A Rose by any Other Name: Despenser or de Spencer?

DSC00204_1One thing I’ve noticed when doing research into Hugh Despenser is that other authors don’t seem to be sure how to write the surname. I have seen it as Despenser (the way I write it), Despencer, de Spenser or de Spencer. Of course, when it comes to names in the medieval period, there was often no fixed spelling (and not just for names either), so you might think the point is rather moot. However, when it comes to the Despenser family, there are some variants that definitely were not seen in contemporary manuscripts. So, here are a few pointers on how Despenser should be written today to be the closest version to the original.

Le Despenser: We’ll start with the best option first. You’ll note this has a ‘le’ (the) in front and while this was almost always used in the original records, it has been dropped in modern history books (probably because it sounds so clunky).This (and a similar version le Despensere) is the option most seen in records originating from Hugh’s lifetime. In origin, it is not so much a name as a title (a bit like Marshal). A despenser was, basically, a steward of the household – the man responsible for the smooth running of everyday life. A look back into the Despenser ancestry shows that some of the earlier Despensers were, indeed, stewards – seemingly for the earls of Chester. Before the men of the family took on this title they appear to have the name of de Berges* (from Berges – wherever that was). So, right from the outset, the Despensers, as an ancestral line, were administrators and specialised in controlling various aspects of a lord’s household whether as steward, justiciar or, in the case of Hugh the younger, chamberlain.

Despencer: The second most common version that I see. Probably a slightly later version of the name often used in histories etc. Not 100% accurate but not that bad either.

De Spenser and de Spencer: These two are definitely not right. As I mentioned above ‘de’ usually translates to ‘of’, as in (in this case) ‘of Spenser’. As despenser was a title, separating the de and spenser gives it a totally different – and wrong – meaning. I often see this version in Victorian tomes and also from genealogists who should know better. The latter are sometimes also trying to find a link to Princess Diana (Spencer).**

* I note that Wikipedia, that delightful website of wisdom, notes that the Despensers were descended from a family with the surname of d’Abitot. The problem with the name of Despenser, is, as already noted, a title. Therefore other also adopted the surname, making the path of descent far more tricky to work out than on first glance. This has been done, however, by the good genealogical folk at Rootswen Gen-Medieval who specialise in Medieval families. They have traced it back, to de Berges and his sons, Geoffrey le Despenser (who was ancestor to Hugh’s line) and his brother Ivo d’Alspath. It’s all a bit complicated but some of the relevant posts can be found here: http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/GEN-MEDIEVAL/2001-01/0978813687. And if you want an easier representation of the family tree, I have drawn one out here.
**The attempt to link the Spencer family with the Despensers was a rather cynical ploy on behalf of the Spencer family themselves. There is no direct male line linking them (the main Despenser line died out in the 15th C with Richard le Despenser, 4th Baron Burghersh in 1414)) – but the families can be linked through various female lines. See http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/GEN-MEDIEVAL/2001-01/0978813687 for an excellent post on the subject by a renowned genealogist – and resultant comments

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