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Althorp in July 2007

Althorp (/ˈɔːlθɔrp/ or /ˈɔːltrəp/) is a Grade I listed stately home, estate and small civil parish in Daventry District, Northamptonshire, England of about 14,000 acres (60 km2)[1] By road it is about 6 miles (9.7 km) northwest of the county town of Northampton and about 75 miles (121 km) northwest of central London. It has been owned by the prominent aristocratic Spencer family for over 500 years, and has been owned by Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer since 1992. It was also the home of Diana, Princess of Wales, before her marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales.


A manor existed at Althorp in medieval times. It was referred to in the Domesday Book as "Olletorp", meaning Olla's Thorp, believed to refer to a medieval lord named Olla.[2] Thorp is a word of Scandinavian origin, which would have been pronounced as "throop" or "thrupp", and the in Danish probably meant "daughter's settlement".[2] In the 13th and 15th centuries it was recorded as "Holtropp" and "Aldrop", although when the estate was bought by John Spencer in 1508 it began being referred to as "Oldthorpe".

The name today is actually properly pronounced as "Awltrupp", which isn't officially recognized on paper and by the media. The current owner, Charles Spencer, noted that none of his family refer to it as Althorp, and that his father insisted on pronouncing it "Awl-trupp", and stated that when he assumed ownership in 1992 the BBC Pronunciation Department contacted him and the current "Althorp" was agreed upon.[3] During the aftermath of the death of Diana in 1997, one American journalist wrongly referred to the estate as "Antwerp".[3]


Early history[edit]

A hamlet named Althorp existed here in medieval times, believed to have been situated on the southwest side of the park, east of West Lodge. It was first mentioned in the Domesday Book and having a population of 10 at the time, and being part of the parish of Brington. 21 people were documented in 1327, and in 1377 fifty people were reported to have paid Poll Tax over the age of 14.[4]During the 15th century the village seems to have diminished and in 1505 there was no longer any tenants living there. By 1577 most of the land was converted into four substantial sheep pastures.[4]

In 1469, John Spencer's uncle – another John Spencer – had become feoffee (feudal lord) of Wormleighton in Warwickshire and a tenant at Althorp in Northamptonshire in 1486. The family's administration of their Northamptonshire and Warwickshire estates gained them admiration and a following all over England, and their sheep-rearing business earned huge profits.[5] After beginning construction of Wormleighton Manor the previous year with some 60 relatives, John Spencer bought Althorp in 1508 for £800 from the Catesby family.[2][6] At the time John Spencer was also lord of the manors of Fenny Compton, Stoneton, Nobottle, Great Brington, Little Brington, Harlestone, Glassthorpe, Flore, Wicken, Wyke Hamon, Upper Boddington, Lower Boddington, and Hinton and also owned numerous properties.[7] The park took some four years to be established, with 300 acres of grassland, 100 acres of woodland and 40 acres of water.[2]

The original owner John died in 1522 and passed the estate to his youngest son, Sir William Spencer, High Sheriff of Northamptonshire, who held it until his death in 1532. Only a boy at the time of his father's death, John Spencer inherited Althorp and held it until his death in 1586, when he passed it to his son John, who died in 1600. John's son, Sir Robert Spencer, 1st Baron Spencer of Wormleighton, created the 1st Baron Spencer of Wormleighton (in the Peerage of England) on 21 July 1603. Upon his death in 1627 he ceded Althorp to William Spencer, 2nd Baron Spencer of Wormleighton who held it until his death in 1636. His eldest son, Henry Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland, was known as The Lord Spencer between 1636 and June 1643. Henry fought in the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 and was rewarded for his services on 8 June 1643 when the Earl of Sunderland title was bestowed him, although the title cost him £3000. He then fought in the Siege of Gloucester in August 1643 and the First Battle of Newbury on 20 September 1643, where he was killed, aged 23, by a cannonball.

Following the death of Henry, the estate was passed to his eldest son Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, just 2 years of age at the time. Cosmo III of Hungary visited Althorp in 1669.[8] Robert built the current house in 1688.[9] In 1702 he passed it to his son Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland who held it for twenty years, and then was occupied by Robert Spencer, 4th Earl of Sunderland who died childless in 1729. As a result his brother, Charles, became 5th Earl of Sunderland, and subsequently 3rd Duke of Marlborough after the death of his aunt, Henrietta Godolphin (née Churchill), 2nd Duchess of Marlborough. In mid-January 1733, the 3rd Earl's son John Spencer inherited the family estates, and on his death in 1746, he passed them to his son John, only 12 years of age at the time, beneficiary to the greatest inheritance in the kingdom at the time with an income of almost of £30,000 a year.[10]

Cultural hub[edit]

John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer and Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire were noted for their lavish spending and connections.

