There are few experiences more oddly intimidating than driving up to a proper English stately home. All the period-drama clichés apply. There’s the crunch of white gravel, followed by the billowing lawns, the vast banks of glittering windows, and finally, a butler stationed on the front steps like a besuited bit player, doing a silent shallow bow.
You resist being impressed, but it’s a bit like starring into a flawless 16-carat diamond and thinking, “Well, it’s just all a bit much isn’t it ?” Some things in life are just designed to dazzle and Althorp House in Northhamptonshire is one of them.
The primary resident of this extraordinary place is Charles Spencer, the 9th earl Spencer. The younger brother of the late Diana, princess of Wales, Spencer, now 50, inherited this house and the title when his father died in 1992. (He also has homes in South Africa, and California, where he lives part of the year with his third wife, Canadian philanthropist Karen Gordon.) His family, who originally made their money as sheep farmers, have lived here for more than 500 years, roughly 19 generations. Spencer was 27 at the time of his inheritance and since then has taken on the responsibility of keeping up this house—and thousands of acres and hundreds of years of historical responsibility that go with it—in addition to being a father to seven children, a correspondent for NBC, the author of five history books and the patron of several local charities. Contrary to stereotype, “idle aristocrat” does not seem to be a part of his job description. You don’t get the sense that there is much Downton Abbey-style ambling around the grounds with a Labrador retriever, fretfully contemplating an uncertain future. Charles Spencer, to his credit, seems to have the future all worked out.
I find the lord of the manor having his picture taken for this profile in a vast room filled with gilt furniture and hung with dozens of priceless-looking oil paintings. Is it a ballroom? A picture gallery? Who knows? It’s very, very big. He is stretched out, almost prone, on an ornately upholstered chair, head tipped up to take in the ceiling mouldings. He waits patiently for the photographer to finish before jumping up to greet me. “Should I have worn a suit?” he asks uncertainly, motioning to his blazer and button-down shirt, “Is this remotely appropriate?”
I laugh, because it’s funny—the notion of this patriarch in his ancestral seat asking a Canadian reporter what’s appropriate. But this is, of course, Spencer’s peculiar charm. I’ve met him socially once or twice before and each time he struck me as disarmingly human—an unusual trait for a grand, patrician man, particularly an English one.
He has invited me here to chat about his latest book, a 300-odd-page history of the bloody manhunt for the killers of Charles I, launched by his son, Charles II, just after the English civil war in the mid-1600s.
Killers of the King is immensely readable, as it turns out—an elegantly written history published by the venerable Bloomsbury Press, which has garnered favourable blurbs and reviews here in Britain. It tells the fascinating tale of psychological intrigue, suspense and Game of Thrones-worthy gore. Spencer describes himself as a writer who is “interested in how people behave in extreme circumstances”—a description that would certainly apply to the so-called “regicides” who signed the death warrant for King Charles I, plunging England into an eleven years of republicanism—a failed experiment that resulted in the Restoration.
Once restored to the Crown, Charles II realized he couldn’t go after half the nation that had overthrown his father but he could hold to account those men intimately involved in his father’s death. There were about 60 left after the war and Charles II lured most of them in by promising they’d be fined. Instead they were given the full sentence for treason, which was to be hung, drawn and quartered. Spencer describes the punishment airily, almost brightly. “You were dragged through the streets of London, hanged until you were unconscious, woken up, castrated, gutted, your guts were burnt in front of you while you were alive and at some point in all of that, you died of shock or blood loss. You’d then have your head cut off and stuck in the place of your crime and your body was quartered and sent to different parts of the kingdom as a deterrent. It was, I’d imagine, a fairly unpleasant way to go.”
The rest of the regicides were tracked down one by one, sometimes halfway around the world—and this manhunt comprises the bulk of Spencer’s narrative.
While he strives to be an even-handed historian, Spencer had personal stakes on both sides in the English Civil War. He is descended from Charles I through four of Charles II’s mistresses. During the 2½ years it took him to research and write the book he also discovered he is directly related to two of the regicides as well. “So that sort of balanced out any sense of familial duty I might have had.”
Spencer is a man for whom the evidence and weight of history is everywhere—not just in the books he writes (this is his fifth, the first two being about his own family, the third on the Battle of Blenheim and the last a biography of Prince Rupert)—but in his own daily life, which has of course been circumscribed by tradition in a way most of us would find it difficult to imagine.
