COMPTON, Hon. Spencer (?1674-1743), of Compton Place, Eastbourne, Suss.
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Family and Education
b. ?1674, 6th but 2nd surv. s. of James Compton, M.P., 3rd Earl of Northampton, by Mary, da. of Baptist Noel, M.P., 3rd Visct. Campden. educ. St. Paul’s; M. Temple 1687, Trinity, Oxf. 28 Feb. 1690, aged 15. unm. K.B. 27 May 1725; Baron Wilmington 8 Jan. 1728; Earl of Wilmington 14 May 1730; K.G. 12 June 1733.
Chairman of committee of privileges and elections 1705-10; paymaster of Queen’s pensions 1707-14; treasurer to Prince George of Denmark 1707-8; Speaker of House of Commons 1715-27; treasurer to Prince of Wales 1715-27; P.C. 6 July 1716; paymaster gen. 1722-30; ld. privy seal May-Dec. 1730; ld. pres. of the Council 1730-42; first ld. of Treasury Feb. 1742-d.
Early in Spencer Compton’s political career he became closely connected with Walpole, acting with him as a manager of Sacheverell’s impeachment. Appointed treasurer to the Prince of Wales on George I’s accession, he was elected Speaker of the new House of Commons. His successor, Arthur Onslow, describes him as ‘very able in the chair, but had not the powers of speech out of it’. His only recorded speech out of the chair was made on 8 Apr. 1717, when he opposed a vote of credit as unparliamentary and unprecedented. On its being pointed out that he himself had moved a similar motion in the previous reign, he expressed surprise that ‘gentlemen should bring in as a precedent, a business that was transacted so many years ago, and which was not parallel to the present case.’1
During the quarrel in the royal family from 1717 to 1720, Compton, as head of the Prince’s household, went into opposition, co-operating closely with Walpole. In the midst of the South Sea boom in 1720 he and Walpole did their best unavailingly to dissuade the Prince from accepting the governorship of a bubble company, telling him that he would be ‘prosecuted, mentioned in Parliament, and cried in the alley, upon the foot of ... [the] Prince of Wales’s bubble’. In 1722 the ministry, whose policy was to placate the heir-apparent by procuring places for his followers, bestowed on Compton the immensely lucrative office of paymaster general, out of which he was reported to have amassed £100,000.2 On George I’s death, the new King’s original intention was to replace Walpole by Compton, who, as Speaker Onslow afterwards wrote,
had been long his treasurer, and very near to him in all his counsels. It went so far as to be almost a formal appointment, the King, for two or three days directing everybody to go to him upon business, and Sir Robert, I know, did himself believe it would be so; but by the Queen’s management all this was soon overruled.
Walpole’s continuance was facilitated by Compton, who voluntarily declined the offer of the Treasury. According to the then secretary of the Treasury, John Scrope,
he was frighted with the greatness of the undertaking, and more particularly as to what related to money matters. As he thus declined it himself, he had no one else to recommend. It was well for the public that such were his then apprehensions; he afterwards thought difficulties about money matters to be neither very considerable nor formidable.
The question whether Walpole as head of the Treasury or Compton as Speaker should be regarded as the King’s chief representative in the Commons was settled when it became necessary to decide which of them should write the King’s speech dissolving the old Parliament: The King had ordered them both to make him a speech, and when he came to choose shook his head at poor Sir Spencer’s and approved of Sir Robert’s.3 Before the new Parliament met in January 1728 Walpole, feeling that Compton
had conceived too strong hopes of being [his] superior ever to serve in the House of Commons quietly under him, and that it might be dangerous ... to suffer him in the chair of a new Parliament ... advised the making him a peer. Accordingly he was created Baron of Wilmington.
Far from openly resenting his supersession, Compton seemed
just as well satisfied to be bowing and grinning in the antechamber, possessed of a lucrative employment without credit, and dishonoured by a title which was the mark of his disgrace, as if he had been dictating in the closet, sole fountain of court favour at home, and regulator of all the national transactions abroad.
In fact, however,
he hated Sir Robert in his heart, and though he did not dare to speak against him himself, approved and caressed those that did; and if anybody else should have courage enough to attack him, or strength enough to pull him down, no man in England wished better success to such an undertaking than Lord Wilmington, or would be more ready to trample on Sir Robert if it prevailed.
Described as an ‘old woman’ by Walpole,4 after whose fall he was put as a stopgap at the head of the Treasury, he died 2 July 1743, disappointing the Sackville family (see under Sackville, Lord John) by leaving his entire fortune to his nephew, the 5th Earl of Northampton.