Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Compton, Spencer (1673?-1743)

COMPTON, SPENCER, Earl of Wilmington (1673?–1743), was the third son of James, third earl of Northampton, by his second wife, Mary, daughter and heiress of Baptist, third viscount Campden. While travelling abroad in July 1698 he was returned for the borough of Eye, and continued to represent that borough in the five following parliaments. At an early period of his career he deserted the tory principles of his family, and in 1705 the whigs appointed him chairman of the committee of privileges and elections, a post to which he was elected annually for five years in succession. In 1707 he was appointed treasurer and receiver to George, prince of Denmark, and paymaster of the queen's pensioners, and in December 1709 was nominated one of the committee appointed to draw up the articles of impeachment against Sacheverell (Journals of the Souse of Commons, xvi. 241). Though not returned to parliament at the general election of 1710, he was in August 1713 elected as one of the members for the borough of East Grinstead. At the next general election Compton was returned both for East Grinstead and Sussex, but chose to represent the county. When the new parliament assembled on 17 March 1715, the house unanimously elected him speaker (Parl. Hist. vii. cols. 38-42), and though, in his speech on being presented to the king, Compton declared that he had 'neither memory to retain, judgment to collect, nor skill to guide their debates,' his majesty stated that he was perfectly well satisfied, and confirmed the choice of the House of Commons. He was sworn a member of the privy council on 6 July in the following year. In 1722 he was again chosen member both for East Grinstead and Sussex, and again elected to sit for the latter. He was re-elected speaker on 9 Oct. of that year (ib. viii. cols. 21-5), and continued to occupy the chair until the dissolution of parliament in July 1727. From 1722 to 1730 he held the lucrative office of paymaster-general, and was made a knight of the Bath upon the revival of that order in 1725. On the accession of George II to the throne Compton was commanded to draw up the king's first declaration to the council. This he found himself quite unable to do, owing to his ignorance of the proper forms of expression used on such occasions. Walpole, who had brought the king's message, at his request wrote it for him, and Compton took it to the king at Leicester Fields.

Though George had intended that his favourite Compton was to be his prime minister, Walpole, through the influence of the queen and Cardinal Fleury, retained his place, and Compton after some delay confessed 'his incapacity to undertake so arduous a task.' In August 1727 he was again returned for the county of Sussex, but before parliament met he was created Baron Wilmington, by letters patent dated 11 Jan. 1728, as a recompense for his recent self-abnegation. On 8 May 1730 he was appointed lord privy seal in Walpole's administration, and six days afterwards was raised to the rank of Viscount Pevensey and Earl of Wilmington. On 31 Dec. in the same year he succeeded Lord Trevor in the post of lord president of the council, having also succeeded that nobleman in his former office of lord privy seal. He was installed a knight of the Garter on 22 Aug. 1733, upon his resignation of the ensigns of the Bath.

After the queen's death he once more aspired to the office which he had thrown away when it was already in his grasp. When, in 1739, the cabinet became greatly divided on the question of war with Spain, Wilmington, who took every opportunity of supporting the king's views, declared strongly in favour of war. As Walpole's unpopularity increased, differences of opinion between the ministers became more frequent and the intrigues against the premier more numerous and conflicting. Though holding office under the government, Wilmington did not vote against Lord Carteret's motion for the removal of Sir Robert Walpole in February 1741. Writing to Wilmington on 25 Jan. 1742, Bubb Doddington, after reminding him how dear his over-caution fourteen years ago cost the country, begs him to throw over Walpole, and concludes by saying: 'You, and you only, have all the talents and all the requisites that this critical time demands to effectuate this great event, and save your country, if it is to be saved' (Coxe, Walpole, iii. 759). Three days after this was written Walpole was defeated in the House of Commons on the Chippenham election petition. Pulteney was sent for by the king to form an administration, and on 16 Feb. Wilmington was appointed first lord of the treasury. But with the Duke of Newcastle and Carteret as secretaries of state, and Pulteney without office in the cabinet, Wilmington was prime minister in name only. By the public as well as by his subordinates he was regarded as a mere cipher. Wanting in decision, and possessing but very ordinary abilities, he was neither suited to become a leader of men nor a framer of measures. He seldom spoke either in the House of Lords or at the council-table. He was the butt of the satirists and caricaturists of the day. Sir C. H. Williams, in his 'New Ode to a Great Number of Great Men newly made' (Works, 1822, i. 139), thus describes him:

See yon old, dull, important lord,
Who at the long'd-for money-board
Sits first, but does not lead;
His younger brethren all things make;
So that the Treasury's like a snake,
And the tail moves the head.

As speaker of the House of Commons Wilmington was much more successful, his solemn manner and sonorous voice helping him to secure the respect of the members. On ceremonial occasions he was especially effective, as his speech on returning the thanks of the house to the managers of the impeachment of the Earl of Macclesfield bears witness. His notions as to the duty of the speaker to maintain order in the house were, however, somewhat inadequate. According to Hatsell, it was 'reported of Sir Spencer Compton that when he was speaker he used to answer to a member who called upon him to make the house quiet, for that he had a right to be heard, "No, sir, you have a right to speak, but the house have a right to judge whether they will hear you"' (Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons, 1818, ii. 108). He was created a D.C.L. by the university of Oxford on 5 Aug. 1730. Thomson dedicated to him the poem of 'Winter,' which appeared alone in 1756, before the other parts of the 'Seasons.' It, however, attracted no regard from him until 'Aaron Hill awakened his attention by some verses addressed to Thomson and published in one of the newspapers, which censured the great for their neglect of ingenious men. Thomson then received a present of twenty guineas' (Johnson, Works, 1810, xi. 223). These verses of Hill's, ' addressed to Mr. James Thompson, on his asking my advice to what patron he should address his poem called "Winter,"' will be found in the 'Works of the late Aaron Hill' (1754), iii. 77-9. Young also dedicated his fourth satire to Compton when speaker of the House of Commons. Wilmington's one bon mot is still remembered, though the author's name is almost forgotten. It was he who said, in describing the Duke of Newcastle, that 'he always loses half an hour in the morning which he is running after the rest of the day without being able to overtake it.' Wilmington died unmarried on 2 July 1743, aged 70, and was buried at Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire. His titles became extinct on his death, and his estates passed by his will to his brother George, fourth earl of Northampton, whose great-granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth, in 1782 married Lord George Cavendish, afterwards Earl of Burlington. By this marriage the Wilmington estates passed into the possession of the Cavendish family. The barony of Wilmington was revived on 7 Sept. 1812, when the ninth earl of Northampton was raised to the rank of a marquis. Wilmington was a member of the Kit-Cat Club, and his portrait, painted by Kneller, was exhibited in the second loan collection of national portraits, 1867 (No. 122). It was engraved by Faber in 1734.

[Manning's Lives of the Speakers (1851), pp. 43-5; Collins's Peerage (1812), iii. 257-9; Burke's Extinct Peerage (1883), p. 131; Edmondson's Baronagium Genealogicum, ii. 110; Lord Mahon's History of England (1839), i. 174, ii. 175-8, iii. 112, 166, 201, 232; Biog. Brit. (1789), iv. 52 n.; Coxe's Memoirs of Sir Robert Walpole (1798); Letters of Horace Walpole (1859); Horace Walpole's Memoirs of George II (1847); Lord Hervey's Memoirs of the Reign of George II (1884); Townsend's History of the House of Commons (1843), i. 226-39; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. i. pp. 583, 590, 597, 605, pt. ii. pp. 5, 13, 33, 44, 56, 67; Haydn's Book of Dignities (1851); Cat. Oxf. Grad. (1851), p. 145.]

G. F. R. B.