsible for the dismissal of Somers, particularly as the Earl was soon canvassing his return.10

Spencer clearly took seriously the possibility that Parliament would be dissolved in the autumn of 1700, and Edward Harley* reported that ‘Lord Spencer has been at Tiverton to secure his interest there’, while Peter King*, on his return from the western circuit in September, chanced to find Spencer at the abode of Sir Walter Yonge, 3rd Bt.*, a close friend of Somers. Spencer was back in London by the 26th when he informed the Duke of Newcastle of his return from his ‘western journey’. Having made provision in good time, Spencer was duly returned at the first election of 1701. His growing affinity with the Whigs can be seen in his seconding of Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt., for Speaker, Littleton having been ordered to absent himself by the King to facilitate Harley’s election. During this debate Spencer attempted to answer Sir Edward Seymour’s assertion that the House could not choose a Speaker without the King’s direction, referring to the manner in which the choice of Seymour was made in 1679, but Sir Edward was able to show Spencer ‘his mistake’. On 1 Mar. 1701 in the committee of the whole on the King’s Speech as it related to the Protestant succession, Spencer attempted to follow the resolution reaffirming that the succession lay in the Protestant line by naming the ‘Duchess of Hanover’ and her issue, but ‘it was thought improper till these resolutions were reported to the House and agreed’. When the appropriate moment came in the committee of the whole on the 11th, Sir John Bolles, 4th Bt., ‘stole the crown from his lordship’ by proposing the Hanoverian line himself. Also in March Spencer seems to have been active in trying to launch a counter-attack against those Tories intent on pursuing the Whig lords for their role in the Partition Treaties. Before the impeachments were completed Spencer had been granted leave on 21 May to recover his health.11

In April 1701 rumours circulated that Spencer would succeed Thomas Howard* to a lucrative place as teller of the Exchequer, but nothing came of it. With his father urging accommodation with the Whigs and a second dissolution, Spencer was returned again for Tiverton. At least one foreign observer had included Spencer as a leader of the Whigs in the Commons and Harley was able to class him unequivocally as a Whig in his analysis of December 1701. Spencer duly proposed Littleton again for the Speakership when the Parliament opened on 30 Dec., but Harley’s re-election was a foregone conclusion. When the Commons took the King’s Speech into consideration on 5 Jan. 1702, Spencer proposed the motion that a supply be granted. January also saw him named to draft a bill to encourage privateers (10th), and act as a teller on the Whig side in the Maldon election dispute, in support of Irby Montagu, the brother of Junto Whig Charles (now Lord Halifax). He was also teller on 14 Feb. for the minority in favour of the discharge of those men ordered into custody for promoting a ‘scandalous, false and vexatious petition’ against the sitting Tory Members at Malmesbury, a borough where Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*) had a strong interest. On 30 Mar. Spencer was quick to answer Seymour’s slur on the late King’s memory, following the Queen’s decision to donate £100,000 from the civil list to the war effort, by suggesting that those who felt that William had not been ‘entirely English’ had French hearts. Spencer was then appointed to the committee to thank the Queen for her generosity. On 18 Apr., during consideration of petitions relating to Irish forfeited estates, Henry St. John II launched an attack on the Earl of Sunderland, remarking that ‘a man that denied his God in another reign was trying to insinuate himself’, a somewhat paranoid reaction to the news that the Earl had arrived in London. Sir John Bolles then mentioned Sunderland by name, prompting Spencer to respond that

his father had owned his fault, and was included in the second Act of Indemnity without disapprobation of any Parliament; and never was for levying money without Parliament, nor in a French interest, nor would ever desire to be in the ministry, while some were at the helm, who had been in that interest more than 40 years.

The House ‘applauded him extremely’, partly no doubt for his reflection on Rochester, who was at the forefront of those keen to avoid war with France. On 2 May he seconded Robert Walpole II’s motion to address the Queen that no army officer should pay for renewing their commissions. On the 5th, Spencer was one of those responsible for trying to embarrass the Tories by proposing an address to the Queen thanking her for the zeal to the Protestant succession shown by her order in council directing that the Electress Sophia should be included in Anglican prayers.12

The general election of 1702 saw Spencer challenge for one of the Northamptonshire county seats. Backed by Lady Marlborough as ‘upon the whole matter a man of honour’, he was narrowly beaten into third place. Worse still, the Whigs lost at both Northampton and Higham Ferrers, which one Tory believed ‘may have sent Lord Spencer home very melancholy’. One good result from the election campaign was a further rapprochement between his father and the Junto, Lords Orford, Somers and Halifax dining at Althorp in August and bringing with them Lord Montagu (Ralph†) who had stood ‘very warmly by Lord Spencer at his election’. Spencer’s return for Tiverton was then made redundant by the death of his father in September.13

