A Woman of Influence: The Spectacular Rise of Alice Spencer in Tudor England
“Wilkie has added a valuable piece to this puzzle of the past, allowing us a deeper sense of the world of upper-class women beyond being the names of wives to their much better known husbands.”
Vanessa Wilkie has chosen an intriguing subject for a book, the way one woman carved out power and influence to cement not only her own prestige, but that of her children. That this happened during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I only makes the story more exceptional. Alice Spencer wasn’t an explorer, an intellectual, or an artist. She exerted power the only way a woman in the 16th and 17th centuries could: by building alliances with other powerful families, either through marriage, patronage, or traded favors.
Wilkie isn’t shy about Spencer’s less appealing actions. She’s very clear about what drove this woman, the daughter of a father who was land-rich, but title-poor. She wanted royal favor, royal titles to go with her land and wealth. She wanted her children to be safely ensconced as peers of the realm. There is added interest to all this knowing that the Spencers become the noble family who gave the world Princess Diana. Much, of course, is known about where Prince Charles came from. This book brilliantly elucidates the most important ancestor of Princess Diana. The “People’s Princess” came from a woman who would have relished that her family had such an impressive public impact.
Wilkie has marshaled a mountain of archival material to guide the reader through the many machinations of Alice Spencer, the marriages carefully arranged, the horrific trial for rape she needed to guide both her daughter and granddaughter through. All of it is carefully presented in clear historical context. Spencer may not be the icon of feminism some may wish for, but she manages to be powerful in the narrow ways available to a clever woman of the time. Wilkie doesn’t try to force Spencer into an appealing contemporary shape but understands and accepts her for who she was and what her circumstances allowed her to be. Wilkie is a solid historian here, not someone looking to ride the current tides of what makes for popular history.
“Examining the arc of Alice’s life is not meant to valorize her but to encourage us to think with more care and complexity about the lives of women in the past.”
Wilkie does just that. After guiding the reader through lawsuits over her inheritance from her first husband, Fernando, Wilkie sums up Spencer’s initial accomplishments well:
“After nearly ten years, the fighting finally ceased, and as the properties came rolling in, Alice and her daughters could at last put the upheaval of Fernando’s death behind them. Alice had transformed her fears into hopes, and then those hopes became plans. She had not accomplished this alone. With the help of . . . powerful allies, Alice had masterfully navigated a harrowing inheritance suit. She had cultivated a network and reputation that facilitated those alliances and bided her time to use marriage as a strategic tool for herself and her daughters at precisely the most opportune moments. The young Alice, who had been the littlest Spencer daughter, running to keep up with her older brothers and sisters in the verdant fields of Althorp was gone, replaced by a tough, uncompromising woman who knew what she was entitled to and who was respected enough by powerful men and the queen to enable her to hold onto it.”
Spencer not only maneuvered through court intrigues and potential social scandals, she was a patron of literary arts, from Ben Johnson to John Milton, commissioning works to be presented at her house in grand fetes. These displays of status and taste marked her household as one that mattered, one that could proudly host queens. Her story is one that deserves to be included in histories of the time.
Tudor England is a well-trodden subject, but the lives of women like Alice Spencer remain little known. Wilkie has added a valuable piece to this puzzle of the past, allowing us a deeper sense of the world of upper-class women beyond being the names of wives to their much better known husbands. Even though she wasn’t a major political or artistic figure, Spencer remains interesting for what she tells us of the limits of a woman’s world, even those born into wealth and comfort. And what effects she could have, given those restraints.