The Spencer family line has contained politicians, courtiers, admirals, society beauties and pioneers in charity work, as well as gamblers, book lovers, a Passionist preacher, and even a breeder of champion bulls. They were all related, but each Spencer was unique in time and taste.
Having one family in one home for five centuries has presented many opportunities for members of the line to leave behind their mark. It is fair to say that the story of Althorp is also the story of the Spencers, and vice versa.
Sir John Spencer
1455 - 1522
Sir John was the founder of Althorp. He grazed sheep here from 1486 and, in 1508, he bought the land and built the house. Sir John already owned an estate and house in Wormleighton, Warwickshire, much of which was destroyed in the English Civil War, but by putting down roots at Althorp, Sir John provided what was to become a home for the next 19 generations.
Sir Robert Spencer
1570 - 1627
Reputed to be the richest man in England, thanks in part to the steady accumulation of his forebears Robert, first Baron Spencer was born at Althorp.
James I made Robert Baron Spencer of Wormleighton in 1603, to secure his support on becoming king. A man of standing, Sir Robert was an MP and Ambassador, but his primary interests were his family and sheep farming. When his beloved wife, Margaret (a relation of Lady Jane Grey) died, he was so distressed that his son and his family moved into Althorp to help raise his spirits.
Sarah (Jennings) Marlborough
1660 - 1744
Perhaps the most extraordinary female in a long line of impressive women, Sarah Jennings rose to be one of the most influential women of her time through her close friendship with Queen Anne.
Relatively poor when she married the equally cash–strapped John Churchill, her husband became one of Britain’s greatest ever commanders, and the First Duke of Marlborough. Sarah’s second daughter, Anne, married Charles Spencer, Third Earl of Sunderland, who was owner of Althorp.
Sarah secured the fortunes of the Spencers when she bequeathed huge wealth to John, her favourite Spencer grandson and father of the First Earl Spencer.
John (created Earl Spencer)
1734 - 1783
John Spencer 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 to paint a succession of Spencer family portraits.
In 1761, he was created Baron and Viscount Spencer, and four years later John became the First Earl Spencer.
1737 - 1814
Wife of the First Earl Spencer, Georgiana wed John during a ball to celebrate his coming of age in 1755. Slipping away from the celebrations with close family members and John’s tutor (who was conveniently also a priest), the two were secretly married in the Oak Bedroom.
Georgiana bore four daughters (only two of whom survived infancy) and one son. She shared an extravagant existence with her husband and cultivated a salon including the actor David Garrick, Sir William Hamilton and Charles James Fox.
After her husband’s death she endured a long widowhood, which she latterly devoted to charitable works, including the encouragement of Sunday schools, prison visiting, and the care of the old.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
1757 - 1806
Lady Georgiana Spencer was a force of nature and an inveterate socialite. Sister to George John, the Second Earl Spencer, she was married to the Fifth Duke of Devonshire aged seventeen, and became a political activist for the Whig party, exchanging her kisses for votes.
Georgiana was fast–living, with a serious gambling habit and had several affairs, one of which led to a child by the future Prime Minister, Charles Grey.
George John Spencer
1758 - 1834
A distinguished politician who served as First Lord of the Admiralty and as Home Secretary, the Second Earl was a scholar whose obsession with collecting books led to the creation of the greatest private library in the world. Among his eventual collection of 43,000 first editions were over 3,000 incunabula, including 58 Caxtons, early French and Italian works, rare editions of England’s greatest writers, including Shakespeare folios, and Gutenburg bibles.
He was one of Horatio Nelson’s key patrons, promoting him from relative obscurity to high command.
1782 - 1845
A co-founder of the Royal Agricultural Society and the Agricultural College at Cirencester, the Third Earl was at the forefront of scientific improvement in farming.
He was highly respected – so much so that he earned the nickname ‘Honest Jack’ – and, after his father’s death, he took his seat in the House of Lords and became less involved in frontline politics. Thereafter he dedicated himself to farming, and the raising of prize herds.
1798 - 1857
Fourth Earl Spencer Frederick was an admiral, MP and courtier, who Queen Victoria believed to have the finest legs in England. He added some fine porcelain to the existing collection at Althorp and with his death in 1857, his son, John Poyntz, the Fifth Earl Spencer, then resumed the twin family preoccupations of field sports and politics.
1835 - 1910
Known as the ‘Red Earl’, on account of his dramatic auburn beard, the Fifth Earl Spencer was twice Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord President of the Council, and First Lord of the Admiralty, where he modernised the Navy.
With his wife, the beautiful Charlotte Seymour, dubbed ‘Spencer’s Faery Queen’, he travelled widely, with a round-the-world trip in 1895. The ‘Red Earl’ has the dubious distinction of reputedly having introduced barbed wire to England.
1857 - 1922
Charles, Sixth Earl Spencer, was the youngest Member of the House of Commons before becoming Lord Chamberlain to King Edward VII.
‘Bobby’ was a dandy, and - for the last sixteen years of his life - a distraught widower, having lost his beloved wife Margaret (nee Baring) during the birth of their sixth child.
Albert Edward John
1892 - 1975
Althorp was to receive perhaps more attention than at any time during its tenure by the scholarly Seventh Earl Spencer - who had been wounded during the First World War. He dedicated himself to the house’s upkeep, cataloguing its contents, and opening it to scholars.
Known to family and friends as Jack, the Seventh Earl was a man of contrasts who earned the nickname ‘the Curator Earl’ for the conservation work he achieved at Althorp.
Jack Spencer’s artistic positions included acting as a trustee to the Wallace Collection and the chairmanship of the Victoria and Albert Advisory Council. The tapestry work on the chairs in the Queen Mary bedroom was designed and embroidered by the Seventh Earl.
1924 - 1992
The Eighth Earl Spencer landed in Normandy in the D-Day invasion, when he was Mentioned in Despatches. An Equerry to George VI and to the Queen, he was later chairman of the National Association of Boys’ Clubs, and a member of Northamptonshire County Council for 29 years.
Johnnie Spencer is fondly remembered above all for his ready wit and unaffected manner. He also won the hearts of the nation when he escorted his youngest daughter, Diana, up the aisle of St Paul’s in 198I, during her wedding to the Prince of Wales, despite having only recently recovered from a severe stroke.
1964 - Present
In March 1992 Charles, Viscount Althorp, became Ninth Earl Spencer.
A godson of Her Majesty the Queen, he was also one of her Pages of Honour in the 1970s. Educated at Eton, he went on to read Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford. For a decade he was a reporter for the American television network, NBC News.
He is a historian whose five books include two best-sellers. From his first two marriages he has four daughters – Lady Kitty, Lady Eliza, Lady Amelia and Lady Lara – and two sons, - Louis, Viscount Althorp, and the Hon. Edmund Spencer (known as ‘Ned’).
He married the Canadian philanthropist Karen Gordon in 2011. Their daughter, Lady Charlotte, was born at Althorp in July, 2012 - the first Spencer child born in the house since 1793.