The RL Q&A: Earl Spencer

The British nobleman reminisces about growing up at Althorp—the Spencer family’s historic home and the stunning backdrop to Ralph Lauren's Fall 2015 Purple Label campaign

By the numbers, Althorp is an undeniably impressive place. Five centuries of history. A sprawling 13,000 acres of land. Forests populated by 400-plus-year-old trees and all manner of wildlife, some of it rare or endangered. More than 100 buildings, including one spectacular 90-room house built in 1508. And while statistics can only tell part of the story, here’s one more for good measure: Althorp has been home to England’s Spencer family for 19 generations.

Althorp also served as the setting for the Fall 2015 Purple Label campaign shoot, and for the full—non-numerical—story on this historic English home, we reached out to its owner, Charles Spencer, the ninth Earl Spencer. He has spent the past 23 years restoring Althorp from top to bottom, while also finding time to publish five history books. The latest is UK best-seller Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, about the 17th-century civil war between the British Parliament and King Charles I, a Spencer ancestor. (“My book is a sort of 17th-century Game of Thrones, I like to kid myself,” Spencer says.)

Here, the usually press-shy English gentleman speaks about his personal attachment to the stately family home, its traditional-meets-modern dress code, and whether the property might be haunted.
Lady and Lord Spencer
Lady and Lord Spencer

As a teenager you served as a tour guide at Althorp. What drew you to the job?
Growing up surrounded by the splendor of this great house, and being always more interested in history than any other of my school subjects, I guess becoming a tour guide in the summer vacation was a natural progression. I’ve always found it easier to connect with the tales connected to the figures in Althorp’s collection of 650 portraits than, say, with the porcelain or furniture—for me, history has always been about people-watching, and so many of the men and women in their gilded frames had such fascinating life stories, it was hard not to find them intriguing. I also really appreciated the pocket money I earned, as a boy, from this work!

What are your most vivid childhood memories of growing up at Althorp?
My earliest memories are of visiting Althorp when my grandparents lived here, when I was a small boy. My grandmother was a truly lovely lady—after her death, in 1972, the local hospice was named “Cynthia Spencer” in her memory, and I still hear so many lovely things about quiet acts of kindness she performed in the community. She was very loving and playful with us. My grandfather found intimacy more difficult—he was a forbidding figure, very much from the Edwardian era, and as children we were very much on our best behavior in front of him. Diana [Earl Spencer’s sister, the late Princess of Wales] and I were always put in the same bedroom—the night nursery—with a flickering candle to stop us from being too scared of the dark in this huge house, with its strange noises of security men padding round the place, as well as creaking floorboards and the muffled chiming of ancient clocks.

And living there now as an adult, what do you enjoy most about having it as your home?
I took over Althorp when I was only 27. Since then, I’ve reroofed it, repointed the exterior, updated the plumbing and electricity, and redecorated pretty much every one of the 90-odd rooms. Each year I appreciate it even more—its history, its beauty, its essentially English elegance. There are always new projects in hand—this is a very modern estate—and that means each year is fresh and exciting. I’m lucky enough to have other homes, but I guess for any member of the Spencer family, Althorp is where our heart is, wherever we are in the world.
Painting of Sarah Churchill
Sarah, the first Duchess of Marlborough, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller

For centuries Althorp has been known for its art collections. Do you have a favorite painting or piece?
My favorite is a beautiful portrait of Sarah, the first Duchess of Marlborough, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which adds an extra sparkle to Althorp’s 120-foot-long Picture Gallery. Sarah is the ancestor who most benefitted the Spencer family, leaving her possessions to us. Along with 27 landed estates, she bequeathed to Althorp much of her art, including this exquisite portrait of her own head, which is such a beautiful work—I love the black and grey lines of her outline, surrounding the red explosion of her lips.

 

With a home like Althorp, it’d be understandable if you didn’t get out much. And yet, you’ve made a point of being out in the world.
I feel very lucky to have had a life independent of Althorp. As soon as I left Oxford, I worked for NBC News’ Today Show in the 80s and 90s, doing reports in 30 countries. Those years taught me more about writing than my time at Oxford did.

For any member of the Spencer family, Althorp is where our heart is, wherever we are in the world.

For those fortunate enough to receive an invite to the estate, what would be considered proper dress, and how has the dress code evolved over the years?
My wife, Karen, and I are pretty relaxed, day-to-day. She is a great beauty, and naturally stylish, so frankly looks amazing in anything. We realize, though, that people really enjoy dressing up when staying at Althorp on weekends—it’s what they expect, and it somehow honors the house. So, on Saturday nights, it’s black tie. We have six or seven weekends a year when the house is full of family and friends, and those Saturday evenings are probably the most direct connections back to when things were much more formal here. But we also want people to enjoy their time at Althorp, and not feel burdened by history—so, for the rest of their time here, there is no dress code. People appear as they want to appear. Some are peacocks; others opt for chinos.

Finally, we have to ask about ghosts, for which stately homes are famous. Have there been any recent sightings? About 20 years ago, someone who was the new girlfriend of an old friend of mine was adamant that she had encountered the ghost of one of Althorp’s grooms—a man who had, I discovered, been dead for more than a century. The detail she gave was astonishing, and I am sure she believed what she was saying. But I can’t ever imagine anyone ever coming across a frightening ghost here—it’s just too happy and upbeat a place. They just wouldn’t fit in at Althorp.
  • Photos from the Fall 2015 Purple Label campaign, shot on location at Althorp
Back To Top
Regular RL Mag contributor CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD, best known for his website Ivy Style, recently launched the site Masculine Interiors, which celebrates elegant men’s spaces.
  • PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ALTHORP
  • PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ALTHORP
  • PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ALTHORP
  • ALL SLIDESHOW PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION