Cracroft's Peerage
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The Heraldry of the Early Spencers



Fig 1: The arms of Spencer of Althorp

Spencer Chapel, Great Brington Church, Northamptonshire


Traditionally, the arms of Spencer of Althorp, as used by the Barons Spencer, the Earls of Sunderland, the Dukes of Marlborough, the Barons and Viscounts Churchill, and several families of Spencer baronets, have been: Quarterly Argent and Gules in the second and third quarters a Fret Or overall on a Bend Sable three Escallops of the first. These arms (Fig. 1) are a differenced version of the arms of the great medieval baronial family, the le Despencers. However, these have not always been the arms of the Spencers of Althorp and I was asked recently to explain how and when the change of arms came about.



Fig 2: Arms granted to John and Thomas Spencer

Stained glass - Spencer Chapel, Great Brington Church, Northamptonshire


The very successful and upwardly mobile sheep grazier John Spencer and his brother Thomas Spencer were jointly granted arms (Fig. 2) on 26 May 1504. These arms were: Azure a fess Ermine between six Seamews' Heads erased Argent and for a crest: A Moor-hen proper. "Seamew" is the heraldic term for a sea-gull and quite a rare charge in heraldry. John had witnessed a deed in 1497 with a non-armorial seal, which tells us that the 1504 grant was the first time John and Thomas had born arms, i.e. before that date they were non-armigerous and not entitled to display or use a coat of arms. John Spencer bought the Wormleighton estate in Warwickshire in 1506 and the Althorp estate in Northamptonshire in 1508. He was knighted in 1519. Sir John died in 1522 and the effigy on his tomb in the Spencer Chapel at Great Brington is wearing a tabard of the arms granted in 1504.



Fig 3: Arms of Sir William Spencer, showing Spencer quartering Graunt

Stained glass - Spencer Chapel, Great Brington Church, Northamptonshire


Sir John had married Isabel Graunt, the daughter and, it is assumed, heiress of Walter Graunt, of Snitterfield, Warwickshire, by his wife ..... Rudding, daughter and heiress of Humphrey Rudding, of Droitwich, Worcestershire. Isabel's father used the arms: Ermine on a Chevron Gules five Bezants, a Crescent for difference. Sir John's son, Sir William Spencer, would have been entitled to quarter or combine the arms of Spencer and Graunt on his shield after his mother's death. There is a very simple depiction of these in one of the windows in Great Brington church (Fig 3). Note that the Spencer arms used here are those granted to his father in 1504.


Sir William's son, the second Sir John Spencer, recorded a simple three generation pedigree at the Herald's Visitation of the County of Northampton in 1564 which began with his grandfather. The arms recorded at the same time were those granted in 1504. These 1504 arms continued to be used until at least 1576, when Sir John witnessed a deed using a seal bearing these arms.


This Sir John Spencer died ten years later in 1586 and was succeeded by his son, also called John, who was knighted in 1588. Like his father before him, the third Sir John Spencer was Sheriff of Northamptonshire and a Member of Parliament. No doubt wanting to increase the standing of the Spencers among the county families of Northamptonshire and improve on the somewhat sparse Spencer pedigree in the 1564 Visitation, in 1595 Sir John commissioned Richard Lee, Clarenceux King of Arms, to research the history of the Spencer family. One assumes that Sir John thought the fee paid to Lee represented value-for-money as he came up with a truly amazing pedigree linking the Spencers of Althorp in the male line with the great medieval baronial family of le Despencer. This male-line descent, according to Lee, also gave the Spencers of Althorp the right to bear and use a suitably differenced version of the le Despencer arms.


