Spencers: The Bold And The Beautiful 

 

The Spencers have been farmers since pre-Tudor times, coming to prominence in Warwickshire in the fifteenth century. John Spencer became feoffee [successor] 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 [Wormleighton and Althorp] outright, was knighted, granted with coat of arms on 26 May 1504, and so lay the bedrock for the family's fortune. His descendants expanded the holdings through business dealings and marriage into the peerage. 

 

The next nineteen generations of Spencers rose to opulent prominence, particularly during the sixteenth century. Their administration of their Northamptonshire and Warwickshire estates was admired and often emulated by gentlemen all over England. Sheep from their pastures were purchased for breeding and it is probable that the family’s success as farmers was rarely equalled in the century. In the late sixteenth century, Sir Robert Spencer represented Brackley in Parliament. In 1601, he was made a Knight of the Garter, and created Baron Spencer of Wormleighton in the Peerage of England in 1603. During the reign of King James I, he was reputed to be the richest man in England.

 

The humble origins of the Spencers as sheep farmers once caused a heated exchange of words between wealthy yet then upstart Lord Spencer and the Earl of Arundel, whose ancestors had been Earls of Arundel since the thirteenth century. During a debate in the House of Peers, Lord Spencer was speaking about something that their great ancestors had done when suddenly the Earl of Arundel cut him off and said: "My Lord, when these things you speak of were doing, your ancestors were keeping sheep." Lord Spencer then instantly replied: "When my ancestors as you say were keeping sheep, your ancestors were plotting treason."  

 

The Spencers remained rich, married well, and gradually climbed up the peerage. One became Earl of Sunderland, another the Duke of Marlborough when his uncle, only son and heir to the great John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, died. The result was that the Churchill family are not really Churchills at all, but Spencers who added the surname Churchill to their own. There was another, less fortunate, result of the marriage of the Churchill heiress to the Earl of Sunderland. The Churchills were so much more famous and eminent that the Spencers became the secondary branch of their own family, and even lost their earldom, which was absorbed in the dukedom of Marlborough and has subsequently been used by the eldest son of the duke's heir, the Marquis of Blandford.

 

That loss notwithstanding, the Spencers flourished throughout the eighteenth century. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, the great duke's widow, had for many years been regarded as Queen Anne's closest friend and lover. She was therefore used to wielding power, not only as a result of her husband's position as the most famous general in the world, but also because of her own political influence. One of the richest women in England, she offered the cash-strapped King George II £100,000 [about $50 million today] for the hand of his son and heir Frederick, Prince of Wales, for her favorite granddaughter Diana Spencer. Although the Prime Minister forbade the marriage, thereafter the Spencers remained close to the throne, enabled in no small measure by the vast fortune Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, left to her favorite grandson, the second Spencer grandson who lost out on the titles of Sunderland and Marlborough. His title, Earl Spencer, along with the title Viscount Althorp, of Althorp in the County of Northamptonshire was officially created in the Peerage of Great Britain on 1 November 1765.

 

Thereafter, generation after generation of Spencers were appointed equerries and ladies-in-waiting to royalty, culminating with Lady Diana's father being an equerry to King George VI and, later, to Queen Elizabeth II, and her grandmother Cynthia, Countess Spencer, being a Lady of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother's Bedchamber as well as the love of  the then Prince of Wales's life before she accepted Lady Diana's grandfather Albert Edward John Spencer's proposal of marriage in 1919.

 

For the two hundred and fifty years that separated the abortive and the successful Diana Spencer's possible assumption of the position of Princess of Wales, the Spencer family was assiduous in cultivating any link that brought them closer to the throne. They understand that the fount of all honor and privilege was The Crown. And they did their utmost to garner as much of its prestige for themselves as possible. Nor did they fuss whether the connection was legitimate or illegitimate. They therefore took pride in fact that Lady Georgiana Spencer, who became the most glamorous female of her day as the celebrated Duchess of Devonshire, had a long affair with the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and gave birth to his child.

 

They took greater pride in being descended five times from King Charles II, even though four of those lines of descent were illegitimate including his illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy, and when the second Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1981, they were thrilled that it was through them the Stuart blood was being reintroduced into the royal line. The Spencers are direct descendants, albeit illegitimate, of the House of Stuart, with the family boasting at least five lines of direct descent from the Stuarts; and from them, the Spencers trace their ancestry to other royal houses such as the Bourbons [a European royal house of French origin who ruled France and Navarre in the sixteenth century], the Medicis [an Italian banking family and a political dynasty that ruled the Republic of Florence], the Wittelsbachs [members of the family reigned as dukes, electors and kings of Bavaria in Germany], the Hanovers [ruled the electorate and then the Kingdom of Hanover in Germany], the Sforzas [a ruling family of Renaissance Italy], the Habsburgs [also known as the house of Austria], and the houses of Howard and Boleyn through Mary Boleyn, Mistress of Henry VIII of England.

 

Fermoys: Rising To Royal Status

 

Lady Diana's maternal ancestors' rise to royal status was based on personal, not courtly, relationships. Edmond Roche was an Irish peer and politician in the British parliament, where he was elected to the House of Commons for County Cork in 1837. In 1865, he was raised to the Peerage of Ireland as the first Baron Fermoy by Queen Victoria. All his predecessors became politicians and served as members of the parliament. The most interesting member of this family was Maurice Burke Roche, Lady Diana's grandfather who became the fourth Baron Fermoy in 1921. 

