The true premier? Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland

300 years ago, on 19 April 1722, Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, Walpole’s rival for the premiership, died following his stakhanovite efforts during that year’s general election. Dr Robin Eagles reconsiders Sunderland’s legacy and his claim to have been George I’s first premier.

Sunderland had been under enormous pressure for well over two years before, having been caught up in the South Sea Bubble, seen the death of his long-term political partner, Earl Stanhope, and been entangled in the mirky goings on of the Atterbury Plot. In the aftermath of the Bubble, Sunderland had been forced out as first lord of the treasury and replaced by Robert Walpole, but he was still widely thought of as the ‘premier’ minister. His death finally opened the way for Walpole to emerge as undisputed Prime Minister and brought an end to some of the spirit of the Augustan ‘rage of party’ that had survived Anne’s demise.

Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland
by John Simon, after Sir Godfrey Kneller
(c) Trustees of the British Museum

Sunderland had always been a controversial figure. His father, Robert Spencer, 2nd earl of Sunderland, had been a particularly mercurial political operator, emerging as a courtier in the later years of Charles II, becoming James II’s factotum, converting Catholicism (at the very worst moment), staging a return from exile after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and then operating as a minister ‘behind the curtain’ during the latter years of William III.

As a younger son, Charles had not been expected to inherit, but his hard-drinking older brother had died young leaving him to succeed as 3rd earl of Sunderland. Though much more capable than his brother and heavily influenced by a formative period in the Netherlands, Sunderland was also headstrong and given to outbursts of temper. Viscount Townshend wrote of one of his letters having been composed during ‘one of his frenzy fits’, while Lord Midleton, the Irish Lord Chancellor, noted him suffering explosive nose bleeds when he was crossed. Politically, he quickly identified himself with the ‘Junto Whigs’, but he was far and away the most radical of them.

Although talented, Sunderland split opinion. Queen Anne could not abide him but was eventually compelled to accept him coming into office. He was then the first targeted to be replaced when Robert Harley (earl of Oxford) and Charles Talbot, duke of Shrewsbury, staged their ministerial coup in 1710. Consequently, Sunderland was among the most eager to see members of the queen’s last ministry humbled, leading the charge for Oxford and several others to be impeached in 1715. After Oxford was acquitted, they remained on bad terms and ‘hot words’ only narrowly avoided turning into a duel after the Lords ordered them to keep the peace.

With George I safely on the throne Sunderland had his work cut out to assure the king that he was not simply a youthful radical. He was annoyed to be side-lined with appointment as lord lieutenant of Ireland and refused to take up his post there, using as an excuse his busyness in England and several bouts of poor health. Rather than punished, though, he was rewarded with appointment to the more pleasing role of lord privy seal and the government steadily came to be dominated by two pairings: the Norfolk based Walpole with his brother-in-law, Viscount Townshend; and Sunderland with the soldier-diplomat, James Stanhope.

By 1716 Sunderland and Stanhope had become influential enough to persuade the king to demote Townshend. This ultimately triggered a mass resignation and the beginnings of the ‘Whig Split’ along with a fissure at Court. Although engineered by Sunderland and Stanhope, the duke of Somerset hoped – wishfully – that Sunderland too ‘whoe hathe been false even to his best friends, will now fall unpityed’. [Coxe, Walpole, ii. 148] He could not have been more wrong.

From 1717 to 1721 Sunderland and Stanhope were the effective joint premiers. In spite of such successes, Sunderland found himself increasingly in hot water. To bolster his electoral position, he reached out to members of the Tory party, hoping to detach them from Walpole and Townshend’s opposition Whigs. He was even suspected of turning Jacobite in an effort to cling onto power. While this is unlikely, he undoubtedly courted those who were and may have made promises that he had no intention of keeping. It was certainly noticeable that after his death there was a rush to secure his papers as it was feared he had left behind compromising material.

Sunderland was also increasingly in financial trouble. Hearing that he was being considered for the Garter he confessed to his countess that ‘something more solid is much better and much wanted’.

It was no doubt this that contributed to Sunderland’s greatest blunder: his role in the South Sea disaster. He was at the centre of the web involving illegal selling of stocks and shares and as the value of the stocks plummeted, he wrote in increasingly desperate terms justifying his conduct:

I never thought of anything but of doing the best I could for the public, with honest intentions, and with as much prudence as my poor understanding is capable of.

In the end it was Walpole who was to prove instrumental in ensuring that Sunderland was exonerated from the Commons’ investigation into the scandal and Walpole who was the principal beneficiary. In 1721 he succeeded Sunderland as first lord of the treasury, with Sunderland shifted over to the influential – but marginalized – role of groom of the stole.

Walpole’s return by no means meant that Sunderland was finished. He was a powerful presence in Parliament, one contemporary noting, ‘when he gives the hint all his party takes it.’ He entered into the 1722 general election with gusto hoping that the result would strengthen his hand and enable him to stage another comeback. It was not to be. The effort finished him off and just a few weeks after the elections he succumbed to pleurisy.

Sunderland’s sons Robert and Charles became in succession 4th and 5th earls of Sunderland. As a Churchill descendant, Charles ultimately became 3rd duke of Marlborough as well. Sunderland’s house in Northamptonshire, Althorp, was inherited by a younger son, John. His son (also John) was later made Earl Spencer, making Sunderland the progenitor of Princess Diana, and thus, of a future king.

RDEE

Further reading:
Henry Snyder, Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Memoirs of Sir Robert Walpole, ed. Coxe

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