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About The Book

This extraordinary true story transports us to Tudor and Stuart England as Alice Spencer, the daughter of an upstart sheep farmer, becomes one of the most powerful women in the country and establishes a powerful dynasty that endures to this day. Perfect for fans of The Duchess Countess and Georgiana.

Alice Spencer was born in 1560 to a family on the rise. Her grandfather had amassed a sizeable estate of fertile grazing land and made a small fortune in sheep farming, allowing him to purchase a simple but distinguished manor house called Althorp.

With her sizable dowry, Alice married the heir to one of the most powerful aristocratic families in the country, eventually becoming the Countess of Derby. Though she enjoyed modest renown, it wasn’t until her husband’s sudden death (after he turned in a group of Catholics for plotting against Queen Elizabeth I) that Alice and her family’s future changed forever.

Faced with a lawsuit from her brother-in-law over her late husband’s fortune, Alice raised eyebrows by marrying England’s most powerful lawyer. Together, they were victorious, and Alice focused her attentions on securing appropriate husbands for her daughters, increasing her land ownings, and securing a bright future for her grandchildren and the entire Spencer family. But they would not completely escape scandals, and as the matriarch, Alice had to face an infamous trial that threatened everything she had worked so hard for.

Now, the full story of the remarkable Alice Spencer Stanley Egerton is revealed in this comprehensive and colorful biography. A woman both ahead of and part of her time, Alice’s ruthless challenging of the status quo has inspired future generations of Spencers and will change the way you view Tudor women.


Chapter 1: Spencers on the Rise CHAPTER ONE SPENCERS ON THE RISE
“A Mere Knight’s Daughter”

It was a frosty winter day in 1636 when Alice Spencer, Dowager Countess of Derby, entered the tiny country church of St. Mary the Virgin. A patchwork of stone and brick with a stubby crenellated tower, the church had served the faithful in the village of Harefield, some twenty-five miles west of London, since the twelfth century. Alice herself had worshipped there for nearly four decades. Age and the cold winter had taken a toll on her body, but her mind was as sharp as ever. It was not piety that drew her to the church that particular day. The seventy-six-year-old Dowager Countess of Derby had come to inspect the tomb she had commissioned for herself. She determinedly made her way to the upper chancel, at the far end of the church next to the pulpit, and gazed upon the massive painted-stone monument that had just been completed to her exacting specifications. Alice could not leave something this important in the hands of her surviving family; she intended to prepare for her death with the same controlling eye and attention to detail she employed in all aspects of her life. Her choice of location ensured that her final resting place would serve as the backdrop to every sermon delivered in the small church. When the parishioners’ minds wandered, their eyes would be drawn to the vibrant heraldry, carved canopy, and pious figures carved into her burial site. She must have taken pleasure in the thought that the stone behemoth would ensure that generations to come would be continuously reminded of her life, her deeds, and, most important, her family.

Two sides of the tomb were nestled against the heavy walls of the church, but Alice could walk along the front and foot of her memorial to inspect every detail of the carving. The effigy of her body, swathed in a red dress and with her hands at her chest pressed in a prayerful position, was laid on a carved stone curtain painted black. Three small niches supported the tablet on which her effigy rested, and tucked into each recess was a small kneeling figure of a woman in a matching red dress. The figures represented her three beloved daughters, who could be told apart only by the small heraldic crest carved next to each one. Alice, like her peers, read heraldry as a second language. It took only a passing glance to know who was who, although she might well have lingered over the crest for her eldest daughter. She would want to ensure that there were no indications of her daughter’s disastrous second marriage. Alice had spent the last five years of her life desperately trying to sever any connections between her family and her disgraced son-in-law. She would never allow his badge to adorn the monument that would serve as the most prominent and enduring marker of her life.

