SPENCER, Lord Robert (1747-1831), of Woolbeding, nr. Midhurst, Suss.
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Family and Education
b. 8 May 1747, 3rd s. of Charles, 3rd Duke of Marlborough, and bro. of Lord Charles Spencer*. educ. Harrow; Christ Church, Oxf. 1762-5; Grand Tour 1766-8. m. 2 Oct. 1811, Henrietta, da. of Sir Everard Fawkener, wid. of Hon. Edward Bouverie I*, s.p.; 1da. illegit.1
Member of Board of Trade Apr. 1770-Jan. 1781; jt. vice-treasurer [I] May-July 1782; PC 5 June 1782; surveyor-gen. of woods and forests Feb. 1806-Mar. 1807.
Lord Robert Spencer’s political conduct was governed entirely by his close personal friendship with Charles James Fox. Like him an inveterate gambler, who had recouped his losses by his share in Fox’s faro bank at Brooks’s, he lost again so heavily that in 1799 he was obliged to sell his town house and pictures. Yet his sister Diana described him as ‘the real guardian of all the family’, and Fox as ‘a great arranger’.2 He was a member of the Whig subscription committee which raised funds for the election of 1790 and active in Foxite fund-raising appeals for many years afterwards. He had no wish to be a liability to his party. In 1790 Fox seems to have earmarked a seat for Winchelsea for him, but nothing came of it. He was reluctant to pay £3,000 for a seat at Wootton Bassett or risk the cost of a contest at Evesham, and clung to the forlorn hope that the family interest at Oxford might again be placed at his disposal. It was not, and Oxford rejected him. He came in instead for Wareham, probably at the party’s expense. In 1796 they appear to have paid £3,000 for the same seat for him.3
Spencer, who was not loquacious in public, is not known to have spoken in debate after 1790, but he voted assiduously with the Foxite opposition. Between 1790 and 26 May 1797, when he seceded with Fox, his voting record was almost perfect in this respect. He was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791, though his vote has not survived. In December 1797 he wished to retire from Parliament, but he again appeared on 4 Jan. 1798 against the assessed taxes and on 14 and 22 June in the minorities on Ireland. He had offered to resign the Privy Council when Fox was struck off it the month before. When he vacated his seat in February 1799, he did not share the view of some of his fellow Whigs that doing so would give cause for complaint and endanger the unity of the party.4
When in March 1802 a vacancy arose at Tavistock, Fox wrote: ‘I think Lord Robert (if he has no objection) the best person that could be thought on to come in now, as he has probably not the smallest wish to do so again’. Lord Lauderdale, who claimed credit for the idea, maintained that Spencer was intended to be a mere stopgap, until the Duke of Bedford, who had caused the vacancy by succeeding his brother to the title, had made his parliamentary arrangements.5 Spencer resumed his seat, voting against the civil list and for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s income, 29, 31 Mar., and for the address in favour of Pitt’s removal from office, 7 May 1802. In August he accompanied Fox to Paris, and in an interview with Buonaparte discussed his great ancestor with him (he later sent to Buonaparte on St. Helena a biography of Marlborough). On his return he stood by Fox in opposing Addington’s and Pitt’s second administrations and was one of the managers of Lord Melville’s impeachment.
Fox insisted on Spencer’s obtaining a place when he came to power in 1806 and was ‘inexorable’ when Lord Glenbervie resisted ceding it to him. The death of his leader a few months later removed his political raison d’être: he never ceased to lament and praise Fox. His patron readily supposed he would have no use for his seat. He yielded it up in 1807, after voting against his friends’ successors in office, with ‘assurances of not forfeiting his party claims if he remained out of Parliament’. This stipulation was necessary because he had lost his place when the Grenville ministry fell, though an offer had been made to him to keep it if he did not mean to come into Parliament and would consider himself obliged to the King for it. Behind this offer was probably the King’s wish to provide for Spencer’s brother Charles, who had previously attempted to bargain with Lord Grenville for a place for life to be shared by amicable arrangement between the two brothers.
