Spencer Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Spencer Surname Meaning

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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Spencer Surname Ancestry

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 in London 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 jewellery quarter, has recently been converted into Spencer Point, a mixed use residential development.

David Spencer, who trained in this area, now carries out his jewellery 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.  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.

New Zealand.  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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Spencer Surname 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 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 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 (charmsdee@gmail.com)

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Spencer Names
  • 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 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.
Spencer Numbers 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)
Spencer and Like Surnames

These were status positions within the feudal position of that time – usually positions serving noble families, lords of the manor, or in the church.  Here are some of these status position surnames that you can check out.

AbbottChambersGardnerParker
BaileyFaulknerHaywardPrior
ButlerFowlerKnightSpencer
ChamberlainFranklinMarshallWoodward

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