Spencer, John Poyntz (1835–1910), 5th Earl Spencer, lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born on 27 October 1835 at Spencer House, St James's, London, the eldest son of Frederick, 4th Earl Spencer, and his first wife, Elizabeth Georgiana (d. 1851), the second daughter of William Stephen Poyntz, MP, of Cowdray Park, Sussex. He entered Harrow School in 1848 and, following a spell with a private tutor at Brighton, went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1854, and graduated in January 1857.
Spencer became Liberal MP for South Northamptonshire, a seat controlled by the Spencer family, in the elections of April 1857. After the death of his father, on 27 December 1857, he entered the Lords as 5th Earl Spencer. In 1859 he was appointed groom of the stole to the prince consort, a position he held until the prince's death in 1861; from 1862 to 1866 he performed the same function for the prince of Wales (later Edward VII). In January 1865 Spencer was made a Knight of the Garter, and when W. E. Gladstone formed his first administration in 1868 he was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland. He was a surprise choice, given his relative inexperience, and initially took second place to the chief secretary, Chichester Fortescue (qv), who, unlike Spencer, was a cabinet minister. Spencer, however, was well received by Irish Liberal members, and although his role was primarily social and ceremonial his influence over Irish policy increased substantially during his term of office.
He supported Gladstone's policy of land reform but found himself confronted with a wave of agrarian violence despite the implementation of the Land Act and the Peace Preservation Act in 1870. He repeatedly asked Gladstone for increased powers to deal with matters of law and order, including the suspension of habeas corpus so that suspected perpetrators of agrarian violence could be arrested without evidence. In 1871 there was a resurgence of the activities of the Ribbon societies, especially in Co. Westmeath; following the report of a Commons select committee, the coercive Westmeath Act was passed in June, allowing for the suspension of habeas corpus in the county. (Some modern commentators have suggested that this represented an overreaction to a small number of incidents.)
Despite Spencer's firm policy towards public disorder, a demonstration in the Phoenix Park during the visit of the prince of Wales to Ireland in August 1871 ended in disorder when the police broke it up. In spring 1873 Gladstone introduced the Irish University Bill, an attempt to reform the Irish university system by creating a federated University of Dublin which would include the Catholic University and other institutions as well as Trinity College. This was opposed both by Trinity (which feared swamping by clerically dominated and substandard catholic institutions) and the catholic clergy led by Cardinal Paul Cullen (qv), who thought it did not guard sufficiently against the subversion of catholic students’ faith by non-catholic instructors. Spencer tried to convince the catholic clergy to support the Bill, and had a meeting with Cardinal Cullen on the subject, but he failed and the Bill was defeated in March 1873 through the combined opposition of Conservative and Irish Liberal MPs. In 1873 Spencer opened the Spencer dock in Dublin harbour on the north bank of the Liffey.
After the fall of Gladstone's administration in May 1874, Spencer returned to the family estate in Northamptonshire. He had been appointed lord lieutenant of Northamptonshire in 1872 (he retained the post until 1908) and spent the period of Conservative government (1874–80) carrying out alterations at Althorp, the family seat, and shooting and hunting. (He was master of the Pytchley foxhounds in 1874, a position which he held on two further occasions.)
When Gladstone formed his second administration in April 1880, Spencer entered the cabinet as lord president of the council (1880–83). In May 1882 he returned to Ireland as lord lieutenant after the resignations of Lord Cowper (qv) and W. E. Forster (qv), with the mission of ending agrarian and political unrest by conciliatory measures. A few hours after Spencer's arrival in Dublin, the newly appointed chief secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv), and the long-serving under-secretary, Thomas Henry Burke (qv), were stabbed to death by members of a physical force splinter group, the ‘Invincibles’. Spencer actually witnessed these ‘Phoenix Park murders’ from a window of the viceregal lodge, believing the distant figures to be holiday-makers engaged in a minor squabble. It would be wrong to suppose that this coloured Spencer's attitude to Irish affairs, but subsequently for many nationalists he became the embodiment of a harsh law and order policy.
