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Sunderland, Robert Spencer, 2d earl of

Robert Spencer Sunderland, 2d earl of, 1641–1702, English statesman. He succeeded to the earldom in 1643. During the reign of Charles II he served on various diplomatic missions and in 1679 was made a secretary of state. His support of the bill to exclude the duke of York (later James II) from the succession resulted in his dismissal (1681), but he quickly regained his position through the influence of the king's mistress, the duchess of Portsmouth. Under James II he gained favor by urging severe repression of the rebellion of the duke of Monmouth and by his support for the abolition of the religious tests. He was made lord president of the council (1685), and by intrigue he supplanted the earl of Rochester as chief minister. In 1688 he declared himself a Roman Catholic, but he soon argued with James on religious policy and was dismissed. He fled to Holland, convinced William of Orange (later William III) that he had supported his interests, and, after William's accession to the English throne, was allowed to return (1691) to England. He renounced his Catholicism and became an influential adviser of William. It was Sunderland who persuaded the king to abandon a mixed ministry and employ only Whigs—a significant (if unintentional) step in English constitutional development. He was appointed lord chamberlain in 1697 but was forced out of office by a distrustful Parliament.

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Sunderland, Robert Spencer, 2nd earl of

Sunderland, Robert Spencer, 2nd earl of (1641–1702). Clever, urbane, and supremely self-confident, Sunderland was undoubtedly the most durable politician of the late Stuart age. After an ambassadorial career, he was appointed in 1679 secretary of state but dismissed in 1681 for supporting ‘Exclusion’. Through his influence with Charles II's mistress Louise de Kéroualle he was reappointed in 1683 and for the next six years was effectively chief minister. An expert in foreign affairs, he promoted royal pro-French policies, and in addition to his control over patronage master-minded James II's catholicizing campaign, becoming a catholic himself in 1688. Upon William's ‘invasion’, Sunderland insisted that James reverse his policy, but was dismissed. Briefly exiled in Holland, he returned in 1690, reconverted, and by 1693 had emerged as William III's political ‘manager’ behind the scenes, a role which he fulfilled without taking office until 1697 when he was made lord chamberlain. Parliamentary hostility forced his resignation shortly afterwards, but the king retained him in his counsels.

Andrew Hanham

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