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William Spencer

Life                                1666 - 1705
Matriculation year     1685
Place connected          Virginia, North America

Born in Virginia, William was sent to England to be educated: first at a school in Bedfordshire, and then at Christ's, where he matriculated in 1685. He later served as an M.P. for Bedfordshire between 1698 and 1705, prior to his death.

Connection to enslavement

William Spencer was the son of Nicholas Spencer, who emigrated to Westmoreland, Virginia in the 1650s. Nicholas was the Secretary of State for Virginia from 1679 until his death a decade later, and was Acting Governor of the colony in 1683-1684.¹ ²


Nicholas worked as an agent for his landholding cousin John Colepeper (titled 'first Lord Colepeper', sometimes rendered as 'Culpeper') who had inherited a share in the Virginia Company from his father.² ³ John Colepeper had also become a one seventh proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, a plot of five million acres granted by Charles II while in exile in 1649.⁴


Nicholas himself also owned land in Virginia: in 1674, he acquired the title to 5,000 acres of land jointly with John Washington, another emigrant, who had arrived in Virginia in 1656-1657 (and was the great-grandfather of George Washington, the first President of the USA). In 1690, the land was divided equally between their heirs, with 'Madame Spencer' (presumably Nicholas' wife, Frances) acquiring 2,500 acres.⁵ John Washington also testified that Richard Cole (who died in 1674) had bequeathed 'his whole estate' to Nicholas.⁶


Nicholas supported the use of enslaved African people on Virginian plantations: in 1683, he argued 'the low price of Tobacco' grown elsewhere 'requires it [i.e., tobacco grown in Virginia] should bee made as cheap as possible, and that Blacks can make it cheaper than Whites'.⁷ This was no hypothetical: Nicholas himself used enslaved African labourers in Westmoreland County.⁸

In October 1687, the Governor of Virginia recorded that Nicholas Spencer claimed to have uncovered a plot amongst enslaved people in the Northern Neck. Allegedly, they had conspired for 'the Distroying and killing' of their owners, 'with a designe of Carrying it through the whole Collony'.⁹

In response, the Governor's Council recorded its regret at the 'great freedome and Liberty' afforded by many slave-owners, who had apparently allowed enslaved people 'to meete in greate Numbers' for funerals.⁹ ¹⁰ This, the Council asserted, gave them opportunities 'to Consult and advise for the Carrying on of the Evill & wicked purposes'.⁹ A special commission - of which Nicholas was a member - was impanelled, to try the alleged conspirators swiftly, in the hope that it would 'deterr other Negroes from plotting or Contriveing either the Death wrongs or Injuries' of the colony's white population.⁹ ¹⁰


In Nicholas' will, proved in 1699, he left various properties in Bedforshire, Huntingdonshire, and Essex to William. He divided his estate in Virginia - including 'household goods', livestock, 'English servants, negro slaves, tobacco and grains of all sort' - amongst his wife and other three sons.¹¹


Overall, although it appears that William did not own any enslaved people, it is clear that his father owned land in Virginia, owned enslaved people there, and supported the practice of enslavement while in government. William matriculated at Christ's in 1684, less than five years before his father died: it is therefore likely that the wealth financing his education was derived at least in part from enslavement.

Click here to read more about the 'Westmoreland Slave Plot' and its significance in shaping planters' attitudes towards enslaved people in Virginia [in the Encyclopedia Virginia]

¹ Venn, J.A., ed. (1927) "Spencer, William". Alumni Cantabrigienses (Part 1). Vol.4, Cambridge University Press - via Internet Archive. ² Hayton. D. W., 'Spencer, William (aft.1663-1705), of Cople, Beds.' published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, edited by D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, and S. Handley (Martlesham, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2002). [accessed 3rd August 2022]. ³ Harrison, Fairfax, 'The Proprietors of the Northern Neck: Chapters of Culpeper Genealogy', The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 33:3 (1925), 223-267, at p. 239. ⁴ Harrison, Fairfax, 'A Key Chart of the Pedigree of the Wigsell Culpepers to illustrate their relations with Virginia' in 'The Proprietors of the Northern Neck. Chapters of Culpeper Genealogy', The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 33:2 (1925), 113-153. ⁵ Wall, Charles C., 'Notes on the Early History of Mount Vernon', The William and Mary Quarterly, 2:2 (1945), 173-190, at p. 174-175. ⁶ Tyler, Lyon G., 'Washington and his Neighbours', The William and Mary Quarterly, 4:1 (1895), 28-43, at p. 32. ⁷ 'Colonel [Nicholas] Spencer to BT, [Sept. 20, 1683]. CO 5/1356. 138, Virginia Colonial Records Project' cited in Parent, Anthony S. Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 60. ⁸ Parent, Anthony S. Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 69. ⁹ McIlwaine, H. R., ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, Vol. 1 (Richmond: The Virginia State Library, 1925), p. 86–87. ¹⁰ Rucker, Walter, 'Westmoreland Slave Plot (1687)', 2020, [accessed 14th August 2022]. ¹¹ Waters, H. F., 'Genealogical Gleanings In England.: Hollis. An Elegie Upon The Death Of Mr. Tho: Washington The Princes Page Who Dyed In Spayne 1623', The New-England Historical and Genealogical Register, 45:1 (1891), 51-71, at p. 67-68.

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