1698, his peace was disturbed by his son-in-law, the Jacobite refugee, Lord Clancarty [see Maccarthy, Donough], seeking an asylum at his house in St. James's Square. His hiding-place was betrayed to the government by his brother-in-law, Lord Spencer, and Sunderland expressed the heartiest approval of his son's conduct. As, however, his statements were generally framed to conceal the truth, it is difficult to know if he had any part in the transaction or what he really thought of it. His public life was drawing to a close, but he had a diplomatic triumph when, in January 1700, he effected the marriage of the same son, Charles, to Lady Anne Churchill, the second and favourite daughter of Marlborough. He promised (without much thought to the performance) that in all political matters his son should be guided solely by Marlborough's superior wisdom. Though he was graciously received by the new sovereign on 11 April 1702, Sunderland did not long survive William. He was taken dangerously ill at Althorp on 22 Sept., died on 28 Sept., and on 7 Oct. was buried with his ancestors at Brington.
According to Burnet, ‘this earl’ had a superior genius to all the men of business he had known; but even Burnet found some difficulty in justifying William's preference for an adviser so unscrupulous. Sunderland's portrait was happily hit off in four lines in a lampoon (one of the many imitations of Dryden) entitled ‘Faction Displayed’ (in which Sunderland is Cethego):
A Proteus, ever acting in disguise;
A finished statesman, intricately wise;
A second Machiavel, who soar'd above
The little tyes of gratitude and love.
(State Poems, 1716, iv. 90). He came to be regarded by his contemporaries with much the same detestation that Lord Shelburne (‘Malagrida’), with less reason, was regarded a century later. He may not have greatly surpassed Wharton in profligacy or Marlborough (whom he resembled in the politic use that he made of women) in treachery; but he combined with both these qualities a deep-seated cynicism and a particularly cunning and repulsive form of hypocrisy. With the possible exception of Northumberland in Edward VI's reign, it is doubtful whether English history has to show a more crafty and unprincipled intriguer. In him the extravagance and rapacity that characterised the Restoration courtiers reached a climax. Inordinate as was his love of gaming, he yet found means out of his numerous pensions and emoluments to adorn Althorp with fine paintings, and to decorate with magnificence the ‘symmetrical interior’ so highly praised by Duke Cosmo III of Tuscany in 1669, and by John Evelyn in 1673. The exterior was practically rebuilt during 1688; and the second earl further laid the foundations of the splendid library which long reflected lustre upon his house. Evelyn records his recent purchase in March 1695 of the unique mathematical collection of Sir Charles Scarborough [q. v.] Apart from his passion for cards, and the fact, related by Lord Dartmouth, that he transacted much of his routine business in a most haphazard way at the gaming-table, little is known of Sunderland's personal characteristics; but he is said to have been the introducer about 1678 of a very curious style of pronunciation—a ‘court tune,’ in which, according to Roger North, the vowel sounds were distended in this fashion: ‘Whaat, my laard, if his maajesty taarns out faarty of us, may he not have faarty others to saarve him as well, and whaat maatters who saarves his maajesty so long as his maajesty is saarved;’ and he persisted in this singular form of affectation until it was adopted and exaggerated by Titus Oates and other of the baser sort of politicians.
By his wife, Lady Anne Digby, Sunderland had issue three sons and four daughters. The eldest son, Robert, lord Spencer, baptised on 2 May 1666 at Brington, and brought up, like his father, with the utmost care, matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on 2 Sept. 1680, obtained a commission as major in the 3rd troop of horse-guards in October 1685, and was sent as envoy to Modena in August 1687, to bear messages of condolence on the death of the queen's mother. After a riotous and profligate life, devoted mainly to gambling and duelling, he died unmarried at Paris on 5 Sept. 1688. Scamp though he was, Lady Sunderland exerted all her wiles to obtain as a wife for him one of the staid daughters of Sir Stephen Fox [q. v.], the latter being one of Sunderland's chief creditors. This purpose she tried to effect, much against his will, through her trusted ally and correspondent, John Evelyn. As a friend to Sir Stephen, Evelyn was much relieved when he firmly declined the ‘honour’ as ‘too great.’ The second son was Charles, third earl of Sunderland [q. v.]; and the third, Henry, died an infant. Of the daughters, Lady Anne (1666–1690) was the first wife of James Douglas, earl of Arran, and afterwards fourth duke of Hamilton [q. v.]; and Elizabeth married, on 30 Oct. 1684, Donough Maccarthy, earl of Clancarty [q. v.]; Isabella died unmarried in 1684; and Mary died in childhood.
After her husband's death Lady Sunder-