Standing alongside her tomb, Alice looked down at the effigy of her own body with its long waves of hair cascading down around the shoulders. Her stone face was smooth and pale, revealing no sign of the passage of time; the carver had made her ageless. As Alice’s eyes moved up toward the top of the tomb, past the carved black-and-gold tablets that recounted her own two marriages and the noble positions held by each of her long-dead husbands, her gaze reached the top of the green-and-gold carved stone canopy that arched up over her recumbent figure. Four crowned griffins, the symbol of the Spencer family, peered out in different directions from pedestals at the base of the dome. The tomb was topped with Alice’s own coat of arms, flanked by supporters of another Spencer griffin, on the right, and the stag, a symbol of the Stanley family, on the left, representing her dear first husband. A countess’s coronet sat atop the coat of arms, reaching up to Heaven. Alice knew that someday soon her body would be interred in the base of that tomb. The monument reflected everything she wanted to be remembered for, presenting her carefully crafted legacy for the ages. But there had been far more to Alice’s life than any monument could portray.

Nearly 150 years earlier, Alice’s ancestors could only have hoped that a member of their family would someday hold such a high place in aristocratic society. The Spencers of the early 1500s were midland farmers, shrewd and lucky enough to grow their modest lands and enterprises over time. Alice’s grandfather William Spencer of Radbourn purchased the estate of Althorp in Northamptonshire, seventy-five miles northwest of London, in 1508 with money he had made in the sheep trade. At the time, the residence at Althorp was a large Tudor manor house, a two-story redbrick building with thick, exposed wooden beams and long, narrow windows. Though far from a lavish Tudor palace or the colossal estate Althorp would eventually become, it was a more spacious and comfortable home than most farmers in England possessed at the time. The high ceilings, private rooms, multiple fireplaces, thick roof, and decorative furnishings kept the Spencers warm in winter and set them apart from their neighbors.

The rules of feudal England dictated that land was the currency of power and the primary source of wealth. The ancient aristocracy passed their lands from one generation to the next and wielded power over tenant farmers, but men such as William Spencer, men with no titles, used their modest incomes to buy land when they could and thus gradually carved out their own small pockets of power. The monarch had the prerogative to grant land, which came with aristocratic titles as well, to families who had served the Crown. The arrangement made some families powerful, although not necessarily wealthy, and in turn bolstered their loyalty to the reigning monarch, an essential strategy for maintaining political stability. From the Crown’s perspective, however, it could often be more lucrative to sell land to families such as the Spencers rather than to grant the privilege of ownership to peers. So when a feudal king wanted to go to war, for example, selling land was a quick way to raise money. After 1536, when King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and placed all ecclesiastical lands in England under his jurisdiction, the Tudor king had a bounty of lands to distribute, either to ensure the loyalty of noble families or to sell to gentry families and bring cash into the royal treasury. But the aristocracy feared that if more families could simply purchase land rather than inheriting it and thus gain local power, the social and political supremacy of the peerage would be threatened.1

The Spencers would soon become one of the families the ancient nobility was worried about. William became Sir William in 1529, when he was knighted by Henry VIII. He died just three years later, in 1532, and his son, John, inherited Althorp and the other parcels and estates his father had acquired. A knighthood was not hereditary, so John, like his father and grandfather before him, hoped that one day the reigning monarch would decide to grant him the same title in recognition of his loyalty and as an acknowledgment of his family’s local influence. Capitalizing on the rich grazing lands he had inherited, John continued to invest in the sheep and wool trade, and by the middle of the century, he was one of the nation’s leading providers of wool, mutton, and sheep. In 1545, he married Katherine Kitson, the daughter of Sir Thomas Kitson of Hengrave Hall, Suffolk, a wealthy merchant. Eight years later, John was knighted at Queen Mary I’s coronation, making him Sir John and his wife Lady Katherine and enabling him to reestablish himself in the role his father had held.

