Ten – Colonel Nicholas Spencer (1633-1689)

“Ten” was a bit of a challenge for this week! I thought about writing about an ancestor who had ten children, or who was born in 1810 or 1910, but those turned out to be harder to find than I thought. So, instead, this post will focus on a different ten: my tenth great grandfather, Nicholas Spencer (1633-1689). Nicholas is one of my favorite ancestors, and consequently, one of my most interesting ancestors. He is what genealogists call a gateway ancestor, which means he is my link to nobility and royalty, and much of his genealogy (though not all!) has already been done because of his family’s status. However, I have made sure to conduct my own research to verify the connections because mistakes can be made and with digitization, new sources have arisen. Nicholas is descended from English kings and Magna Carta Barons, but when I was initially researching this part of my family, I was surprised to see that he is not listed on some of genealogy societies’ gateway ancestors lists. I double and triple checked my research, but it wasn’t until I began to really research the lives of his siblings and all of his children, not just my direct line, that I began to understand why. I will come back to this point at the end of the post, but the reason is actually quite heartbreaking from a family standpoint.











Nicholas Spencer was born into a distinguished Bedfordshire family, whose seat was located Rowlands Manor in Cople. Nicholas’s father’s side of the family had some ties to nobility, but they were a bit farther back in the past. Nicholas’s great grandmother was Rose Cokayne, and her 3x great grandmother was Ida de Grey, an English noblewoman and daughter of Sir Reginald Grey, 2nd Baron Grey. Ida’s husband, Sir John Cokayne, bought 1,500 acres of land in Bedfordshire, and their family still inhabited those lands in the 17th century when Rose was alive. Nicholas’s 4th great grandmother was Anne Launcelyn Luke, the nurse to King Henry VIII who received a pension for her services.

Nicholas was also descended from prosperous merchants and tradesmen from humbler circumstances with no ties to nobility. Nicholas’s grandmother, Mary Elmes, was born at Lilford, Northamptonshire on her father’s large estate. The Elmes family made their fortune through the wool trade in England and Calais. Mary’s 5x great grandfather was William Browne, who at one time was the wealthiest merchant in England.

Nicholas’s mother, Lady Mary Armiger, came from an aristocratic family. Her father, Sir Edward Gostwick, was a baronet and a descendant of Owen Tudor, both Catherine and Anne Woodville (sisters of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England), the Dukes of Buckingham, and King Edward III. Lady Mary’s mother, Dame Anne (Wentworth) Gostwick, was also a descendant of Edward III through her grandmother Lady Anne Seymour, the daughter of the Duke of Somerset and niece of Queen Jane Seymour.

Early Life

Nicholas was the second oldest child of Nicholas and Mary (Gostwick) Spencer. He was baptized on 19 September 1633 at the All Saints Church in Cople, where his ancestors had been baptized and buried for centuries. Three additional siblings – Robert, Mary, and Edward – followed before their father, Nicholas, died in 1643. In his will, Nicholas Sr. left all his land and houses to his oldest son and heir, William. To his three younger sons, he left 500 pounds each. He also instructed Nicholas Jr. to attend university, but I have not found that he attended either Cambridge or Oxford. After Nicholas Sr.’s death, his widow, Mary, was left with five children under the age of 11, so soon after, she married Sir Clement Armiger, with whom she had at least two children.

Immigrating to Colonial Virginia

John Colepeper, Baron Colepeper

By the 1650s, Nicholas was living in London, where it appears he was working as a merchant. At some point, he became acquainted with John Colepeper, 1st Baron Colepeper and was engaged to served as Colepeper’s land agent in Virginia.

The first mention of Nicholas Spencer in records in the colonies is on 2 May 1659 in Cecil County, Maryland when he and his future brother-in-law Richard Wright purchase 1000 acres. Richard was married to Ann Mottrom, the older sister of Nicholas’s future wife, Frances. In September of the same year, Nicholas was given power of attorney in Westmoreland County, Virginia. In this document, he was named as Nicholas Spencer, merchant, of London. Although he had been in the colonies as early as May, this probably signified that he had lately left London.