John became the first Earl Spencer in 1765. The first Earl was renowned for his heavy spending on his political pursuits and campaigns, "indulging in the fiercely competitive and heinously expensive business of fighting elections to Parliament - which effectively meant bribing people to vote for his candidate rather than that of another magnate".[10] He spent £120,000 in one campaign alone. He also spent heavily on his estates, building Spencer House in London and on fashionable attire such as "diamond-buckled shoes". His daughter, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was one of Britain's most prominent socialites at the time with many political and literary connections, and was also well known for her extravagant clothing and spending. With so many close connections, Althorp frequently hosted parties attended by the political and cultural elite at the time, and Althorp became known as a place of indulgence and festivities. John invited numerous guests to dinner and picnics in the gardens featuring musicians playing French horns. He was also known for organizing unusual spectacles to entertain guests, such as a "Hooray Henry Olympics" as Charles Spencer calls it, with a donkey race for Lord Fordwick, dance competitions with a guinea as the first prize, and sack races with the first prize of 30 shillings.[11] Christmas 1755 was a grand affair; some 5000 guests were invited to a party organized by the Spencers in a shed on the village green in the nearby village of Brington, consuming some 11,000 pints of beer. Althorp was "buzzing with activity", and France's top chefs were brought to Althorp to cater for the family and their guests during the week.[12]

John's son George John, 2nd Earl Spencer, who owned Althorp from 1783, developed one of the largest private libraries in Europe at Althorp.[13] By his later life his collecting habit had become something of an obsession and he attempted to collect every volume ever published in Britain, amounting to around 110,000 books by the time of his death.[13] Althorp became a major cultural hub of England during his time and at one Christmas the likes of actor David Garrick, historian Edward Gibbon, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and painter Joshua Reynolds and several others attended a party together.[14] However, George John's spending became problematic for the Spencers, especially as at the time they were feeling the impact of the agricultural depressions brought on by the Napoleonic Wars, and by the time of his death in 1834 he had amassed a debt of £500,000 which he passed onto his son, John Spencer, 3rd Earl Spencer.[14] In respect for his father, John managed to retain the collection, and also continue to run the other Spencer houses at Wimbledon and Spencer House in London, as well as his farm in Wiseton and shooting retreat in Norfolk. He achieved this mainly by far less extravagant living, spending much of the year at Wiseton where the running costs were £1200 compared to the £5000 needed to run Althorp and pay the staff of 40 in the house.[15] Althorp was largely abandoned during the late 1830s and early 1840s, and John also leased out his lands and gardens and sold land in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, so that by the time of his death in 1845 the Spencers were no longer in debt and making a profit. His son Frederick Spencer, 4th Earl Spencer, who owned Althorp from 1845 until his death in 1857 also managed to retain the collection.

Althorp's entrance front in the 1820s. The appearance of the house from this angle is almost unaltered today.

After falling on hard times, John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, eventually sold much of the enormous collection to Enriqueta Rylands who was building the University of Manchester Library.[16] After dying childless in 1910, John passed Althorp to his half brother, Charles Spencer, 6th Earl Spencer.

Modern history[edit]

Times became more difficult for the Spencers by the late 19th century and many of their assets had to be sold off. Albert Spencer, 7th Earl Spencer inherited the estate after his father Charles's death in 1922, and began selling off paintings and other items. In the 1930s Albert Spencer, 7th Earl Spencer was forced to sell off a small but immaculate Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII for £10,000 to finance his son's education. Although a hefty sum at the time, as of 1998 it was reputed to be worth around £50 million.[17] After his death in 1975, Albert passed Althorp to his son Edward John, 8th Earl Spencer, who then left it to the current owner Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer after his death in 1992. The heir apparent will be Charles's son Louis Frederick John Spencer (born 1994). Charles has expressed concerns about the future of the estate in Louis's possession and that he might be forced to sell the estate.[18]

Founded in 2003,[19] the annual Althorp Literary Festival is considered an intimate event.[20] In September 2009, Lord Spencer started a major restoration project repairing the roof, stonework and the mathematical tiles which clad the building, undertaken by architect Giles Quarme.


