Tag Archives: Royal Ancestors

Unexpectedly Royal Ancestors

Family legends are fascinating, and many contain at least a grain of truth.  Have you heard the one about the humble labourer who married high above his station? Or the apparently ordinary family who had noble or even royal ancestors? This is the story of a family in which both those stories happen to be absolutely true.


On 24 January 1824, Richard Leigh Spencer, a wealthy London solicitor, sat down to write a codicil to his will in which he disinherited his eldest daughter:

Whereas my daughter Anne has married to William Humphreys now I do hereby revoke the bequest or trust mentioned in my Will to the said Anne … as if the said Anne had died a single woman and intestate during my life …

Four years earlier, Anne had married William Humphreys at St Botolph, Aldersgate, London.  What had caused her father such distress was that William was a farm labourer. However, he might not have realised himself just how illustrious his ancestry was.

The young couple settled in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, where they raised nine children, and William continued to work as a farm labourer and cowman. The children too had humble careers, but two of them bore distinctive names that were traditional in Anne’s family: Oliph and Leigh.  It was these names, together with an unusually verbose tombstone in Broxbourne churchyard, which led one of William’s descendants to discover the truth about his ancestry.

From gentry to the aristocracy

After many years of research, we now know that Anne descended not just from gentry but from royalty.  Her great-grandfather had married Ann Leigh, whose family owned land in three counties. In 1578 Ann’s great-great-great-grandfather Sir Oliph Leigh had married Jane Browne.  This innocuous surname concealed an illustrious ancestry: Jane’s great-great-grandmother was Eleanor Fitzalan, descendant of the medieval Earls of Arundel.

From gentry to royalty

Eleanor Fitzalan was the ancestral gateway to royalty. Her family married into the Holland family, who descended from Edward I; and into the Neville family, who descended from Edward III.   The Fitzalan family also connects to Queen Adeliza, wife of Henry I, who descended (twice) from Charlemagne.

Coronation of Charlemagne

The Humphreys family tree now included numerous kings, queens and emperors of Europe as well as English and Scottish monarchs.  Incidentally, it included connexions to Geoffrey Chaucer and the author Henry Fielding.  What William Humphreys’ own ancestors – who were Quakers in Reigate – would have made of all this, we cannot imagine.

Who did she think she was?

Debrett Ancestry Research has made a selection of Anne Spencer’s ancestral lines available in the volume Who Did She Think She Was? (in paperback from Amazon).  This describes Anne’s royal descents in thirteen chapters of illustrated narrative, complete with references. These set out the genealogies of the Spencer, Leigh, Carew, Browne, Fitzalan (Arundel), Despenser, De Clare, Mautravers, De Warenne and D’Aubigny families, as well as three descents from Charlemagne.

The book includes a family tree for each of the families discussed. These may help some readers to negotiate their own passage through the complex web of aristocratic family connections.