SPENCER, William (1592-1636), of Althorp, Northants.

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

bap. 4 Jan. 1592,1 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Robert Spencer†, 1st Bar. Spencer of Wormleighton; bro. of Edward* and Richard*.2 educ. Magdalen, Oxf. 1607; travelled abroad (France, Switzerland, Savoy) 1610-12.3 m. settlement 7 Oct. 1614 (with £4,000),4 Penelope (d. 16 July 1667),5 da. of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, 6s. (2 d.v.p.) 7da. (1 d.v.p.).6 cr. KB 3 Nov. 1616;7 suc. fa. as 2nd Bar. Spencer of Wormleighton, 25 Oct. 1627.8 d. 19 Dec. 1636.9

Offices Held

Dep. lt. Northants. 1618-21, 1624-d.;10 j.p. Northants. 1619-d., custos rot. 1629-d.;11 commr. sewers, River Gleane 1617-18, gaol delivery, Northampton 1621, 1626, 1629,12 subsidy, Northants. 1621, 1624,13 Forced Loan 1626-7,14 sewers 1627, 1633,15 recusants’ lands 1627,16 oyer and terminer, Midlands circ. 1631-d.,17 inquiry, Grafton, Northants. 1635,18 Avon navigation 1636.19


Spencer’s father, ennobled in 1603, was reputedly one of the richest men in England, with an annual income of up to £8,000.20 In the autumn of 1610 Spencer went to France with his elder brother, who died there of a fever. Spencer continued his travels, which he may have found rather dull, for in March 1612 he asked his father for permission to watch the siege of Geneva, ‘the place being not far, and wars so scarce nowadays that if I see not this I think I am not likely to see any’.21 Before the 1614 election Lord Spencer approached the corporation of Brackley to request a seat for his son; Spencer was duly returned, but left no trace on the records of the Addled Parliament.22

In May 1620 Lord Spencer led a group of magistrates from several Midlands counties in a bid to overturn the Merchant Staplers’ monopoly of buying and selling wool, which they blamed for the depression in the wool and cloth trades that was severely affecting the region.23 It was perhaps to further this cause that Spencer and his two younger brothers each sought election when a new Parliament was summoned later that year. Under their father’s patronage, Spencer was returned for Northamptonshire, Richard Spencer for Northampton, and Edward Spencer for Brackley.24 Spencer’s first appointment was to the privileges committee (5 Feb. 1621), and the following day he delivered his maiden speech in a debate on the causes of the scarcity of money, laying at least some blame on the gold and silver thread monopoly, which he alleged was costing the country £40,000 a year.25 On 15 Mar. he proposed that the bills lost at the dissolution of the previous Parliament should be brought in again.26 He was anxious, as he argued on 25 Apr., to exclude diocesan chancellors from the commissions of the peace, since they already exercised punitive functions in the spiritual courts. The matter was particularly contentious in Northamptonshire, a stronghold of puritanism, where the deeply unpopular chancellor of Peterborough, Dr. Lambe, had been accused of corruption. With both of his brothers Spencer was among those ordered to hear witnesses against Lambe during the Easter recess.27 His other appointments included bill committees for bankruptcy (13 Mar.), and sheriffs’ accounts (15 March).28 On 2 May both Spencer and his brother Edward seconded William Mallory in obliging Sir Edward Villiers to withdraw from the House while the gold and silver thread patent, in which the latter had a share, was under investigation.29 In response to the slander of Elizabeth of Bohemia by Edward Floyd, a Catholic lawyer, Spencer moved on 4 May in support of the Commons’ claim to exercise judicial powers, and to have the judgment made a matter of record; he was subsequently named to a joint committee to consider further action (8 May).30