Althorp (2006)

Althorp house was originally a red brick Tudor building. The current building dates to 1688. That year Althorp was described as being uniform in dimensions, in the form of a half H, built of brick and freestone, ballustred, and à la moderne.[21] Diarist John Evelyn described it that year: The house, or rather palace, at Althorpe is a noble uniform pile in form of a half H, built of brick and freestone 'a la moderne'; the hall is well, the staircase excellent; the rooms of state, galleries, offices, and furniture, such as may become a great prince. It is situate in the midst of a garden, exquisitely planned and kept and all this in a park walled in with hewn stone, planted with rows and walks of trees, canals and fishponds and stored with game."[22] Its appearance was radically altered in the 18th century when the architect Henry Holland was commissioned to make extensive changes starting in 1788.

The interior of the house is generally considered its strongest asset as the Spencer family has assembled an impressive collection of portrait art including several pieces painted by the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck.[9] One of the rooms in the estate is called the Queen Mary bedroom, which was used by Queen Mary and George V during their visit to the estate in 1913.[23]


Ground floor

Wooton Hall[edit]

Wooton Hall is the grand hall entrance to Althorp house. "Perfectly proportioned" with a two-storey high ceiling it was cited by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as "the noblest Georgian room in the county".[24] It takes its name from the painter John Wooton who was commissioned by the family in 1733 to paint a number of massive paintings in his Marylebone studio to reflect the family's love of equestrian pursuits, particularly fox hunting. At the time Wooton was considered to be the finest painter of horses in the country.[24] The paintings still hang on the walls. The hall has a substantial collection of artifacts collected over the years. Aside from the hall porter's chair, there is a dozen or so lavish-looking hall chairs, one of which is a sedan chair, rediscovered in the Stable Block in 1911 which had once been in Spencer House.

A prominent feature of the Wooton Hall is its pair of Italian black and Beschia marble blackamoor torchères in exceptionally good condition which stand either side of the door into the Saloon. These were discovered in the silt of the River Tiber and are images of slaves which once served in a Roman household.[25] The torchères were originally given to the First Duke of Marlborough as a present from General Charles Churchill. Several flags stand above them, including the White Ensign. The ceiling is intricately made, featuring flowers in the plaster, each one different, the work of Colen Campbell in the early 18th century. The black and white check marble floor is also a distinguishing feature of the room, but through most of its history this floor would have been left plain as horses and carriages would enter the hall inside.[26] In the mid 19th century Frederick, the 4th Earl, had laid down brown and blue tiles, replaced by the marble floor added by his son Robert in around 1910.


The Saloon is beyond the Wooton Hall and contains an imposing oak staircase, added in 1662. [22]

South Drawing Room[edit]

The South Drawing Room is at the front of the house on the West Wing. It retains its Georgian elegance, with walls painted in a duck egg blue colour with forest green drapery and peach-patterned sofas.[27] A large mirror with an exquisite gold frame stands between the two windows. There are numerous paintings on the walls in the room. Although Higgerson, the night watchman, guarded the place from 8 pm to 8 am, in 1954 one of the paintings in the South Drawing Room was stolen in the night, although not one of the especially valuable ones.[28]

Billiard Room[edit]


George John's fascination in literature began at a young age and there is a portrait in the house of him at Trinity College, Cambridge holding a book, painted in 1786 by Sir Joshua Reynolds. By his later life George's collecting habit had become something of an obsession and he attempted to collect every volume ever published in Britain.[13]

The book were kept in five apartments in Althorp in the west wing, which, combined, formed the "Long Library" with books from the floor to the ceiling along much of its 200ft or so by 20 ft length. He not only collected British works but imported Greek and Latin classics, and in 1790 he acquired the collection of Count Revicsky, paying an initial £1000, and then £500 annually until the count's death, only three years later.[29] George often paid great fees for rare books, including a woodcut of St Christopher dated to 1423, believed at that time to be the oldest work in ink with a date on it, the Papal Indulgence Letters of 1452, the Mazarin Bible of 1455, the Mentz Psalter of 1457, and some of the earliest works form the printing presses of Augsburg and Nuremberg such as Bonaventurae and Comestiorum Vitiorum.[13] In 1812 George was involved in an intense bidding war with his cousin, The Duke of Marlborough, for a copy of Boccacio's The Decameron of 1471, one of only three known copies. Marlborough won the auction with a "ludicrous" bid of £2,260 at that time, but later sold it to George for £750.[14]

In 1802 he hired Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin as an official librarian to look after the collection and the library contains his many catalogues entitled Aedes Althorpianæ, documenting the books of the library. The collection became so enormous that the massive library became inadequate to hold the contents, and books began being stored along the 115 ft long picture gallery on the first floor above it.[13] By the time of George John's death in 1834, he had amassed one of the largest private collections in Europe of some 110,000 volumes.

