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Althorp House.jpg
Grid reference: SP682651
Location: 52°16’49"N, 1°0’3"W
Country house
Owned by: The Earl Spencer

Althorp is a Grade I listed stately home and estate in Northamptonshire. It also gives it name to the parish. The Althorp Estate extends to some 13,000 acres.[1]

By road, Althorp is about six miles northwest of the county town, Northampton. It has been held by the prominent aristocratic Spencer family for more than 500 years, and has been owned by Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer since 1992. It was also the home of his sister, Diana, before her marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales.


The name of the house has traditionally been pronounced ɔːltrəp ('Orltrop') but after the surge in visitors following the death of Princess Diana, the family has accepted the more phonetic pronunciation most visitors use, namely ˈɔːlθɔ:p ('Orl-thorp'). The current Earl, Charles Spencer, noted that none of his family refer to it as 'Althorp', and that his father insisted on pronouncing it "Awl-trupp". When he inherited the title and the estate in 1992, the BBC Pronunciation Department contacted him and the current "Althorp" pronunciation was agreed upon.[2]

A manor existed at Althorp in mediæval times. It was referred to in the Domesday Book as "Olletorp", meaning 'Olla's Thorp', believed to refer to a mediæval lord of that name. 'Thorp' is a word found in both Old English and Old Norse, though most in place-names it is from the latter. In the 13th and 15th centuries the manor was recorded as "Holtropp" and "Aldrop", although when the estate was bought by John Spencer in 1508 it began being referred to as "Oldthorpe".[3]


Althorp is mentioned as a small hamlet in the Domesday Book as "Olletorp", and by 1377 it had become a village with a population of more than fifty people. By 1505 there were no longer any tenants living there, and in 1508, John Spencer purchased Althorp estate with the handsome funds generated from his family's sheep-rearing business. Althorp became one of the prominent stately homes in England. The mansion dates to 1688, replacing an earlier house that was once visited by Charles I. The Spencer family amassed an extensive art collection and other valuable household items. During the 18th century, the house became a major cultural hub in England, and parties were regularly held, attracting many prominent members of Great Britain's ruling class. George John, 2nd Earl Spencer, who owned Althorp between 1783 and his death in 1834, developed one of the largest private libraries in Europe at the house, which grew to over 100,000 books by the 1830s.[lower-alpha 1] After falling on hard times, John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, known as the Red Earl, in 1892 sold much of the collection to Enriqueta Rylands, who was building the University of Manchester Library. Many of Althorp's furnishings were sold off during the twentieth century, and between 1975 and 1992 alone approximately 20% of the contents were auctioned.

The house at Althorp was a "classically beautiful" red brick Tudor building, but its appearance was radically altered, starting in 1788, when the architect Henry Holland was commissioned to make extensive changes. Mathematical tiles were added to the exterior, encasing the brick, and four Corinthian pilasters were added to the front. The grand hall entrance to the house, Wootton Hall,[lower-alpha 2] was cited by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as "the noblest Georgian room in the county". The Great Dining Room in the east wing extension of the house was added in 1877 to designs by John Macvicar Anderson, its walls hung with faded, red damask silk. Numerous fireplaces and furnishings were brought to Althorp from Spencer House in London during the Blitz for safekeeping and still remain. The Picture Gallery stretches for 115 feet on the first floor of the west wing, and is one of the best remaining examples of the original Tudor oak woodwork and ambiance in the mansion. It has an extensive collection of portraits, including Anthony van Dyck's War and Peace, a John de Critz portrait of James I, a Mary Beale portrait of Charles II, and many others. Some £2 million was spent on redecorating the house in the 1980s, during which time most of the religious paintings of Althorp were sold off.

In total, the grounds of Althorp estate contain 28 listed buildings and structures, including nine planting stones. The former falconry, now a Grade I listed building, was built in 1613. Gardener's House is listed as a Grade II* listed building in its own right, as are the Grade II listed West and East Lodges. The mustard-yellow Grade II listed Stable Block, designed by architect Roger Morris with a Palladian influence, was ordered by Charles, Fifth Earl of Sutherland in the early 1730s. The French landscape architect André Le Nôtre was commissioned to lay out the park and grounds in the 1660s, and further alterations were made during the late 18th century under Henry Holland.