By this time Spencer was becoming frustrated by the lack of constructive debate on how to revive the wool and cloth trades, and he called on 7 May for the second reading of a bill to enable the Merchant Staplers to export woollen cloth notwithstanding a patent granted to the Merchant Adventurers, a measure which must have been of particular concern to Northamptonshire graziers. On 14 May, in further debate on this subject, he demanded that William Towerson I*, the deputy governor of the Merchant Adventurers, should disclose whether the Company had sought to by-pass the Commons by a direct petition to the king.31 On the same day Spencer also attacked the 1st earl of Kellie’s patent for the purchase of wool, asserting that all the clothiers in the kingdom could scarcely buy a tenth of the wool produced and moving for an examination by the Commons of this monopoly.32 Perhaps as a result he was among those ordered to draft a petition of grievances that was to include monopolies (16 May).33 On 18 May he argued against any proviso for clothiers in a bill for internal free trade in woollen yarn, protesting that ‘if the clothiers might but have the pre-emption for six weeks they would set the price of wool all year’, because ‘poor men cannot keep their wool on their hands, and the great clothiers would buy so much as to sell again’.34 His prominence in these matters perhaps inspired the earl of Arundel’s boast, during a quarrel with Spencer’s father in the House of Lords, that ‘his ancestors were gentlemen before his [the Spencers] were shepherds’.35 In the remainder of the sitting Spencer was appointed to help manage a conference with the Lords on the Sabbath bill and writs of certiorari (24 May), and to consider a bill, moved by his brother Edward, to prevent the taking of bribes from foreigners (25 May).36

On 28 May, when the adjournment was announced, Spencer urged the House to proceed with legislation rather than grievances, saying ‘let us have bills or leave all’; that same afternoon he reported the Staplers bill, which was ordered to be engrossed.37 Two days later, with time running out, he changed tack and said ‘let us rather leave all to the expectation of our next meeting’.38 On 2 June he expressed alarm that despite James’s assurances of freedom of speech, Sir Lionel Cranfield* had threatened that ‘some would be questioned for some words spoken here in the House’, and called for any offenders to be named so that they might be ‘here by us, according to the course of Parliament, either censured or cleared’.39 His fears were realized when, soon afterwards, he was removed from the lieutenancy; his behaviour during the Parliament had evidently angered the king, and he was probably tarred by association with his father-in-law, the earl of Southampton, who was imprisoned and interrogated during the summer for allegedly trying to sabotage the Parliament.40

When Parliament reassembled Spencer successfully moved on 24 Nov. 1621 for the third reading of the Staplers’ bill.41 Five days later he informed the House that a solicitor who managed the affairs of West Country recusants had served a subpoena on Thomas Brereton*, and on the same day he was appointed to a committee to examine (Sir) Henry Spiller*, the Exchequer official responsible for recusancy fines.42 On 30 Nov. he objected to the exception of Berwick from the wool trade bill on the grounds that it would leave a loop-hole in the law.43 During the debate on parliamentary privilege on 15 Dec. Spencer again expressed concern about freedom of speech following a letter from James threatening to ‘punish the misdemeanour of any Member here in Parliament, as well sitting [in] the Parliament as after’.44