Lee, whose competence was not highly regarded (Queen Elizabeth allegedly had said that "if he proved no better" than his predecessor Cooke, Clarenceux, "yt made no matter yf hee were hanged"), headed the pedigree: "The pedigree of Sr John Spencer Kt. of Althrope and Wormleighton in the Countyes of Northampton and Warr. being a branche issueing from the ancient familly and chieffe of the Spencers, of which sometymes were ye Earles of Winchester and Gloster and Barons of Glamorgan and Morgannocke". It begins with "Thurstanus pater Americi et Walterii", and at its foot we read: "This pedegre and discent of Sr John Spencer of Althroppe and Wormleighton in ye countyes of Northampton and Warr. Kt. issueing from the auncient family of the Spensers herein set downe together wth the armes and coates thereunto belonginge collected out of divers records, registers, evidence, ancient seales of Armes, sundry willes and Testamentes with other good and sufficient proofes of ye truth having beene diligently and carefully seene and perused, is allowed of and confirmed by me Richard Lee als. Clarencieux Kinge of Armes, of the East, West, and South parts of England at my office 8 May 1595".


This pedigree has been critically analysed by Dr J Horace Round (Studies in Peerage and Family History, pp. 279-329). The main problem Round had with the pedigree was that in proving the critical link between the medieval le Despencers and the Spencers of Althorp, Lee either ignored the evidence in front of him or deliberately falsified it so as to prove his point. According to the pedigree, Sir William le Spencer, of Defford, Worcestershire, who died in 1328, was the son of Sir John le Despencer, of Martley, Worcestershire, who died in 1274, by his second wife Ann. Round found two errors or falsifications here: (1) the inquest taken after the death of Sir John le Despencer states that his nearest heir was "Hugo filius Hugonis le Dispenser", that is to say his first cousin once removed, Hugh le Despencer "the Elder", later 1st Earl of Winchester, and (2) the "Sir William le Spencer" who died in 1328 was not the wealthy scion of a great baronial family, but was the plain "William Spencer", a socage tenant of Geoffrey Dabitot, holding of him a messuage, four virgates of land, and two acres of meadow in Defford, Worcestershire.


Round quite rightly says: "The proved falsehood of the link connecting the 'Spencers' with the 'Despencers' does not merely shatter the pedigree; it is absolutely fatal to the bona fides of the herald by whom it was concocted. Consequently, when we find him citing evidences that are not now forthcoming, it is impossible to accept his statements as valid evidence" (Idem, p. 306). Round goes on to thoroughly castigate Lee: "And now let me once more insist on the modus operandi of Clarencieux Lee, the original rascal, and the "onlie begetter" of this precious pedigree. He took the records of the Spencers and Despencers wherever he could lay hands on them, fitted them in one pedigree of his own sweet will, rammed into his composition several distinct families, and then boldly certified the whole as gospel truth" (Idem, pp. 307-308).


The accepted authorities agree with Round in their unanimous rejection of Lee's Spencer pedigree. For example, The Complete Peerage (Vol IV, p.259, note (b)) says: "Their pedigree [i.e. the Despencers of Loughborough] has been distorted by the unscrupulous efforts of many heralds and genealogists to derive the Spencers of Althorpe from an illustrious origin: with the result that (1) these Despencers, who appear to have been dispensatores of the Earls of Chester, (2) the Despencers of King's Stanley, co. Gloucester, who were dispensatores Regi, and (3) the above named (now ducal) family of Spencer, who emerge from obscurity, as wealthy graziers, towards the end of the 15th century, have been associated in a single pedigree in which "fact and fiction are cunningly intertwined." This elaborate imposture ..... is now incapable of deceiving [even] the most credulous."


The pedigree might be a concoction, but what about the arms? The records of the College of Arms are proof of the right to bear and display arms, and so the differenced version of the le Despencer arms which Lee assigned to the Spencers of Althorp, and which were recorded at the 1617/8 Visitation of Northamptonshire, must stand as the arms of Spencer, however dubious their provenance.


