Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spencer, John (d.1610)

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SPENCER, Sir JOHN (d. 1610), lord mayor of London, was the son of Richard Spencer of Waldingfield in Suffolk. He came to London, and was so successful as a merchant that he became known as ‘Rich Spencer.’ His trade with Spain, Turkey, and Venice was very large (State Papers, Spanish, 1568–79 p. 590, Dom. 1591–4 p. 59), and he was accused in 1591 of engrossing, with two other merchants, the whole trade with Tripoli (ib. p. 67). This lends some justification for the charge made in a little book ‘written by D. Papillon, Gent,’ that Spencer became by the practice of merchandise ‘extraordinary rich, but it was by falsifying and monopolising of all manner of commodities’ (Vanity of the Lives and Passions of Men, 1651, p. 48). The same writer relates the story of a plot by a pirate of Dunkirk, with twelve of his crew, to carry off Spencer and hold him to ransom for over 50,000l. Leaving his shallop with six of his men in Barking Creek, he came with the other six to Islington, intending to seize the merchant on his way to his country house at Canonbury, which Spencer had purchased of Thomas, lord Wentworth, in 1570. The plot was frustrated by Spencer's detention that night on important business in the city. Queen Elizabeth is said to have visited him at Canonbury in 1581 (Nichols, Hist. of Canonbury House, 1788, p. 12).

Spencer was a member of the Clothworkers' Company, and was elected alderman of Langbourn ward on 9 Aug. 1587. He served the office of sheriff in 1583–4, and that of lord mayor in 1594–5. During his shrievalty he was engaged in hunting down papists in Holborn and the adjoining localities, and had to justify before the council the committal of A. Bassano and other of her majesty's musicians (State Papers, Dom. 1581–90, pp. 198, 202). On entering upon his mayoralty at the close of 1594 great scarcity prevailed, and Spencer sent his precept to the city companies to replenish their store of corn at the granaries in the Bridge House for sale to the poor. He stoutly resisted a demand by Admiral Sir John Hawkins for possession of the Bridge House for the use of the queen's navy and baking biscuits for the fleet (Welch, Hist. of the Tower Bridge, p. 99).

He kept his mayoralty at his town residence in Bishopsgate Street, the well-known Crosby Place, which he had purchased in a dilapidated state from the representatives of Antonio Bonvisi, and restored at great cost. In this sumptuous mansion during the course of 1604 Spencer entertained both the Duc de Sully (then M. de Rosny), while ambassador to England, and the youngest son of the Prince of Orange, with Barnevelt and Fulke, who came on a mission from Holland (Stow, Survey of London, 1755, i. 435). Towards the close of his mayoralty he boldly asserted the city's right, which it was feared the crown would invade, to freely elect a recorder. Before the close of his mayoralty Spencer received the honour of knighthood.

By his wife, Alice Bromfield, Spencer had an only child, Elizabeth, who in 1598 was sought in marriage by William, second lord Compton (afterwards first Earl of Northampton). Spencer strongly disapproved of the match, but Compton's influence at court enabled him to procure Spencer's imprisonment in the Fleet in March 1599 for ill-treating his daughter (State Papers, Dom. 1598–1601, p. 169). The young lady was ultimately carried off by her lover from Canonbury House in a baker's basket. The marriage quickly followed, but the alderman naturally declined to give his daughter a marriage portion. When, in May 1601, his daughter became a mother, he showed no signs of relenting (ib. 1601–3, p. 45). But some reconciliation apparently took place soon afterwards, it is said, through the interposition of Elizabeth. In May 1609 Spencer refused to contribute to an aid for James I on behalf of the young Prince Henry (ib. 1603–10, p. 508); he also delayed his contribution of 200l. to the amount subscribed by the Clothworkers' Company to the Ulster settlement, which had to be paid by his executors (Remembrancia, p. 172). Spencer was president of St. Bartholomew's Hospital from 1603 to his death.

He died, at an advanced age, on 3 March 1609–10, and his widow only survived him till 27 March. He was buried on 22 March, and Dame Alice on 7 April, in his parish church of St. Helen, Bishopsgate, where a fine monument exists to his memory. His funeral was on a most sumptuous scale (Winwood, State Papers, iii. 136). His fortune was variously estimated at from 500,000l. to 800,000l., and the splendid inheritance is said for the time to have turned the brain of his son-in-law, Lord Compton. Among other estates, he was possessed of the manors of Brooke Hall, Bower Hall, and Bocking, which he obtained from the queen on 1 Aug. 1599. True to the last to his parsimonious principles, Spencer left none of his immense wealth to objects of public benevolence or utility.

[Nichols's Progresses of James I, 1828, i. pp. 159–60; Remembrancia, pp. 172–3; Cox's Annals of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, passim; Collectanea Topographica et Gen. v. 51; Nichols's Canonbury House, 1788, pp. 12–26; Doyle's Official Baronage, ii. 623–4; Metcalfe's Book of Knights; Sharpe's London and the Kingdom, passim; City Records.]

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