Bishop Aubrey George Spencer
A few weeks ago, when one should have expected a public uprising against the global invasion of privacy revealed by Edward Snowden, the media and much of the public were instead more preoccupied with a royal baby and the names that Kate and William had chosen for their first-born: George Alexander Louis.
Even the German press was enthralled with the event and instantly claimed the royal heir for Germany because of the roots that linked the many Georges with Hanover.
There was also an unmistakable echo of Wurttemberg’s Prince Louis Alexander von Battenberg, Prince Philip’s German grandfather, who had an illustrious career in the navy.
No wonder, then, that the German newspaper Die Welt announced that “the little prince is actually a German.”
A Newfoundland connection
Poor Newfoundland, once a mercantile and strategic powerhouse for the British crown, appeared to have nothing to claim in the royal birth, standing instead impoverished in aristocratic No-man’s-land.
Although our local media were silent about any meaningful familial links, there was perhaps, after all, a neglected connection between the tiny princeling and Terra Nova — if the babe’s grandmother, Lady Diana Spencer, counts at all.
Of course she does, the “Princess of the hearts.” For the first Anglican bishop of Newfoundland was a Spencer. Aubrey George Spencer turns out to be a relative of His Royal Highness George of Cambridge.
Aubrey George Spencer (1795-1872), an evangelical and socially conscious priest and bishop, had a significant association with Newfoundland, first as a missionary to Ferryland (1819) and Trinity Bay (1820) and, finally, after his service as Archdeacon of Bermuda, as the first bishop of the Church of England in Newfoundland and Bermuda (1839-1843).
After that he served until his retirement in 1855 as Bishop of Jamaica. Bishop Spencer, unlike his Tractarian successor Edward Feild, was a moderate evangelical with a conciliatory temper and co-operating spirit, who particularly in Bermuda sought to improve the social conditions and education of the black population and poor whites. His younger brother, George, was in the 1840s Bishop of Madras, India.
Bishop Spencer’s first noble ancestor was Sir John Spencer of Wormleighton in the county of Warwick, whom King Henry VIII had knighted. Robert Spencer, a descendant of John, was the first in his family to be elevated to a peerage in 1603.
The common ancestor of newborn Prince George and Bishop Spencer was Charles Spencer, Third Earl of Sunderland (1674-1722).
It is among his sons that the noble lines diverge, with his second son, Charles Spencer (1706-1758), third Duke of Marlborough and fifth Earl of Sunderland, being the ancestor of the bishop, and his third son, John Spencer of Althorp (1708-1746), being the ancestor of Lady Di and her grandson George.
Bishop Spencer’s father William Robert Spencer (1769-1834) was a poet of some accomplishment, who had married Susan, the widow of the Bavarian Count Spreti and daughter of Count Francis Jenison Walworth in Germany.
His coveted position in society was, however, no longer matched by great fortunes.
In fact, the father left England for France in his later years because of financial difficulties, while retaining the favour of friends in high standing. A comedy, titled “Urania,” or the “Illuminé,” in which he spoofs the German love for ghostly beings, was published in 1802 and a volume of poetry in 1811.
A few of his poems, such as “Beth-Gêlert or The Grave of the Greyhound” and “Too Late I Stayed,” are still preserved in popular anthologies, and his English translation from the German of Gottfried August Bürger’s haunting Leonore won him praise.
Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott appreciated what Byron called Spencer’s “elegant mind” and the “refined sentiment in his verses.”
As a child, Bishop Spencer made the acquaintance of Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and other notable English writers and politicians at his parents’ home in Curzon Street, London, or at other Spencer family haunts, such as Blenheim Palace, which also links Winston Churchill to the wider family.
The bishop inherited some of his father’s poetic sensibilities, even if few of his own poems were ever published. Here is a poetic reflection of George Aubrey Spencer, then Archdeacon of Bermuda, aboard ship on July 23, 1835, as preserved by Susette Harriett Lloyd in her Sketches of Bermuda (1835).
When ocean wears its halcyon hue,
That matchless depth of native blue;
When wave on wave subsides to rest,
Thy spirit broods upon its breast.
Or when those waves, convulsed and high,
Urge stern revolt against the sky;
When winds and rain, in mingled might,
More deeply cloud the Crown of night;
When masts are bow’d and sails are rent;
When skill and strength alike are spent;
When danger rears its giant form,
Thy gracious Eye controls the storm.
Our hope, our comfort, staff and rod,
Are but Thy presence, gracious God!
In that confiding, safe we go,
Nor dread the storm, nor fear the foe.
Hans J. Rollmann is Professor of Religious Studies at Memorial University of
Newfoundland and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.