Monday, July 25, 2016

Name This Lovely English Lady

by Debra Brown

by John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925)

If you read the caption on the above picture, you may have been surprised. The date of this (I assume) charcoal sketch is 1917, so no, it is not the lovely Diana, Princess of Wales. I'm sure many readers do know that this is Lady Cynthia Elinor Beatrix Hamilton, daughter of Sir James Albert Edward Hamilton, 3rd Duke of Abercorn and Lady Rosaline Cecilia Caroline Bingham, born in Londonderry, Ireland, Diana's paternal grandmother. Notable ancestors include Robert I of Scotland, Charlemagne, William I of England, Hugh Capet, Henry II of England, Alfred the Great, Rurik, and Willam van Oranje. She descended from the 4th Earl of Lucan and the 5th Duke of Richmond. She was a six-times great-granddaughter of Charles II (wrong side of the blanket) and was ardently courted by the Prince of Wales, who later married Wallis Simpson. One could have fun writing alternate history with her having married him!

Above, Lady Cynthia is pictured two years before her wedding to John Spencer, 7th Earl Spencer on February 26, 1919, at St. James' in Picadilly, London. She became Viscountess Althorp, later Countess Spencer on September 22, 1922.

Ken Cuthbertson says, "Through the marriage of Princess Diana’s grandparents, John the 7th Earl Spencer and Lady Cynthia Hamilton, the Spencer family enjoys a uniquely comprehensive range of descents from the royal house of Stewart/Stuart that ruled in Scotland from the late 14th century and in all of Britain from 1603 to 1714. And in fact, if they had been legitimate lines of descent, several of the ancestors in the Spencer-Hamilton lineage would have been senior in the line of succession to the Hanover/Windsor family... Cynthia Hamilton’s sixteenth century ancestor, the Duc de Chatelherault, was the closest legitimate heir to the Scottish crown during the lifetime of Mary Queen of Scots. And it is also worth noting that Lady Cynthia’s more remote ancestors included several illegitimate offspring of earlier Stewarts such as King James IV... The Spencer-Hamilton lineage includes at least two of Charles II’s progeny. The Hamilton ancestors include two different lines of descent from Charles, 1st Duke of Richmond and Lennox, the son of Charles II and Louise de Keroualle... The historical and genealogical significance of these several lines going back to James VII/II and Charles II is great. For not only will Prince William someday be the first King, ever, descended from Charles II; he will also be the first descendant of Charles I to reign over Britain since 1714. The Hanoverians descended from James VI/I by quite a different route... Except for William IV, William [Duke of Cambridge,] is descended from every monarch of England and Scotland with known (and acknowledged) living descendants."

Despite their grand pedigrees, finances for the Spencers were tight by the 1950s. Cynthia's "fierce" husband, unlike many aristocrats, did not open his house to the public. Rather he was fastidiously thrifty. He washed the china by hand, dusted the library himself, and made needlepoint seat covers for chairs. The Countess drove an old beat up Morris, and in it she was known for her compassionate visits to the needy. Young Diana saw her as divinely kind, and this no doubt helped to fashion the Princess of Wales, later known for her compassion and loved as 'the people's princess'.

Lady Spencer had two children, Lady Anne (Spencer) Wake-Walker and John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, Diana's father. She was appointed a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Consort Elizabeth, her close friend, in 1937, and remained such until her death. On 4 June 1943 she was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) and on 1 June 1953, a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (DCVO). She was, however, little known until her granddaughter married the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

Diana, Princess of Wales
Public Domain

In other pictures, the two women look less alike, though still obviously related. Here the Countess is seen wearing the Spencer family's Honeysuckle tiara. Lady Cynthia Spencer had received as a gift the gold and diamond Spencer tiara worn by Diana at her wedding and other formal events.

Lady Cynthia Spencer, Countess Spencer died at the Spencer’s ancestral home, Althorp, of a brain tumour, aged 75, and was buried in the Spencer Family Vault, St Mary the Virgin with St John Churchyard, Great Brington, Northamptonshire, England.

Photograph courtesy of Dave Dunford
Geograph Project

Brown, Tina; The Diana Chronicles, Anchor 2008
Bradford, Sarah; Diana, Viking 2006


Debra Brown in Oregon, USA, is the founder of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, and co-editor of Volumes 1 and 2 of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. 

I am very proud of this blog and cannot adequately praise the many authors who have spent countless hours writing and posting herein. The blog is now in the hands of a team of editors, myself, Annie Whitehead, Char Newcomb, and Cryssa Bazos. Without this team, it would be impossible to maintain the quality of the blog. Great thanks to this fine group.

And to the 1,000,000+ readers who have been with us at one time or another for the last five years, thank you! I hope you will enjoy the past for a long time to come.


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