Robert Spencer, the 2nd Earl of Sunderland, was the chief minister for James II. Despite Sunderland’s association with the pro-Catholic James, he became a trusted advisor to William III. He managed to make this cross-over by being a non-party man who had a skill for man management.
Robert Spencer was born in 1641, the son of Henry Spencer, the 1st Earl of Sunderland. His mother Dorothy was the daughter of Robert Sidney, the 2nd earl of Leicester. He was privately educated and went to Christ Church College, Oxford University where he gained a reputation for intellectual ability. In 1665, Spencer married Anne, the daughter of George Digby, the 2nd Earl of Bristol.
With such an array of relatives, it was not unusual for Spencer to achieve political power relatively young. In February 1679, he was appointed Secretary of State. During the Exclusion Crisis of 1679 to 1681, Spencer supported the exclusion of the future James II and supported William and Mary. He was dismissed in January 1681.
However, he was soon brought back to court. Few doubted his ability and there were not many others who had his grasp of European politics. However, the deciding factor may have been his friendship with the Duchess of Portsmouth – a mistress of the king.
In January 1683 he was once again appointed Secretary of State and he was one of the privileged few who assisted Charles II in the king’s period of absolute rule (1681 to 1685).
He was as loyal to James II as he was to Charles II. He served first as Secretary of State and then as Lord President of the Council (as well as Secretary of State). Spencer supported the king’s pro-French and pro-Catholic policies and saw no reason to query the establishment of a Catholic absolute state. James dismissed his two main rivals at court – the Earls of Clarendon and Rochester – and appointed Spencer Chief Minister in January 1687. Spencer was the brains behind the king’s idea to make Parliament subservient by changing local government organisation and by placing known Catholics into important political positions when they became available. In June 1688 Spencer converted to Catholicism.
When it became clear that the landing of Prince William at Torbay was going to be supported and that the people seemingly were going to support the Protestant William, Spencer advised James to reverse his policies. On October 27th, James dismissed Spencer.
Spencer fled to Holland – he had previously been in contact with the Prince of Orange. Rumours abounded that Spencer had planned what had occurred in infinite detail and that it was done to ruin James and lead to the succession of William and Mary that would secure the Protestant faith for the nation. To some his conversion to Catholicism was a sham and simply part of this plot. However, there is no evidence to support this.
What Spencer did need was money and royal service gave him the best opportunity to acquire this. Spencer had recklessly gambled away large sums of money and public service was the only way he had of staving off bankruptcy.
In May 1690, Spencer returned to England, reconverted to the Protestant faith and from 1693 on served as William’s chief link to the newly developing Whig and Tory parties. Spencer himself remained a non-party man but he convinced William that he had to take into account the existence of political parties in the country and that he would have to work with them. It was Spencer who persuaded William to back the Whig Junto in 1694 at the expense of the Tories under Danby. It is also possible, though more difficult to prove, that Spencer persuaded William to ditch the Whigs in 1700 and turn to the Tories. Spencer has also been called the architect of what is now known as a government cabinet as he persuaded the king to work with a small group of politicians as opposed to a large one. Spencer’s preferred size was a group of about six men.
In April 1697, Spencer was appointed Lord Chamberlain but he resigned from politics in December 1697.
Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, died on September 28th 1702.