Following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, she was interred on a small island in the middle of the ornamental Round Oval lake. A Doric-style temple with Diana's name inscribed on top, situated across from the lake, is a tourist attraction during July and August when the house and estate are open to the public, although the exhibition centre, situated in the old stable block, closed permanently in 2013.

Modern history

Charles Spencer, 6th Earl Spencer

Times became 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' death in 1922. Albert became a well-known art connoisseur and was a trustee of the Wallace Collection, chairman of the Royal School of Needlework, a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Royal Society of Arts, and from 1961 until 1969 he was Chair of the Advisory Council of the Victoria and Albert Museum.[7] Despite his keen interest in art, he began selling off paintings and other items to pay off debts. In the 1930s he was forced to sell off a small but immaculate Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII (now at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid) for £10,000 to finance his son's education. Unlike many country houses in Britain during the Second World War which were occupied by the military and converted into hospitals, training camps and barracks, Althorp house remained untouched, thanks to Albert who saw to it that they used the stables instead. A Wellington bomber crashed near the ice house during the war, killing all of its crew.[8] Due to Spencer House being in a dangerous location in London during the Blitz, many of the pieces of furniture and items of the house were brought to Althorp for safekeeping, including numerous fireplaces and doors with curled "S" doorknobs, a signature of the Spencer family dating to the 18th century.[8]

The estate was first opened to the public in 1953 by Albert, to mitigate against taxation,[9] and Althorp had its own railway station called Althorp Park on the Northampton Loop Line until 1960.[10] Edward John, 8th Earl Spencer was a wine connoisseur with an extensive wine cellar at Althorp. He made his own wine and attracted fellow connoisseurs from around the world to Althorp, although he did not sell much of it.[11] During his ownership of Althorp approximately 20% of the furnishings were sold off in auctions.[12] Edward left the estate to his son, the current owner Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, after his death in 1992. As a teenager, Charles served as a tour guide at the house and acquired a deep knowledge of Althorp. At the time he inherited the estate it was losing some £400,000 annually, and the staff of 14 had to be significantly reduced.[13] Charles' older sister was Diana, Princess of Wales, who grew up with him at Althorp.

Althorp House

Since the 1990s Charles Spencer has done much to increase the revenue earned by the estate to keep it running. The annual Althorp Literary Festival was founded in 2003.[14][15] The heir apparent is Charles' son Louis Frederick John Spencer (born 1994). Charles has expressed concerns about the future of the estate and whether Louis might be forced to sell it.[16] In 2005 Charles endorsed a furniture collection, known as the Althorp Living History Collection of Verbarg's, to preserve the heritage of the estate and create new revenue by making replicas of its notable furniture pieces. Furniture that has been copied includes the circular mahogany dining table, the oak Washington Chest in one of Althorp's passageways, upholstery such as the George III framed sofa and Bergere library armchairs, an Empire mahogany and parcel-gilt daybed, and various other pieces such as candlesticks, lamps, mirrors and vases.

In September 2009 Charles started a major restoration project repairing the roof, stonework and the mathematical tiles that clad the building, undertaken by architect Giles Quarme. Approximately £10 million was spent on repairing the roof alone, and as a result Charles auctioned off many of Althorp's artifacts in 2010, including many items stored in the attics and cellars. Over 700 items were sold for more than £2 million.[17]


