Recorded in several forms including Spence, Spencer, the rare patronymic Spencers, and the aphetic Spender and Sponder, this is an English surname but one of French origins. It is perhaps surprisingly occupational and originally described a despencier or despendour, a man who was in charge of purchasing and distribution of all food and provisions within a royal or noble household or a monastery. This was a position of great importance, and usually only lesser in status to the Steward. The derivation is from the Old French pre 8th century word despense, meaning to weigh, and the word was probably introduced into England by the Norman French after the Conquest of 1066.The spelling of the surname has always been with the transposed 'c' rather than the 's' as in 'despense'. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the glutton in 'The Summer's Tale' is described as "All vinolent as botel in the spence". The four main officers of a noble household were the Steward, who was responsible for administration, Despencer for provisions, the Marshal for the horses, and the Butler, for household staffing. Since the Middle Ages there has hardly been a time in English history when a Spencer did not hold a major position in the state. The most prominent was the (late) Princess of Wales, formerly Lady Diana Spencer. Her family, the Spencers of Althorp in Northamptonshire, claim descent from Robert, who was 'despenser' to William the Conqueror, in 1066. Early examples of the surname recording include Henry le Despender in the Curia Regis Rolls of Warwick, in the year 1214, whilst the most famous of the early name holders was Sir Hugh le Despencer (1256-1326), who fought at the Battle of Falkirk in 1308, and whose son took part in the Siege of Calais in 1345. Throughout the centuries, surnames in every country have continued to "develop" often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling.
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