SPENCER, Lord Henry John (1770-95).

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



1790 - 3 July 1795

Family and Education

b. 20 Dec. 1770, 2nd s. of George, 4th Duke of Marlborough, and bro. of Lord Francis Almeric Spencer* and George Spencer, Mq. of Blanford*. educ. Eton 1781-7; Christ Church, Oxf. 1787. unm.

Offices Held

Sec. of embassy, The Hague Apr. 1790-1792, minister plenip. Sept. 1791-May 1792, May-July 1793; envoy extraordinary to Sweden July 1793-4, to Prussia Jan. 1795-d.


Spencer was under age and abroad, bound for diplomacy, when he was returned for Woodstock on his father’s interest in 1790. The Duke of Leeds, on hearing of his wish for ‘foreign employment’, had gratified his father by acceding to it; and in April 1790 he proceeded to The Hague as secretary to William Eden*, Lord Auckland. Late that year he was home on leave, but did not apparently take his seat, though listed among opponents of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in April 1791. He admitted to being ‘naturally indolent’ and worse: ‘Shyness indeed is with me both constitutional and systematic and what makes the evil more inveterate, is, that the effects which I find it produces, are at the same time the causes of its continuance and increase’. He was in charge at The Hague during Auckland’s absence (September 1791-May 1792), but did not wish to be ‘a fixture’ there. Lord Grenville, who thought highly of his services, offered him a transfer to Paris in April 1792, but Auckland advised him to remain at The Hague and he declined it. He was sent to Vienna to congratulate the Emperor Francis II on his election: en route, at Dresden, Lady Webster encountered him:

His abilities were highly spoken of; at Eton he was known as a poet in the Microcosm. His shyness embarrassed him, and rendered his manner awkward. He was very witty, and possessed a superabundant stock of irony. In short he became ardently in love with me, and he was the first man who had ever produced the slightest emotion in my heart.1

Auckland wished him again to deputize for him at The Hague in the spring of 1793, but Spencer, who had proceeded to England on leave in November 1792, wished to sound Lord Grenville as to what other prospects there were for him:

The King was distressingly gracious at the levée ... At all events I shall profess my readiness to return to The Hague for some months, both for your convenience and for every other motive. But if the three great posts of Vienna, Madrid and The Hague should be filled up without my being taken notice of, it will become a question whether it will be worth my while to continue abroad with so little chance of preferment.2

On 15 Dec. 1792 Spencer was in the House and made his ‘maiden speech’, merely in corroboration of Henry Dundas’s contradiction of Fox’s allegation that the Dutch ambassador to France had not returned to The Hague. His father concurred in his applying for Brussels rather than Berlin, and Lord Grenville told him he might have had Brussels but for the French invasion. When he then reluctantly but dutifully applied for Berlin, Grenville vetoed it and told him he was wanted at The Hague, in Auckland’s impending absence. Nothing came of a report that he was to have Dresden and he dreaded being offered Stockholm. Meanwhile he faced the alternative of ‘leading an idle life in London at the expense of government, or of returning to The Hague in an inferior situation to that which I have already held there’. He was present in the House for the debates on the outbreak of war with France in February 1793. Grenville would not allow Auckland to leave The Hague at this juncture, thinking Spencer too inexperienced to act in his place.3

Sheridan’s motion critical of Auckland, 25 Apr. 1793, seemed to Spencer to prejudice his chances of employment further. He informed Auckland, who had expected him to make ‘an eloquent and flaming speech to defend the Embassy’, that there had been no call to do so. At this point, Lord Elgin having preferred Berlin to Brussels, Spencer’s father had applied for Brussels for him, only to learn that Elgin had changed his mind. If he were not offered Berlin, Spencer thought, he would be justified in supposing that there was no wish to promote him; though he would be content if his ‘old plan of getting the rank of envoy at The Hague’ could be realized. He had no wish to return to Blenheim, where the regime imposed on his family by his reclusive father appalled him. The dilemma was resolved in May 1793 by his becoming minister plenipotentiary at The Hague in Auckland’s place. Auckland, acting as his ‘ambassador’ in London, then informed him that, as Berlin was usually awarded to experienced diplomats, he was to be offered Stockholm and urged him to accept it. He did so, though it was a ‘translation’, not a ‘promotion’. His only consolation was that even Stockholm was better than Blenheim; but when, soon after his arrival in Sweden, Auckland informed him that his going to Berlin was again being mooted, he replied that hitherto he had thought Berlin ‘the most unpleasant and ineligible place in the world; but I had not seen Stockholm’. He added, ‘My only ambition at present is to get away from hence’. His letters to Auckland illustrated graphically the ‘slow poison’ of his existence there. Early in 1794 he obtained leave of absence and in March was offered and accepted Berlin. His task was the fruitless one of combating the Franco-Prussian alliance and he saw no future there. He died at Berlin, much lamented by Auckland and by his contemporaries, 3 July 1795.4

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Add. 28064, f. 374; 34434, ff. 100, 169; 34441, f. 83; 34442, ff. 119, 122, 135, 145, 148; HMC Fortescue , ii. 251, 265; Jnl. of Lady Holland , i. 13.
  • 2. Add. 34444, f. 312; 34449, f. 409.
  • 3. Add. 34445, ff. 86, 193, 399; 34446, ff. 342, 387; 34447, f. 483; 34448, ff. 142, 188, 232; 34449, f. 320. Auckland Jnl. ii. 471, 474; Jnl. of Lady Holland , i. 123.
  • 4. Add. 34450, ff. 158, 219, 255, 314, 372; 34451, ff. 29, 139, 297, 375, 385, 531; 34452, ff. 107, 199, 349, 389; 34453, f. 293; Auckland Jnl. iii. 120, 123, 128, 146, 165, 201, 203, 205, 216, 222, 276, 298, 310; HMC Fortescue , iii. 561; Holland Further Mems. Whig Party , 314.