If you want to see how many dukes and princes are in the ancestry of the second in line to the throne of Great Britain, it is useful to look at both sides of the family: not just the royal ancestors of Prince William’s father the Prince of Wales, but also the lineage of his mother, born Lady Diana Spencer. While one of her great-grandfathers was the Duke of Abercorn (see my post on the Hamilton family), her paternal ancestors, the Spencers, were earls, a few rungs down from dukes and princes; but if you jump over to the senior branch of the family, the Spencers were dukes of Marlborough and today go by the double-barrelled surname Spencer-Churchill. They acquired the Churchill name and title in 1733 as descendants and heirs of John Churchill, one of the greatest generals in British history. Some sources claim they also inherited a princely title, that of Mindelheim in Bavaria, and although that is not correct, the legacy does remain, in that the current Duke of Marlborough still uses an Imperial double-headed eagle in his coat-of-arms, topped with a princely coronet of the Holy Roman Empire. So in this way, the Spencers are dukes and princes.
It is therefore somewhat ironic that compared to most of the ducal families in Great Britain, neither the Spencers nor the Churchills have an ancient pedigree. Both were relatively new families when they received their titles, the Spencers rising to wealth and power as part of the new Tudor aristocracy in the sixteenth century, and the Churchills not till the following century. There’s an often repeated anecdote from the 1620s, whereby the snobbish Earl of Arundel, with an ancient Howard pedigree, teased Lord Spencer for boasting about his ancestors’ great achievements: “My Lord, when these things you speak of were doing, your ancestors were keeping sheep.” Spencer instantly replied, “when my ancestors (as you say) were keeping sheep, yours were plotting treason.” Both families, Spencers and Churchills, therefore felt the need to embellish their ancestry, especially in the Victorian era, when such ‘imagined histories’ were all the rage.
A number of beautifully illustrated nineteenth-century family histories therefore invented interesting progenitors for the Spencers and the Churchills. Especially so for the latter, said to be descended from somebody called Gitto de Leon, an exiled heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine (or maybe the Kingdom of León?) who took refuge at the court of the Duke of Normandy, then accompanied him (or perhaps his son did) on his conquest of England in 1066. He either came from a town in Normandy called Courcil, or was given lands in Somerset called Courcil or Curcelle, which later corrupted into the Anglo-Saxon Church Hill. Other stories give the original rise of the family from the fortuitous marriage of Roger Churchill, a blacksmith in Catherston, a village in western Dorset, to the daughter of the local landlord of Bradford Peverell in the middle of the 16th century. But they remained tenant farmers in Dorset. The real start of the family’s rise comes a few generations later when John Churchill established himself as a prominent lawyer in London, then returned to the West Country to marry Sarah Winston, of Gloucestershire, in 1618, and rented a sizeable manor house in Dorset, Minterne House.
Subsequent generations were born in this house, and adopted the name Winston. The first Winston Churchill was a fervent royalist during the Civil War, an MP from Dorset, an officer in the household of Charles II, and, like his distant descendant and namesake, a passionate lover of history: he wrote a history of English kings and was a fellow of the Royal Society. He even married a descendant of the famous Elizabethan sea captain Sir Francis Drake. But his wife’s more important relative was the Duke of Buckingham, a royal favourite, and this connection opened doors for the family that led to their spectacular rise to the top of the court hierarchy by the end of the century.
In a similar manner, the Spencers claimed to be descended from the powerful medieval Despencer family, and even adopted a modified version of their coat-of-arms, with its distinctive golden ‘fret’. The Le Despencer family were major landowners in the 13th century who enjoyed unparalleled royal favour, especially Hugh the Younger, the favourite of King Edward II, executed by the jealous barons in 1326. The rest of the Despencer clan were gone by the 1420s and the first historical Spencer does not appear in the records until 1470—so a link is of course possible, but unproven. This was Henry Spencer who owned the estate of Badby in Northamptonshire, and this county in the heart of England would remain the Spencer headquarters for the next five centuries.
Henry Spencer’s son John raised livestock—here is where the sheep come in—which was a very profitable venture, with wool being shipped across the North Sea to the great burgeoning weaving cities of Flanders and Holland. With this money he was able to purchase the nearby estate of Althorp and one further to the west, Wormleighton, in Warwickshire, around 1510, and by the time of his death had established a family burial spot in Great Brington and rebuilt the manor house in nearby Althorp.
Althorp, about 6 miles outside the county town of Northampton, gradually became the family seat, more so after extensive damage to Wormleighton during the Civil War, and was enlarged in the 1680s, and again a century later, when it was transformed into a more fashionable neoclassical style. By the mid-18th century it had become a major social setting for the Spencer political set, and a place of display for the family’s great collections of art and books—the library was one of the largest of its day and today forms one of the cores of the Rylands Library of the University of Manchester. One of the other great treasures of the inside of the house was its grand oak staircase. The gardens were also redesigned in the 18th century, by notable designers like Henry Holland, and remain mostly intact, with the well-known addition in 1997 of the Diana Memorial on an island in an oval lake.
Much of these estates had been developed in the early 17th century by Robert Spencer, reputed to be the richest man in England—thanks to all those sheep—and raised to the peerage in 1603 as Baron Spencer of Wormleighton. His sons were active royalists during the Civil War, and his grandson Henry was rewarded for service at the Battle of Edgehill (and for his requisite financial ‘contribution’ to the Crown treasury) with the earldom of Sunderland in 1643. Like so many earldoms in England created in this period, the family had no links to the actual town of Sunderland in the far northeast, near Newcastle. The second Earl of Sunderland led a prominent if a bit unruly political life as an ambassador then secretary of state for Charles II, then a key advisor to James II until they fell out and he fled abroad—returning in the 1690s to become again a key advisor to William III and one of the founders of the Whig Party (with four other lords known as the ‘Whig Junto’ in the reigns of William and then Queen Anne).
One of the key factors of politics in the 18th century was the importance of family alliances, and the Spencers would remain a cornerstone of the Whig aristocracy, alongside families related by marriage, the Cavendishes and Russells. Charles, the 3rd Earl of Sunderland, took over this role when his father died in 1702. After a brief marriage to a Cavendish, he married in 1699 the daughter of another prominent member of the inner circle of the court, John Churchill.
The son of Sir Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Drake, John Churchill became one of the greatest supporters of James, Duke of York, later King James II, and leader of his troops, until the fateful moment in November 1688 when he abandoned the King in favour of the invading William of Orange. The entire family had benefitted at first through the relationship of John’s sister, Arabella, with the Duke of York in the 1660s. Arabella became mother to four of James’s illegitimate children (called the FitzJameses), and though the Duke’s patronage, John and his younger brothers all benefitted, with positions in the household and in the army. Brothers John, George and Charles all became close to the new husband of James’s daughter, Princess Anne, and when Anne became Queen in 1702, their rise was further solidified, all three becoming leading military figures in the War of Spanish Succession. It helped too that John’s wife, Sarah Jennings was particularly close with Anne—and the story of their tumultuous relationship has become quite famous now through the film The Favourite. John had been raised to the peerage as Earl of Marlborough in 1689 by a grateful King William, and he was now raised further to a dukedom in 1702. Anne also created him Captain-General of the British Army, and he would lead the Allied Forces in Europe to great victories in the war against France, with famous victories at Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet. His wife was at the same time appointed Mistress of the Robes and head of the Queen’s Household. When Sarah fell from power, then so too did John, and he was removed from command just as he was on the verge of defeating France in 1711.
John and Sarah retired to a building site known as Blenheim Palace, a few miles north of Oxford, an estate (and funds) given by Queen Anne as a gift from the nation after the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Blenheim was built at Woodstock, a village that would provide a parliamentary seat for various Churchills and Spencers for the next two centuries, and designated as a ‘palace’, the only non-royal, non-episcopal residence in England with this label. Built between 1705 and 1722 by the controversial architect Sir John Vanbrugh—controversial since he had no formal training, but was a playwright—the palace ran into severe financial difficulties and ‘creative differences’ between the architect and the Duchess. In the end it emerged as one of the most majestic buildings in Britain, with its double suites of state and private apartments, its great hall with amazing ceiling paintings by Thornhill, a grand library and chapel, and extensive gardens and fountains.
Even after his disgrace, the 1st Duke of Marlborough had not been forgotten. Still celebrated in Europe, he had been given a sizeable estate in southern Germany, Mindelheim, which the Emperor wished to transform into a semi-sovereign principality of the Empire in 1705. It was a tiny state, about 15 square miles, and the Duke visited it only once, in 1713. Diplomatic politics got in the way, however, and Mindelheim was restored to its previous owner (the Duke of Bavaria) in 1714, and the Emperor’s proposed replacement, Nellenburg (a bit further to the south, on Lake Constance), was blocked. Still, the title ‘Prince of the Empire’ was retained by the British duke (as were the heraldic elements, seen above), and, more importantly, the Emperor’s personal favour helped restore Marlborough to favour with the accession of an Imperial ally, Prince George of Hanover, to the British throne in 1714. The new King George I restored Marlborough to his position as Captain-General of British Forces which he retained until he died in 1722.
