Althorp is the girlhood home of Lady Diana, Princess of Wales. 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 as having a population of ten at the time, and being part of the parish of Brington. It was officially designated as an "extra parochial district" for centuries under the New Bottle Grove Hundred of Brington, but by 1874 it was being cited as an independent civil parish. 21 residents were documented in 1327, and in 1377 fifty people were reported to have paid Poll Tax over the age of 14. During the 15th century the population of the village diminished, and in 1505 there were no longer any tenants living there, and in 1508, John Spencer purchased Althorp estate with the funds generated from his family's sheep-rearing business. Althorp became one of the prominent stately homes in England.
In 1469 John Spencer's uncle – also named 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 throughout England, and their sheep-rearing business earned large profits. 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. At the time 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 owned numerous other properties. The park took some four years to establish, with 300 acres of grassland, 100 acres of woodland and 40 acres of water. When John Spencer died in 1522, he 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 William's death, his son John Spencer inherited Althorp and held it until his death in 1586, when he passed it to his son, also John, who died in 1600. John's son, Robert, was created the 1st Baron Spencer of Wormleighton on 21 July 1603. King Charles I is documented to have visited Althorp during his reign. The drawing room was built and the main hall enlarged for the occasion, with £1,300 spent on the banquet, an exorbitant sum for the period. Upon Robert Spencer's death in 1627 Althorp devolved to William Spencer, 2nd Baron Spencer of Wormleighton who held it until his death in 1636. William's eldest son, Henry Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland, known as The Lord Spencer between 1636 and June 1643, fought in the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 and was rewarded for his services on 8 June 1643 when the title of Earl of Sunderland was bestowed upon him, although the title cost him £3,000. 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 Henry's death, the estate passed to his eldest son Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, just two years of age at the time. Cosimo III visited Althorp in 1669, documenting it in his 'Travels of Cosmo III. Grand Duke of Tuscany, through England', in 1669. Robert built the current house in 1688 and made a series of changes to Althorp park. However, Robert's bad temper and his reputation as a ruthless advocate of absolute monarchy made him numerous enemies, and he was forced to leave the country and flee to the Netherlands the same year. He later underwent a political rehabilitation, becoming Lord Chamberlain of the Household in April 1697 and Lord Justice for a short period before retiring from public life in December of that year, after which he lived a secluded life at Althorp until his death in 1702. Robert passed Althorp to his son, Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, who held it for twenty years.
Described by John Evelyn as "a youth of extraordinary hopes," Charles inherited his father's passion for intrigue and repellent manners, and from his early years he had a great love of books, spending his leisure and his wealth in expanding the library at Althorp. Charles's second marriage to Anne Churchill, daughter of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough in 1700 was an important alliance for the Spencers and for his descendants; through it he was introduced to political life, and later the dukedom of Marlborough came to the Spencers. In 1722 he was implicated in what became known as the Atterbury Plot, to restore the House of Stuart, and his death was one of the factors which brought the Plot to light.
Althorp was then occupied by his son 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. Charles later led the naval descent on the French coastal port of St Malo during the Seven Years' War, after passing Althorp to the 3rd Earl's son, John Spencer, in January 1733. John Spencer, along with Charles and Thomas Coram, William Hogarth and others, was involved in the charter of the Foundling Hospital. Upon his death in 1746, John passed his estates 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 £30,000 a year.
John served as Member of Parliament for Warwick from 1756 to 1761. He 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". He spent £120,000 in one campaign alone and spent heavily on his estates, building Spencer House in London. He also wore expensive fashionable attire such as "diamond-buckled shoes". Althorp frequently hosted parties attended by the political and cultural elite, and it became known as a place of indulgence and festivities. At dinners and picnics in the gardens, John hired musicians to play French horns and organised 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 offering a guinea as the first prize, and sack races with the first prize of 30 shillings.