In the Spencer Chapel in Great Brington Church there are monuments to six consecutive generations of the Spencer family:


1. Sir John Spencer (died 1522) and his wife Isabella Graunt

2. Sir William Spencer (died 1532) and his wife Susan Knightley

3. Sir John Spencer (died 1586) and his wife Katherine Kitson

4. Sir John Spencer (died 1599) and his wife Mary Catelin

5. Robert, 1st Baron Spencer (died 1627) and his wife Margaret Willoughby

6. William, 2nd Baron Spencer (died 1636) and his wife Lady Penelope Wriothesley


These monuments are liberally decorated with carved or painted shields, using Spencer Modern (the arms assigned to the Spencers of Althorp in 1595), as shown in Fig. 1, to illustrate through heraldry the family connections of the Spencers of Althorp. What does this heraldry say to us, if anything?



Fig 3: Arms of Sir John Spencer (died 1522) impaling those of his wife, Isabella Graunt

Spencer Chapel, Great Brington Church, Northamptonshire


The first point is that the shields on the first two monuments cannot originally have been painted as they stand now soon after the deaths of either Sir John in 1522 or Sir William in 1532, as they use Spencer Modern, which was not assigned to the Spencers of Althorp until 1595. The effigy on the top of Sir John's tomb is carved and so the arms on his tabard of Spencer Ancient (i.e. the arms granted in 1504) could not be changed after 1595. However, the shields around the tomb, or on the freestanding arched canopy over the tomb, could easily have been repainted, or even re-carved, after 1595 to reflect the change in the Spencer arms. Fig 3 is an example of one of these shields, showing the impaled arms of Sir John and his wife Isabella Graunt.



Fig 4: Arms of Sir John Spencer (died 1599) showing quarterings for Spencer Modern,

Spencer Ancient, Deverell, Lincolne, Warstead, Graunt and Rudding

Spencer Chapel, Great Brington Church, Northamptonshire


After the change to Spencer Modern in 1595, the 1504 arms (Spencer Ancient) were displayed in the second quarter of the Spencer arms, where, quartered with the arms of Deverell, Lincolne, Warsted, Graunt and Rudding, they appear in many of the shields adorning the monuments in the Spencer Chapel at Great Brington (Fig. 4) as well as on the monument to Sir William Spencer (died 1609) in the Spencer Chapel in St Bartholomew's Church, Yarnton, Oxfordshire, and in the armorial glass in that church. Round has cast doubt on the accuracy of these quarterings. We only know of the connections with the Deverell, Lincolne and Warsted families through Lee's discredited pedigree. On the inscription on Sir John's monument his father-in-law is described as "Walter Graunt of Snitterfield in the Countie of War: Esquier" and Walter's wife as being "the daughter & heire of Humphrie Rudinge of the Wich in the Coun: of Worcester Esq:". Round points out that Walter Graunt was a bailiff of Droitwich ('the Wich') in 1494 (Calendar of Inquisitions: Henry VII, 1, 380), and a parishioner of Salwarp, close to Droitwich, in 1496 (Nash's Worcestershire, II, 340). Snitterfield is a long way from Droitwich. There has always, also, been some difficulty about the Rudinge match (see Grazebrook's Heraldry of Worcestershire).


Similar comments apply to Sir William's table tomb. Sir William died in 1532, yet eight of the shields around his tomb are shown with Spencer Modern, which as we have seen above was not assigned to the Spencers of Althorp until 1595. Another solecism on this tomb is that the sixth shield shows Spencer of Everdon impaling Spencer Modern. The Spencers of Everdon were close cousins of the Spencers of Althorp, descending from an uncle of the first Sir John Spencer. Thomas Spencer, of Everdon, Northamptonshire, had married his cousin Dorothy Spencer, third daughter of Sir William Spencer. Because the Spencers of Everdon had not been included in the 1504 grant of arms to Sir John Spencer and his brother, Thomas Spencer, they were not armigerous until Thomas Spencer of Everdon petitioned about 1560 for a grant of arms to himself and his heirs. The arms were totally unlike either those in the 1504 grant or those assigned to the Spencers of Althorp in 1595. No-one has ever suggested that this branch of the Spencer family also descends from the medieval le Despencers or that they should use a differenced version of the Despencer arms. Sir William's tomb, therefore, as well as having arms not assigned to his grandson until 63 years later, also has on it arms not granted to his son-in-law until 28 years later.