A duke needs a male heir however, and the Marlboroughs had only one son, the Marquess of Blandford (the courtesy title for their heir), who died of smallpox when still in his teens. The Duke had two brothers, both prominent as generals and admirals, but neither of them had a legitimate son. Several daughters remained, and Parliament passed a special act allowing for the dukedom to pass to a female heir (the Imperial princely titles however could not be passed to women). All four Churchill daughters had married well into the most solid names of the political aristocracy—Egerton, Montagu, Spencer and Godolphin—and the latter of these, Henrietta, Countess Godolphin, succeeded as 2nd Duchess of Marlborough in her own right. Her son, another Marquess of Blandford, was expected to succeed, but he too died relatively young, and the title passed instead to her sister’s son, Charles Spencer, 5th Earl of Sunderland. Here we see therefore, that fate had removed two young men from the succession, and brought about the union of the two houses, Spencer and Churchill.
The 3rd Earl of Sunderland, Marlborough’s son-in-law, had already taken over from his father the role as leader of the Whig Junto in the reign of Queen Anne. Under George I he was promoted to cabinet positions including Lord Privy Seal and First Lord of the Treasury, making him in essence the Prime Minister, until he fell from power in the wake of the financial speculation scheme, the South Sea Bubble, bursting in 1720. His older son died a few years later, so it was his second son, Charles, the 5th Earl, who succeeded to the Marlborough estates in 1733 (and handed over the Spencer estates to his younger brother, John, who started his own dynasty, the earls Spencer … which we’ll come to). The third Duke of Marlborough seemed set to rise to both of his grandfathers’ heights, in politics and in the military, but he died on campaign in the Seven Years War in 1758 without reaching his full potential.
The Spencers also inherited the main London residence of the Churchills, Marlborough House, one of the string of grand houses along the Mall leading up to Buckingham Palace. Built primarily by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, to designs by Christopher Wren, from the early 19th century it became a residence of various members of the Royal Family, notably the Prince and Princess of Wales in the 1860s and Queen Mary after 1936. Today it houses the Commonwealth Secretariat.
The family continued to dominate Whig politics for the rest of the century: the 4th Duke of Marlborough was Lord Chamberlain and Lord Privy Seal in the 1760s, while both of his brothers held seats in the Commons. The younger of these, Lord Charles, was also a key member of the court of King George III, from being appointed Comptroller of the Household in 1763 to dying as one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber in 1820. His grandsons led interesting lives working for the Church of England across the British Empire, the elder as bishop of Newfoundland then Jamaica, and the younger as bishop of Madras. Their cousin, Augustus Spencer was Commander in Chief of the British Army in Bombay in the 1870s. This junior line were created Baron Churchill of Wychwood (Oxon), in 1815, raised to Viscount Churchill in 1902, but since 2017 reverted to the barony when it passed to a distant cousin.
Having conscientiously chosen to employ both Spencer and Churchill names, the 5th Duke of Marlborough formally changed the family surname from Spencer to Spencer-Churchill in 1817. He had been a party boy in the early 19th century, the height of the Regency, and sold off much of the family collections. The next Duke, George, spent most of his life as an heir, first as earl of Sunderland, then marquess of Blandford, and only the last 17 years of his life as duke. Before he became a peer, therefore, he had a long career in the Commons as MP for Woodstock, and demonstrated a remarkable about-face for the family by his devotion to the Tory Party, a trend his successors would continue throughout the 19th century, notably his son the 7th Duke. Again having a long Parliamentary career as Sunderland, then Blandford, and still holding the family seat at Woodstock, he then served, as duke, in the Conservative Cabinet of Disraeli.
From this point, the family divided somewhat, and elder sons inherited the titles while the younger sons took leading positions in politics. While the 8th Duke of Marlborough was getting involved in divorce scandals, his younger brother Lord Randolph took a leading position in British politics in trying to steer the Conservative Party towards progressive reformist policies rather than simply reacting against those being pushed by the Liberal Party. As Secretary of State for India he supported the annexation of Burma in 1886, and the next year he reached the pinnacle of his career as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the Commons. But his success was brief and his antagonism of party leaders led to his ostricization, and he died relatively young, leaving the ultimate glory of becoming Prime Minister to his son Sir Winston Churchill, and the political line carried on to Winston’s son and his grandson (another Winston) into the 1990s.
One thing Lord Randolph and his brother the 8th Duke of Marlborough had in common was that they both married Americans. The Duke married Lily Warren Price whose great wealth helped finance badly needed repairs and upgrades to Blenheim Palace; Randolph married Jennie Jerome. This was the age of Edith Wharton’s ‘Buccaneers’, wealthy American heiresses ‘sold’ by their parents to obtain glittering European titles. The greatest of these, perhaps, was Consuelo Vanderbilt, whose 2.5 million dollar dowry (plus shares in New York Central Railroad Company) helped the 9th Duke complete the restoration of Blenheim and its gardens. The marriage was not a great success and ended in acrimonious divorce in 1921.
