SPENCER, Lord Charles (1740-1820), of Wheatfield, Oxon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1761 - 1790
1796 - Feb. 1801

Family and Education

b. 31 Mar. 1740, 2nd s. of Charles, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, by Hon. Elizabeth Trevor, da. and h. of Thomas, 2nd Baron Trevor; bro. of Lord Robert Spencer*. educ. Eton 1747-54; Christ Church, Oxf. 1756-9; in Holland 1759-60. m. 2 Oct. 1762, Hon. Mary Beauclerk, da. and h. of Vere Beauclerk, 1st Baron Vere, 2s.

Offices Held

Surveyor of gardens and outranger of Windsor forest Dec. 1762-Apr. 1763; PC 20 Apr. 1763; comptroller of Household Apr. 1763-July 1765; verderer of Wychwood forest 1763; ld. of Admiralty Mar. 1768-July 1779; treasurer of chamber Sept. 1779-June 1782; jt. vice-treasurer [I] Sept. 1782-Mar. 1784; jt. postmaster-gen. Mar. 1801-Feb. 1806; master of Mint Feb.-Oct. 1806; ld. of bedchamber 1808-d.

Col. Oxf. militia 1778-98; brevet col. 1794-8; lt.-col. commdt. Lewknor vols. 1803.


Lord Charles, who had sat for the county on the interest of his brother the 4th Duke of Marlborough since he came of age, was deprived of his seat in 1790. The duke, whose public conduct was governed by his anxiety not to give offence to the King, had resented Lord Charles’s continuing to act with his friend the Duke of Portland in opposition to Pitt’s administration, and this contention was exacerbated by a quarrel over the marriage, in February 1790, of Lord Charles’s son John Spencer* to the duke’s second daughter, Elizabeth.1

The question arose whether the duke would return Lord Charles for Woodstock, but he did not do so. It was clear that Lord Charles had no particular wish to remain in Parliament, but that he wanted some provision. His opportunity came when Portland took office in 1794. On 2 Aug. he informed him that he felt ‘a greater necessity than ever’ for the increase of his income, or he must quit Wheatfield: he hoped for a place for life. Portland got Marlborough’s leave to ask Pitt for an ‘official station becoming his rank and his former services’ for him. Marlborough supported this step and Pitt agreed to try to accommodate Lord Charles, 3 Sept. 1794. Thereupon Lord Charles’s estranged wife began to show an interest in reconciliation. Nothing materialized and in July 1795 Lord Charles asked Portland whether he should ask his brother to return him for Woodstock on the vacancy there, in the hope that an outlay of some £400 might reap immediate benefit: ‘I have not the smallest wish to be again in Parliament on my own account, I was thoroughly tired of it’. In the event he resumed his seat for the county in 1796, his brother having fallen out with his heir and resolved not to return him again.2

Spencer was a silent supporter of Pitt’s administration in his last Parliament. He voted for the assessed taxes, 4 Jan., and volunteered the services of the county militia for Ireland, 18 June 1798. Meanwhile Pitt had repeated his wish to provide for him and agreed that something might be done ‘as to the Mint, or a share of it’, so Marlborough informed Lord Auckland, 2 July 1797. Spencer was disappointed in his hope for the office of remembrancer of the Exchequer soon afterwards, and reminding Pitt that ‘it is not every situation which it would be right for me to accept’, hoped to hear from him ‘when anything proper for me offers’, 1 Oct. 1797. His second son became a commissioner of stamps that year. In January 1799 the ailing health of Augustus Pechell, receiver-general of the customs, stimulated him into writing to his cousin Earl Spencer, in the hope that Pitt might be induced by him to promise the appointment to Lord Charles’s son John on Pechell’s demise. Earl Spencer promoted his wishes and a grateful Lord Charles assured him, 20 Feb. 1799, that ‘no place for my life could be so desirable’, but added that if his son got the place, he hoped to be allowed to hold one himself ‘which would make up the whole about £2,000 a year, a lord of the Admiralty, or some such thing’. On 8 May 1799 he reported to Spencer that Pechell had given up dying, and grasped at the prospect of succeeding Steele as paymaster on the report of a reshuffle: ‘if I am put into such a situation as paymaster, I shall be very willing on John’s acquiring Pechell’s place to change the paymaster for something of half the value’. He added:

From each of my last two places I received nearly £2,500 a year clear of all expenses: this receiver general of the customs is a fixed salary of £1,500; therefore I should hope to be allowed to hold a place myself of about £1,000 a year. I don’t care a farthing on my own account for the pleasure or dignity of being in Parliament but it has come into my head that if I were to have any place not tenable with a seat in Parliament, my son having a prospect of a place also not tenable, it might be a difficulty to my brother and the family as to the representation of the county.

On 1 Dec. 1799 he informed Earl Spencer that he had been disappointed again, this time of a bed-chamber place: ‘The sincere and friendly wishes of a secretary of state and a first lord of the Admiralty and even the endeavours of a first lord of the Treasury in this instance are of no avail’. Pechell looked as if he would outlive Lord Charles, too.3

On the death of the keeper of the privy seal in Scotland in April 1800, a new effort was made on Spencer’s behalf. His brother the duke pressed Earl Spencer, and Earl Spencer, Pitt, suggesting (not it seems for the first time) that Lord Charles might be made joint treasurer of the navy. Portland added his plea on behalf of his ‘very old and much distressed friend’, 11 Apr. Lord Charles assured Earl Spencer, 10 Apr., that he did not mind if his place was incompatible with Parliament: ‘perhaps my seat in that employment might be more secure for it’, and his nephew Lord Francis Spencer was nearly of age to succeed to the county seat, to which he himself had been elected as a minor.

If Mr Pitt does not choose to divide the treasurership, he may promote a paymaster of the army ... and put me in his place. However if it is to be cooked up for me, I can depend upon you as a good maître d’hotel to see that the diet is well served up. I own, if I fail this time, I shall take leave of hope.

On 8 May Pitt informed Lord Charles that he could do nothing for him, though he still hoped to provide for his son. Portland also disappointed him, though he threw out some hint upon which Lord Charles thought ‘perhaps he might be pinned down’. Soon afterwards the death of Viscount Sydney, chief justice in eyre south of the Trent, raised his hopes: it was not, he pronounced, what Pitt termed an efficient place. His further disappointment of this seemed the last straw:

I fail as usual ... as I am now past 60, I have not much time for more failures. It is now six years since the first application of my brother to Mr Pitt on my behalf and the Duke of Portland’s backing it with his own solicitations and here I am, in statu quo.

He clung to Pitt’s promise of provision for John and some employment of £1,000 a year to make up the difference from his one-time splendour of £2,500 per annum:

I am not nice about what it might be provided it did not force me to reside entirely in London; and should not much care if it were not tenable with a seat in the House of Commons at present as my nephew Francis will be of age at the beginning of next winter.

He even offered to accept a place in Earl Spencer’s employ, such as steward of the Derwentwater estate. On 27 Oct. 1800 he again approached Spencer on the report of a peerage for Henry Dundas and a consequent reshuffle, which ‘opens the pay office again’. He asked for Spencer’s mediation with Pitt, with a caveat: ‘if Mr Pitt persists in excluding me from what are called privy councillors’ offices merely because I am no orator, he means to say nearly that he will do nothing for me’. In justification of this he instanced Pitt’s provision for John Villiers, who was also no orator, and Thomas Grenville, who for all his merit was not very active.4