The second Sir John Spencer died in 1586 and the effigy on his tomb in the Chapel is the first effigy to be found in the Chapel displaying Spencer Modern. This would initially suggest the change from Spencer Ancient to Spencer Modern was made in the relatively short 10 year period between 1576, when he used Spencer Ancient on a seal, and 1586, when he uses Spencer Modern on his tomb. However, there is some doubt that his monument was actually made in 1586. Firstly, we know that Spencer Modern was not assigned to the Spencers of Althorp until 1595, and secondly the inscription next to the tomb refers to one of his daughters as "married to George Lord Hunsdon". As Lord Hunsdon did not succeed to that barony until 1596 it does suggest that the tomb and the monument over it cannot have been erected before that date. The inscription has also been amended to note that Lord Buckhurst was the High Treasurer of England, which happened in 1599. This would suggest that the tomb and its attached monument was made in the period 1596-1599. Quite why the third Sir John Spencer waited ten or more years before building his father's tomb is not clear.



Fig 5: Effigies of Sir John Spencer (died 1599) and his wife, Mary Catelin

Spencer Chapel, Great Brington Church, Northamptonshire


The effigy on Sir John's own tomb (Fig 5) wears a tabard with Spencer Modern on the trunk and right sleeve, but Spencer Ancient on the left sleeve. To display Spencer Ancient in this way is unusual, to say the least. Whether this is a leftover from a wholesale change from Spencer Ancient to Spencer Modern is not known.



Fig 6: Arms of Robert, 1st Baron Spencer, and his wife, Margaret Willoughby

Spencer Chapel, Great Brington Church, Northamptonshire


The tomb of Sir Robert Spencer, 1st Baron Spencer, and his wife, Margaret Willoughby, contains a wealth of heraldry. In the arms on the tomb Lord Spencer has combined both his and his wife's arms in one shield of 20 quarterings. The full blazon, or heraldic description, of the shield (Fig. 6) is: Quarterly of 20: 1. Quarterly Argent and Gules in the second and third quarters a Fret Or over all on a Bend Sable three Escallops of the first (Spencer Modern); 2. Azure a Fess Ermine between six Sea-mews' Heads erased Argent (Spencer Ancient); 3. Gules three Stirrups in pale Or (Deverell); 4. Or on a Cross Gules five Mullets of six points pierced Argent (Lincolne); 5. Argent a Chevron between three Cinquefoils Gules (Warsted); 6. Ermine on Chevron Gules five Bezants, a Crescent Gules for difference (Graunt); 7. Argent on a Bend between two Lions rampant Sable a Wyvern with wings overt of the field (Rudding); 8. Per chevron Or and Azure three Lions passant guardant counterchanged a Chief Argent (Catelin); 9. Or on two Bars Gules three Water Bougets Argent (Willoughby); 10. Or a cross Fleury Gules (Freville); 11. Vairy a Fess Gules fretty Or (Marmion); 12. Bendy of ten Or and Azure (Montfort of Beaudesert); 13. Argent billetty a Lion rampant Sable (De la Plaunche); 14. Azure a Fess between six Cross Crosslets Argent (Haversham); 15. Or a Saltire engrailed Sable (Botetourt); 16. Or two Lions passant in pale Azure (Somery); 17. Gules ten Bezants four three two and one (le Zouche); 18. Vary a Canton Gules (Filliol of Woodlands); 19. Azure semée of Cross Crosslets a Lion rampant langued armed and charged on the shoulder with a Fleur-de-lis Gules (Braose); 20. Argent three Hurts each charged with a many Chevrons Gules (Carant).


The author is grateful to Lord Spencer for permission to access the Spencer Chapel in Great Brington Church.


Written and researched by Patrick Cracroft-Brennan

Editor - Cracroft's Peerage

© Patrick Cracroft-Brennan, 2012



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