Despite the influx of American dollars, the Blenheim estate struggled to keep up with the rising costs of maintaining a country house in the 20th century. The 10th Duke of Marlborough and his wife were therefore amongst the first aristocrats to open their homes to the public in the 1950s, and though Blenheim Palace remains in private hands, rather than as part of the National Trust or English Heritage, it is still one of the crown jewels of British tourism and attracts nearly a million visitors a year. It is run as a trust, with the current 12th Duke, known as ‘Jamie Blandford’ before he succeeded in 2014, keeping a fairly low profile both in terms of the estate and on the national stage.
In contrast, the younger branch of the family, the earls Spencer, have become more prominent in the 20th century, firstly as close members of the royal court and more recently as the family of the global superstar that was Diana, Princess of Wales. The current earl, the 9th (Charles), was already a page in the royal household before his sister married the Prince of Wales in 1981, and the links go back much further. Their father (‘Johnny Spencer’) was Equerry to George VI, 1950-52, then to Elizabeth II, 1952-54; and their grandmother, Lady Fermoy—as seen in episodes of the new season of ‘The Crown’—was for many years a Woman of the Bedchamber and close friend of the Queen Mother. In fact, Diana’s other grandmother, Cynthia Hamilton, was also a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen Mother for many decades. So any attempt to portray Lady Diana Spencer as an uninformed outsider to court circles I think needs to be seen as dramatic licence.
Going back to the origins of this line, the nephew of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, was given the Spencer lands (as well as those of Sarah Jennings), and was created Earl Spencer in 1765. His daughter Lady Georgiana was the famous Duchess of Devonshire—famous in her own day as a fashionista and leader of the London social set, and again famous today for Keira Knightley’s portrayal of her in the 2008 film, The Duchess. One of the key scenes in that film demonstrated the power of aristocratic women in this century—when women did not have the right to vote—to influence politics through public appearances, and also as society hosts of political groups like the Whigs. Key to playing host to social elites was having a grand London residence, so the 1st Earl commissioned the monumental Spencer residence in London, on St James’s Place, in grand Greek neoclassical style. It is still owned by the family, but in recent decades has been rented out as a business site, to Christie’s, then The Economist, and now Lord Rothschild.
As with their senior Marlborough cousins, the Spencers (and the Devonshire Cavendishes) were at the epicentre of the liberal Whig Party, with the 2nd Earl serving as Lord Privy Seal, 1st Lord of the Admiralty and Home Secretary in the 1790s-1800s (in coalition governments), then the 3rd Earl (John) rising to the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1830s and being especially instrumental in the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, under the Whig Prime Minister Earl Grey—interestingly, though not that surprisingly given the persistent interconnections between British politics and family ties—the same man who had been romantically involved with his aunt the Duchess of Devonshire. The 3rd Earl left a real legacy of reform, nicknamed ‘Honest Jack’ for his reputation as politically incorruptible.
After the Whig Party transitioned into the Liberal Party in the 1850s, the 5th Earl (also named John) held top government offices for even longer than his grandfather, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord President of the Council, and First Lord of the Admiralty. The ‘Red Earl’ (due to the colour of his beard, not his politics) made a name for himself for his reforms of the Irish government and even advocating Irish home rule in the 1880s, and was several times asked to be Prime Minister, but preferred to stay in the House of Lords as leader of the Liberal Party until he retired in 1905.
It is interesting to see the two branches of the family by the end of the 19th century dominating both rival political parties, Liberal Spencers and Conservative Churchills. The Spencers also maintained its close links with the royal family in the 19th century, with various members holding posts like Groom of the Bedchamber to the Prince Consort and the Prince of Wales, Lord Chamberlain of the Household (twice) and Lord Steward. They were successive lords lieutenant of Northamptonshire, and made their home, Althorp, a centre of county society. They also maintained an estate much closer to London and to court: Wimbledon Park (part of the inheritance of Sarah Jennings). Here the 2nd Earl Spencer built a new house in about 1800, sold in 1846, and demolished in the 1950s. Not until 1996, however, did the current Earl sell the title of the lordship of the manor of Wimbledon—a title with a few vague rights over common lands, at least until recent legislation abolished even those vestiges of feudalism.
The more modern Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, spent the early years of his career as a journalist, gave Althorp its first major overhaul since the 18th century, and opens the house for visitors in the summer months, as well as for an annual literary festival in the autumn. This two-pronged family, Churchill and Spencer, each line emerging from obscurity to lead the reforming party of the British politics for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, continues to act as guardians of the legacy of two of the finest examples in 18th-century English country house buildings, Blenheim and Althorp, hopefully for generations to come.
(images from Wikimedia Commons or other license free sites)