In Virginia records when referencing his work for the Colepepers, he was identified as an “attorney” or agent legally able to act for another. This means he likely had some sort of higher education, but he was not a barrister. Nicholas was in charge of anything and everything to do with Colepeper’s over 5 million acres in the Northern Neck. Here is an example of Nicholas working on the behalf of John Colepeper’s son, Thomas, in November 1684:

“Statement of Nicholas Spencer, atty of Hon Thos Lord Colepeper, in regard to indebtedness of one John King, to him, “in the sum of 128 pounds best winter beaver, killed in Season.”

Other than serving as the Colepeper’s agent, Nicholas also became involved in colonial politics. He served in the following capacities:

Customs collector, both alone and with John Washington

Member of the House of Burgesses, 1666-1676

Member of the Committee of the Association of the Northern Neck, 1667

Member of the Governor’s Council, 1671

Commissioner for employing friendly Native Americans to help fight against hostile Native Americans, 1675-6

Secretary of State, 1678- 23 September 1689, his death

President of the Council of the Virginia Colony

Acting Governor, 1683-84

Land Purchases, Bacon’s Rebellion, and the Tobacco Cutting Riots

George Washington’s map of Mount Vernon. The Spencer property was next to Dogue Creek, the property identified as Union Farm on the map.

Nicholas Spencer was good friends with Lt. Col. John Washington, a fellow planter, emigrant from England, and members of the House of Burgesses. Nicholas and John were about the same age, from similar backgrounds, and were both seeking to make their fortunes in the colonies. In 1674, they jointly patented 5,000 acres in the Northern Neck by transporting 100 people to Virginia. The sale was successful due to Nicholas, as the tract lay within the Colepeper property. The land was situated between Dogue Run and Little Hunting Creek. They owned the land jointly until 1690, when it was split equally by “Madame” Frances Spencer, his widow, and John Washington’s son, Lawrence. Nicholas’s grandson William, inherited the Spencer-Washington land, and in 1739, the Washingtons bought him out. The original Spencer-Washington property became Mount Vernon, owned by President George Washington.

Soon after Nicholas purchased the tract in the Northern Neck, Bacon’s Rebellion broke out in 1676. The rebellion was led by Nathaniel Bacon, who was angry about Governor William Berkeley’s inability to help protect settlers from attacks by Native Americans. Over 1000 people from all classes and races joined the rebellion, burning crops and Jamestown itself. Although the rebellion was suppressed rather quickly, it impacted the course of colonial politics. The ruling class, of which Nicholas Spencer was a part, became nervous seeing white indentured servants and African slaves banding together for a united cause. A result of this was the creation of the Virginia Slave Code, which greatly restricted activities between slaves and free people in Virginia. The House of Burgesses also passed laws that limited the power of the governor and restored voting rights to landless white me.

Nicholas was serving as a Burgess at the time and was a member of the Governor’s council. He supported the Governor rather than Bacon, and after the rebellion ended, he reported his grievances to Samuel Wiseman, King Charles II’s scribe assigned to the case.

“Col. Nicholas Spencer, an honest active worthy Gentleman, who did 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.”

Thomas Colepeper, 2nd Baron Colepeper

Bacon’s Rebellion created an unease throughout the colony, and six years later, when Nicholas was serving as Secretary of State, new riots began. Weak willed Governor Thomas Colepeper fled the colony in fear and left Nicholas to handle the rebellion. The market was too saturated with tobacco, and prices were very low. To combat this, farmers raided plantations, tearing the crops from the ground. These actions, though illegal, did alleviate the situation somewhat. Nicholas sent a report of the rebellion to England, and in his letter, he wrote about the actions of women that particularly distressed his sensibilities:

“The women had so cast off their modesty as to take up the hoe that the rabble were forced to lay down.”

