Xist represents a paradigm for the function of long non-coding RNA in epigenetic regulation, although how it mediates X-chromosome inactivation (XCI) remains largely unexplained. Several proteins that bind to Xist RNA have recently been identified, including the transcriptional repressor SPEN1-3, the loss of which has been associated with deficient XCI at multiple loci2-6. Here we show in mice that SPEN is a key orchestrator of XCI in vivo and we elucidate its mechanism of action. We show that SPEN is essential for initiating gene silencing on the X chromosome in preimplantation mouse embryos and in embryonic stem cells. SPEN is dispensable for maintenance of XCI in neural progenitors, although it significantly decreases the expression of genes that escape XCI. We show that SPEN is immediately recruited to the X chromosome upon the upregulation of Xist, and is targeted to enhancers and promoters of active genes. SPEN rapidly disengages from chromatin upon gene silencing, suggesting that active transcription is required to tether SPEN to chromatin. We define the SPOC domain as a major effector of the gene-silencing function of SPEN, and show that tethering SPOC to Xist RNA is sufficient to mediate gene silencing. We identify the protein partners of SPOC, including NCoR/SMRT, the m6A RNA methylation machinery, the NuRD complex, RNA polymerase II and factors involved in the regulation of transcription initiation and elongation. We propose that SPEN acts as a molecular integrator for the initiation of XCI, bridging Xist RNA with the transcription machinery-as well as with nucleosome remodellers and histone deacetylases-at active enhancers and promoters.