English society, like that of the rest of Europe, operated on a strict hierarchy of social rank. The Spencers’ knighthoods placed them in a social rank above other yeoman farmers, families who owned their own land but had not been granted knighthoods. Though knights were ranked higher than yeomen, yeomen were socially above tenant farmers, who only rented their lands. John’s knighthood elevated his immediate family into the gentry, a class just below the nobility. Gentry families owned land and were granted coats of arms, although unlike the nobility’s, the arms were not hereditary. Gentry families aspired to ascend into the nobility, which would enable the accumulation of hereditary titles, offices in service to the monarch, and typically control over larger portions of lands, which meant more rental incomes from tenants. A knighthood provided the potential for social stability for a single generation; a noble title provided social stability for the future. The English nobility, or peerage, contained another set of rankings; the lowest was baron/baroness; then viscount/viscountess; then earl/countess; then marquess/marchioness; and finally, duke/duchess. The sanctified inner circle of the ruling monarch and his or her immediate family sat at the top. John’s elevation to the gentry meant that a place in the peerage hovered just above the Spencers, but the family still had work to do if they wanted to continue their rise.

John served as the sheriff and justice of the peace for Northamptonshire, two high-ranking local appointments granted by more powerful local noble families with the monarch’s approval. John and Katherine were well positioned to maintain their new place in society, but, like most families of the age, they surely had hopes of improving their station. English gentry and peers in the sixteenth century thought in terms of multigenerational progress, understanding that sustainable change in feudal England happened only gradually and required careful planning—and, most important, a male heir. Katherine and John were already proud parents of a daughter, Margaret, but in 1549, the couple welcomed their eldest son and heir into the world and named him John. Katherine continued to spend most of the 1550s pregnant, ultimately giving birth to two more sons and five daughters by the end of the decade.

In May 1559 Katherine Spencer took to her birthing chamber for the ninth time. Mothers may have gained wisdom with experience, but no matter how many times a woman entered the birthing chamber, it was a terrifying and uncertain place. A midwife monitored Katherine in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, and Katherine’s female kin would have been there to hold her arms and wipe away her tears, blood, and sweat. When the time came, the women flanked Katherine’s writhing body, holding her upright. As Katherine pushed and screamed, the midwife guided the child down, watching to ensure that the umbilical cord stayed clear of the baby’s neck. As the baby was carried down and Katherine fell back into the arms of the women who had been holding her up, they saw that the Spencers had another girl to join their family of three sons and now six daughters at Althorp. They named her Alice.

As the youngest daughter of a local knight with eight other children, one might assume that Alice was frequently overlooked in the bustling family. But to a child with an active mind like Alice, Althorp would likely have seemed an Arcadian heaven, a comfortable nest in the center of verdant pasture lands and rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Her father had started planting oak trees near the house, many of which are still there today. The home teemed with servants who cleaned, chopped and stocked firewood, cooked, and attended to the needs of the family. Alice probably spent little time with her father, as he was occupied with the responsibilities of his local offices, managing the family’s growing rental incomes, and overseeing the management of his valuable livestock. It would have been with her mother and the servants charged with caring for the Spencer children that Alice spent most hours of the day. Of all her siblings, Alice seems to have been particularly close to her sisters Elizabeth, eight years her senior, and Anne, a bit closer to her own age. The bonds they forged as children at Althorp would endure throughout their lives.

Beyond his business pursuits, John Spencer was invested in preparing his sons, particularly his eldest, to run the estate one day, while Katherine was responsible for overseeing the religious upbringing of the children, as well as their general education. This included all her daughters and sons, before the boys were sent away to school and after that to study law at the Inns of Court. The Spencers followed the norm for wealthy gentry families in ensuring that their sons received a formal education to prepare them for the responsibilities of local political office or a position as a clerk or secretary to one of the country’s more powerful noblemen. They put the same care into ensuring their daughters received the standard education for gentry girls. Alice and her sisters had tutors to teach them to read, write, play musical instruments, draw, and embroider, all the skills that made refined young women desirable brides possessing the skills needed to manage their own estates one day. Whereas the children born to most noble households would have learned Latin and French, there are no sources to suggest that Alice and her sisters could read languages beyond English, and the Spencers were still a minor family of no particular distinction beyond their growing wealth. But all the Spencer girls were taught to read English, and their early childhood educations gave Alice, Anne, and Elizabeth their first glimpses of life beyond Althorp. That foundation was critical to the development of the devoted patrons of the arts they would go on to be, supporting an impressive array of poets, writers, and theologians.

