Select Spencer Miscellany

Here are some Spencer stories and accounts over the years:

Spencer Origin

Recorded in several forms including Spence, Spencer, and Spender, this is an English surname but one of French origins.  It originally described a despencier or despendour, a man who was in charge of purchasing and distribution of all food and provisions within a royal or noble household. 

The four main officers of a noble household were the steward, who was responsible for administration, despencer for provisions, the marshal for the horses, and the butler for household staffing.

The derivation of the name is from the Old French pre 8th century word despense, meaning "to weigh."  The word was probably introduced into England by the Norman French after the Conquest of 1066.  The spelling of the surname has always been with the transposed 'c' rather than the 's' as in 'despense.'  In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the glutton in The Summer's Tale is described as "all vinolent as botel in the spence."

The Despencers and Their Untimely Ends

The first sighting of this surname would appear to be a Hugh le Despenser, found in the early records as sheriff and custodian of castles between 1224 and 1237. Another Hugh became Justiciary of England and was killed at the battle of Evesham in 1265, having been summoned to Simon de Montfort’s Parliament the previous year. 

By his wife, Alvira, he had a son, Hugh, Earl of Winchester.  Both this Hugh, known as "the elder" (1262-1326) and his son, Hugh "the younger," were prominent men in Edward II’s reign.  As the King’s favorites, they were powerful but hated.

The Queen, too, hated the Despensers.  Because of their hold over her husband she left the country to go to her brother Charles IV in France, vowing not to return until Edward had rid himself of both Hughs. There was talk of war between the two countries at one time.  When the King would not bow to her wishes, she gathered an army in France and landed in England in 1326 with the intention of ridding the country of the two Despensers. The King retreated before her and she had her men marched to Gloucestershire and Bristol in pursuit.  Here Hugh the elder was captured, sentenced as a traitor, and sent to the gallows.

Hugh the younger accompanied Edward II when he fled before the Queen’s army but was eventually captured in Wales where he had retreated to one of his castles.  On 24th November 1326 he was brought to trial at Hereford.  Found guilty of being a traitor, he was condemned to death.  Having been hung, drawn and quartered, his head was sent to London and displayed on London Bridge whilst his quarters were sent to four other towns.

Spencers and Despencers

In 1595 Richard Lee, Clarenceux King of Arms, visited the Spencer seat at Althorp and "discovered" the family descent as cadets of the great Despencers.  The consequences of this visit included a monument to the memory of his host's father being erected with the ancient Dispencer arms (with the addition of three escallops in bend) displayed instead of the Spencer arms.  The earlier monument to the 1504 grantee, the first John Spencer, was removed and displaced by the Despencer arms, thereby rewriting history.

Instead, Horace Round, the genealogist who investigated the ancestry, traced these Spencers to a William Spencer of Radborne in Warwickshire.


Benjamin Spencer's Dabble at The Slave Trade

For 200 years Cannon Hall in Barnsley had been home to the Spencer family who had made their fortune in the local iron industry.  But by the mid 18th century Benjamin Spencer - brother of the then-owner John Spencer - found himself in financial trouble and turned to speculation in the slave trade.   He bought a ship, the Cannon Hall, in the hope that he could make a huge profit from it.  It didn't happen.

There is evidence that Benjamin Spencer's slaves couldn't be sold at their intended destination of Antigua because a ship had arrived there from France with a cargo of cheaper slaves.   Instead, his slaves were taken to Charlestown in South Carolina and sold there at a loss.  

Benjamin Spencer didn't make the fortune he had hoped for.  His twin brother William drunk himself to death; and Benjamin followed him to the grave two months later.

A Spencer Grave in Jamaica

There are two gravestones at Lacovia in St. Elizabeth parish.  Two men were said to have got into a fight at a tavern over a lady and the fight ended up as a duel.  The story goes that both men died and that one of the seconds got the girl.

The script on one of the gravestones is illegible; but the other, beneath a flamboyant coat of arms of the Althrop Spencers, spells out Thomas Jordan Spencer as having "departed this life," aged 20, in 1738. 

James Spencer of Virginia

Thomas Spencer had served in the Revolutionary War and his eldest son, James, was born around 1785. 

This James showed himself to be a great hunter, even at an early age.  When he was only fourteen years old, he was keeping camp for his father and his friends on the Cherry river.  Whilst they were away hunting, he shot a deer with his bow and arrow and was busy skinning the animal when the adults returned empty handed from their hunting.

James Spencer married twice and was the father of twenty children, including three sets of twins.   He was a small man, energetic, strong, and wiry.  He was an excellent horseback rider and was able to mount and dismount his mule until a week of his death.

In 1880, he had ridden his mule five miles to visit his son Smith and his family who lived at New Hope (now Fenwick Mountain in West Virginia).  However, while he was there, he became severely ill with an intestine disease and died at the ripe old age of ninety five.  He was buried in the yard of the little school-house which also served as a church. 

William Spencer and His Cut Diamond

In the mid 19th century diamonds were being cut in Amsterdam before being manipulated by the Birmingham jewellers.  This state of affairs meant high prices and long delays. 

William Spencer, in true Victorian spirit, set about investigating the possibilities of the machine cutting of diamonds.  At great expense he set up apparatus at his Regent Place shop and succeeded in cutting the first diamond in the country.  He presented this stone to the Mayor of Birmingham in 1873 and it today adorns the civic chain as the center of the Maltese cross.      

Charles Spencer at Diana's Funeral

On the death of his father in 1992, Charles Spencer succeeded him as the 9th Earl Spencer and inherited Althorp, the family seat in Northamptonshire.  Five years later he delivered his eulogy at the funeral of his older sister Diana, Princess of Wales, at Westminster Abbey.  Though he took pains to keep the speech a secret, he has insisted that he had no inkling of the impact it would have.

This was one reaction:

"I was in the abbey when he delivered it and I, like everybody else, shivered and gasped.  As he finished, we all heard a sound like heavy rain rushing towards us.  Then, weirdly, the rain was inside the abbey.  It was applause, racing in from the London parks, through the abbey and then across the nation.  He may or may not have known what he was doing, but he’d certainly done it – attacked the press and the royals and endorsed the popular sense of Diana as the innocent, beautiful, hounded victim."

The Earl managed his sister's interment on the Althorp estate and opened a museum in her honor.  Diana's wedding dress and some of her personal effects are on display there.

Reader Feedback - Spencers Descended from William the Conqueror

I am writing in response to information on your website concerning the famous Spencers claiming they are descended from Robert,a "despencer" to William the Conqueror, and to the earlier Despencers.

I have this information in my family tree, courtesy of, about the Spencers being descended from William the Conqueror.  Perhaps this is also information the "greedy conman at the College of Arms also had access to.  I have the William the Conqueror - Bement - Sanford - Drake - Spencer - Churchill files, all courtesy of my family records and  So the information is worth checking out on their website.  This is where Charles Spencer, my 12th cousin, got his information perhaps.

Charlotte (

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