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.

Spencer Resources on

Spencer Ancestry

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
family has claimed
that they were descended from Robert, a
to William the Conqueror, and to the earlier Despencers.
However, this connection may not be correct and could instead have been
fabrication in the 16th century by a greedy conman at the College of

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
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
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

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
    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.

history shows that not all of these Spencers were good.  Thomas
Spencer was sentenced to death on Beacon Hill for highway robbery in

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
  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

Select Spencer Miscellany

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

Spencer Names

Edmund Spenser, a poet and contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote The Fairie Queene.
, 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.
became 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)




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