SPENCER, Sir Richard (c.1553-1624), of Offley, Herts. and Drury Lane, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. c.1553, 4th s. of Sir John Spencer† (d.1586), of Althorp, Northants. and Katharine, da. of Sir Thomas Kitson of Hengrave, Suff.; bro. of John† and William†.1 educ. Magdalen, Oxf. BA 1572, MA 1575; Caius, Camb. 1575, aged 22; travelled abroad (France, Italy, Germany, Low Countries) 1577-83; G. Inn 1585.2 m. by 1589, Helen (d. 12 May 1614),3 da. and coh. of Sir John Brocket† of Brocket Hall, Herts., 2s. 3da.4 kntd. 7 May 1603.5 d. 7 Nov. 1624.6

Offices Held

Sec. to Sir William Cecil†, 1st Bar. Burghley by 1583;7 commr. peace negotiations, Ostend 1588, The Hague 1607-9;8 jt. kpr. of writs, c.p. 1604-d.;9 gent. of the privy chamber 1607-d.10

J.p. Herts. by 1596-d.,11 sheriff 1597-8,12 provost-marshal 1599;13 commr. inquiry into lands and tenements, Herts 1603,14 subsidy 1608,15 sewers 1617,16 brewhouse survey 1620,17 highways 1622;18 collector for Palatine Benevolence, Hitchin half-hundred 1620.19


As a younger son of one of the wealthiest families in the country, Spencer enjoyed a lengthy education at both universities and abroad, before entering the household of Elizabeth’s lord treasurer. As a protégé of the 1st Lord Burghley he was employed on a number of confidential missions, including one to James VI of Scotland in 1583, in which he behaved ‘very discreetly ... to his great praise’; and a colleague commended his ‘good, open and kind disposition’.20 Offley, purchased by his father in 1554, was settled on him, and he built a house there in 1600.21

Having previously been returned to Parliament twice during Elizabeth’s reign, Spencer was elected for Brackley in 1604 on the interest of his brother-in-law, lord chancellor Ellesmere (Thomas Egerton†).22 In the first session he was named to the committee to consider the grievances raised by the Northamptonshire gentleman Sir Edward Montagu (23 Mar. 1604); but his main concern was the proposed union with Scotland, which he supported.23 He was among those ordered to hear the king explain his intentions regarding the Union on 20 Apr., and after speaking in the subsequent debate, to prepare for a conference on 28 April.24 He moved on 22 May that the words ‘to the glory of God’ be inserted in the bill empowering commissioners to negotiate a Union, and was named to the committee to consider amendments (22 May).25 Although his support for the Union marked Spencer as the king’s man, he consistently opposed any increase in taxation, perhaps on the basis of his recollection of Elizabeth’s frugality. On 19 June he sided with the majority in the Commons against voting supply, pointing out that ‘at the beginning of a prince’s reign, subsidies [should be] rather remitted, than doubled’, and that no pardon could compensate for such a heavy charge.26 A few months later he was granted a valuable office in the Court of Common Pleas.27

Having participated in the abortive peace negotiations with the duke of Parma immediately before the Armada, Spencer was a natural choice for the Madrid embassy when diplomatic relations with Spain were restored.28 On 22 Dec. 1604 he was ordered to attend at Whitehall to receive his instructions, but a somewhat ludicrous accident led him to withdraw his acceptance of the post, for during his audience he had the misfortune to kneel on a pin.29 The injury aggravated a ‘numbness and shooting’ in the leg, which was ‘no new grief, but has followed me these five or six years, and every [day] grows more violent than other, so that it gives me warning to prepare for a longer voyage than into Spain’.30 His excuses were accepted; but he recovered sufficiently to resume his seat when Parliament reconvened in November 1605. There may have been a touch of irony in his appointment to committees to examine the status of the Spanish Company (5 Nov. 1605) and to consider how to prevent Englishmen serving in the Spanish army (6 February 1606).31 On 7 Feb. he was named to the committee for a bill concerning the estate of his nephew Lord Spencer (Robert Spencer†).32 He was appointed to attend a joint conference with the Lords on the laws against recusancy on 6 Feb., and subsequently intervened in the debate on the subject.33 A firm moderate in religion, he opposed a Sabbath Day observance bill, arguing on 17 Feb. that ‘justices [ought] to be punished themselves, who do more harm by example than the meaner sort’.34 He had doubts about the proposals to compound for purveyance on the grounds that, as he said on 7 Mar., if such a contract be broken on the king’s side there is ‘no remedy but [to sue by] petition’; he also held the prerogative to be inviolable as ‘sacra sacrorum’, and urged that ‘the royal flowers of the crown cannot be imparted’.35 He therefore moved for some other course to be found to augment the king’s revenue.36 When the plight of deprived ministers was discussed on 15 Mar. he spoke against their ‘self-weening opinion’, and stated his own position that ‘matters of discipline [are] to be changed according to times and places; ceremonies agreed on by a general convocation [are] not to be subject to any private man’.37 He was named to the joint conference of 11 Apr. on ecclesiastical grievances, to a committee to help draft the address on religion (13 May), and was one of those ordered to present it to the king the following day.38