Re-elected in 1624, Spencer’s appointments early in the session included bills to prevent unlawful imprisonment (9 Mar.), and to make the estates of attainted persons liable for the payment of their debts (10 March).45 He was named to the revenue conference of 11 Mar. and to help draft the charges against lord treasurer Cranfield, now earl of Middlesex (12 April).46 Many of his activities in this Parliament concerned matters left unresolved by the abrupt dissolution of the last; for instance, he was among those ordered to examine the Merchant Adventurers’ patent (23 April).47 He was also appointed on 26 Apr. to hear the petition of the Virginia Company, of which his father-in-law was the governor.48 At the presentation of recusants on 27 Apr. Spencer named the 6th earl of Rutland and Sir Thomas Brudenell in Northamptonshire.49 On 15 May he was among those ordered to prepare for a conference to decide the fate of Bishop Harsnett of Norwich, accused of suppressing preaching and mulcting his clergy.50 During the debate on grievances on 19 May Spencer, in his only recorded speech of the session, desired that ‘there may be no more benevolences required, and that letters to that purpose may not be directed to justices of the peace’, for whom such orders created a conflict of interest. He added a further request that any ‘writings which concern benevolences may be taken off from the file in the Exchequer, that there may be no precedent thereof left to posterity’.51 However, these provocative suggestions were not included in the petition of grievances later presented by the Commons. Spencer displayed no recorded interest in another much-debated grievance, raised by Northamptonshire drapers and mercers concerning the alnage, and in general kept a lower profile than he had done in 1621. His circumspection was rewarded after the prorogation, when the 2nd earl of Exeter (William Cecil†), as lord lieutenant, persuaded Sir Edward Conway I* to restore Spencer to the lieutenancy, ‘the rather because he had showed himself most forward in all things this Parliament which might tend to His Majesty’s service and best pleasing, with much grief that anything should fall from him formerly which should be occasion of His Majesty’s displeasure’.52

Spencer was re-elected to the first Parliament of Charles I. However, he does not seem to have taken his seat until the beginning of the Oxford sitting on 1 Aug. 1625, when he was admitted without having first received the communion on the proviso that he do so as soon as possible.53 Many Members, including Spencer, had cooled in their enthusiasm towards the war against Spain, which had necessitated the duke of Buckingham’s request for more subsidies in addition to those the Commons had already voted. In the supply debate on 10 Aug. Spencer ambivalently warned that ‘if we give quickly, we may be called again to give so again’, and instead moved for the monies already in the treasury to be ‘paid towards the setting out of the Navy’.54 After the dissolution Spencer returned to Northamptonshire. As a deputy lieutenant he searched the house of the Catholic Lord Vaux of Harrowden for arms, and on 15 Nov. 1625 he gave evidence to the Privy Council that his colleague Richard Knightley* had been assaulted by Vaux’s brother. He further testified that as they were leaving the Council chamber Vaux had said to him, ‘you have not valued your reputation before the board in the testimony you have now given against me, yet I hope you shall value your oath more when you shall come to give it in another place’. The Council accepted Spencer’s evidence, and both Vaux and his brother were sent to the Fleet.55

Tensions between the leading Northamptonshire gentry were exacerbated during the autumn of 1625 by the attempts of the custos rotulorum, the 1st earl of Westmorland (Sir Francis Fane*) to move the county’s quarter sessions from Northampton to Kettering, a proposal which was bitterly opposed by Lord Montagu (Sir Edward Montagu*). Spencer and his father sided with Montagu, whom he urged to ‘have a concluding blow at him [Westmorland] in Star Chamber’.56 It was probably with the intention of avoiding an escalation in the conflict that Spencer announced that he did not intend to stand at the next general election, claiming to have ‘had labour and travail enough in that kind’. He therefore declared on 22 Dec. that he would make way for Montagu’s kinsman and neighbour, Sir Lewis Watson, whose candidacy the Spencers had opposed in 1624, and also for Sir John Pickering.57 Before the election took place on 12 Jan. 1626, however, Westmorland finally persuaded the Privy Council to relocate the sessions, arousing fears in the Spencer camp that the earl would try to crown this victory by arranging the election of his son, Mildmay Fane*, as knight of the shire. At the same time Northampton’s corporation, commending Spencer’s ‘thrice-tried fidelity and towardness for the good of this country’, insisted that they wanted him to serve as the senior knight of the shire once again. If only to keep Fane out, Spencer eventually decided to stand, and in the ensuing contest defeated Watson to be returned in first place with Pickering in second.58

On 17 Feb. Spencer was named to the committee to consider the excommunication of Sir Robert Howard*, whom he thought had correctly claimed privilege. Once the matter had been resolved, on 3 May he further moved that the debate should be deleted from the record.59 At the supply debate of 24 Feb. he opposed an immediate grant, on the ground that ‘money going first, [is] the breach of all parliaments’. Instead he proposed ‘that we may consider which way best for giving. To look how the money given has been expended. Lastly, what and when to give more’.60 He was one of those ordered to attend the joint conference on 4 Mar. on whether to summon Buckingham to answer for his conduct of the war, and two days later during a debate on the Navy Spencer demanded to know how the king had spent his income from Tunnage and Poundage.61 He was named on 7 Mar. to a committee to consider ways of augmenting the king’s revenue, and to a conference on defence that afternoon.62

On 15 Mar., in a debate on how to censure Clement Coke* for the rash declaration that ‘it is better to die by a foreign hand than to suffer at home’, Spencer came to Coke’s defence by pointing out that ‘if speeches may be divided and the beginning and ending taken away, strange sense may be made thereof. The scripture says, "There is no God", but before is, "the fool has said in his heart"’.63 He was named to consider the petitions of merchants trading with France whose ships had been embargoed (16 Mar.), and to another with the same purpose the following day in preparation for a conference with the Lords.64 Despite a message from the king, on 20 Mar. Spencer proposed the deferment of supply for a week, while grievances were prepared.65 He was named to a committee to consider naval defects (22 March).66 When Buckingham’s responsibility for the increase of Catholicism was debated on 24 Mar., Spencer asserted that ‘the committee thought not the duke popish, but a cause of the countenancing of popery, putting those into command and government that are great countenancers of popery’.67 The discussion then turned to Buckingham’s failure to maintain the coastal defences, whereupon Spencer recalled that Parliament had granted £300,000 towards them, and asked, ‘if it is said there wanted money, he would know why there wanted money?’.68 On 27 Apr., in response to his brother’s motion for a Remonstrance concerning Tunnage and Poundage, Spencer agreed that it had never been levied after a Parliament had been dissolved without approving a grant.69 He was among those entrusted on 4 May with drafting an address for augmenting the revenue.70 The following day, when the salt patent granted to John More II* was discussed, Spencer reminded the House that Sir Henry Britton* and Robert Lloyd* had been expelled from Parliament in 1621 for similar activities.71 On 17 May he pointed out that the reasons given for the imprisonment of (Sir) John Eliot* were so general that all Members could be arrested on such grounds; and he was among those ordered to examine Eliot’s papers.72 He moved on 22 May for the report of grievances to be read the following day, and on 25 May was named to committees to consider abuses of purveyance, and to draft the grievances into a petition.73 He was among those ordered on 8 June to draft a Remonstrance.74 It may have been he who reported the committee’s deliberations concerning purveyance on 13 June, since he was the first named to the committee.75 His final committee appointment, also on 13 June, was for a bill to secure parliamentary privilege.76