Althorp house is described as standing in a low situation, "approached by a handsome avenue, beautifully shaded with trees".[4] The house was originally a "classically beautiful" red brick Tudor building, and a Johannes Vorstermans painting dated to 1677 shows a smaller red house at Althorp and Holdenby House in the distance to the far right.[18] Cosmo III noted that the interior of Althorp house was strongly influenced by Italian architecture, and remarked that it "may be said to be the best planned, and best arranged country seat in the kingdom; for though there may be many which surpass it in size, none are superior to it in symmetrical elegance".[19] The current building dates to 1688. 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 'à 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."[20] Its appearance was radically altered in the 18th century when the architect Henry Holland was commissioned to make extensive changes starting in 1788.[21] Mathematical tiles were added to the exterior, brought from Ipswich, encasing the old red brick, and four Corinthian pilasters, made from Roche Abbey stone in Yorkshire, were added to the front. The stone used to make the pilasters was reportedly intended by Christopher Wren to be used in the construction of St Paul's Cathedral.[22] Sash windows with glazing bars and "moulded stone heads and surrounds" were added.


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, and countless valuable pieces of porcelain and furniture.[23] 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.[24] Some £2 million was spent on redecorating the house in the 1980s, during which time most of the religious paintings of Althorp were sold off.[25]


Aerial view of Althorp and Princess Diana's Island on Round Oval lake

The estate of Althorp covers an area of at least 13,000 acres, and not only includes the house grounds but areas of woodland, cottages, farms, and surrounding hamlets.[1] 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 north-east corner of the estate bordering the A428, and Sir John's Wood marks the northwest corner. Sir John's Wood is named after 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.[26] Between 1567 and 1901 at least seven stone date tablets were erected in the park commemorating the planting of trees.[27] In the north and north-eastern part of Althorp is marshy ground which is natural feeding ground for herons, a prized delicacy historically at the house. They were harvested by the gamekeeper usually from early March, after being fattened up by meal and bullock's liver. In 1842 one hundred nests were recorded at the estate but this had fallen to ten by 1889. The herons were moved to a pond about two miles away in 1993 and are no longer produced for domestic consumption at Althorp.[28] Northampton Golf Club, established in July 1893,[29] is situated immediately to the southeast of Althorp.[30]

Robert Spencer hired the French landscape architect André Le Nôtre to lay out the park and grounds in the 1660s. 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. During the renovation under Holland in the 18th century, the lake was drained in the Deer Park, which the First Earl had used as a playground with full-sized Venetian gondolas, and remaining traces of the old moat were eradicated. From 1860 onwards the architect William Milford Teulon (1823–1900) updated the gardens at Althorp, and further additions and changes were made in the 1990s under Dan Pearson when the Diana memorial was established and many trees planted.[31] After Teulon's additions, the Spencers began growing its own fruit and vegetables and flowers.[32] In 1901 a variety of sweet pea, now known "Spencer type", with "flowers of exceptional size and of an exquisite shade of pink", was cultivated at Althorp by Silas Cole, the chief gardener to the Fifth Earl Spencer, and exhibited at horticultural shows.[31]

Diana grave, memorial, and exhibition

Round Oval lake with the Diana memorial

Diana, Princess of Wales was interred on a small island in the middle of the ornamental Round Oval lake,[33][34] which was created by Teulon in 1868.[35] The island was decided as the best place to lay her to rest because the water would, according to Spencer, "act as a buffer against the interventions of the insane and ghoulish, the thick mud presenting a further line of defence. We all agreed that, with its beauty and tranquillity, this was the place for Diana to be".[36] Her burial place is marked with a white memorial plinth and urn.[37]

A Doric-style temple with Diana's name inscribed on top is situated across from the lake, as a place where visitors can lay down their floral tributes to the princess. It contains a black silhouette of her in the middle, set in white marble, evocative of the Henry Holland's material preference, with a tablet on either side. One tablet displays a quote from Diana about her love of charitable work, and the other holds Charles Spencer's concluding tribute given at her funeral in Westminster Abbey.[37]

Following the death of Diana on 31 August 1997 and the subsequent decision to create a memorial and open the house and estate to the public, the garden designer Dan Pearson was commissioned to update the park and gardens, to accommodate for visitors. A series of 36 oak trees was planted along the access road, symbolic of the years of Diana's life.[38] Thousands of plants were planted, including 100 white rambling roses on the island and 1000 white water lilies, donated by the Stowe School in the water around it.[39]

