Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:27 pm

Althorp, NorthamptonshireAlthorp (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.

AlthorpIn 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.

Althorp, stables, gardensIncidentally, 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?

Althorp, stables, gardensSomewhere 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.

Princess Diana, John TravoltaThere 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.

Althorp, Round OvalRound Oval, Althorp, memorial to DianaIn 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.

Other stately homes can be found browsing Places to Visit on A Bit about Britain.


23 thoughts on “Althorp”

  1. Thank you for ANOTHER great visit to Britain via your blog. My family bought a big house when I was a teenager, and it was a HUGE amount of work to maintain. Entire weekends spent mowing the lawn, or working on the (always leaking) roof, or re-painting rain-stained walls. I have tremendous respect for any person/family that can find ways to keep one of these amazing estates intact and well-maintained.

  2. peopledonteatenoughfudge

    The house really does have a local authority look about it, kind of car home/prison but the stables are lovely, far more to my taste. I grew up with Diana and it was a huge shock when she died. I think she lived a life full of contradictions overlaid with unhappiness. I didn’t buy into the hype surrounding her life but her death was very sad.

  3. alexandra s.m.

    I hope I’ll have the chance to visit it some day.
    Thank you for showing us this wonderful estate and as always, thank you for a superb post!

  4. i enjoyed your visit to Althorp. I think the future king of England would have been a much different man had not he been raised by Diana, and her influence is a gift to Britain. Althorp has been beautifully maintained by the Spencers. The stables and grounds are especially pretty.

      1. Meant king it’s so annoying to hear queen or king of England what about Wales, Scotland and n

  5. I met Diana’s dad once. (Some of us knew about Althorp before Charlie Boy got his hands on its prize) He was patron of Northamptonshire Boys’ Clubs and wasn’t above putting in some proper work, rather than just wandering past and waving. Lovely old bloke. He used to greet paying visitors at the door.

    I’m only glad he didn’t live to see what the royals did to his daughter. (Me? Anti royal? Didn’t you realise I’m descended from one of Oliver Cromwell’s team?)

  6. There used to be a time (in my early-to-mid twenties) when I would read anything about Diana I could find. Strangely enough, when she died, I completely lost interest in her and never was one to join the “Diana Cult”. As you say, “the emotion surrounding her death and memory can verge on inappropriate beatification”, and I am no fan of that.
    Still, it would be interesting to see the place where Diana spent good part of her childhood and youth, but the place looks fascinating enough on its own – it certainly does not need any celebrity to make for a great visit.
    And yes, the stables ARE beautiful!

  7. Blue Sky Scotland

    Looks a beautiful house. Apparently, from what I’ve read, the Spencer family can trace their ancestry directly back to the Tudor line and also King James II so you might argue they are more English than the Queen :o)
    Enjoyed the Keira Knightley film The Duchess as it featured an ancestor of Diana’s who had a life that mirrored her own in many ways. though how much of it was poetic license I’m not too sure. Enjoyable film anyway. The surprising thing about Diana’s popularity with the public was that it was mainly based on images and gestures, a bit like a silent film actress, yet she managed to project great charisma without saying very much- just being seen to do things in a certain manner unheard of before. A rare gift not many possess.

  8. I enjoyed my visit to the Estate just before Diane’s exhibition closed. The exhibition showed Diana showed the lovely nature of her.
    Like Judy I am not a fan of Diana, but she did have a lovely nature.

  9. I wasn’t a huge Diana fan, nor of her brother, especially after his speech at her funeral. But I really liked the Charles Spencer we met during the ‘Secrets of the Manor House, Althorp’ (TV) and realized what a big deal it is to manage a place like that. The ninth Earl seemed like a well-bred English gentleman. I loved this post and would like to see Althorp someday. But then I am intrigued by all the manor houses.

  10. No longer visit castles, palaces or stately homes. Glad they’re being taken care of though. Amazing that it has stayed in one family so long.

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

Scroll to Top