The Spencer children’s religious education would have been molded by the age of tumultuous religious change they were living through. Since the 1530s, the country had endured massive upheavals brought about by the Reformation, when Henry VIII had broken with the Roman Catholic Church to establish a Protestant Church in England. During her nearly five-year reign in the middle of the century, Henry’s daughter, Mary I, firmly pulled the country back into line with Rome through her Counter-Reformation, but her half sister Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in 1558, a year before Alice’s birth, meant the restoration of a Protestant Church in England. The Spencers were loyal subjects and seemed to adhere to the reigning monarch’s religious policies. As conformists, the family returned to the observation of the new Protestant faith, attending the local church regularly. Alice only ever knew her family and her country as Protestant, but she was surely raised to understand that loyalty to the reigning monarch in all things was essential to survival, to say nothing of success.

As her father’s wealth continued to grow, young Alice’s daily life would have been removed from the chaos that lay just beyond her picturesque miniature realm, but the Spencers knew they needed to prepare all of their children to thrive in a harsh and uncertain world. Alice would only gradually learn of the disdain her family faced from those both below and above them in the social hierarchy. Since the end of the turbulent Wars of the Roses in 1485, Henry VII and his son and successor, Henry VIII, had enacted a series of enclosure laws that allowed landowners such as the Spencers to plant thick hedgerows and put up fences that prevented local people and tenants from accessing pastures, meadows, and forests, essentially converting common lands into private property. Sir John and his father quickly realized that their lands would generate far more money from sheep farming than from rents they might collect from tenant farmers. Under the Spencers in the sixteenth century, 27,000 acres in Northamptonshire were completely enclosed, forcing 1,500 people to abandon their rented lands and common pastures and cutting off access to firewood and kindling.2 Local farmers and laborers detested the Spencers, as people starved while the Spencers’ sheep grazed all day. Enclosure riots routinely ravaged the countryside as farmers dug up or burned the Spencers’ thick hedgerows, attacked their flocks, and trespassed to gather essential food and fuel. But young Alice, who was not due to inherit or run the family lands, would have grown up protected from and largely oblivious to those disturbances.

Not only did the Spencers face disdain from the struggling tenant farmers, but the family was loathed by their “betters.” In the second half of the 1500s, the members of the English aristocracy believed that they were facing a crisis as the numbers of peers decreased while the gentry class grew vastly wealthier. What money is in a modern capitalist society, land was in feudal Europe, and power came from controlling land as the source of everything: food, textiles, fuel, and rental income. Tensions grew between members of the old aristocracy and England’s nouveaux riches, and by the time Alice was a young girl, the Spencers had become a highly visible emblem of the rising gentry. They had the land and money but not the titles. Without joining the ranks of the aristocracy, their sphere of influence would never extend beyond their midland farms. Alice’s grandfather had started the Spencers on their upward trajectory when he had purchased Althorp and expanded their landholdings; the enclosure laws and their bountiful lands had enabled the family’s rise—at the enormous cost to the tenant families around them—into the ranks of the gentry. Now Alice’s mother and father needed to do their part to ensure that the family’s future would be even brighter. It was time for their children to wed.

