The Earl of Sunderland is a title in the Peerage of England which was twice created in the seventeenth century, and is now in the possession of the current Duke of Marlborough.


The Scropes were a family of long standing from the north of England later split into two main branches, the Bolton Scropes and the Masham Scropes; the Bolton Scropes being honoured with the title of Baron Scrope of Bolton. It was Emanuel Scrope, the 11th Baron Scrope of Bolton, who served Charles I as Lord President of the King's Council of the North, that climbed up the next step of the ladder when he was created the Earl of Sunderland on the 19th June 1627.

Emanuel married Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of Rutland, but the marriage failed to produce any children, and hence the titles of Earl of Sunderland and Baron Scrope of Bolton became extinct at his death on the 30th May 1630. He did however, have four surviving children by his mistress Martha Janes to whom he bequeathed his property. Whilst his only son died comparatively young, his three illegitimate daughters all made good marriages; one married the Earl Rivers, another the Marquess of Winchester, whilst the last married a John Grubham Howe, whose descendants later became the Viscounts and Earls Howe.


Although at one time the Spencers liked to promote the idea that they were descended from the earlier baronial Despencers who had once (briefly) held the title of Earl of Winchester, this claim was based on a forged genealogy and in truth they were no relation whatsoever. In reality the Spencers were a line of yeomen farmers based in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, who succesfully accumulated large amounts of money and by the time Robert Spencer became the first of the line to be raised to the peerage as the Baron Spencer of Wormleighton in 1603 his income was about £8,000 a year and it was said that he was "reputed to have by him the most money of any person in the kingdom".

His grandson Henry Spencer took the king's side during the Civil War, fought at the battle of Edgehill and later lent Charles I the not inconsiderable sum £10,000. In return for these valuable services he was created Earl of Sunderland in June 1643, but three months later was fatally wounded at the battle of Newbury and died on the 20th September 1643.

Henry was succeeded by his two year old son Robert Spencer, as the 2nd Earl, who sometime later married Anne Digby daughter and heiress of John Digby, 3rd Earl of Bristol and served as an ambassador at Madrid, Paris and Cologne. Having entered politics in 1679 Robert served as Secretary of State to two monarchs, and as Lord Chamberlain to a third before retiring in 1694. During his career he achieved a reputation as probably the most notorious politician of his day; even whilst he was putting his name to the warrant for the arrest of the Seven Bishops he was supplying information to William of Orange (through the medium of his wife's lover, Henry Sidney, afterwards Earl of Romney), then converted to Roman Catholicism in 1688 and opposed the Glorious Revolution, but somehow survived in office only to be finally driven into retirement when he was condemned as "the subtilest workinest villain that is on the face of the earth".

His eldest son Henry having died in Paris in September 1688 he was succeeded by his younger son Charles, who was also a politician and of whom the best that can be said is that he wasn't as bad as his father. According to William, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, he "was the most intriguing man that ever existed after his father — whether he was as corrupt or quite as bad a man ... I cannot tell". Between the years 1708 and 1710 he was one of the five man Whig Junta that ran the government until he was dismissed by Queen Anne in June 1710. He later returned to power when he became First Lord of the Treasury in 1718 (essentially the last holder of that office not considered to be Prime Minister) and was in effective control of the government until the South Sea bubble burst. As Charles had been partly responsible for launching the scheme, he was forced to resign in April 1721 and died shortly afterwards on the 19th of April 1722.

Charles was married a total of three times, firstly in 1695 to Arabella, daughter of Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle; she died in 1698 following which in 1700 he married Anne Churchill, daughter of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and then after her death in 1716, he finally married in 1717 "an Irish lady of fortune" by the name of Judith Tichborne (presumably the Earl had tired of the daughters of dukes by this time). Charles was followed by his eldest son, Robert as 4th Earl, but he died from a fever and unmarried at the age of 27 in Paris on the 15th September 1729. Robert was therefore succeeded by his younger brother Charles who duly became the 5th Earl, but was destined to climb even further.

Duke of Marlborough

The title of Duke of Marlborough had been amended by Act of Parliament to permit its inheritance through the female line. As luck would have it, circumstances made Charles' grandmother Anne Churchill the heiress to the title and so Charles found himself in 1733 elevated to the status of Duke of Marlborough. Since he now had his hands on the Churchill fortune, Charles generously transferred the Sunderland estates including Althrop to his younger brother John Spencer, whose was later created the Earl Spencer.

The title of Earl of Sunderland continues to be held by the Dukes of Marlborough where it is used as a courtesy title by the grandson of the current Duke.




The 5th Earl became the Duke of Marlborough in 1733


  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History Longcross Press, 1996)
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for SUNDERLAND, EARLS OF
  • A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at
  • Stirnet Genealogy at
  • The Peerages of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom at
  • Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)

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