Having kept to his party principles, Spencer impressed the Duke of Bedford with a sense of his claims and the latter offered to bring him into Parliament late in 1807 if he really wished it. Spencer declined, but when in 1809 a vacancy beckoned at Camelford and the duke again offered him the first refusal, there were rumblings among the Whig leaders, particularly those who wished to see Henry Brougham, an efficient party spokesman, seated. Lauderdale insisted that Spencer had no claims on the duke for a seat: his motive was the selfish one of wishing to be in the House so that he could claim his place if the Whigs resumed power. In fact, Spencer waived his claim in favour of the duke’s choice, Plunket, and when the latter declined the opening, he again refused the option. It is clear that he had no real wish to be in Parliament and, as Lauderdale hinted, he was more likely to recover his place by helping than hindering and could enjoy it the more out of Parliament. But Lord Grey refused to promise anything to Spencer. The duke’s viewpoint was honourable: ‘I consider Lord Robert as the old, long tried, and steady friend of Fox, and as having been brought in for Tavistock by his request in 1802, as having the first claim upon me, after my own family’. When the Whigs were cabinet making in 1811, Sydney Smith predicted that Spencer would be ‘national woodman’ if they returned to power.6
Spencer resumed his seat for Tavistock in 1817 as a stopgap for the Duke of Bedford when Lord John Russell’s illness obliged him to vacate. In 1818 he likewise acted as a locum tenens for his own family at Woodstock. Although he was not such a regular attender as before, he mustered for opposition on all major issues and signed the requisition to Tierney to lead the party. After voting for burgh reform on 6 May 1819, he also supported Burdett’s motion for parliamentary reform, 1 July. Having resisted the suspension of habeas corpus in 1817, he likewise opposed the seditious meetings bill, 2 Dec. 1819, and on 6 Dec. favoured limiting its duration to three years. His nephew the Duke of Marlborough withdrew him from Woodstock in 1820. He retired to Woolbeding, the only solid satisfaction he had obtained from Fox’s faro bank, which he had tastefully embellished and later left to his natural daughter Diana Bouverie, ‘the tell-tale Bouverie, for there never was such a perfect indisputable Spencer, Lord Robert’s walking picture and the very prettiest creature that ever was seen’.7
Thomas Creevey*, who enjoyed a tête-à-tête with ‘old Comical’, as he called Spencer, reported: ‘In our unreserved moments his criticisms upon men were quite delightful; he calls Sydney Smith a boisterous mountebank’. Young Henry Fox, on the other hand, complained after a visit to Woolbeding: ‘The fault of the house is the excessive violence of their politics ... to me such party violence and such bigoted opinions are quite incomprehensible’. Spencer died 23 June 1831, ‘a venerable grave old man’.8
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Edward Bouverie, his wife and Lord Robert shared a placid ménage à trois for many years: A. L. Rowse, The Later Churchills, 169-80. On Bouverie’s death, they married: Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 144.
- 2. Mrs Stewart Erskine, Lady Diana Beauclerk , 271, 276, 291; Add. 47581, f. 114.
- 3. Ginter, Whig Organization , 53, 78, 79, 99, 109, 130, 132, 133, 251; Horace Walpole Corresp. (Yale ed.), xxxii. 292; Add. 51532, Spencer to Holland [endorsed 1800, but prob. 1799].
- 4. Blair Adam mss, Spencer to Adam, Mon. night [Dec. 1797]; Add. 47581, f. 23; 51660, Bedford to Holland [endorsed 1800, but prob. 1799].
- 5. Fox Corresp. iii. 362; Grey mss, Lauderdale to Grey, 20 Nov. 1809.
- 6. NLS mss 11060, f. 22; Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 8 Nov. 1806, Sunday night [May], 20 May 1807, 26 Nov., 10 Dec. 1809; Spencer mss, Ld. C. to Earl Spencer, 27 Oct., 1 Dec. 1806, 8 Jan.; Add. 51661, Bedford to Holland, 26 Nov. 1807; 51691, Lauderdale to Holland, Tues. [21 Nov. 1809]; Grey mss, Spencer, to Howick, 22 Aug., Bedford to same, 1 Oct., Grey to Holland, 14 Nov. 1807, Lauderdale to Grey, 20,   Nov., [8 Dec.] 1809; HMC Fortescue , ix. 154, 376; Fortescue mss, Adam to Grenville, 25 Aug., Bedford to same, 19 Nov. 1809; Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 203.
- 7. Mrs Stewart Erskine, 208; PCC 423 Tebbs.
- 8. Creevey’s Life and Times , 258; Jnl. Hon. H. E. Fox , 186; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, ii. 162; Gent. Mag. (1831), ii. 173.