The Christmas of 1755 was a grand affair. John celebrated his 21st birthday with a ball at the house on 20 December during which he secretly married 18-year-old Margaret Georgiana Poyntz; the couple did not inform anyone for several days. Around 5,000 guests were invited to a celebration party organised 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. He was created Baron Spencer of Althorp and Viscount Spencer by George III on 3 April 1761, and on 1 November 1765, he was given the title Viscount Althorp and made the first Earl Spencer. He was also High Steward of St Albans in 1772 and Mayor of St Albans in 1779. John's daughter, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was also known for her liberal spending, and although she became one of Britain's most prominent socialites in the late 18th century, with many political and literary connections, she suffered from a gambling addiction and had an eating disorder.
John's son George John, 2nd Earl Spencer inherited Althorp after his father's death in 1783. He served as Whig MP for Northampton from 1780 to 1782 and for Surrey from 1782 to 1783 before accepting the title of 2nd Earl Spencer. He was later Home Secretary from 1806 to 1807 under Lord Grenville in the Ministry of All the Talents. Extremely interested in literary pursuits, he developed one of the largest private libraries in Europe at Althorp. He was the instigator and first President of the Roxburghe Club (an exclusive bibliophilic club), founded in 1812, President of the Royal Institution from 1813 to 1827, and Commissioner of the Public Records in 1831. In later life, his collecting habit had become an obsession, and he attempted to collect every volume ever published in Britain. Such was his desire to obtain as complete a collection as possible, that when Napoleon instigated the secularisation of religious houses in south Germany, Spencer used the local British agent and Benedictine monk, Alexander Horn to acquire many of their rare books and manuscripts. Althorp became a major cultural hub of England during his time; at one Christmas, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edward Gibbon, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the painter Joshua Reynolds, among other artistic figures, attended a party there. 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. 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.
The 3rd Earl became an active statesman, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Grey and Lord Melbourne from 1830 to 1834. Along with Lord John Russell, he led the fight to pass the Reform Bill of 1832, making more than twenty speeches, and is generally considered the architect of its victory. Despite his debts, in respect for his father, John managed to retain the massive book 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 £1,200 compared with the £5,000 needed to run Althorp and pay the staff of 40 in the house. As a result, Althorp was largely abandoned during the late 1830s and early 1840s. John also leased out his lands and gardens and sold land in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, repaying all the debt by the time of his death in 1845, and beginning to run his properties at a profit. His son Frederick Spencer, 4th Earl Spencer, who owned Althorp from 1845 until his death in 1857, also retained the collection. John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, known as the Red Earl, inherited Althorp in 1857. He served as a Liberal Party politician and was a close friend of British prime minister William Gladstone, who he served under in all four of his cabinets. Although politically successful, John fell into hard times financially and was forced to eventually sell much of the enormous library collection in 1892 to Enriqueta Rylands, who was building the University of Manchester Library. After dying childless in 1910, John passed Althorp to his half brother, Charles Spencer, 6th Earl Spencer, who served as Lord Chamberlain from 1905 to 1912 in the Liberal administrations headed by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and H. H. Asquith.
Diana, Princess of Wales was interred on a small island in the middle of the ornamental Round Oval lake, which was created by Teulon in 1868. 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 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. Free car parking is available to all visitors, please note that there is a 5 to 10 minute walk from the car park through the grounds to the House. Blue Badge parking is available on request. The Estate and Stables, and ground floor of the House, are fully accessible to wheelchair users. There is no assisted access available to the upstairs rooms in the House. Assistance Dogs are welcome.
Location : Althorp Estate, Northampton NN7 4HQ
Transport: Northampton (National Rail) then bus or taxi. Bus Routes : Stagecoach 96 and 97 stops 1 mile away.
Opening Times : Daily 11:00 to 16:00. Check calendar for events
Tickets : Adults £18.50; Concessions £16.00; Children (5 - 16) £11.00.
Tel: 01604 770107