Spencer’s opportunity came when Addington replaced Pitt at the helm. On 11 Feb. 1801 Portland asked Addington to give him the post office, rather than the pay office, as ‘it would be so agreeable to all his family, as well as to himself’, enabling Lord Francis Spencer to succeed to the county seat. The King’s illness delayed Lord Gower’s resignation of the post office, but the arrangement took place and Spencer vacated his seat as joint postmaster. His troubles were not over. When Addington negotiated with Pitt in April 1803, he was treated as a dispensable placeholder. When Pitt returned to power in May 1804, there were thoughts of displacing him, it being argued that Marlborough’s support, which might thereby be placed at risk, should be sufficiently secured by one nephew having a place at the board of stamps and another assured the place of receiver general for Oxfordshire. On reflection, Pitt thought of transferring Spencer to the pay office; and in December 1804, on his reconciliation with Addington, again thought either of pushing him out, with a moderate pension and provision, as pledged, for his son John, or of transferring him to the joint paymastership. Lord Buckinghamshire was to have succeeded him at the post office, but was placed elsewhere instead.5

The question mark over Spencer’s head remained when Lord Grenville succeeded Pitt in February 1806. Francis Horner* answered it: ‘The Marlborough family supports every ministry, but it is always bought’. Grenville and Fox agreed to save Spencer, the sacrifice being Fox’s, as he wished to provide for Lord Albemarle. Lord Grenville was the more ready to retain Spencer as the latter, accepting an invitation to an interview with him, 4 Feb., added, ‘I wish to communicate to your lordship a message from my brother Marlborough expressing his wishes to give his support to your administration’. Next day Grenville assured him that he would either retain his present office or get an equivalent one. He became master of the Mint.6

Spencer was still not secure. In July 1806 he had to remonstrate with his nephew Francis for neglecting to support the ministry, and in the same month Lord Sidmouth hinted to Charles Bragge Bathurst that a reshuffle might soon return Spencer to the post office, opening the Mint for Bathurst. On 25 Sept. Spencer learnt from the newspapers that he had resigned the Mint in Bathurst’s favour. Earl Spencer confirmed his displacement the same day, consoling him with the remark that it was unfortunate that Spencer had held a place tenable with a seat in Parliament and that Lord Grenville was open to suggestion as to how Spencer or his sons might be compensated. Spencer called on Lord Sidmouth next day, ‘neither surprised nor mortified’, and was again reassured with talk of compensation. Privately, Earl Spencer noted that the Marlborough interest in the House being hostile to ministers, and Lord Charles no use to them out of it, made the event inevitable. Lord Charles hoped to cling to his office until the meeting of Parliament in November and informed Auckland, 27 Sept., that he wished ‘to fall on a bed of down, the difficulty will be how to make it up’:

Mr Pitt’s original proposal to me was a pension for life for myself, and some good situation for my son, alluding to either the revenue board or an agency of the colonies ... Since that John has got the receiver general’s office in the post office, not £600 a year, and I fear a pension is grown more difficult for the King to grant.

He had just asked Earl Spencer to solicit from Lord Grenville a pension of £1,200 a year for him, and some arrangement for his sons’ benefit, when the sudden news of dissolution hurried him out of office with the forfeiture of £300 of his salary. Nothing came of his brother Robert’s suggestion that he should come into Parliament for Oxford city. He then wrote to Spencer to say how hurt his brother the duke was at his dismissal, 27 Oct.:

I find my brother ... very anxious about me and really very desirous of supporting this administration. He has no desire nor is likely to request any pension or place for anybody connected with him but me, for whom he earnestly wishes a full compensation for the loss of the Mint. It has come into my head that if Lord Grenville is so good as to assent to the pension of £1,200 a year ... it may be equally agreeable to him to grant it, not in my name but to my two sons £600 to each of them; then if there could be a plan of my having about £1,000 a year for life, the whole thing would be completed.

P.S. The plan I allude to is what you mentioned, viz. my brother Robert having his employment for life and paying me £1,000 or £1,200 out of it.