Marlborough Room[edit]

Sunderland Room[edit]

China Museum[edit]

Great Dining Room[edit]

Tapestry Dining Room[edit]

The Spencers ate their regular meals in the Tapestry Dining Room, an inner room of the east side to the east of the Wooton Hall. Aside from the two fine vividly constructed tapestries, one of gypsies and one of farming, the room is fairly bleak in design compared to other rooms in the house; the dining table is relatively small, with a drab grey floor and open brick fireplace dated in large letters to 1683.[30] The "sombre" oak panelling originally came from the family's other property of Wormleighton Manor in Warwickshire.[31] Charles Spencer recalled that three generations of Spencers would eat their lunch together and that dining conditions were "silent, apart from the noises of my grandfather eating with great gusto, a napkin tucked in around his neck, hanging down over his popping-out tummy, and it was all very sad and tense".[32]

Grandmother's Sitting Room and Muniment Room[edit]

The Grandmother's Sitting Room is situated at the front of the eastern wing. It is noted for its deep blue hand-painted frescoes and formal furniture, and was the favourite room of Charles Spencer's grandmother, Cynthia Spencer, Countess Spencer.[33] Nearby was the Muniment Room in which the Spencer family records were kept, described as a "musty apartment" which contained over 500 years of history, from medieval household accounts to letters from Jacobeans and accounts of Victorian house parties. The room was a favourite haunt of Spencer's grandfather, Albert Spencer, who would spend thousands of hours in it perusing over the family history. So guarded was he of the collection that when Winston Churchill once spent time in the room looking for information on his ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), Albert immediately doused out his cigar in fear of creating a fire.[34] Today the records are housed in the British Library.

First floor

Picture Gallery[edit]

The Picture Gallery stretches for 115 feet (35 m) on the first floor of the west wing, 20 feet (6.1 m) wide and 19 feet (5.8 m) high.[35] The room is one of the best remaining examples of the original Tudor woodwork and ambiance in the mansion, featuring oak along its length. It has an extensive collection of portraits, including Van Dyck's War and Peace, a John de Critz portrait of James I, a Mary Beale portrait of Charles II and others of him by court artist Sir Peter Lely, a Lucas de Heere portrait of Lady Jane Grey, and portraits of George Digby, Second Earl of Bristol and William, First Duke of Bedford. Albert Spencer was so protective of War and Peace, once the most valuable item in Althorp, that he had the nearest tall window in the gallery converted into a door with hinges so in case of a fire it could safely be lifted outside.[36] There is a also a small hidden door between War and Peace and Windsor Beauties cut into the oak which leads to a staircase and the Pink Suite, a guest bedroom. Margaret Douglas-Home, sister of Albert Spencer, lived at Althorp from 1910, and the gallery was a favourite of hers.

Due to its length, during Tudor times the ladies of the mansion used it for exercise on rainy days to avoid dragging their long skirts and dresses through the mud in the grounds.[37] It was also used as a dining hall, and in 1695 the county nobility and gentry all met together and dined in the gallery to pay their respects to William III.[38] Visiting the gallery in 1748, the Marchioness grey described the gallery in a letter to a friend: "Indeed there is a gracefulness and life in the figures beyond what I ever saw, they are quite animated and a strength of colouring that strikes you from one end of that gallery to the other. It is so beautiful that a picture which hangs by it is hurt by its situation." Horace Walpole once wrote: "Althorp has several very fine pictures by the best Italian hands, and a gallery of all one's acquaintances by Vandyke and Lely. In the gallery I found myself quite at home; and surprised the housekeeper by my familiarity with the portraits."[35]

Queen Mary Bedroom[edit]

King William Bedroom[edit]

Oak Bedroom[edit]

The Oak Bedroom is at the rear of the house, on the western side between King William Bedroom and the Great Room. The marriage of the first Earl Spencer was held in secret in this room.[39] As of 1998 it was furnished with deep red wall paper, rug and chairs, with oak floors, bed and chairs. There are several portraits on the wall as you enter the room, one of them very large above the fireplace. The Spencer "S" features on the blue velvet bed cover, above the king-sized bed and by the fireplace.[39]

Great Room[edit]

The Portrait of Isaak Abrahamsz. Massa is mentioned in the 1822 Bibliotheca Spenceriana as hanging in one of the bedrooms at Althorp.[40] It was sold in 1924 to art merchant Joseph Duveen, who sold it the following year to Canadian businessman Frank P. Wood.

Ante Room[edit]

India Silk Bedroom[edit]

Spencer Gallery[edit]



Round Oval lake with the Diana memorial beyond.

