Dieu defend le droit, God defends the right.
Quarterly, ar. and gu. i nthe second and third, a fret or, over all a bend sa. charged with three escallops of the first.
Out of a ducal coronet or, a griffin's head, betw. two wings, erect, ar. collared gu. beaked of the first.
he Spencers have been farmers since pre-Tudor times, coming to prominence in Warwickshire in the fifteenth century. John Spencer became feoffee of Wormleighton in 1469, and a tenant at Althorp in 1486. His nephew another John, through trade in livestock and commodities, then bought both properties outright, was knighted, and so lay the bedrock for the family's fortune.
His descendants expanded the holdings through business dealings and marriage into the peerage. However, not until Robert, First Lord Spencer (1570-1627) does a fully-rounded character emerge from history. Thanks in part to the steady accumulation of his forebears he became one of the richest men in the land. He owned almost 20,000 sheep, and with sales of meat, breeding stock and wool, his income was about £8,000 per annum.
As a man of standing, he met James I as the royal court travelled down from Scotland in 1603, accompanying it on to London. Meanwhile James' wife was entertained at Althorp, then a secondary residence, with a masque by Ben Jonson. Robert was soon ennobled; and like many Spencers afterwards, almost in spite of himself he suddenly found himself in public service. King James I sent him as ambassador to Wurtemburg to present Duke Frederick with the Order of the Garter. Although 'his skill in antiquities, arms and alliances was singular, Robert appears to have found the expedition more chore than cultural enrichment. Though politically active he soon fades from view.
His son William, the Second Lord Spencer, did not participate at Court or in parliament, but instead devoted himself to country life, built a racecourse at Althorp and set up the Easter race-meetings on nearby Harlestone Heath. He married Penelope, the daughter of the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron. Their son Henry attended Oxford, married Dorothy Sidney - the poet Edmund WaIler's infatuation, 'Sacharissa' - and joined her parents in Paris. On his return, more from loyalty than conviction, he aligned himself with the Royalist forces in the Civil War. He fought at Edgehill and later lent Charles I £i0,000. He was created Earl of Sunder-land in June 1643. Three months later he was fatally wounded at Newbury. Later in the war, Wormleighton, where he had entertained Prince Rupert, was burnt down by Royalist troops to prevent it becoming a rebel garrison.
His heir, Robert, Second Earl of Sunderland, became one of the most notorious politicians of his day. Contemporaries and historians alike have singled him out for his heartlessness and lack of scruple. Macaulay claimed that 'In him the political morality of the age was personified in the most lively manner even that may be too charitable. Although Sunderland managed to serve as Secretary of State to two monarchs, and as Lord Chamberlain to a third, only a Machiavellian sense of allegiance kept him in favour twice, in the Exclusion Bill of 1680, and with his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1688, he publicly sided against the incoming monarch. Yet remarkably he remained to make himself an indispensable adviser to the Crown. Only in 1694 did he finally retire, driven from high office by public odium.
However unprincipled, his political longevity testified to his competence and a quick mind. And his reputation often overlooks his taste for art, nourished during his early education in France and Italy. He greatly enriched the collection at Althorp. His marriage was also happy although Queen Anne described his wife, Lady Anne Digby, as 'the greatest jade that ever lived.' Jade, here, means liar!
Charles, the Third Earl of Sunderland, was described by John Evelyn as a 'youth of extraordinary hopes, very learned for his age'. Unfortunately, this precociousness was not best suited to politics, especially when married to a testy unforgiving disposition. Afrer entering parliament in 1695 as a Whig member for Tiverton, he became under Queen Anne a special envoy to Vienna. He was briefly Foreign Secretary but his post owed much to his membership of the ruling junta and to the influence of his wife, Anne Churchill's mother, the Duchess of Marlborough, who was the Queen's confidante. When George I acceded, he continued in office as Secretary of State and Lord President of the Council, but shorn of real power
Never as deft a 'wheeler-dealer' as his father, the Third Earl inherited a love of collecting, though his passion was books, not pictures. By the time of his sudden death in 1722, he had built up an incomparable library although financial pressure at one stage forced him to mortgage it to the Duke of Marlborough in return for a loan. Ironically much of the collection eventually ended up at Blenheim.
As the Great Duke had no male heir, the Third Earl's wife and her elder sister, Henrietta, were made co-heiresses by special dispensation. Her son, the Fourth Earl of Sunderland, died in 1729 without having married, and so her second son, Charles, became the Fifth Earl. When Henrietta, who had since become Duchess of Marlborough, died without issue, the Fifth Earl became the Third Duke of Marlborough.
In 1734 the Fifth Earl left Althorp, and with him went the Sunderland title. His younger brother, the Hon. John Spencer, inherited the house. Greater fortune awaited him, however as the favourite grandson of Sarah Jennings, the dowager Duchess of Marlborough, he was bequeathed all her personal property. This included Holywell House, near St Albans, and a fine villa at Wimbledon, as well as substantial land.
He did not live to enjoy it. for long. He died in 1746, just two years after his 84-year-old grandmother, leaving his 12-year-old son, also John, to inherit.