The mob of rioting men was apparently dispersed, and seeing this, their wives began to riot as well. Based on my research and my understanding of Nicholas, I see why he was so incensed. He had a very particular world view, and seeing women cross the gender, racial, and class boundaries in such a public manner was undoubtedly shocking.

Governor Colepeper did not return to Virginia, so in the interim, Nicholas became acting Governor. When Governor Howard arrived, Nicholas was relieved of that post, but continued as Secretary of State.

Marriage, Children, and Death

By 16 August 1663, Nicholas had married Frances Mottrom, as he is mentioned in Richard Wright’s will as his “brother.” Frances was the daughter of Colonel John Mottrom, who is often recognized as the first white settler in the Northern Neck of Virginia. He was the first to serve in the House of Burgesses from Northumberland County, Virginia. He also captained a boat that he sailed between Maryland and Virginia trading goods.

Nicholas and Frances had five documented children: William, Mottrom, Nicholas, John, and Francis. The boys were born between the years of about 1665 to 1685. It is very possible that they had more children who lived and died before Nicholas made his will in 1688. However, based on my knowledge of the inheritance of Nicholas’s family’s English estates, no other sons or daughters other than the ones listed in the will reached adulthood or had descendants of their own. The Spencers were very careful will writers, and all children, including daughters, were always provided for. There is absolutely no evidence that Nicholas and Frances had daughters unless they died as children.

I am very, very fortunate that Nicholas’s will survives. The will submitted to Westmoreland County was destroyed, along with other early wills, but a copy was also probated in England because Nicholas was by this time the only living heir of his father, Nicholas Spencer, who died in 1643. Therefore, Nicholas had to dispose of property on both sides of the Atlantic. In his will, he styled himself as “Nicholas Spencer of Nominy in Westmoreland County Virginia.” He left all of his English estates to his oldest son William, who was already living on the property in England. He gave land to his wife Frances, second son Mottrom, third son Nicholas, fourth son John, and fifth son Francis. He also gave Frances all of her jewels and clothing. He named William as his executor in England, and wife Frances and sons Nicholas and John as executors in Virginia. He died on 23 September 1689.

Nicholas Spencer’s will

English Estates and Inheritance – Nicholas’s Sons

Much of what I know about the sons’ lives revolves around their inheritance of the Spencer estates in England. William, the oldest son, was likely named for Nicholas’s older brother, William (I will call him William Sr.), the heir of all the Spencer estates in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, England. William Sr. married twice, first to Lady Katherine Wentworth and second to Elizabeth Luke. Neither marriages produced children, so William Sr. named his nephew William as his heir. As such, the younger William was sent back to England as a child where he attended English grammar school and later Christ’s College, Cambridge. When William Sr. died in 1686, his brother Nicholas (1633-1689) inherited the Spencer estates, and after his death in 1689, his son William inherited them. William unfortunately bankrupted the estates to finance his campaigns for Parliament. He did serve in Parlimanet, but when he died, he left a mess for the next heir. He was buried in Cople on 20 October 1705, and because he never married or had children, the Spencer land passed to Nicholas the younger.

Mottrom Spencer, Nicholas’s second son, did not have the chance to inherit the Spencer property as he was the first of the 5 sons to die. Mottrom, named for his mother’s maiden name, sailed for England as an adult and settled in his ancestral town of Cople. He likely married his wife, Jane, while living in England. He wrote his will in 1691, and in it named his wife, brother William Spencer, aunt Anne Armiger (probably a sister of Sir Clement his step grandfather), and his “sister” (probably sister in law) Lettice Barnard. No mention was made of his grandmother, Lady Mary Armiger or her husband, both of whom were still living. Mottrom died in England and was buried in Cople on 27 January 1696. Though married, he died childless like his brother William and uncle William.