Fertile land and fertile marriage were the two most powerful tools available to families such as the Spencers. Sir John and Lady Katherine enacted a two-part strategy in arranging the marriages of their children: first, to ensure a stable line of inheritance for the Spencer lands and the family’s positions of local authority; second, to use their capital wealth to seek opportunities to marry into higher social circles. People often think that in feudal England sons were all that mattered, but this is untrue. Though the patriarchal social structure and practice of primogeniture meant that every family wanted a son as an heir to protect the descent of property and carry on the family name, daughters were often the key players in marriages that elevated family networks. Coverture practices, wherein wives took their husband’s last names, have meant that over the centuries we often detach daughters from their natal families because their last names changed. But families looking to rise relied on the networks their daughters forged to advance their interests and status, and those were critical alliances that we miss if we follow only sons and natal surnames, such as Spencer. Sir John and Lady Katherine cared deeply about finding the best possible match for their son and heir, but it was their daughters who had the potential to elevate the family to breathtaking heights. The couple therefore devoted an enormous amount of time and resources to the marriages of their daughters.

Sir John and Lady Katherine’s eldest daughter, Margaret, was in her early teens when Alice was born, and the couple had five more daughters whom they would need to place in good marriages. The timing of arranging matches for a family such as the Spencers was delicate, and they did not want to have too many daughters on the marriage market at once. Arranging good matches was a costly business, so it was to the family’s benefit to space out the unions. The English laws of coverture stipulated that when a woman married, all her property, landed or movable, belonged to her husband, so providing a girl with a substantial dowry was a way to entice a husband of high status. Wealthy parents set aside money, lands, gold and silver objects (called plate), or even fine textiles to make up their daughter’s dowry. Marriage contracts were typically negotiated between the parents of the bride and groom, and despite the popular misconception today, mothers often played a critical role in the negotiations.

Part of the marriage contract established the dowry, the cash, the leases, and the movable property, including the household goods and clothing the wife would bring to the marriage. The rest of the contract established any financial incentives the husband might provide for the wife for the duration of their marriage and establish what would happen if a wife outlived her husband. A contract often specified that if the husband died before the wife, especially if he did not have a written will, she could receive up to a third of the estate’s value, called the dower portion (not to be confused with the dowry she had brought to the marriage). If the couple had children, the remainder of the husband’s estate would typically go to the male heir. If a couple had no sons, the husband could dictate in his will if property would pass to the husband’s next closest living male relative, such as a younger brother, to the couple’s eldest daughter, or be split among daughters. Not unlike today, however, real life was messier than standard practices suggest, and inheritance disputes were common in England at the time.

English law, unlike the laws in other European countries at the time, also allowed for women with substantial means to negotiate something called a jointure in lieu of accepting a dower portion. A jointure specified properties to be held in reserve for the wife if she were to become a widow, and she could draw income from those lands for the rest of her life. A jointure could be settled at the time of the initial marriage contract or be negotiated later as a separate agreement. It could even go so far as to give a blanket promise of an annual cash income from any source for a wife, to be paid not just through her marriage but for the duration of her life. Sometimes a jointure even stipulated that a wife would receive certain revenues during the course of her marriage and continue to receive them after her husband’s death. The value of a jointure could far exceed the one-third value of an estate granted by a dower portion, and the land was protected from her husband’s mismanagement once it was placed in the jointure. He could never take out, sell, or grant leases on the lands held within her jointure without consent, typically by a male family member she had appointed to serve as her agent while she was married, although she would still be required to consent to changes made to her jointure. If a wife had a jointure, her husband could add to it over the course of their marriage, but he could not use it for his own benefit.

Whereas a modern-day prenuptial agreement establishes how assets should be divided if a husband and wife divorce, a jointure was intended to ensure that specific assets would be protected for the wife if her husband were to predecease her. Jointures were a mechanism that provided women with some independent financial security at a time when they usually possessed very little. And when a wife inherited her jointure, she often retained control over the lands even if she were to remarry. (Divorce was so uncommon at the time that marriage contracts did not include contingency plans in the event that a marriage did not work out.) A jointure not only provided wealthier women with a degree of financial protection but was also a sign that the bride, or whomever had acted on her behalf, had exerted considerable power in the negotiations.3 Again, however, life was often messier in reality than on paper, and ill-informed wives could consent to the mismanagement of their jointures and lose everything.