Within the grounds, there are earthworks of the lost village of Althorp on which the estate was built. To the southwest of the house is High Wood, with the Dog Pond to the east of this. Bircham Spinney is immediately to east, to the south of the pond. Hopyard Spinney lies in the northeast corner of the estate bordering the A428, and Sir John's Wood marks the northwest corner. John Spencer was responsible for the planting of a number of woods on the grounds in the latter half of the 16th century. One tablet mentions he planted one of the woods in 1567-8 and Sir John's Wood in 1589 at a time when lords of manors around Britain grew increasingly anxious of their security following the Spanish Armada and planted woodlands around their properties.[41]

Robert Spencer hired the great French landscape architect André Le Nôtre to lay out the park and grounds in the 1660s.[4] A map by Kip which appeared in Britannia Illustrata (1709) showed the result of the changes, depicting the house with a wide rectangular courtyard on the main south front, a formal walled garden structured by rectangular-shaped flower-beds and lawns to the east, and tree-lined avenues to the north and south.[4]

Diana was interred on a small island in the middle of the ornamental Round Oval lake,[1][42] which was created by the architect William Milford Teulon (1823–1900) in the 1860s.[43] A Doric-style temple with Diana's name inscribed on top is situated across from the lake. Thirty-six trees flank the roadway to the site.[44] The estate stable block has been converted into an exhibition devoted to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, who is buried on the estate.


The estate and house are open to the public during the summer months (1 July to 30 August). All profits made are donated to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.[45] The estate was first opened to the public in 1953 by the 7th Earl Spencer, to mitigate against taxation.[45] The estate had its own railway station called Althorp Park on the Northampton Loop Line until 1960. When the royal train visited after the public funeral for Diana, it travelled instead to Long Buckby railway station. Northampton Golf Club is to the southeast.


Although the current owner Charles Spencer professes to have never witnessed a ghost at Althorp or anywhere else, over the years numerous ghostly sightings have been reported in the mansion. In the mid 19th century the Dean of Lincoln was invited to stay at the property by Fredrick, 4th Earl Spencer. He complained the following morning that during the night a figure dressed as a groom (believed to be the ghost of the deceased servant of the 3rd Earl) had entered his room holding candles and checking that they were snuffed out around the bed.[46] Margaret Douglas-Home professed to being aware of the ghost of girl with grey slippers in the gallery.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Paprocki 2009, p. 31.
  2. ^ a b c d Spencer 1998, p. 18.
  3. ^ a b Spencer 1998, p. 19.
  4. ^ a b c d "'Althorp', An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northamptonshire, Volume 3: Archaeological sites in North-West Northamptonshire". English Heritage, accessed via British History Online. 1981. pp. 1–3. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  5. ^ "SPENCER, John (c.1549-1600), of Newnham, Warws. and Althorp, Northants. in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603". 1981. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  6. ^ The Spectator 1864, p. 123.
  7. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 20.
  8. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 41.
  9. ^ a b Jones, p. 245.
  10. ^ a b Spencer 1998, p. 35.
  11. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 37.
  12. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 38.
  13. ^ a b c d e Spencer 1998, p. 72.
  14. ^ a b c Spencer 1998, p. 73.
  15. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 75.
  16. ^ "George John, 2nd Earl Spencer". University of Manchester. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  17. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 6.
  18. ^ "Earl Spencer's concern over the heir to the Althorp estate". The Telegraph. 5 November 2012. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  19. ^ Bonsor, Sacha (2 May 2013). "Althorp Literary Festival 2013". Harper's Bazaar. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  20. ^ "The 11th Althorp Literary Festival". Spencer of Althorp. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  21. ^ Dibdin 1822, p. 46.
  22. ^ a b Spencer 1998, p. 43.
  23. ^ "Born to rule". Stripes. 6 June 2013. Retrieved 6 July 2013. 
  24. ^ a b Spencer 1998, p. 13.
  25. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 14.
  26. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 17.
  27. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 11.
  28. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 10.
  29. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 70.
  30. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 8.
  31. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 9.
  32. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 7.
  33. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 4-5.
  34. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 5.
  35. ^ a b Spencer 1998, p. 23.
  36. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 25.
  37. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 28-9.
  38. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 29.
  39. ^ a b Spencer 1998, p. 32.
  40. ^ Dibdin 1822, p. 274.
  41. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 21.
  42. ^ Owings 2012, p. 105.
  43. ^ Brown 2011, p. 341.
  44. ^ Caputi 2004, p. 361.
  45. ^ a b Palmer 2008, p. 152.
  46. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 31.
  47. ^ Spencer 1998, p. 30.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°16′49″N 1°00′07″W / 52.28028°N 1.00194°W / 52.28028; -1.00194