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BookPost (continued)

The Spencer Family

When last November Earl Spencer (nom de plume Charles Spencer) was asked to contribute to the Spectator Diary (the British Spectator, that is), he seized the opportunity to plug his new book, The Spencer Family, in the first paragraph. Well, no harm in that, of course, is there? Obviously not! Unless .......

And there it was, halfway down that first paragraph ~

We supposedly arrived with the Conqueror as his head of household (the Norman word for the position was 'Despenser'); had a particularly turbulent time in the Middle ages, several times ending up on the scaffold;

Two sentences earlier he had written ~

I accept that writing about my forebears must smack of wilful snobbery --

~ but how should he be judged when he claims forebears to which he has no link?

He was asking for trouble, and in the next issue of the magazine a letter reminded him that Horace Round showed (a hundred years ago) that the Spencer ancestry before the 16th century had been invented by greedy conmen at the College of Arms in London (following the traditional misbehaviour of the Tudor heralds). Two weeks later another letter stated that the first was nonsense and that, of course, the Despencers were the ancestors of the Spencers as the heraldry made clear. (The heraldic evidence is bogus.)

Some of our readers may remember that we told the full story in Mists of Antiquity, but here are the details in brief.

Arms of Spencer 1504
In 1504, John Spencer, an innovative and entrepreneurial yeoman, considered himself sufficiently successful to justify petitioning for a grant of arms. He was awarded Azure a fess Ermine between 6 sea-mews' heads erased Argent and could thenceforward be accounted a gentleman. (He was subsequently knighted by Henry VIII. ) At this time English society was still restructuring itself after the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, and the gentry and the peerage were being restocked with new families seeking gentility.
If at this time, 1504, John Spencer had any thought that he might be descended from the great mediaeval family of the Despencers, if there had been any legend among his kinsmen that this could be so, if there had been any chance that the suggestion would be taken seriously by the heralds, then he must have asked for arms similar to those of the Despencers and a note of his request and of its grounds would have been made in the records. As it was, the arms he was awarded could hardly be more dissimilar from those of the Despencers (here on the right), and there is no note.
Arms of Despencer
The arms granted in 1504 were used at least as late as 1576, and probably remained so in use until 1595, the year Richard Lee, Clarenceux King of Arms, visited the Spencer seat at Althorpe and "discovered" the family's 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 Despencer arms (with the addition of three escallops in bend) displayed instead of the Spencer arms, and an earlier monument to the 1504 grantee, the first Sir John Spencer, having the 1504 Spencer arms removed and replaced with the Despencer arms. This rewrote history.
Arms of Spencer 1595
Lady Diana
It is surprising, and indeed it is disappointing, that Earl Spencer should still be trying to rewrite history when the truth is so well known and, moreover, widely quoted among genealogists as the classic example of the Tudor heralds' mendacity. And yet, and yet, this discredited tale of descent from Duke William's household was the basis of tabloid newspapers repeating with ill-concealed glee a claim allegedly made by a member of the Spencer family that Diana had a more distinguished ancestry than had her husband. Even if the Spencers did not date from only the end of the 15th century, and if they were indeed the descendants of the Despencers, they would still have no proven connection with the Conqueror. That Despencer link, too, was an invention.
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