Althorp (sometimes pronounced ‘Awltrup’) is the Spencer family pile in Northamptonshire. Who amongst us lesser mortals had heard of either the estate or the family before Lady Diana Spencer shot into public awareness like a blazing comet? Perhaps, some may have vaguely thought, the family was something to do with that other lot, the Marks. But the Spencers have a much older pedigree than that; they came to Althorp, initially as tenants, in 1486 and, more than 5 centuries’ later, they’re still there. We had to give up our family seat in Much Flushing years ago, but the Spencers have managed to hang on to theirs, bless their cotton socks. Which, considering the risks that aristocrats are subject to – beheadings, taxation and all that tedious stuff – is no mean achievement.
In 1508, Sir John Spencer bought the 300 acre manor of Althorp from the Catesby family. The Spencers were already successful sheep graziers and traders in Warwickshire; at Althorp, they flourished. By 1603, Robert, first Baron Spencer, was sufficiently important to publicly support King James VI of Scotland’s accession to the throne of England as James I. Through the centuries, and changing fortunes, the Spencers have been soldiers, sailors, statesmen – and have had strong links with the Churchills. The First Earl Spencer was created in 1765 and the current, Ninth Earl, has Her Majesty the Queen as his godmother. This is a well-connected family – and their story is told throughout the house.
Incidentally, the remains of the long-vanished village of Althorp, mentioned in the Doomsday Survey of 1086, lie in the grounds of the park surrounding the house. It was abandoned before the Spencers arrived, possibly cleared by the Catesbys to make way for sheep grazing. Today, the Althorp Estate is a modern business covering some 13,000 acres, including farms and commercial properties in the surrounding areas. The house, which is still the Spencer’s family home, is set in a 550 acre walled park, including some lovely gardens and the lake, the Round Oval. I particularly liked the borders around the Stables – and the Stables themselves, elegant Georgian architecture in wonderful honey-warm local sandstone; arguably more attractive than the house?
Somewhere beneath the Palladian, yet slightly local authority, grandeur of the present mansion is the original, brick, Tudor House. What you see today is, inevitably, a product of the nineteen generations of Spencers that have lived in the place, and the fashions of their times. But, outwardly, it is largely 18th century. The current Earl has invested heavily in restoration work, much of it paid for out of the proceeds of selling family assets. Inside, Althorp is magnificent and offers a sumptuous and breathtaking array of fine furnishings and artwork in rooms that are, individually, larger than many people’s homes. There are 90 rooms altogether. The Saloon and Spencer Gallery, formed when an inner courtyard was roofed in, somehow manages to be cosy, despite its enormous size and grand staircase; and the portraits make it fascinating. On the subject of portraits, the Picture Gallery (115 feet long) contains studies of the famous babes of the hedonistic court of King Charles II. Looking at these good ladies is an intriguing experience, not simply because you can’t help wondering how many of them would make it onto the front page of ‘Vogue’ or ‘Hello’ today, but also because it’s immense fun speculating what they all got up to. And how short life can be. Finally, amongst the many palatial rooms, I’d like to mention the library – if only because I like books and here are 10,000 of them. But, get this: at one time, the Spencers held what was generally acknowledged as the finest library in private hands, largely assembled by the Second Earl. Apparently, it included as many as 40,000 early printed books. It was sold in its entirety by the Fifth Earl in 1892 to Mrs Enriqueta Rylands and now forms the Spencer Collection, the core of John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester.
There is no doubt that it is the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, that draws many of the visitors to Althorp. Her younger brother Charles Spencer is the Ninth Earl, her mortal remains lie at rest on the island in the Round Oval, and the Doric-style memorial summer house at the side of the lake is dedicated to her. An exhibition – “Diana: a celebration” – was once housed in the stables and covered her early and adult life. A family movie ran, showing Diana growing up. On display were personal objects such as toys, schoolbooks and ballet shoes, as well as a large collection of dresses and other clothes; centre stage was the famous Emanuel wedding dress she wore on 29th July 1981. The passing of “the People’s Princess” in 1997 was tragic; most would agree that Diana was an exceptional lady, and feel incredibly saddened that she is no longer with us. But the emotion surrounding her death and memory can verge on inappropriate beatification, and I confess that the exhibition struck me as a little mawkish and made me feel a tad uncomfortable when I saw it. The exhibition closed suddenly in 2013, possibly because of accusations of commercial exploitation and, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “to squash the Diana cult.” It was said that all profits from visitors were donated to the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which supported the causes that were important to the Princess. Her possessions, I understand, were returned to her sons, William and Harry. Looking at the Althorp website recently (“the story of Althorp is also the story of the Spencers, and vice versa”) you could be forgiven for thinking that Diana had been airbrushed out. But the Round Oval at Althorp, and the memorial, remain places where visitors can respectfully remember one of the bright stars of the late 20th century.
In any event, Althorp is one of Britain’s grand stately homes; go there. It has a very limited opening season – you must check on its website for dates before you make a special trip. It is also famous for its concerts and literary festival.
Althorp and other stately homes can be found in the attraction directory.