The Spencers’ Royal Stuart Ancestors

by The Laird o’Thistle
February 17 2008

Having taken a look at Kate Middleton’s ancestry last month, it struck me that I have never done a column on one of the most unique aspects of Prince William’s Spencer ancestry.  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.  But as it is, all but one of the instances that I will cite in what follows are of children born to royal mistresses, and the one exception comes from a marriage of dubious validity.

That said, although illegitimacy has long been used to debar claims to royal succession, there have been occasions when royal bastards (such as William the Conqueror) did manage to take the throne.  And there have been other eras in which they certainly tried.  The most recent instance in Britain was the attempt of Charles II’s son, the Duke of Monmouth, to unseat his uncle James VII/II.  (Monmouth was the ancestor of the Dukes of Buccleuch, and thus of both the late Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester, and of Sarah Duchess of York.)

What I intend to concentrate on in this column are only those Spencer ancestors who were descended from the combined Stewart-Tudor lineage that begins with James V, King of Scots, who was the son of James IV and Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor.  That said, it is also notable that 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 old Stewart Kings were amazingly prolific in siring children outside of wedlock, but not nearly so successful within the bonds of holy matrimony.)

Working backward through the list of British sovereigns, the most recent royal link in the Spencer ancestry is to the erstwhile King James VII/II.  Besides his two legitimate daughters (Queen Mary II and Queen Anne), and the line of Jacobite Pretenders descended from his second marriage (James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, and his sons Bonnie Prince Charlie and Henry, Cardinal of York), James VII/II had six known illegitimate children.  Four of these children were the offspring of Arabella Churchill, herself an ancestral aunt of the Spencers, and the other two were the children of Catherine Sedley.  Of these six, Arabella Churchill’s daughter Henrietta Fitzjames became the wife of Henry Waldegrave, and their descendant Adelaide Seymour became the wife of the 4th Earl Spencer.

It is very well known that Charles II had a plethora of illegitimate children (twelve acknowledged and a few other possible ones) by several different mothers, but no legitimate child was born to him and his Queen, Catherine of Braganza.  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.  Most proximately, Lady Cynthia’s grandmother was a daughter of the 5th Duke of Richmond.  (Interestingly, other Richmond and Lennox descendants include Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Sarah, the Duchess of York.)  Additionally, Adelaide Seymour (cited above as the 4th Earl Spencer’s wife) was also descended from Charles II via the 1st Duke of Grafton, a son of Charles II and Barbara Villiers.

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.

In addition to the descents from James VII/II, Charles II, and Charles I, the Hamilton lineage of Princess Diana’s granny includes two other important royal ancestors.  Both come, yet again, via the Dukes of Richmond.

The first is from yet another line senior in descent to the current royals, via Caroline Charlotte Duchess of Schomberg & Leinster.  She was a daughter of Charles Louis, Elector Palatine (1617-1680), via his morganatic (or, bigamous) marriage to Marie Louise von Degenfield.  Charles Louis was the eldest surviving son of Elizabeth Stuart, the “Winter Queen” Bohemia and daughter of James VI/I.  (The Hanoverians, remember, descend from Charles Louis’ youngest sister, the Electress Sophia of Hanover.)
The second notable heritage is found in a line of descent from the Scottish Earls of Moray.  Via a daughter of the 4th Earl of Moray, Prince William is a descendant of the powerful half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots.  That James Stewart was the eldest illegitimate son of James V, King of Scots, and thus shared in the dual Stewart and Tudor genetic heritage that eventually brought the Stuarts to the throne of England as well as Scotland.  “Moray” – as he is usually designated in histories of Mary’s reign – was a sometime supporter and sometime adversary of his half-sister.  He was a staunch Protestant, and on occasion conspired against the Catholic Mary with their mutual cousin, Elizabeth I.  He was suspected of having aspirations to the Scottish throne and was actively involved in the coup that eventually overthrew and deposed Mary.  He then served as Regent for his infant nephew, James VI, but was assassinated early on in his regency.  He left a daughter who became Countess of Moray in her own right, married a Stuart kinsman, and passed the title on to later generations.

In all of the preceding instances the family heritage of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, has brought back into Britain’s royal family major re-connections to their own history.  Diana, of course, had other distinctive relatives such as the royals first ancestor from the former Raj, Eliza Kewark, an Indian woman from Mumbai (Bombay).  And, like the late Queen Mother, Diana’s family history brings a broad range of ties to really significant historical figures among the British aristocracy.  But for the genealogical historian in me, the unprecedented reconnection to the royals of the past is the most simply amazing piece of William’s ancestry.  Except for King William IV, about whose family I wrote a couple of years ago, he is descended from every monarch of England and Scotland with known (and acknowledged) living descendants.

Among the greatest treasures of the Royal Collection housed at Windsor Castle are the portraits by such artists as Van Dyck, Sir Peter Lely, et al, of the royal Stuarts and their families from the Caroline and Restoration eras.  The Collection also includes the famous series known as “The Windsor Beauties” which features several of Charles II’s mistresses.  Another recent acquisition of the Royal Collection dating from the same era is the portrait of Charles II that was originally part of the great ceiling panel of St. George’s Hall painted by Antonio Verrio in the early 1680s.  Discovered at auction, it has been brought home to Windsor and hangs overlooking the new Lantern Lobby adjoining the restored St. George’s Hall.  Someday, when he’s king, William V will probably point some of these artworks out to his guests and say – hopefully with pride – something to the effect, “Oh yes, and this one is one of my ancestors through my mum….”  Sometimes what goes around really does come around.

Yours Aye,

– Ken Cuthbertson