Spencer succeeded to the peerage before the next general election. He died on 19 Dec. 1636 and was buried with his ancestors at Brington, under a stately tomb containing effigies of himself and his widow.77 His will, dated the previous day, left his estates to his eldest son Henry, whose wardship was bought by the 1st earl of Holland (Henry Rich*).78 Henry joined the king at the outbreak of the Civil War and was killed at the first battle of Newbury. A younger son, Robert, sat for Great Bedwyn in 1660 and Brackley in 1661.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Virginia C.D. Moseley / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. Baker, Northants. 109.
  • 2. M.E. Finch, Five Northants. Fams (Northants. Rec. Soc. xix), opp. 246.
  • 3. Al. Ox.; SO3/4.
  • 4. Finch, 55.
  • 5. Bridges, Northants. i. 476.
  • 6. Finch, opp. 246.
  • 7. Shaw, Knights of Eng. i. 160.
  • 8. CP, xii. 160-1.
  • 9. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, ii. 261.
  • 10. Montagu Musters Bk. ed. J. Wake (Northants. Rec. Soc. vii), 174; CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 268; APC, 1625-6, p. 238; C231/4, f. 168.
  • 11. C231/4, ff. 83, 266; C193/13/2.
  • 12. C181/2, ff. 282, 326v; 181/3, ff. 39, 193v; 181/4, f. 44.
  • 13. C212/22/20-1, 23; Northants. Musters ed. J. Wake (Northants. Rec. Soc. iii), 174.
  • 14. APC, 1627-8, p. 284; T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 2, p. 145.
  • 15. C181/3, f. 218; 181/4, f. 140.
  • 16. CSP Dom. 1627-8, p. 214.
  • 17. C181/4, ff. 69v, 195v; 181/5, ff. 4, 48v.
  • 18. C181/4, f. 199.
  • 19. Rymer, ix. pt. 2, p. 6.
  • 20. C78/215/6; Finch, 63.
  • 21. Add. 25079, ff. 72, 76v-82.
  • 22. Northants. RO, E(B) 572-3.
  • 23. APC, 1619-21, pp. 207-8; Finch, 47-8.
  • 24. R. Ruigh, Parl. of 1624, pp. 114-15.
  • 25. CJ, i. 511a; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 17.
  • 26. CJ, i. 555a.
  • 27. Ibid. 590b; Nicholas, i. 315.
  • 28. CJ, i. 507b, 551b, 555a.
  • 29. Ibid. 603a; Nicholas, ii. 3.
  • 30. CJ, i. 608b, 614b; CD 1621, iii. 167.
  • 31. Nicholas, ii. 67; CD 1621, iii. 186, 188.
  • 32. CJ, i. 621a.
  • 33. Ibid. 622a.
  • 34. Ibid. 625a; Nicholas, i. 53; CD 1621, v. 173.
  • 35. CD 1621, vi. 395.
  • 36. CJ, i. 626a, b.
  • 37. CD 1621, iii. 331; CJ, i. 620b, 630a.
  • 38. CJ, i. 631b; CD 1621, iii. 353.
  • 39. Nicholas, ii. 153.
  • 40. Ruigh, 75-6; CD 1621, vii. 615-17; C.C. Stopes, Henry, 3rd earl of Southampton, 403-4.
  • 41. CJ, i. 641b; CD 1621, ii. 443.
  • 42. CJ, i. 650b, 652a.
  • 43. Ibid. 653a.
  • 44. Nicholas, ii. 338.
  • 45. CJ, i. 680b, 681a.
  • 46. Ibid. 683a, 764b.
  • 47. Ibid. 774a.
  • 48. Ibid. 691a.
  • 49. Ibid. 776b.
  • 50. Ibid. 705a.
  • 51. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 209.
  • 52. SP14/168/44.
  • 53. Procs. 1625, p. 375.
  • 54. Ibid. 446.
  • 55. CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 161; APC, 1625-6, pp. 237-8.
  • 56. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 253-63.
  • 57. HMC Montagu, 109-110.
  • 58. J. K. Gruenfelder, ‘Northants. election 1626’, Northants. P and P, iv. 160-4.
  • 59. Procs. 1626, ii. 61, 332, iii. 150.
  • 60. Ibid. ii. 116, 122.
  • 61. Ibid. 195, 203, 208.
  • 62. Ibid. 214, 216.
  • 63. Ibid. 289, 291.
  • 64. Ibid. 297, 306.
  • 65. Ibid. 322.
  • 66. Ibid. 340.
  • 67. Ibid. 358.
  • 68. Ibid. 360.
  • 69. Ibid. iii. 84.
  • 70. Ibid. 156.
  • 71. Ibid. 170.
  • 72. Ibid. 270.
  • 73. Ibid. 306, 331, 332.
  • 74. Ibid. 392.
  • 75. Ibid. 434, n. 10.
  • 76. Ibid. 432.
  • 77. Bridges, Northants. i. 475-6; VCH Northants. i. 421.
  • 78. PROB 11/173, ff. 206v-7; Add. 25079, f. 105; Birch, ii. 261.