The estate stable block was converted into a public exhibition devoted to the memory of Diana, and open between 1998 and 2013, It was designed by Rasshied Ali Din, who had to seek approval from English Heritage due to it being a Grade II listed building. Din said of the result, "You have a contrast of the modern and the new with the old and the established, which is basically a metaphor for Diana. She was a very modern woman within an established environment."[40] He created six rooms out of the former carriage houses and stabling areas, and the old tea room was transformed into a restaurant, and toilets installed for visitors.[41]


The estate and house are open to the public during the summer months (1 July to 30 August), although the exhibition centre in the stable block was closed in August 2013. It was believed to be due to concern about the commercial exploitation of Diana's name, and the desire to "squash the cult of Diana".[42] The items on display have been packed up, with the intention to give them to her sons Prince William and Prince Henry.[42] All profits made were donated to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which closed in 2012.[9]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Althorp House)
("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Althorp Park)


  1. Various sources differ on how many volumes Althorp had at its peak, although most agree it was one of the most sizable private collections in Europe at the time. A number of sources conservatively state 33,000 to 40,000 volumes,[4][5] but Charles Spencer's Althorp: A Story of an English Country House (1998) estimates 110,000 upon John's death in 1834, sprawling across at least five rooms from floor to ceiling, and notes that the collection had grown so massive that books were also being stored in rooms like the Picture Gallery on the upper floor.[6]
  2. The hall is also spelled Wooten or Wooton in various sources.
  1. 1.0 1.1 "The Estate". Retrieved 20 May 2014. 
  2. Spencer 1998, p. 19.
  3. Spencer 1998, p. 18.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Whellan 1849, p. 283.
  5. Kemp 1992, p. 268.
  6. Spencer 1998, p. 72.
  7. The ... Volume of the Walpole Society. 45. Walpole Society. 1976. p. 9. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Spencer 1998, p. 111.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Palmer 2008, p. 152.
  10. Electric Railway Society Journal. The Electric Railway Society. 1995. p. 21. 
  11. Spencer 1998, p. 119.
  12. Spencer 1998, p. 122.
  13. Spencer 1998, pp. 123-24.
  14. Bonsor, Sacha (2 May 2013). "Althorp Literary Festival 2013". Harper's Bazaar. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  15. "The 11th Althorp Literary Festival". Spencer of Althorp. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  16. "Earl Spencer's concern over the heir to the Althorp estate". The Telegraph. 5 November 2012. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  17. "The Althorp Attic Sale". Christie's. 
  18. Spencer 1998, p. 64.
  19. Spencer & Dibdin 1822, p. 34.
  20. Spencer 1998, p. 43.
  21. Spencer 1998, p. 61.
  22. Spencer 1998, p. 65.
  23. Jones, p. 245.
  24. "Born to rule". Stripes. 6 June 2013. Retrieved 6 July 2013. 
  25. Spencer 1998, pp. 119-20.
  26. Spencer 1998, p. 21.
  27. Taylor 1911, p. 65.
  28. Spencer 1998, p. 95.
  29. Cox 1902, p. 489.
  30. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named GM
  31. 31.0 31.1 "Garden and Lake". Retrieved 20 May 2014. 
  32. "The Park at Althorp". Retrieved 20 May 2014. 
  33. Paprocki 2009, p. 31.
  34. Owings 2012, p. 105.
  35. Brown 2011, p. 341.
  36. Spencer 1998, p. 157.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Spencer 1998, p. 167.
  38. Caputi 2004, p. 361.
  39. Spencer 1998, pp. 164-65.
  40. "Drawn to do Diana Proud". The Herald (Scotland). 26 January 1998. Retrieved 20 May 2014. 
  41. Spencer 1998, pp. 161-62.
  42. 42.0 42.1 Wilson, Christopher (30 August 2013). "The sun goes down on the Althorp shrine to Diana, Princess of Wales". The Telegraph. Retrieved 20 May 2014. 


Further reading