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  (Edward) John Spencer (1924–1992), by Rodrigo Moynihan, c.1945 (Edward) John Spencer (1924–1992), by Rodrigo Moynihan, c.1945
Spencer, (Edward) John, eighth Earl Spencer (1924–1992), landowner and courtier, was born on 24 January 1924 at 24 Sussex Square, London, the only son of Albert Edward John Spencer, seventh Earl Spencer (1892–1975), and his wife, Lady Cynthia Elinor Beatrix Hamilton (1897–1972), second daughter of the third duke of Abercorn. Queen Mary and the prince of Wales were his godparents. As Viscount Althorp he was educated at Eton College and the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. He served briefly as a captain in the Royal Scots Greys during the Second World War and was mentioned in dispatches. He then served as aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-General Sir Willoughby Norrie, governor of South Australia, from 1947 to 1950.

The Spencer family was steeped in royal service. Althorp's mother and several aunts were ladies-in-waiting to the queen, and so he moved easily into the job of temporary equerry to King George VI, from 1950 to 1952, and, on the king's death, to the queen until 1954. He served as acting master of the household and equerry on her coronation tour of the Commonwealth from 1953 to 1954. He was appointed MVO (later LVO) in 1954. A keen cameraman, he made cine-films of the tour, which he showed in Norfolk on his return, raising £2500 for charity.

On 1 June 1954 Althorp married Frances Ruth Roche [see ], daughter of the fourth Baron Fermoy and his wife, Ruth Gill, later a lady-in-waiting to the queen mother. They farmed quietly at Park House, on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk, and had two sons, one of whom died in infancy, and three daughters. He divorced his wife for desertion in 1969 and was given custody of his young family.

Althorp was a county councillor in Northamptonshire, high sheriff in 1959, and a deputy lieutenant from 1961. He was deputy honorary colonel of the Royal Anglian regiment (TA) from 1972, and chairman of the Nene Foundation. He was chairman of the National Association of Boys' Clubs from 1962 to 1980, and later deputy president. He was a member of the UK council of European architectural heritage year in 1975. He succeeded his father in 1975 and moved his family into Althorp, the Spencers' ancestral home in Northamptonshire.

In the following year, on 14 July 1976, Spencer married Raine Legge, née McCorquodale, countess of Dartmouth (b. 1929), who was divorced from the ninth earl of Dartmouth earlier that year. She was daughter of the romantic novelist Dame Barbara Cartland. Theirs was a controversial union, leading to divisions within the family—Spencer's children were never reconciled to his marriage—and her attempts to restore the fortunes of Althorp were subject to contradictory interpretation. There is no doubt that Althorp required a lot of attention, but conservationists became increasingly alarmed when the sales of family heirlooms became frequent. Van Dycks and Gainsboroughs were sold, as was furniture, china, porcelain, silver and gold, the Spencer family archives, and various properties. In due course the Spencers opened a shop in the stables at Althorp, where they both acted as salesmen, Lord Spencer selling his ‘own-label’ champagne, and even postcards of the house, signed by him.

When Spencer suffered a serious stroke in 1978, his wife nursed him daily. By her efforts, including the employment of an untested drug, he was restored to remarkably active health for his remaining fourteen years. He celebrated his recovery with a service of thanksgiving.

As a couple Earl and Countess Spencer were propelled into the full spotlight of media attention when his youngest daughter, Diana [see ], became engaged to the prince of Wales in February 1981. Both Spencer and Diana's maternal grandmother, Ruth, Lady Fermoy, had promoted the marriage. Spencer was by no means a fit man, but he rose valiantly to the challenge of taking his daughter to St Paul's Cathedral to give her away. The ceremony was relayed by television to far corners of the globe, and he won much respect for the courage with which he went through the day: his chauffeur assisted him up the steps of the cathedral, and his daughter supported him as they walked the length of the aisle. He took considerable pride in his grandsons, Prince William and Prince Harry, who bore strong Spencer traits in looks and character.

In the years that followed, the work at Althorp continued apace and Spencer supported his wife in all her fund-raising endeavours. With her he produced two books, Spencers on Spas (1984) and Japan and the East (1986), which contained his photographs. They entertained lavishly and travelled extensively.

Johnnie Spencer was a tall man, a mixture of the bluff and the shy, inherently gentle, and one of the world's innocents. The press sometimes mocked his statements about his daughter—‘a fine specimen’, he said of her as a baby—but every word was uttered with the same paternal pride which remained with him to the end. His rather sudden death in the Humana Hospital Wellington, St John's Wood, London, on 29 March 1992 spared him knowledge of the revelations concerning Diana by Andrew Morton, and of the sharp decline in fortune and favour of his daughter, let alone her separation, divorce, and tragic death a mere five years later. Lord Spencer was buried at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Great Brington, on 1 April. The estate he had worked so hard and so controversially to protect was valued at some £89 million. He was survived by his second wife, three daughters, and one son, Charles Edward Maurice Spencer (b. 1964), who succeeded as ninth earl.

Hugo Vickers

Sources  

The Independent (30 March 1992) · The Times (30 March 1992) · The Times (20 Oct 1992) · Burke, Peerage (1999) · A. Levin, Raine and Johnnie (1993) · T. Clayton and P. Craig, Diana: story of a princess (2001)

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with William Clark


Likenesses  

R. Moynihan, portrait, c.1945, priv. coll. [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

approx. £89,000,000