Did you know that Princess Diana lived several years at her family’s ancestral home, named Althorp? As a Diana fan, I did. So when I saw Secrets of Althorp: Spencers in the local PBS listings, I tuned in. I found the show really interesting, and here are some interesting facts about Diana’s home. (Side note: Secrets of Henry VIII’s Palace: Hampton Court, shown the previous Sunday night on PBS, was great as well).
Diana’s younger brother Charles (yep, she married Charles and her younger brother is named that as well. The family had three girls — Diana being the third — before getting the coveted boy) is now the ninth Earl Spencer. “Earl” is a British nobility title; here’s how it stacks up compared to others: Emperor, King, Prince, Archduke, Duke, Marquess/Marquis, Count/Earl, Viscount, Baron, Baronet, Hereditary Knight, and Knight. An Earl’s wife and daughters are referred to as “Lady,” that’s why in her pre-marriage days, Diana was called “Lady Diana.”
Charles hosted the program, which makes sense as he’s the current owner of the ancestral home. Still, I find him hard-to-take (I’ll never forget my hand-over-the-mouth awe at his <British voice>extreme naughtiness</British voice> in trying to shame the Royals at Diana’s funeral, and from what I’ve read he just doesn’t sound like the most savory of characters. During the show, he mentioned that he had been married at Althorp in 2011. He didn’t mention, however, that at the ripe old age of 48 that was his third marriage — following close after ditching another fiancee of the time. Spencer has five children with his first two wives.
I read in an article that Spencer has been reluctant (although apparently not too reluctant) to marry again each time, fearing “complicating his inheritance.” And the show makes clear just how important an inheritance is if you’re running a place like the 500-year-old Althorp. Althorp was originally a red brick house, but a few hundred years back red brick went out of fashion, as I’m sure you’ll recall.
After that, the family covered over the bricks with “mathematical tiles” designed to look like brick of another color. Problem was, over the years the nails used to attach the tiles began to rust. So, in the past few years Spencer paid 8-9 million dollars to have the entire exterior and roof renovated using all-new nails that should not deteriorate. The show stated that the house could not revert to the original red brick both because they had been damaged by the overlaying tiles, and because the British National Trust would not allow the overall appearance of the house exterior to be changed. Talk about a demanding neighborhood association!
As I watched the show, I kept thinking of Downton Abbey. Both estates are huge — Althorp has a 300-acre park — and both have lots of employees. I believe the show said that 50 people worked at Althorp! There are gardeners, housekeepers, etc. One woman was talking on-camera as she shone a doorknob. Very Downton Abbey!
- Althrop has a herd of over 300 black deer — very cool.
- One of Althorp’s current biggest claims to fame is that it’s the resting place of Princess Diana. This was obviously mentioned in the show, but it was not a Diana-fest. Charles Spencer set up a “Diana museum” of sorts in the Althorp stables, and this is open two months each year. Guests can see the island where Diana is buried, but they can’t go out to the island itself. It was recently reported that the Diana museum will be closing next year, with Diana’s items going to her boys, as she requested. I’m betting that Earl Spencer earned a lot of money toward Althorp through payments of people coming to see Diana’s things. Perhaps we can thank Diana for the roof/exterior re-do.
- The show featured the hundreds of paintings in Althorp. Truly amazing; several long halls there appeared like they could have come out of the Louvre or something similar. Charles Spencer has added some modern works as well; the show mentioned that some of these are “controversial.” I can see why — look up one called “Brittania.”
I recommend Secrets of Althorp: Spencers as a fascinating look both into Diana’s past, and also into a magnificent British home. Check it out on your own PBS station!
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