In 1563, the Spencers arranged for a jointure in the proposed marriage between their eldest daughter, Margaret, and George Forman, the son of another Northamptonshire gentleman. The contract stipulated that the marriage had to take place by Michaelmas (the feast of St. Michael, held in late September) in 1565, and the jointure required Margaret to be paid the considerable sum of £200 per year (£47,000/$65,000 today) during their marriage.4 The Spencers had the clout to establish a jointure for Margaret, but she was marrying into another local family, not an influential noble family. For reasons unknown to us, the marriage never took place, as sometimes happened, but the failed arrangement still tells us that the Spencers held the upper hand in their local marriage market and gives a sense of their early expectations.

By the time the arrangement lapsed, John Spencer III had come of age and Sir John and Lady Katherine shifted their focus to finding a wife for their son. As he was their heir, the stakes were much higher. In 1566, he married Mary Catlyn, the daughter of another local gentry family. Her father was a judge at the Court of Common Pleas and ultimately became a judge of the King’s Bench. Mary brought the income of several lucrative manors to the marriage, and she did not secure a jointure, a strategic win for the Spencers and their heir.5 The estate would remain intact for John III and Mary Catlyn’s heir.

With young John now married and Althorp and the family estates seemingly secured for the immediate future, Alice’s parents again turned their attention to arranging marriages for their daughters. In 1570, Margaret wed a different local gentleman, Giles Allington.6 Within a few years, Alice’s sister Katherine married Thomas Leigh, Esquire, of Stoneleigh Abbey. Thomas was the third son in his family, but his father settled his estate by ensuring that all of his sons would inherit in equal parts. The Leighs were not from Northamptonshire, so that marriage marked a transition for the Spencers. Though Thomas Leigh was the son of a knight, a horizontal move along the social playing field, his family came from outside the county, were well connected, and like the Spencers, were quite wealthy. Thomas’s father had made his fortune in overseas trade, so the Leigh-Spencer match brought two new fortunes together. Things were looking promising for the Spencers.

By the mid-1570s, Sir John and Lady Katherine were no longer satisfied with a family tree made up of local sheep farmers and merchants. From 1570 to 1580, the Spencers’ profits from selling wool were at least £2,632 a year (£630,000/$870,000 today), and they were ready to reinvest the funds in marriages, not sheep.7 Despite the simmering social tensions between establishment families and upstarts such as the Spencers, noble families needed to find wives with large dowries, and the Spencer girls came from one of the wealthiest families in the realm. As Alice was the youngest, she would need to be patient and wait her turn, but as a young woman in her midteens, she would have paid close attention to what was about to happen; marriage was practically a spectator sport, especially when her sisters’ marriages could hint at her own future possibilities. Sir John and Lady Katherine made their first leap in 1574, with the marriage of their daughter Elizabeth to Sir George Carey. Carey was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, as his grandmother had been Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister. Alice’s new brother-in-law was an influential and well-connected man. By the 1570s, as the peerage continued to shrink under the frugal Queen Elizabeth, that was the perfect arrangement; men such as George Carey came with noble titles, while women such as Elizabeth Spencer came from cash-rich families.

The following year, 1575, Sir John and Lady Katherine arranged another lofty match when their daughter Anne married William Stanley, Lord Monteagle. Monteagle’s father was Thomas Stanley, a younger brother of Henry Stanley, the fourth Earl of Derby. Though he did not enjoy the same landed wealth and status as his uncle’s family did, Monteagle was well established nonetheless. The only potential blemish to his reputation was his religious affiliation. Lancashire, a northern county on the west of England, 165 miles south of Edinburgh and 250 miles north of London, was a hotbed of recusant Catholics throughout the sixteenth century, and the Stanley family played fluctuating roles in both suppressing and supporting the county’s Catholic population. There was considerable speculation that Monteagle himself remained a practicing Catholic. Welcoming a wealthy Protestant woman into the family could only help the Stanleys improve their reputation. The Spencers were willing to overlook Monteagle’s religion and focus on his noble family and lofty connections at court, suggesting that they cared more about gaining entrée to the aristocracy than about religious affiliation.8