“I remember when I was told I was going to inherit this place,” he recalls. “I was a very young boy and I was told by a slightly jealous cousin of my father’s and I was truly shocked. Because at that time it was the home of my grandparents, and my grandmother was a delightful presence but my grandfather was a very gruff figure. For me, to try and see myself living in his house, was simply impossible.”
Spencer’s has been a life of many impossible-seeming events—some spectacular, some strange and some simply tragic. While he was still a boy at Eton College, his sister married the Prince of Wales. Later he attended Oxford University at the same time as David Cameron and Boris Johnson. His old friend and university roommate, the entrepreneur Andrew MacDonald, recalls how Spencer famously refused to join the notorious Bullingdon Club (a decadent and rowdy drinking club of which Cameron and Johnson were, famously, active members) even though they courted him rather aggressively. “He didn’t join because didn’t want to associate with those people and he didn’t want to do what they did. He just wasn’t impressed by that sort of thing, I think because he has deep self-confidence and of course his own social validity. He simply doesn’t need that stuff.”
After university Spencer spent seven years as a correspondent for NBC, an experience he seems to have enjoyed very much and one that set him apart from the rest of the men in his family. “My mother always told me to have a career. Right from the beginning she’d seen the tragedy of my father and his generation growing up after the Second World War and, because he was from this background, it would have been considered very strange to have a professional job. It would have been frowned upon, I think.”
Unlike his father, who was in his late 50s before he got his earldom, Spencer inherited young and spent several years “living a double life,” zooming back and forth from England to the U.S. and later, Cape Town, South Africa, where he set up a home and had four children with his first wife, Victoria Lockwood. They divorced in 1997 and he remarried Caroline Freud in 2001. The couple had two children together before they split up in 2007.
Since 2011 he has been married to Karen Gordon, a Canadian philanthropist whose charity, Whole Child International, seeks to improve child-care conditions for orphans in the developing world. They have a two-year-old daughter—Spencer’s seventh and, he insists, final child—Charlotte Diana, named after his late sister.
In many ways, he has been the keeper of his sister’s memory since her death in 1997. She is buried here at Althorp and, after our interview, Spencer takes me for a walk to see the thickly wooded island in the lake, marked at its edge by a simple white tombstone.
“As soon as Diana married Prince Charles it was like she’d been split in two. There was the Diana I knew and grew up with and the public Diana . . . So much of what she was, was given to the world, but she used to say how proud she was to come from this family and I suppose in the end she came home.”
Spencer recently returned all of Diana’s belongings to her sons—the chattels having been entrusted to him until his nephews both turned 30. Diana: A Celebration, his exhibition that ran for several years at Althorp, was criticized for appearing to cash in on her legacy (he’s quick to point out all the proceeds went to charity), but Spencer remains adamant it was the right thing to do. “At that time there were certain elements in the establishment who would have rather had her forgotten, and I thought, ‘Well she wouldn’t have wanted that.’ ”
There is little doubt his sister would have approved of the eulogy he delivered at her funeral—a speech that was boldly critical of both the Windsors and the media, in their treatment of Diana during her lifetime. It prompted what could be described as a global moment of catharsis. He wrote the eulogy here in this house in the early hours of the morning, after awakening full of grief. Reflecting on that time between Diana’s death and her funeral, when his family was “in pieces” while the world mourned alongside, Spencer is startlingly open. “It was just very bizarre. We as a family were obviously flattened by the loss of Diana. We were grieving and yet suddenly we were also part of something so huge.” Some people poo-pooed the outpouring, but “it seemed a very genuinely emotional time, not a falsely whipped-up one,” he says. “For years the more misogynistic elements of our popular media here had just been using her as a punching bag. It was very—pleasing seems the wrong word—but actually it was pleasing that we could see how much she meant to people and how much she was missed.”
On reflection, he wouldn’t change a word of his eulogy because it accomplished what it set out to do, which was “to try to lay down a marker whereby her sons would have an easier time with the press in the future, and I think that happened.”
It’s this peculiar sense of being both inside and outside of the establishment that seems to characterize Spencer’s world view. He is, in his own particular way, both a renegade and deeply conservative: a man who rubs against convention in both his personal and professional life and yet has had so much of his experience and position circumscribed by tradition.
As his old friend MacDonald points out, it’s not always easy being an earl. “Some of the career options available to Charlie were ones in which he could never measure himself against a true market. That’s where the writing comes in—because he’s able to present his work to the world and present it objectively.”
It will be interesting to see what history Charles Spencer makes next—both on and off the page. “Without my work, I’d be lost,” he says, “I’d go mad.”