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The Spencers in Watford

Tomb of Sir John Spencer and wife

The family of Lady Diana Spencer have owned lands extending into the townships of Watford parish for nearly five centuries.

Charles, the current and 9th Earl Spencer, is Lady Diana's younger brother. In his book, The Spencers, Charles identifies Sir John Spencer (c 1455 - 1522, see image) as the key figure responsible for building the family’s sheep farming empire. Sir John may have been the first of the Spencers to notice Watford's farmlands. As early as 1512 he was one of eight men "given" the lands of George Burneby even though George retained use of the land – this was a common way to avoid taxes upon inheritance. The Burnebys were lords of the largest manor in Watford.

Sir John’s uncle, another John Spencer, lent 200 marks (about £133) to George Catesby. George needed the money to petition King Henry VII and parliament for the return of lands confiscated by the King from George’s father. The Catesby lands included manors in Watford and Silsworth. George was only partly successful – he did not get the Watford lands back.

In 1546 Thomas Spencer leased the pasture and field commonly called Silsworth for 41 years from Sir Richard Catesby. The rental was £21 12s annually, including an up-front advance of £200, useful cash for the Catesbys. Thomas's lease may have been what sparked the Spencer’s particular interest in the farmlands of Watford parish.

The Spencers’ most significant investment in Watford came in 1563. Another Sir John Spencer (d 1586), grandson of the aforementioned Sir John Spencer, purchased the Cumberford manor for his son, Edward. This was originally the Parles manor in Watford. Now about 885 acres, the land was a patchwork of farms spread through all three townships of the parish. Six years later, Sir John bought another 90 acres in Watford. The famous Thomas Rogers was born on this land, long before he sailed for America on the Mayflower, the first passenger ship to America.

Two generations later, Robert Spencer, before he became the 1st Baron Spencer, sued Richard Burneby. Richard and his tenants appeared to have no respect for property boundaries.

Meanwhile, the former Catesby manor in Watford had descended through several generations of two other families. When the manor was leased out in 1605, the owner said he was the legal proprietor of all the lands in the manor except for the lands leased from the Rt Hon Robert Lord Spencer.

Lord Spencer died in 1627, and the list of his large estate included the Watford manor lands and Twinney Meadow in Murcott. Only a few years later, his son Sir William leased one of his larger Watford farms to William Sabyn, who in addition to rent was saddled with a few unusual conditions. He had to provide a cart, teams and workers to haul 15 hundredweight of coal every year to Althorpe, his landlord’s home. Sabyn also agreed to plant and care for 80 trees on the farm.

Eventually, Sir William, Baron Spencer of Wormeleighton, decided to unburden himself from the problems of an ongoing dispute with the Burneby manor over a confusing land ownership structure in Watford. He agreed to swap his Watford lands, excluding farms in Murcott and Silsworth, for lands in Radborne, Warwickshire. A London merchant named George Clerke, later Sir George, in his quest to buy most of Watford parish, had acquired some 600 acres in Radborne which he knew were valuable to the Spencers. Unfortunately, Sir William died before he completed the bargain, and so the final exchange of premises was completed in 1639 by his son, the young Henry Lord Spencer.

The Spencers continued to own lands in Murcott and Silsworth for another four generations until John Spencer, who in 1766 became the 1st Earl Spencer. Around this time the family lands in the parish totalled about 520 acres. Not finished yet, by the time the next century arrived, the Spencers had found another 150 acres of farmland lying in the east of Watford township.

The above summary information taken from: The Watford Knight’s Fee, published 2018

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