Sir Spencer Compton, earl of Wilmington, is often overlooked, overshadowed by his colleague and predecessor Sir Robert Walpole. But as Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, suggests, Wilmington deserves more attention, particularly for his earlier role as Speaker of the House of Commons…
If Sir Spencer Compton is much remembered at all, it is most probably as the man who missed his chance to replace Sir Robert Walpole as Prime Minister on the death of George I in 1727. Characterizations of him both then and now have tended to emphasize his pompous, ineffectual character – an aristocratic parliamentarian who lacked the instinct to carry him to the top.
In many ways, such a portrait is thoroughly unfair. Compton was undoubtedly rather pompous, and he was certainly not as wily a political operator as Walpole. But he was a political survivor and, most importantly perhaps, an effective and knowledgeable Speaker of the House of Commons for a dozen years. Presiding in Parliament was where he was most comfortable and once in a while even the stately Compton allowed his guard down sufficiently to show that beneath the full-bottomed wig he was capable of an occasional dramatic turn.
Another way in which Compton stood out was in choosing to become a Whig, while the majority of his family were firm Tories. He owed his original return to Parliament as MP for Eye in Suffolk to the 4th Lord Cornwallis, but also seems to have been a protégé of the Junto Whig leader Lord Somers. After 12 years, Compton took a break from Parliament, having fallen out with Cornwallis. He may also have been keen to avoid the 1710 election as he had been prominent as one of the MPs leading the prosecution of the Tory firebrand Henry Sacheverell. He made a return in 1713, being elected for East Grinstead thanks to the sponsorship of his relative the earl of Dorset, and in 1715 was chosen Speaker. His unanimous election was greeted with pleasure back in his native Sussex:
After the Great satisfaction your friends in this county have in your being chosen their Representative by such a majority, nothing can be more pleasing to them than the August assembly of the Nation’s [unanimous] choice of the same Gentleman for their Speaker in which I heartily wish you health and prosperity.Chatsworth Muniments, Compton Place papers, 18/26
Compton holds the minor distinction of being the only Speaker of the House of Commons to have been educated at St Paul’s School. More pertinently, he was able to draw on his previous experience as chairman of the committee of privileges and elections as well as his naturally encyclopaedic mind to forge an identity as a hugely knowledgeable presiding officer. He also brought to the role a certain aristocratic hauteur – his brother, after all, was earl of Northampton.
Once in a while, Compton allowed himself to show off his powers of rhetoric, most notably at the conclusion of the impeachment of Thomas Parker, earl of Macclesfield, when he applauded the managers for their public service. This, though, does appear to have been a rare show of emotion.
All the time Compton was building a reputation as a steady and dependable Speaker, he also maintained his profile as an influential force at Court and in the ministry. In 1722 he was appointed paymaster general, which enabled him to amass a small fortune, though he was apparently annoyed not to have been given something better. A close associate of the Prince of Wales (George II) he had expected to benefit more obviously from the healing of the Whig schism and the steady rise of Walpole. They had been extremely close before 1720; after Walpole became Prime Minister Compton turned against him and by the end of the decade was effectively an enemy.
The death of George I in the summer of 1727 brought to an end Compton’s time as Speaker. George II had intended him to take over as Prime Minister, but Compton lost his nerve and turned to Walpole to help him with certain key pieces of business. The king (prompted by Queen Caroline) realized Compton was not up to the task and Walpole carried on. It is telling, though, that Walpole did not trust Compton to stay on as Speaker and become a potential rival in the Commons. Consequently, Compton was elevated to the Lords in January 1728 as Baron Wilmington and two years later shuffled from paymaster to lord privy seal, and then moved on again to lord president.
In 1742 the fall of Walpole finally offered Wilmington a second chance at inhabiting the role of Prime Minister, though in effect he was merely a figurehead for an administration run by Lord Carteret. The change of ministry was satirised in a publication that year, with Wilmington appearing as ‘Old Will with the Spencer Wig’:
without Bustle, Envy or Opposition, he drudges quietly on in the Road of Business, and, tho’ never foremost, may perhaps make as much way in the Acquisition of what he seeks as any other…
Wilmington was one of just three former Speakers to become PM (the others being William Grenville and Henry Addington), if one discounts Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, who had been Speaker before becoming lord high treasurer under Queen Anne. He did not hold office long, dying the following year after having spent most of his tenure unwell and on the verge of resigning through ill health.
Wilmington is easily overlooked as someone who failed to displace Walpole, and then emerged as a powerless compromise candidate while other more weighty politicians fought it out for supremacy, but his longevity should not be discounted. First elected when William III was on the throne, he became a significant political broker in his native Sussex and a well-regarded, if rather pompous, parliamentarian who inhabited the Speaker’s chair for a dozen years. As one of a group of senior figures at the heart of the Hanoverian regime it is perhaps time to reappraise Wilmington and others like him at Westminster.
The New-Comers: or, the Characters of John the Carter, Sandy Long-bie, Daniel Raven and Old Will with the Spencer Wig (1742)
Robin Eagles, ‘Spencer Compton, earl of Wilmington’, in Iain Dale, ed. The Prime Ministers (2020)
Listen to Dr Eagles discussing Wilmington as part of Iain Dale’s podcast ‘The Prime Ministers’ here, or search for it wherever you get your podcasts!