In the third session Spencer’s main preoccupation was with the proposed Union. He was one of those ordered to consider the instrument produced by the commissioners (29 Nov. 1606).39 On 13 Feb. 1607 he reminded the House that ‘our neighbours have their eyes upon us’ and advised them to proceed cautiously, but he maintained that ‘this intended union hath some good in it, because it passed the censure of so many matchless committees’. He asserted that ‘where there is equality of obedience there must needs be unity of affections’ and moved for a bill to be drawn. His speech must have been coldly received since he went on to move ‘that we should not look one upon another; not fit for so grave a Council’.40 Although favouring the Union he maintained in a subsequent debate on 20 Feb. that the post nati were not automatically naturalized, and was ordered to help in preparing for a conference on the subject (24 February).41 On 18 June he moved the House should proceed no further with ecclesiastical grievances.42 During the recess Spencer was made a gentleman of the privy chamber and sent to The Hague with Sir Ralph Winwood* to represent England in the protracted negotiations for a truce between Spain and the United Provinces.43 It was nearly two years before they could return, at which time the 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) commended them as ‘so good servants and so much my friends’.44 In private life Spencer’s diplomacy was less successful; his sister scornfully rejected his attempt to mediate with her estranged husband Lord Buckhurst (Robert Sackville*).45

Spencer was back in time for the fourth session. He was named to the committee of returns and privileges (9 Feb. 1610), and on 19 Feb. moved that the Great Contract should be referred to a select committee.46 He was one of those appointed to draft a bill on matters of religion in accordance with the king’s speech of 21 Mar., distinguishing between those born and bred up in Catholicism, and the recently converted.47 In the debate on the deprivation of ministers who refused to accept the Thirty-Nine Articles, on 24 Apr. Spencer asserted that ‘he sees no reason, but without offence to God, or to their own consciences, they may subscribe’.48 His other committees included those for bills to regulate purveyance (26 Feb.), and to confirm Magna Carta (3 March).49 He was among those ordered to appoint a reporter for the conference of 26 Apr. on the Contract, if necessary, and his name stood second in the list of committees for a bill to naturalize all children of English ambassadors (27 April).50

Spencer did not stand for Parliament again, perhaps as a result of the shadow cast over him by the increasingly unhappy relations between his sister and her husband. In 1622 he appeared before the Privy Council to explain his reluctance to pay the Palatinate Benevolence, and eventually capitulated to give £40.51 He died in November 1624, and was buried at Offley.52 Besides lands in Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire, he left a house in Drury Lane to his eldest son John. Nevertheless his will, dated 30 Mar. 1624, was not that of a rich man. He stated that he ‘took always great comfort to be an auditor of godly and grave sermons of exhortation to any good or Christian duty’ but requested private burial, without any funeral oration.53 The Offley branch of the Spencer family died out in 1712 without gaining any further parliamentary experience.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Virginia C.D. Moseley / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. R. Clutterbuck, Herts. iii. 96-7.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; Al. Cant.; GI Admiss.; CSP For. 1575-6, p. 600; 1579-81, p. 87; 1581-2, p. 307.
  • 3. Clutterbuck, iii. 96.
  • 4. W. Berry, Herts. Peds. 134.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 104.
  • 6. C142/418/95.
  • 7. Bodl. Tanner 78, f. 105.
  • 8. CSP For. 1588, pp. 132, 171; Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 194.
  • 9. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 173; 1627-8, p. 153.
  • 10. HMC Hatfield, xix. 218.
  • 11. SP13/Case F/11, f. 17; C66/1620, C193/13/1.
  • 12. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 64.
  • 13. HMC Hatfield, ix. 288.
  • 14. C181/1, ff. 72, 73.
  • 15. SP14/31/1.
  • 16. C181/2, f. 297.
  • 17. APC 1619-21, p. 203.
  • 18. C181/3, f. 69v.
  • 19. HMC Hatfield, xxii. 125.
  • 20. CSP Scot. 1581-83, p. 527.
  • 21. M.E. Finch, Wealth of Five Northants. Fams. (Northants. Rec. Soc. xix), 174, 175; E315/524, f. 1.
  • 22. Northants. RO, E(B), 459 (Spencer to Clarke, 8 Mar. 1604).
  • 23. CJ, i. 151b.
  • 24. Ibid. 180a, 182b, 188b, 955a.
  • 25. Ibid. 977b, 222b.
  • 26. Ibid. 242a, 995a.
  • 27. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 173.
  • 28. Add. 11402, f. 97; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 187.
  • 29. J. Nichols, Progs. Jas. I, i. 475; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 198, 201.
  • 30. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 9-10.
  • 31. CJ, i. 256b, 264b.
  • 32. Ibid. 265a.
  • 33. Ibid. 263a, 275b.
  • 34. Ibid. 269b.
  • 35. Ibid. 279b-280a.
  • 36. Bowyer Diary, 66.
  • 37. CJ, i. 285a.
  • 38. Ibid. 296b, 308b, 309a.
  • 39. Ibid. 326b.
  • 40. Ibid. 1013a.
  • 41. Ibid. 339a, 340a, 1018b.
  • 42. Bowyer Diary, 342.
  • 43. HMC Hatfield, xix. 218; Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, ii. 378-9, 392, 403-8, 412, 430, 435, 490, 491.
  • 44. CSP Ven. 1607-10, pp. 26, 29, 96, 119, 187, 296; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, iv. 65, 129; Chamberlain Letters, i. 265.
  • 45. HMC Hatfield, xix. 341-2.
  • 46. CJ, i. 392a, 396b.
  • 47. Ibid. 413b.
  • 48. Ibid. 421a.
  • 49. Ibid. 400a, 404b.
  • 50. Ibid. 421b, 422a.
  • 51. SP14/127/ 77, 14/156/15.
  • 52. J.E. Cussans, Herts. iii. 112.
  • 53. PROB 11/144, f. 261v.