His son William, the Second Baron Spencer, devoted himself to country life, building a racecourse at Althorp. He married Penelope, the daughter of the Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton. Their son Henry attended Oxford, married Dorothy Sidney and joined her parents in Paris. On his return, after the outbreak of the English Civil War, he reluctantly sided with the Royalists. He was created Earl of Sunderland in June 1643. Three months later he was killed at the first battle of Newbury.
His heir, Robert, Second Earl of Sunderland, became one of the most notorious politicians of his day. Contemporaries and historians alike have singled him out for his heartlessness and lack of scruple. Sunderland managed to serve as Secretary of State to two monarchs, and as Lord Chamberlain to a third. Despite his slipperiness – or perhaps because of it – he managed to make himself an indispensable adviser to the Crown. His reputation often overlooks his taste for art, nourished during his time spent as ambassador to various European states. He greatly enriched the collection at Althorp.
Charles, Third Earl of Sunderland, was described by the diarist John Evelyn as a ‘youth of extraordinary hopes, very learned for his age’. He was briefly Foreign Secretary, but his post owed much to his membership of the ruling Junta and to the influence of his mother-in-law, the Duchess of Marlborough, who was the Queen’s confidante. He continued as Secretary of State and Lord President of the Council, under George I. Charles inherited a love of collecting, though his passion was for books, not pictures. By the time of his sudden death in 1722, he had built up an exquisite library.