Spencer Surname Meaning, History & Origin
“butler, steward,” which came from the Old French despencier or “larder.” The word described a man who was in charge of
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
- Churchill’s Spencer Ancestry. Spencers of Althorp and
- Spencer Historical and Genealogy Society. Spencer genealogy.
- The Spencer Genealogy. Descendants of Jared
Spencer in Connecticut.
- Spencer DNA Project. Spencer DNA.
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 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
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
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
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
There was also a Huguenot connection which cropped up at
- the firm of Toye, Kenning & Spencer
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
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
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
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
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
Benjamin Spencer didn’t make the fortune he had hoped for. His
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
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
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
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 Ancestry.com, 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 Ancestry.com. So the information is worth checking out on their website. This is where Charles Spencer, my 12th cousin, got his information perhaps.
Sincerely, Charlotte (email@example.com)
Edmund Spenser, a poet and contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote The Fairie Queene.
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
Percy Spencer joined the
Raytheon Corp in the 1920’s and in 1945 developed and patented for them
the first microwave oven.
Spencer 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 Spencer Numbers Today
- 52,000 in the UK (most numerous
- 50,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
- 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
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