Because Mottrom died without heirs, when William died in 1705, the property passed to the third brother, Nicholas Jr. Nicholas also left Virginia for England, likely between 15 May 1698, when Nicholas gave his power of attorney to William Allerton of Westmoreland County, and 1703, when Nicholas’s Virginia agent made a deed on his behalf. Nicholas attempted help his brother William sort out the mess he had made of the Spencer estates, and when William died, Nicholas was there to take over. Nicholas sold 6,000 acres to Robert Carter (through his agent) in August of 1707 in an attempt to rid the English estates of debt. Sadly, he died in December of 1707, without a wife and childless. I am not quite sure exactly what happened next, and it just shows that I need to do more research. The English estates were sold to the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough sometime in the early 1700s, either by Nicholas Spencer or by his younger brother John. Here is an account of the situation as related by John Spencer’s grandson (the brother of my ancestor), John Ariss, on 12 May 1780:

“an affair that was transacted between your Grandfather the Hon. Robert Carter, and Nicholas Spencer, esq., one of my great uncles, upwards of seventy years ago. Nicholas Spencer Esq. sold to your Grand Father a large tract of land whereon you now live, in order to Raise Money to Prosecute a Suit in England for an Estate his brother the Hon. William Spencer had Mortgaged when he was elected Member of Parliament for the County of Bedford, and which he fell heir to. Nicholas Spencer went home to England — my uncle Nicholas dying in a short time after he went home. My grandfather John Spencer fell Heir to his Estate.”

So, either Nicholas sold the land to the Duchess and his brother John inherited his personal property, or John inherited the English estates and sold them through an English agent to the Duchess. As of now, I am not sure which took place. I think it more likely that Nicholas sold the English estates before he died in 1707.

The fourth brother, John (my ancestor) married Mary —, with whom he had two children – Nicholas and Frances. John died in 1708, and his son Nicholas probably died in the next few years, at least by 1726 when his sister Frances was named in a deed as the sole heiress of John Spencer. John’s younger brother Francis Spencer, was awarded guardianship of his daughter, Frances. John’s widow, Mary, remarried to a man named Timothy Carney, and in 1711, they petitioned the court to release Francis as guardian of Frances in favor of Henry Ashton, gentleman.

The fifth and youngest son, Francis Spencer, was no older than 5 years old when his father, Nicholas, died. In 1715, when he was about 30 years old and still unmarried, he made a will, in which he left almost everything to his niece and only other living Spencer relative, France Spencer, John’s daughter (it is likely that Nicholas, Frances’ brother, was already dead). However, soon after he wrote his will, he married and had at least one son, William. When Francis died in 1720, his widow received her dower portion and everything else was inherited by his young son, depriving Frances of a substantial inheritance. Frances Spencer married John Ariss around that time, and had four children of her own – Spencer, John, Elizabeth, and Frances. Her cousin William Spencer, like so many of his relatives, married but died childless.

In this post, I have examined 4 generations of Spencers: Nicholas Spencer (1611-1645) and his wife Lady Mary, their son Nicholas the immigrant (1633-1689) and his wife Frances, their 5 sons William, Mottrom, Nicholas, John, and Francis, and finally John’s daughter Frances Spencer Ariss.

I now see why Colonel Nicholas Spencer is not listed as a gateway ancestor on genealogical society lists. It is because there are very few documented descendants left! In fact, that branch of the family starting with Nicholas Spencer (1611-1643) almost completely died out. Of all of his descendants, only his great granddaughter Frances Spencer Ariss had children whose descendants extend to the present day. Frances Spencer Ariss had four children – John (a famous colonial architect and author of the 1780 letter), Elizabeth (my ancestor who married a builder, Thomas Sorrell, who apprenticed with one of George Washington’s uncles), Frances, and Spencer. John Ariss the architect died childless, but Frances married and had children, as did Spencer and Elizabeth.

Despite the lack of Spencer relatives, Frances’s descendants were extremely proud of their heritage. Several more generations used Spencer as a given or middle name, the last being Spencer Ariss Moss (1773-1842), a brother of my ancestor (Catherine (Moss) Swift) and Frances Spencer Ariss’s great-grandson, who, incidentally, died childless.