The first woman to put the Spencer family on the map was not Diana, Princess of Wales, the youngest daughter of the 8th Earl Spencer, nor even Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the elder daughter of the 1st. Rather, it was their Tudor forebear Alice, Countess of Derby, the subject of this absorbing biography by Vanessa Wilkie.
Born at Althorp – then a modest, two-storey red brick manor house – in May 1559, six months into the reign of Elizabeth I, Alice was the youngest daughter of Sir John Spencer, a prosperous sheep farmer and sometime sheriff of Northamptonshire, and his wife Katherine, née Kytson. At the age of about 20, Alice married Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. It was a brilliant match for her and the Spencers.
Heir to the earldom of Derby, Ferdinando was also a great-great-grandson of Henry VII. (The Spencer family tree, as Wilkie wryly observes, was but ‘a sapling’ by comparison.) Indeed, Ferdinando’s Tudor blood meant that he was a potential successor to the childless Virgin Queen. So, too, were the three girls Alice bore him over the course of the 1580s: Anne, Frances and Elizabeth. As events transpired, however, Ferdinando’s tenure as 5th Earl of Derby lasted less than seven months. He died suddenly in the spring of 1594, aged 35, following a short illness – variously ascribed by contemporaries to witchcraft or poisoning by Catholic plotters. Alice, who was pregnant at the time, miscarried shortly after.
Ferdinando is perhaps best remembered as an important patron of the arts. Lord Strange’s Men, his troupe of actors, was one of the leading late-Elizabethan theatrical companies and may have counted the young Shakespeare among its members. Alice was a noted patron too – and a muse to several poets, including John Milton, who called her a ‘rural Queen’, such as ‘All Arcadia hath not seen’, and Edmund Spenser, who praised her ‘excellent beauty’ and ‘virtuous behaviour’.