Nicholas Spencer was born to an aristocratic English
family long seated at Cople, Bedfordshire, England The family was
related to the Spencer family of Northamptonshire, with whom they shared
a coat of arms.In 1531 the Spencers bought the manor of
Rowlands at Cople, which they owned for several centuries.
Nicholas Spencer Sr., father of the Virginia emigrant, and his wife, the
former Mary Gostwick, second daughter of Sir Edward Gostwick had
several sons, of these William inherited the family estates but died
childless after making his heir his nephew, also William, son of his
next-brother Nicholas who had moved to Virginia.Another brother, Robert
Spencer later removed from Surry County, Virginia, to Talbot County,
Maryland, where his descendants long lived at Spencer Hall, the family
plantation. Nicholas Spencer moved from London to
Westmoreland County, Virginia, in the 1650s, where he served as agent
for his cousin John Colepeper, 1st Baron Colepeper. Colepeper had
inherited his father's share of ownership in the Virginia Company in
1617, and was subsequently knighted and afterwards raised to the
peerage. He became the one-seventh proprietor of the Northern Neck of
Virginia under the charter of 1649. Colepeper never lived in the
colonies, and his son Thomas Culpeper, 2nd Baron Culpeper of Thoresway,
who lived at Leeds Castle, did not arrive in Virginia until 1680. In the
meantime Nicholas Spencer had come to Virginia to help oversee his
cousin John's investment.
On his arrival in the colony, Spencer secured an
appointment as a customs collector, in addition to his post as the
administrator of his cousin's Virginia estates. (Spencer's job as agent
for his Colepeper cousins included such prosaic tasks as seizing 'winter
beaver skins' or casks of tobacco for debts owed the Colepeper
interests). Spencer and John Washington jointly held the post of customs
collector on the Potomac. (After Washington's death in 1679, Spencer was
sole customs collector on the Potomac.) He also won his own land grant.
But Spencer was, unlikely as it sounds, apparently an efficient
administrator on his own, later being appointed to additional posts in
Virginia by virtue of his abilities.
Spencer was apparently a pragmatic administrator. He was
also a hard-nosed capitalist. When it came to slavery, for instance,
Spencer weighed the benefits of enslaved labor in a strictly
cost-benefit way. "The low price of Tobacco," Spencer wrote, "requires
it should bee made as cheap as possible, and that Blacks can make it
cheaper than Whites." Spencer's rationale for slavery was probably as
succinctly heartless as any committed to paper. Spencer's role as an
aristocratic bureaucrat in the new colony was a tricky one. He was
navigating the shoals of dilemmas which have perplexed a nation for
centuries. While simultaneously attempting to rationalize slavery,
Spencer was also writing to the Privy Council in England about the
Virginia Colony's precarious place on the edge of Catholic Maryland.
"Unruly and unorderly spirits lay hold of ye motion of affairs," Spencer
wrote, "and that under the pretext of Religion, soe as from those false
glasses to pretend to betake themselves to Arms... from the groundless
Imaginacon (sic) that the few Papists in Maryland and Virginia had
conspired to hyre the Seneca Indians, to ye Cutting off, and totall
distroying of all ye Protestants." At the same time, the forces that
were propelling the Virginia Colony into the forefront of American
economic and social might – primarily the raising of tobacco based on
slavery – were simultaneously making Spencer's administrative role
tricky. The Virginia colony of the era was, as the eminent colonial
historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote, "the volatile society." There were
popular uprisings such as Bacon's Rebellion, as well as the tobacco
plant-cutting riots. A communication to the Crown in 1674 noted that his
opposition to the Bacon Rebellion, for instance, had taken a toll on
Spencer's estates. Having done the country "very good service against
the Rebells, in that hee affected part of the Country where he resided,
and as wee are credibly informed, by his Correspondence here is much
Impaired in his Estate by the late Rebells." In 1682 Spencer wrote to
London in the wake of the events roiling Virginia. "Bacon's Rebellion,"
Spencer told colonial overseers in London, "had left an itching behind
it. It was "plaine" that the class tensions stirred by the Rebellion had
lingered, with a "mutinous mob" subsequently engaged in "wild and
extravagant" rioting, going from farm to farm, tearing tobacco plants
out by their roots. The Virginia government reacted harshly with militia
patrols and the promise of steep fines. The "frenzy," according to
Spencer, destroyed crops on over 200 plantations, and was driven by a
glutted tobacco market which had depressed prices. Even the wives,
Spencer wrote, took up hoes laid down by their husbands and continued to
rip out the plants. Such civil disobedience, Nicholas Spencer saw, was
the price paid by colonial administrators acting the foil for the
empire's merchants back home. For an aristocratic Englishman
accustomed to centuries-old protocol, the mix must have been dizzying.
One can almost sense Spencer's wish for some good old-fashioned English
authority when, taken with symptoms of illness, he wrote to his brother
in England outlining his pains, asking him to consult an English doctor
and send him the diagnosis as quickly as possible. Nor was Spencer's
role as his Colepeper cousins' agent an easy job. As landlords of an
almost-feudal domain eventually encompassing over five million acres
(20,000 km²) in the new colony, the Colepeper Northern Neck grant,
eventually passed on to their Fairfax heirs, came to be seen by some
colonists as an onerous reminder of English aristocratic privilege. In
Colepeper's absence, it fell to their relation Spencer to do the
heavy-lifting of collecting rents and taxes on the Colepeper barony.
