SPENCER, Sir John (1524-86), of Althorp, Northants. and Wormleighton, Warws.
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Family and Education
b. 1524, o.s. of Sir William Spencer of Althorp and Wormleighton by Susan, da. of Sir Richard Knightley of Fawsley, Northants. educ. ?M. Temple. m. by Oct. 1545 Catherine, da. of Sir Thomas Kitson of London and Hengrave, Suff., 5s. inc. John†, Richard† and William† 6da. suc. fa. 22 June 1532. Kntd. 2 Oct. 1553.1
Sheriff, Northants. 1551-2, 1558-9, 1571-2, 1583-4; j.p. 1554, q. 1561-d.; dep. lt. 1560, 1586; collector for loan 1562; commr. musters by 1569.2
The Spencers first appear as Warwickshire graziers in the late 15th century and the family was still deriving much of its wealth from sheep after ennoblement in the reign of James I. The founder of its fortunes was the first Sir John Spencer, who purchased Wormleighton in 1506 and Althorp two years later.3
This Sir John Spencer’s grandson and namesake was a child of eight when his father died leaving an estate which at his majority was valued at £454 a year. His uncles Edmund and Richard Knightley joined with his mother in an attempt to defraud the King of the wardship, and this was not granted to (Sir) Giles Alington until December 1539. Spencer may have entered the Middle Temple, to which his uncles belonged and which his eldest son was to join in 1564. His marriage to a daughter of the wealthy merchant Thomas Kitson, although less profitable than the one he was to arrange between his eldest son and a kinswoman, the only daughter of chief justice Sir Robert Catlyn, was a step in the social advance of the family, for three years later Lady Kitson became the Countess of Bath and married another of her daughters to the earl’s heir apparent.4
Spencer served his first term as sheriff in the reign of Edward VI, but his knighting at Mary’s coronation implies that he had declared for her in the previous summer, perhaps following the lead of Sir Thomas Tresham in Northamptonshire. Two of his brothers-in-law, Richard Brydges and John Cotton, were knighted at about the same time and all three were to serve as knights of their shires in Marian Parliaments. Spencer’s two elections answered to his standing in Northamptonshire, where he was related to most of the leading families, whereas his disappearance from the Commons after 1558 is doubtless to be explained by his Catholicism and by the virtual monopoly of the shire’s representation by Privy Councillors. In 1564 Bishop Scambler judged him a ‘great letter [hinderer] of religion’ and ten years later Mary Stuart’s agent accounted him a Catholic, yet he was sufficient of a conformist to play a leading part in shire administration. Only the family of his third son William was to remain intermittently Catholic.5
Spencer was a careful steward of his inheritance, which he augmented by judicious purchases, and he was able to settle estates on his three surviving younger sons and to provide generous dowries for his six daughters. All the daughters married well and his sons-in-law included Sir George Carey†, later 2nd Baron Hunsdon, Sir William Stanley, 3rd Lord Monteagle, and Ferdinando Stanley, later 5th Earl of Derby. He named Carey and another son-in-law Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, overseers of his will of 4 Jan. 1586 and his three younger sons executors. He bequeathed £40 in plate to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and £20 to (Sir) Walter Mildmay, his fellow-Member in the Parliament of 1558. He died on 8 Nov. 1586 and was buried, according to his request, with his wife in Brington church where his epitaph listed his sons, his daughters and all their husbands.