 

Maurice was the son of an American heiress named Frances [Fanny] Work [born in 1819 in Ohio] and the Honourable James Roche, later the third Baron Fermoy. The Roches were exceedingly good-looking family, with two of the most beautiful ancestral homes in Ireland, Cahirguillamore and Kilshanning, but through high living and gambling, they had dissipated their fortune and would have been completely broke had the second Baron's heir not married Franklin Work's daughter in the late nineteenth century. Franklin Work was one of New York's most successful stockbrokers of the day, with clients such as the Vanderbilts and Astors. Unfortunately for the Roches, he loathed foreigners and cut Fanny out of his will when she married one, reinstating her only after she left her husband in 1891 and returned home with her two young sons in tow. His proviso while doing so was that she cease using her titled married name and agree not to return to Europe for the remainder of her life. He then carried this interdict further, and left her twin sons, Maurice and Francis, portions of his fortune only if they became American citizens and remained in the United States for the remainder of their lives. 

 

When Franklin Work died, however, his Harvard-educated grandson overturned his will through the courts. When he became the fourth Baron Fermoy, Maurice returned to live in England with the $3,000,000 which he had inherited from his indomitable but controlling grandfather. Only too soon, he struck up a friendship with King George V's second son, Bertie, the Duke of York, who became King George VI in 1936. So close did they become that the king leased Maurice Park House, a ten-bedroomed house on the Sandringham Estate. With his money and international panache, he fitted well into the upper echelons of British society, especially after becoming Conservative Member of Parliament for King's Lynn, something that was possible because he was an Irish peer with no rights to sit in the House of Lords.

 

On 17 September 1931, Baron Fermoy [later became Mayor of King's Lynn] married Ruth Sylvia Gill, daughter of Colonel William Gill from Bieldside in Bleek Aberdeen in the North of Scotland, making her a Baroness. It was while Ruth was a student at the Paris Conservatoire of Music that she met Maurice. She was more than twenty-five years his junior, but that did not prevent her from encouraging this rich and urbane nobleman with royal friends. And so, at twenty, she married him and went on to have a wonderful life in the lap of luxury. She produced three children: Honourable Mary Cynthia, Honourable Frances Ruth, and Honourable Edmund James Burke. 

 

Baroness Ruth made a useful contribution to the world of music, founding the King's Lynn Festival after the second World War and importing musical friends such as Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Richard Adeney to perform. She remained closely involved with the Festival for twenty-five years, persuading Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother to become its patron. The Baroness did play the piano in public occasionally after her marriage, most notably with Josef Krips at the Royal Albert Hall in 1950, and with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra at King's Lynn in 1966.

 

Baroness Ruth was appointed a Woman of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1956 [a post she held for the next thirty three years], and functioned in a world where breeding and good behavior were all important. While Ruth could adopt the latter, there was no way she could invent the former. Her family was neither grand or impressive. In fact, the only thing that put them beyond the ordinary was the secret they kept hidden. This was that her great great grandmother Eliza Kewark was a dark skinned native of Bombay who had lived, without benefit of matrimony, with her great great grandfather Theodore Forbes while he worked for the East India Company. Eliza's true race was expunged from the family tree and she reemerged as An Armenian. This fiction was maintained even When Lady Diana married the Prince of Wales.

 

Needless to say, Lady Diana has a slight American connection some generations back. Her essential American connection are her great great grandfather, Franklin Work, of Chillicothe, Ohio and later of New York; and his wife, Ellen Wood Work, daughter of John Wood of Shepardstown and Ellen Strong of Philadelphia, whose father, Joseph Strong, was a graduate of Yale in 1788. Through her maternal ancestors, Lady Diana is also a distant cousin of the Marquis de Sade, distantly related to Hermann Goering.

 

American genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts said: "If Lady Diana's son becomes king of England, he will be one-sixteenth American, the first time this has ever occurred. That king would be eligible for various American hereditary societies. Lady Diana herself is eligible through three different ancestors for the Daughters of the American Revolution. She is a first cousin six times removed of Nathan Hale. Lady Diana is one-fourth Scots, one-sixteenth Irish and Anglo-Irish, and one-eighth American. The rest is English, except for bits and pieces of other things. American Presidents Carter and Nixon are sixth cousins. Lady Diana has few southern connections in America, almost all Yankees."

 

Some quite respectable American connections for Lady Diana: She is a second cousin twelve times removed of Lewis Burwell of Virginia. She is a second cousin nine times removed of John Coke, a first cousin thirteen times removed of George Evelyn, a third cousin eight times removed of William Fairfax, a first cousin eleven times removed of William Berkeley, a sixth cousin ten times removed of Peter Montague, a fifth cousin nine times removed of Daniel Parke Custis.

 

Sources: 

  • The Ancestry Of Diana, Princess Of Wales. Written By Richard K. Evans. First Published In 15 August 2007

  • The Real Diana. Written By Lady Colin Campbell. First Published In 1998

  • Althorp : Living History. Written By Earl Spencer. Printed By Clifford Press, Coventry. First Published In 2005

  • Obituary Ruth Fermoy. Written By  Hugo Vickers For The Independent. First Published In 07 July 1993

  • Lady Diana's American Cousins. Written By Henry Mitchell For The Washington Post. First Published In 10 July 1981

The Spencer Family Coat Of Arms, Granted On 26 May 1504

George John, Second Earl Of Spencer, Whose Notable Ancestors Include King William I Of England

Princess Diana's Paternal Grandmother Countess Cynthia Spencer And Her Father Johnnie In 1924

Princess Diana's Maternal American Great Grandmother Fanny

Princess Diana's Parents Johnnie And Frances In 1954

Princess Diana With Her Maternal Grandmother Baroness Fermoy In 1982