In the meantime, Spencer married Frances, the daughter
of Col. John Mottrom of Coan Hall of Northumberland County, Virginia.
Mottrom was likely the first white settler of the Northern Neck in the
early seventeenth century. He later served as the first Burgess for
Northumberland in 1645, and presided over the county court for four
years. Mottrom's daughter and her husband Nicholas Spencer named one of
their sons, Mottrom, after John Mottrom. Another Spencer son, William,
returned to England for schooling and remained there, serving as a Whig
Member of Parliament for Bedfordshire. William Spencer, the son of the
Virginia emigrant Nicholas, married Lady Catherine Wentworth, daughter
of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Cleveland. (Following the early death
of William, his brother Nicholas Jr. returned to England to succeed to
the family estates.) Nicholas Spencer was prominent in the affairs of
the Virginia colony, residing at his plantation on Nomini Creek.
Westmoreland County's Cople Parish, the Anglican parish which embraced
half the county, was renamed in 1668 to honor Spencer and his English
birthplace at Cople. The Spencer family were connected to the Washington
family in England, and later in Virginia. Col. Spencer patented the
5,000-acre (20 km2) land grant at Mount Vernon with his friend Lt. Col.
John Washington in 1674, with Spencer acting as the go-between in the
sale. The successful patent on the acreage was due largely to Spencer,
who acted as agent for his cousin Thomas Colepeper, 2nd Baron Colepeper,
who controlled the Northern Neck of Virginia, in which the tract lay.
John Washington died in 1677, his son Lawrence, George Washington's
grandfather, inherited his father's stake in the Mount Vernon property.
(Following Col. Nicholas Spencer's death, the Washingtons and the
Spencers divided the land grant, with the Spencer heirs taking the
larger southern half of the Mount Vernon grant bordering Dogue Creek,
and the Washingtons the portion along Little Hunting Creek. The Spencer
heirs paid Lawrence Washington 2,500 pounds of tobacco as compensation
for their choice.) Later the Washingtons bought out the Spencer interest
at Mount Vernon. Aside from acting as agent for the Colepeper interests,
Spencer was frequently involved in Virginia Colony business, and he
often corresponded with English administrators in London, as well as
family members in Bedfordshire and elsewhere. When his cousin Thomas
Colepeper departed Virginia in 1683, Spencer was named Acting Governor,
in which capacity he served for nine months until the April 1684 arrival
of Francis Howard, 5th Baron Howard of Effingham. Because of the early
deaths of his brothers, Spencer was the only surviving son of his father
Nicholas, and so inherited extensive family estates in Bedfordshire and
Huntingdonshire. Spencer also was left land by other early prominent
settlers in Westmoreland County. In a deposition of 1674 by Lt. Col.
John Washington, for instance, who was related to the Pope family of
Pope's Creek, Washington testified that in his will of June 24, 1674,
Washington's kinsman Richard Cole had left all his Virginia lands to
Nicholas Spencer. Washington "declareth that hee hath heard Mr. Richard
Cole Deceased declare that hee had made a will, and given his whole
estate to younge Mr. Nicholas Spencer and further saith not." The
controversial Richard Cole had also specified that his body be buried on
his plantation in a black walnut coffin with a gravestone of English
black marble (to be imported for the purpose) and a tombstone whose
epitaph read: "Heere lies Dick Cole a grievous Sinner, That died a
Little before Dinner, Yet hopes in Heaven to find a place, To Satiate
his Soul with Grace."
Nicholas Spencer died in Virginia in 1688. In his will
in April of 1688, Spencer styled himself "of Nominy in Westmoreland Co.
in Virginia." Nicholas Spencer left five sons: William, Mottrom,
Nicholas Jr., John, and Francis (to whom his father left Mount Vernon).
Spencer probably had at least one daughter, to whom Mottrom Spencer
referred to in his will as "my sister Mrs. Lettice Barnard." In his
will, filed with the English courts at Canterbury, Col. Spencer named
his "singular good friends Coll. Isaac Allerton of Matchotick, Capt.
George Brent of Stafford Co. (former Governor of Maryland), and Capt.
Lawrence Washington" to serve as trustees of his estates. Capt.
Washington, named by Spencer as a trustee, was the younger brother of
Lt. Col. John Washington and was born in 1635. He and the other trustees
named by Col. Spencer in his will received forty shillings for mourning
rings. Following Nicholas Spencer's death, the family's 6,000-acre (24
km2) plantation at Nomini in Westmoreland was sold. In 1709 Robert
Carter purchased the Spencer property from the heirs of Col. Spencer for
£800 sterling, marking the end of the Spencer family's residence in
Westmoreland, and delineating the future site of Nomini Hall, the Carter
family seat in Westmoreland occupying the former Spencer estate. The
English branch of the family continued to live in Bedfordshire, where
members of the family served in Parliament and were large landowners.
The Spencer family continued to hold its land at Cople, Bedfordshire,
until the nineteenth century. "The Spencers’ Cople estates," according
to the Bedfordshire County Council, "were bought by Francis Brace for
the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, and the manor still was known as
Rowlands when part of the Duke of Bedford’s estate at the start of the
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