On 29 Oct. he wrote again to say that Marlborough ‘must feel hurt and injured’ until he had received ‘perfect compensation’, and though inclined to support the government, he could not recommend it to his nominees in the House until this was achieved. On 16 Nov. he claimed that the royal family were also displeased at his ill-treatment. The upshot of this was that Lord Grenville asked the King to make him a lord of the bedchamber. This embarrassed the King who postponed his decision. Meanwhile, Lord Charles assured Earl Spencer, 1 Dec.:

I am so sure that the King thinks I ought to be provided for on this occasion, that I have little doubt of his consenting to giving the office of surveyor general for one life provided I share it with my brother Robert, if Lord Grenville would but have the goodness to propose it to him on that ground.

Lest there should be any objection to his having a certain sum and each of his sons a smaller one, he invoked, sans phrase, the precedent of Edmund Burke*.7

Soon afterwards he thought he had better see the King himself, in case George III preferred a personal solicitation for a bedchamber place to the recommendation of his prime minister.8 By 21 Dec. 1806, he was aggrieved: ‘I am clearly the sole victim to appease Lord Sidmouth and Mr Bathurst’. All Grenville could offer was the reversion of ‘a place of £670 clear’ and the possibility of ‘a pension on the 4½ per cents’. By 26 Dec. he had almost given up hope of the bedchamber and, his nerves shattered, was debating the respective merits of a pension on the civil list or on the 4½ per cents, consoling himself with the thought that Grenville meant him to have a net £1,500 p.a. On 8 Jan. 1807 he was excited by the possibility of the King’s waiving a rule on his behalf and the prospect of getting £500 out of his brother Robert’s emolument. Finally, on quitting office, 24 Mar. 1807, Grenville secured him a pension of £1,000. Within a week Portland had raised it to £1,200. Even Marlborough protested at being bought so blatantly. Lord Charles’s apotheosis was completed when he became a lord of the bedchamber at £1,000 p.a. Not surprisingly he was emboldened to ask the King to make his son John a groom of the bedchamber, 4 Nov. 1808.9 Had Lord Francis Spencer obtained a peerage in 1812, the duke had thought of returning Lord Charles for the county again. It all ended badly after all: in 1818 Lord Charles fled to the Continent to escape his creditors. He returned to England and died 16 June 1820.10

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. A. L. Rowse, The Later Churchills, 169.
  • 2. Add. 34430, f. 12; Portland mss PwF2820, 8510, 8514, 8540; PRO 30/8/156, f. 41; 195, f. 120.
  • 3. Add. 34454, f. 124; PRO 30/8/180, f. 36; 195, f. 174; Spencer mss, Ld. C. to Earl Spencer, 13, 22 Jan., 20 Feb., 8 May, 1 Dec. 1799.
  • 4. PRO 30/8/180, f. 32; 195, f. 205; PRO, Dacres Adams mss 3/18; Spencer mss, Ld. C. to Earl Spencer, 10 Apr., 12 May, 6 June, 10 July, 27 Oct. 1800.
  • 5. Sidmouth mss; PRO 30/9/32/570, 573, Marlborough to Abbot, 15 Feb., 1 Mar. 1801; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 8; Dacres Adams mss 4/93; 6/4, 8; Rose Diaries, ii. 94, 134, 144; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2991; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 8 Jan. 1805.
  • 6. Horner mss 3, f. 13; Add. 41856, ff. 204, 206; Fortescue mss, Ld. C. Spencer to Grenville, 4 Feb., Grenville to Earl Spencer, 5 Feb. 1806.
  • 7. Add. 34456, f. 534; 34457, ff. 43, 49, 84; 34461, f. 131; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bragge Bathurst, 7 July, 27 Sept.; Spencer mss, Earl to Ld. C. Spencer, 25 Sept., to his mother, 26 Sept., Ld. C. to Earl Spencer, 27, 29 Oct., 1 Dec.; Fortescue mss, Ld. R. Spencer to T. Grenville, 14 Oct. [1806].
  • 8. Spencer mss, Ld. C. to Earl Spencer, 1, 9 Dec. 1806.
  • 9. Ibid.; HMC Fortescue, ix. 125; Fortescue mss, Auckland to Grenville, 4 Apr. [1807]; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3751.
  • 10. Gent. Mag. (1820), i. 640.