Up to this point, Spencer’s career had been perceived in terms of his father’s influence. His initial enthusiasm for Country measures, particularly in 1696–7, was probably the result of Sunderland’s manoeuvring for the support of independent-minded Whig MPs and the new Country Party. However, after 1698 Spencer became more committed to the Whig cause as personified by the Junto, and was an important conduit in keeping relations between the two camps open. After defending Somers and Halifax in the Commons, Spencer was well placed in 1702 to join the counsels of the Junto. His close connexion with the Marlboroughs, the favourites of the new Queen, gave him a position of influence at court, especially as his Whiggism was shared by his mother-in-law. Preferment was not long in coming: after a sojourn in Vienna, he was the first member of the Junto admitted into office, in 1706, and retained his place in the party until the Hanoverian succession. Despite a slight halt to his career caused by his appointment to the lieutenancy in Ireland, the deaths of Halifax, Somers and Wharton in 1715–16 left him as one of the leading ministers of George I, until the South Sea scandal dictated his retreat to a Household office. Just when his career stood at an important crossroads, between return to power and political defeat, he died on 19 Apr. 1722, of pleurisy, or as John Evelyn II* put it ‘a return of his old complaint the palpitation of the heart’. Ironically, he outlived by only two days his eldest son by his third wife, the victim of inoculation against smallpox.14

Lord Raby was certainly correct when he noted of Spencer that he was ‘always a violent Whig, very violent in the House of Commons during his father’s lifetime, and continued so in the House of Lords after his death’. His impact in the Commons was perhaps less than it ought to have been given his status and ability, but he was handicapped by ‘a disagreeable impetuosity and ungraceful manner of speaking which left him not till a very few years before his death’.

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. Add. 4223, ff. 303–4; J. P. Kenyon, Sunderland, 268, 308.
  • 2. Kenyon, 156, 238–41; Evelyn Diary, iv. 595; Calamy, Life, i. 154–5; Steele Corresp. ed. Blanchard 469.
  • 3. Evelyn Mems. ed. Bray (1818), ii. 298; Chester RO, Earwaker mss CR63/2/691/145, D. Knightley to Sir John Crewe, 4 Aug. 1698; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 282; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Holles) mss Pw2 180a, Benjamin Overton* to [Newcastle], 15 Sept. 1694; Pw2 181, Thomas Felton* and Overton to [same], 19 May 1695; Add. 70500, f. 255; HMC Portland, ii. 172; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 132.
  • 4. HMC 5th Rep. 374; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/5, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 11 Feb. 1695/6; H. Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Pol. Wm. III, 165; Evelyn Diary, v. 238.
  • 5. Vernon– Shrewsbury Letters, i. 69; G. M. Townend, ‘Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland’ (Edinburgh Univ. PhD thesis), 6–7; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 293; Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 161c.
  • 6. Poems of Affairs of State ed. Ellis, vi. 23; Townend thesis, 8; Horwitz, 249; Shrewsbury Corresp. 524, 528; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, i. 458, 478; ii. 19; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 140; Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/85, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 18 Mar. 1697[–8]; Add. 61656, ff. 1, 4.
  • 7. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 96, 226; Add. 40771, f. 304; 30000 B, f. 282.
  • 8. F. Harris, Passion For Govt. 82; Add. 61126, f. 9; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 356, 358; Kenyon, 308, 314.
  • 9. Som. RO, Sandford (Clarke) mss DD/SF 4107(a); Horwitz, 266, 269, 275; Huntington Lib. Ellesmere mss EL8915; Cunningham, Hist GB, i. 183.
  • 10. Locke Corresp. ed. de Beer, vii. 140; Add. 70236, Edward to Robert Harley, 25 Sept. 1700; 70501, f. 72; 29568, f. 9; 17677 WW, f. 198; NMM, Sergison pprs. Ser./103, f. 64; Horwitz, 283; Yale Univ. Beinecke Lib. Osborn coll. Blathwayt mss box 21, William Blathwayt* to George Stepney, 11 Mar. 1700[–1]; PRO, 31/3/188, f. 3.
  • 11. Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 35; Post Boy, 5–8 Apr. 1701; Horwitz, 295; 31/3/188, f. 19; DZA, Bonet despatches, 6/17 Jan., 12/23 May 1702; Lambeth Palace mss 2564, p. 408; Cocks Diary, 260, 270–1, 280.
  • 12. HMC Bathurst, 8; Add. 29568, f. 114; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 226.
  • 13. Townend thesis, 1–4; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 132.
  • 14. Wentworth Pprs. 135; HMC 14th Rep. IX, 508.