Under political pressure the Prevention of Crime (Ireland) Bill, introduced on 11 May 1882, gave the Irish government more stringent powers than it required or, in practice, employed. After becoming law (12 July) it was rigorously enforced. While the RIC and the magistracy were reformed, because of parliamentary and treasury constraints, neither was reformed as thoroughly as Spencer and his officials would have liked. Nationalist commentators, notably William O'Brien (qv) and T. M. Healy (qv) in the weekly newspaper United Ireland, claimed that several individuals executed for agrarian murders by ‘packed’ juries were innocent, though their credibility was reduced by their claims that the arrested Invincibles were innocent – a claim soon disproved by the confessions of the approver James Carey (qv). The most controversial of these cases was the Maamtrasna murder trial, where Myles Joyce (qv), one of the three prisoners sentenced to death, protested his innocence to the end. Spencer later admitted that the decision not to commute Joyce's sentence ‘worried me dreadfully up to the last’ (Gordon, ii, 188). Nationalist reaction was typified by Joseph Biggar (qv), who scandalised Thomas MacKnight (qv), an admirer of Spencer, by declaring: ‘I will always call Earl Spencer a murderer. He has hanged an innocent man’ (MacKnight, ii). Biggar was charged with contempt of court after he repeated the accusation in a public speech, but the prosecution was dropped since he had attacked Spencer rather than the judges. It was subsequently revealed that the prosecution had withheld significant material from the jury, and the majority of commentators now believe that Joyce, and several co-defendants who served long prison sentences, were in fact innocent. United Ireland subjected ‘the red earl’ (so called because of his enormous red beard) to the sort of vitriolic campaign previously directed against Forster and subsequently extended to Arthur Balfour (qv). Spencer was portrayed as participating in his subordinates’ crimes and hiding skeletons in the closets of Dublin Castle; after United Ireland exposed several Castle officials as participants in a homosexual prostitution ring, Healy suggested that Spencer be elevated to the title ‘Duke of Sodom and Gomorrah’. Meanwhile, unionist commentators praised Spencer for the declining levels of political violence and admired his personal courage.
Spencer supported Gladstone's proposals for franchise reform, local government reform, and further land legislation for Ireland. He favoured replacing the lord lieutenancy by a royal residence in Ireland. However, his final months in office were marked by sharp disagreements in the cabinet over the impending expiry of the crimes act. Spencer considered that some powers must be retained; in response, Chamberlain and others threatened to resign. An open split on this issue was averted only by a government defeat in the commons. He left office with the fall of Gladstone's administration in June 1885; his first public function on returning to England was the unveiling of a statue of Lord Frederick Cavendish at Barrow-in-Furness. In July 1885 Parnell introduced a motion in the house of commons questioning Spencer's handling of the Maamtrasna murders, and was supported by Lord Randolph Churchill. This cynical bid for Parnellite support by the Conservatives (who had previously opposed an inquiry) resulted in demonstrations of Liberal support for Spencer, but it also led him to believe that it was impossible to implement a long-term Irish policy from Westminster since each party had an incentive to undermine the other by bidding for Irish nationalist support. This influenced Spencer to support Gladstone's newly announced home rule policy after the 1885 general election, and this support in turn played a significant role in Gladstone's ability to carry the majority of the Liberal party and form his third government, in which Spencer was lord president of the council.
During the period of Liberal opposition from 1886 to 1892, Spencer was one of the most outspoken campaigners for home rule, despite unionist enquiries (uttered with varying degrees of derision) about why he thought men who had called him a murderer and a sodomite deserved to be entrusted with the government of Ireland. William O'Brien's public declaration that he now realised Lord Spencer had been unfairly blamed for the actions of his subordinates and that he personally would gladly black Spencer's boots as an act of atonement did little to console the peer.
On the formation of Gladstone's fourth and final administration in 1892 Spencer was appointed first lord of the admiralty. When Gladstone resigned on 2 March 1894 he privately stated that, had the queen asked for his advice, he would have indicated Spencer as his preferred successor; however, the queen appointed Lord Rosebery as prime minister. Spencer retained the admiralty under Rosebery but left office on the fall of the Rosebery administration in June 1895.
Spencer subsequently served as a member of the prince of Wales's council (1898–1901), keeper of the privy seal and a member of the council of the duchy of Cornwall (1901–7), and Liberal leader in the lords (1902–5). He received honorary doctorates from several universities, including TCD (1883), and was chancellor of Victoria University, Manchester (1892–1907). After the death of his wife in 1903, he began to suffer from ill health, and was severely incapacitated by a stroke in 1905. Shortly before the formation of a new Liberal administration, he died at Althorp on 14 August 1910, and was buried in the family crypt.
In July 1858 Spencer had married Charlotte Frances Frederica Seymour (d. 31 October 1903), the daughter of Frederick Charles William Seymour, himself a grandson of Francis, 1st marquess of Hertford. Lady Spencer was a woman of considerable beauty and great personal charm, and during her residence in Ireland came to be known as ‘Spencer's Faery Queen’. The couple had had no children. Spencer's half-brother Sir Charles Robert Spencer succeeded as 6th Earl Spencer.
A large collection of Spencer's papers is held in the BL. There is a portrait of him in Dublin Castle.