In 1580, it was finally Alice’s turn, and Sir John and Lady Katherine arranged for her the most distinguished marriage of all their children. The twenty-year-old Alice was to be joined to Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, heir to the fourth Earl of Derby. The young couple probably met at Anne and Monteagle’s wedding, but they may not have known each other very well when their families began the negotiations. The details of their marriage agreement do not survive, but the marriage was a triumph for the Spencers. The Earl of Derby’s family tree made the Spencers’ own look like a sapling. Ferdinando was the great-great-grandson of Henry VII. His grandmother was Mary, sister of Henry VIII, who had been married to the King of France. With her marriage to Ferdinando, Alice Spencer left a rising gentry family and took her place among one of the sixteenth century’s most prominent aristocratic families. Her in-laws controlled the county of Lancashire, a right that Thomas Cromwell had granted the third Earl of Derby in the 1530s in exchange for his support in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic uprising, and other recusant activities.9 The Stanleys were also the Lords of the Isle of Man. The Crown had given the Stanleys the isle in 1406, and in 1522, the Privy Council had ruled that the isle was “not of the Realm of England,” which gave the Stanley family complete control over the government of the isle as their own mini-kingdom.10 Though the isle’s population was relatively small, the independent control of the isle gave the Stanley family enormous clout among the English aristocracy. The Stanley family was subservient to the kings and queens of England, but controlling the Isle of Man made them kings in their own right, even if their rule extended over only a 220-square-mile island in the middle of the Irish Sea.

Alice’s sister Anne’s marriage to Monteagle had been the bridge the Spencers needed to gain access to his cousin, but the match was also supported by the queen’s “favorite,” Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He had invested in a small portion of the Spencers’ sheep enterprises a few years before, and the financial arrangement seems to have opened the door for a venture into the marriage market for both Leicester and the Spencers.11 People speculated that the Earl of Leicester had sought to find a rich Protestant wife for the Earl of Derby’s son to help stabilize his own political relations in the North. Ferdinando’s ancestry meant that he was a potential successor to Queen Elizabeth, so his marriage was far more important than that of the average earl’s heir. Leicester seized the chance to participate in arranging the match, thus making friends with the wealthy Spencers, bringing another young Protestant bride into the suspiciously Catholic North, and winning political favor with the Stanleys.

Alice and Ferdinando were probably married in the North in a chapel near Knowsley Hall, the Stanley family’s seat in Lancashire. Everyone in attendance would have been sumptuously dressed in lush silks and velvets embroidered with shining silver and gold threads.12 Sir John would have escorted Alice down the aisle to signal his blessing of the union. Alice and Ferdinando would have stood side by side at the front of the church with all eyes upon them. Ferdinando looked like the quintessential heir to an earldom. His wavy brown hair grazed the tops of his shoulders. The sharpness of his hairline matched that of his tightly pointed goatee. Just above his light blue eyes, his forehead was marked with a pronounced mole. Alice stood to his left. Her dark hair matched her equally dark eyes, and her long thin nose came to a sudden curve at the end. Standing in front of the altar, they would have made a striking pair, but their families cared far more about what the union represented; they were about to witness a financial merger sanctified by God.

The minister asked Alice and Ferdinando if they would “forsake all others,” to which they both responded, “I will.” Sir John then gave his consent to the union, and Alice and Ferdinando proceeded with their vows. Ferdinando slipped a band on Alice’s left ring finger, an act that would change both their lives. There would have been prayers and perhaps a service as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer, the state-sanctioned prayer book of the Protestant Church in England, or a short sermon offered by the minister. The conclusion of the ceremony meant the beginning of the revelry. Alice and Ferdinando embarked on their life together with an elaborate feast, musicians, theatrics, and dancing, as friends and family toasted to the happy couple. Though Alice and Ferdinando were at the center of the jubilation, the party was also for the Stanley and Spencer families, as both sides believed they had a chance at a prosperous future together.

