Select Spencer Surname Genealogy

The surname Spencer derives from the Middle English spenser "butler, steward," which came from the Old French despencier or "larder."   The word described a man who was in charge of purchasing and distribution of all food and provisions within a royal or noble household.  It was a position of some importance and usually only lesser in status to the steward. 

The word was probably introduced into England by the Norman French after the Conquest of 1066.

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England.  There were the Despencers to start with.  The first Depencer was probably Hugh le Despenser in Leicestershire in the early 13th century.  These Depencers became favorites of Edward II, but then lost out in the political intrigue of the time.  Hugh Despencer was strung up and butchered in Hereford market in 1326.  Edward Despencer was buried with honor at Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire in 1375.  But his son Thomas was captured by a mob in Bristol in 1400 and beheaded.  

Spencers of Althorp  The most well-known Spencers have been the Spencers who have held sway at their ancestral home at Althorp since the early 16th century  The family has claimed that they were descended from Robert, a "despencer" to William the Conqueror, and to the earlier Despencers.   However, this connection may not be correct and could instead have been a fabrication in the 16th century by a greedy conman at the College of Arms.

The earliest known member of the family seems to have been Sir John Spencer of Wormeighton in Warwickshire.  He gained his wealth by enclosing lands and converting arable fields into pastures for the sheep that he bred.  He bought Althorp in Northamptonshire, was granted arms in 1504, and died in 1522.  His family was first wealthy and then politically influential.  These Spencers were related through marriage to the Churchills of Blenheim Palace, a line which included the Dukes of Marlborough and Sir Winston Churchill.  From the Althorp line came Diana, Princess of Wales.

Spencers in London  Other Spencers found fame and fortune in London.  Edmund Spencer the Elizabethan poet was born in London; and John Spencer, who had arrived there in the 1580's from Waldingfield in Suffolk, was so successful as a cloth and spice merchant that he became known as "rich Spencer."  But the most enduring Spencer legacy in London has been Spencer House, built by the Althorp Spencers as their town house in 1766.

Spencers in Yorkshire  A branch of the Spencer family from Badby in Northamptonshire can be traced to Bramley Grange in Yorkshire after the dissolution of its monastery in the 1530's. 

Later, there was a nonconforming streak to these Spencers in Yorkshire.  Bramley itself was an early centre of Methodism:
  • a Spencer family from Montgomeryshire on the Welsh borders established themselves at Cannon Hill near Barnsley in the 1640's. They were Quakers and one of the leading ironmasters of south Yorkshire in the 17th and 18th centuries. 
  • another family from Colne in Lancashire were Methodists.  They settled in Halifax in the 1730's and have been sturdy supporters of the Methodist church in that Yorkshire town ever since that time. 
However, history shows that not all of these Spencers were good.  Thomas Spencer was sentenced to death on Beacon Hill for highway robbery in 1780.
Spencers in Birmingham  The Spencer jewellery family of Birmingham has been traced back to the mid 18th century.  The Spencers were the first to machine-cut diamonds in England.  Spencer Street, at the heart of Birmingham's historical jewellry quarter, has recently been converted into Spencer Point, a mixed use residential development.

David Spencer, who trained in this area, now carries out his jewellry business in Staffordshire.  A branch of the family moved out to South Africa in the 1880's and settled in Port Elizabeth.

Huguenot Spencers  There was also a Huguenot connection which cropped up at various times:
  • the firm of Toye, Kenning & Spencer traces its history back to Henri Toye, a Huguenot weaver who had fled to London in 1685 to escape the  persecution in France. 
  • around the same time, some Spencers in Virginia were said to be of Huguenot extraction. 
  • and the Derby Methodist family of Spencers which produced the Victorian philosopher Herbert Spencer had Huguenot roots (from Thomas and Balthazar de Henzu who had settled in Stourbridge).
America.  The Spencers at Cople in Bedfordshire were a branch of the Althorp Spencers and they were among the early settlers in America.  Four sons and one daughter of Gerard Spencer went to New England in the 1630's. 

Virginia.  William Spencer was among the original group of Jamestown settlers in Virginia.  His nephews Nicholas and Robert came later.  Nicholas, who came well-connected, was later the acting governor of the colony.

Thomas Sharp Spencer was a descendant of an early Jamestown settler.  He first crossed the Cumberland Gap from Virginia into Tennessee in 1776.  Two years later, he became the first white man to clear land, build a cabin, and grow corn in the area.  The following winter he resided in a giant hollow sycamore tree south of Bledsoe's Lick.  His great stature and solitary life earned his nickname, "Big Foot."  However, he was later ambushed and killed by Indians. 

Meanwhile another Spencer family, headed by Charles Spencer, crossed from Virginia into Kentucky in 1796.  This family later moved onto Indiana.

In the early 19th century, James Spencer settled with his wife and children in what is now Richwood, West Virginia.  Another James Spencer started Grassdale Farm, a tobacco plantation, in Henry County, Virginia.  His family-owned firm later became one of the largest manufacturers of plug chewing tobacco in the country. 

Elsewhere.  Samuel Spencer, a descendant of a Spencer immigrant into Talbot, Maryland in 1670, grew up on a cotton plantation near Columbus, Georgia.  He later became one of the country's most powerful railroad tycoons, best known as the father of the Southern Railway system.  His career was cut short when he was killed in 1906 in a train crash on one of his own lines.

Australia and New Zealand.  Richard Spencer, the son of a London merchant, was a big advocate of Australian colonization.  He eventually settled there in 1833.  But his life in Australia was only to last six years.  And two of his sons were to die shortly afterwards, one in a drowning accident and the other being hit by a falling tree.

Thomas Spencer, a chemist by profession in Thames near Auckland, lay more permanent foundations in New Zealand.  Although he himself perished in the Wairarapa shipwreck in 1894, his son Albert had already started his Caxton printing company by that time.  The business helped make the Spencers one of the wealthiest families in New Zealand.

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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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Edmund Spenser
, a poet and contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote The Fairie Queene.
Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sutherland, rose to be Prime Minister of England in 1718 but was then ruined by the South Sea Bubble.
John Spencer of Cannon Hall was a leading ironmaster in south Yorkshire in the early 18th century.
Herbert Spencer was the Victorian philosopher, a contemporary of Darwin, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest."
Tom Spencer from Skipton in Yorkshire was one of the co-founders of the British retail chain Marks and Spencer.
Percy Spencer joined the Raytheon Corp in the 1920's and in 1945 developed and patented for them the first microwave oven.
Diana Spencer ibecame Diana, Princess of Wales, after her marriage to the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne in 1981.  She died in a car crash in Paris.

Select Spencers Today
  • 52,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 50,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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