The Spencers: A Personal History of an English Family

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9780312266493: The Spencers: A Personal History of an English Family

Best known in recent history for Lady Diana Spencer, who became the Princess of Wales when she married Prince Charles in 1981, the Spencer family has had close ties to English royalty for at least 500 years. Indeed, Diana's grandfather claimed that "the word Spencer derives from the Norman word for Steward, or Head of Household: 'Despenser,'" and that their ancestor was steward to the household of William the Conqueror in 1066. While historians have debated both sides of this particular family legend, it is indisputable that from the early 16th century Diana's forebears had moved beyond their origins as sheep farmers to forge intimate connections with the English court.

In addition to generations of Spencer barons, earls, and dukes, there were politicians and poets, courtiers and clerics, soldiers and scoundrels. There was an earlier Lady Diana Spencer, who nearly married the Prince of Wales in 1730 and who, like the modern Diana, died tragically young. Sir Winston Churchill was a Spencer; for generations his family name was hyphenated as Spencer-Churchill. The history of the family is alive with many other fascinating characters: from Henry Spencer, who gave Charles I the astonishing sum of £10,000 on the eve of the Civil War; through the scandalous society beauty Georgiana Devonshire, daughter of the first Countess Spencer, who sold her kisses for votes in favor of Charles James Fox; to George John, the Second Earl, owner of the greatest private library in Europe and patron of Horatio Nelson.

In many ways the story of the Spencer family is really the story of England-or at least of the English aristocracy. Using archives and documents previously unavailable and incorporating his personal experiences of the family, Charles Spencer offers a fascinating, rich, and illuminating social history.

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That this book would have been less likely without a certain English princess is beyond dispute. Even Charles Spencer won't deny the influence famous sister had in keeping the family image prominent in both the public eye and the marketplace, whether that means books or Althorp guided tours. Yet he avoids capitalizing on Diana's name, and in the process creates a lively history of a powerful family in an age when, as Spencer writes, "the aristocracy ... is most often perceived as an anachronism." The Spencers first came to the fore in the 15th and 16th centuries. Prosperous Northamptonshire sheep farmers who spun wool into gold, their influence in both politics and the military grew steadily until no Cabinet was complete without a Spencer. Their family tree in subsequent centuries featured a few common themes, including patronage of the arts, a liberal Whig sensibility, books and bookmakers, and sons who chose between the ecclesiastical cloth and the gaming cloth. But they were perhaps most interesting for their women, strong-willed, resolute characters like Sarah Marlborough, Lavinia Spencer, and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. While the Spencer men held power, their wives wielded it. And what of the most famous female Spencer of all, Diana? The author wisely deals with her in less than a paragraph, aware of the glut of words already used up on her life. Unfortunately such discipline doesn't extend to the publishers, who include a picture of her on the book's cover and say that its contents put her life into "vivid context." This is to do an injustice to her brother's cause, for his mix of historical research and family legends makes for a readable account in its own right, enlivened rather than spoiled by his engaging and distinctively Spencerian voice. --David Vincent

About the Author:

Charles, Viscount Althorp, became the Ninth Earl Spencer on the death of his father in 1992. He was educated at Eton College and obtained his degree in modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. He delivered the eulogy at his sister Diana's funeral in 1997, and is the author of Althorp: The Story of an English House.

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