The Hon. John Spencer had a character partly shaped by 3 ill-health.' Flawed he may have been, but he used his wealth to become one of the leading artistic patrons of the era. He built the fabulous Spencer House overlooking Green Park, and also commissioned Reynolds for the family portraits which are now so valued.
He added 5,000 mainly Elizabethan volumes to the library, and along with his wife, the forceful Georgiana Poyntz, cultivated an artistic circle of friends including David Garrick, the actor, Sir William Hamilton and Charles James Fox.
In that other family field, politics, he was especially successful in electioneering. However, a provision of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough's will was that he should not accept a court or parliamentary position himself but, in 1761, he was created Baron and Viscount Spencer, and four years later, John became the First Earl Spencer.
George John, who became the Second Earl Spencer in 1783, appears to have been a mild-mannered, scholarly man, eclipsed socially by his over-bearing wife, Lady Lavinia Bingham, and no match for his sister Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an inveterate socialite. Nonetheless, his separate achievements stand out. He was responsible for Holland's overhaul of Althorp, and inside, his bibliophilic obsession led to the creation of the greatest private library in the world. Among his eventual 40,000 or so books were over 3,000 incunabula, including 8 Caxtons, early French and Italian works, rare editions of England's greatest writers, including the first four Shakespeare folios, bibles and editions from Gutenburg.
While his tastes were early encouraged by his tutor, William Jones, the Second Earl's enthusiasm for books was circumscribed for much of his life by his political career From 1794 to 1826 he was First Lord of the Admiralty under Pitt, having forsaken the family's traditional Whig allegiances. An able administrator, he suppressed mutiny in the ranks and oversaw Nelson's promotion to the Mediterranean fleet which presaged the great naval victories.
Later on the Second Earl joined Pitt in his 'Ministry of all the talents'. Meanwhile his son John Charles, Viscount Althorp, entered Parliament, also as a Tory Pitt's death allowed him to realign with radicals who became known as the Young Whigs. Rich, titled and fox-hunters to a man, this group was opposed to corruption and in favour of broad social reform.
Althorp had little ambition but the early death of his wife cast a sufficient pall for him to abandon country pursuits and dedicate himself to politics. In 1830 he became leader in the Commons of the Whigs, and afterwards Chancellor of the Exchequer. A head for details was not matched by any oratorical flair; 'there is a better speaker than Althorp in every vestry in England', wrote one contemporary. Still, few had his sense of duty which led to his main triumph, the successful passage of the Reform Bill. His brother Frederick, a naval officer, became the Fourth Earl Spencer (while another in this diverse fraternity George became a Catholic convert taking the name Father Ignatius). He added some fine porcelain to the existing collection.
With his death in 1857, his son, John Poyntz, the Fifth Earl then resumed the twin family preoccupations of field sports and politics. In a career which spanned much of the modernising legislation of the Victorian era, he was twice Lord Lieu tenant of Ireland, Lord President of the Council, and First Lord of the Admiralty. A friend as well as an appointee Gladstone, despite his Whig background, he identified with Liberal aims and was, for instance, an early supporter of Irish Home Rule. Like his uncle however, he was a 'nearly man' driven by duty and not by ambition for high office.
At home he was a keen huntsman, readily identifiable on horseback as the 'Red Earl' by his flowing beard. He often rode out with the Empress of Austria, a frequent guest at Althorp. With his wife, the beautiful Charlotte Seymour dubbed 'Spencer's Faery Queen', he also travelled widely with a round-the-world trip in 1895. The Red Earl has the dubious distinction of reputedly having introduced barbed wire England.
His half-brother Charles, the Sixth Earl, was the last Spencer to sit in parliament. Affectionately lampooned for his, fastidious dress, 'Bobby' occupied a number of minor Court politics but was never a political high-flyer. Life in the royal entourage suited him perfectly but the premature death of his wife turned him inwards, and he also suffered from ill health.
Althorp was to receive perhaps more attention than at any time when the complex, scholarly Seventh Earl took over and dedicated himself to the house's upkeep, cataloguing its c& tents, and opening it to scholars. His artistic positions including acting as a trustee to the Wallace Collection and the chairmanship of the Victoria and Albert Advisory Council.
The Eighth Earl was for ten years chairman of the National Association of Boys' Clubs, a member of Northampton Council for 29 years, and a keen amateur photographer. He is fondly remembered above all for his ready wit and affectionate manner. He also won the hearts of the nation when he escorted his youngest daughter, Diana, up the aisle of St Paul's in 1981, during her marriage to the Prince of Wales, despite being only recently recovered from a severe stroke.
In April 1992, Charles, Viscount Althorp, became the Ninth Earl. Educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, he was a Page of Honour to her Majesty the Queen. He has a career in television and writing, and was married to the former Victoria Lockwood.
Name Variations: Spencer, Spenser, Spensor.
References:One or more of the following publications has been referenced for this article.The General Armory; Sir Bernard Burke - 1842.
A Handbook of Mottoes; C.N. Elvin - 1860.
The beautiful heraldry artwork for this family is available to purchase on select products from the Celtic Radio Store. We look forward to filling your order!
Sign-up for a Founders account and receive personalized
family heraldry service and much more!
Want to know more?
Click the Heart!