The Earl of Leicester served as witness to “the match he made betwixt a mere knight’s daughter and the noble Earl of Derby’s son and heir.”13 The problem was, he had neglected to get approval for the marriage from the queen, who had the right to vet all marriages in noble families and was notoriously prickly about any conversation pertaining to the line of succession. Fortunately for Alice and her parents, the queen’s displeasure was directed at Leicester and she ultimately approved the union between Ferdinando and Alice. She eventually forgave Leicester and accepted Alice into her nobility.

From the moment Alice took her vows, she was no longer just the youngest daughter of a “mere knight”; her new family ruled a kingdom of their own, and the expectations for her were high. The marriages of her brother and sisters had been stepping-stones along a path that led away from the sheep farm of Althorp and into the estates of Knowsley Hall and Lathom Hall, the Stanley ancestral homes. Alice would no longer be called Spencer but instead Lady Strange. Still, her new title would not erase her commitment to her family. If anything, her new name and title could open doors for those around her and indeed were expected to. Any children from her union would be born into the earldom of Derby, and royal blood would flow through their veins.

About The Author

Brad Buckman Photography, Burbank CA

Vanessa Wilkie is the William A. Moffett Senior Curator of Medieval Manuscripts and British History at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. She has a PhD in British history and gender history and an MA in public history from the University of California, Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles. A Woman of Influence is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 22, 2023)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982154288

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“Diligent archival research reveals a unique, independent Elizabethan woman.” —Kirkus

“An engrossing, fast-paced, extremely well-researched biography…Views on the role of Tudor women are challenged in this devourable text, perfect for readers of biography, history, women’s history, and anyone interested in the ancestors of Princess Diana.” —Booklist

“A Woman of Influence tells the spectacular, unlikely life story of Alice Spencer, who rose from a family of sixteenth-century sheep farmers to wield riches and power as the Countess of Derby. In this triumphant book, Vanessa Wilkie has carefully pieced together the true tales of a remarkable woman who outlasted two husbands, accusations of treason, a family sex scandal, countless lawsuits, and three monarchs—enjoying brushes with Shakespeare and inspiring the pens of Spenser and Milton along the way. It’s a thrilling history of an imitable woman by a brilliant new voice.” —Devoney Looser, Author of Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes

“Alice Spencer has long defied biographers, but no more. In a brilliantly researched, fast-paced narrative, Vanessa Wilkie uncovers the tumultuous life of an extraordinary woman who rose from humble origins to catapult herself and her family into the highest ranks of English society. A literary connoisseur and John Milton’s first patron, she was as astute in defining taste and fashion as in managing men and weathering the storms of dynastic politics, litigation and scandal. A must-read for anyone interested in early modern England and the ancestry of Princess Diana.” —John Guy and Julia Fox, co-authors of the forthcoming Hunting the Falcon: King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

“An immersive account of one woman’s singular and shrewd navigation of a system that was fundamentally not designed for her. A Woman of Influence is both impeccably detailed and acutely analyzed through the lens of contemporary gender politics.” —Koa Beck, author of White Feminist

“This riveting tale reads more like a legal thriller than historical nonfiction. In a lifetime spanning the rule of three monarchs, Alice Spencer confronts a series of almost unbelievable events, ranging from tense courtroom drama to stories of dark sexual deeds. Her independence and deftness in navigating courtly life reveal her inner strength.” —Beth Morrison, coauthor of the Tales of the Lawless Land series

“Historian Vanessa Wilkie introduces readers to Princess Diana’s forbear, the remarkable Alice Spencer, and uses her storytelling skills to bring litigious, savvy Alice to life. In a dangerous, patriarchal world that was, at best, indifferent to women, and often openly hostile to them, Alice brilliantly wielded the power of her station and her sex. Highly recommended to any history lover who appreciates fine scholarship delivered with engaging style.” —Deborah Harkness, historian and author of the All Souls series

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