The county of Spires and Squires conjures up images of churches and country gentlemen in their magnificent country mansions that are so quintessentially English. Few English country gentleman have more world wide fame than Earl Spencer and his seat in the tranquility of the Northamptonshire countryside, Althorpe house.
Brother of Princess Diana, Diana now rests on a small island in the centre of a lake within the grounds of the estate. Althorpe House has been home to the Spencer family for 500 years. The estate has belonged to the Spencers since the reign of Henry VII. In 1508 Sir John Spencer, a wealthy Warwickshire grazier who made his wealth in the wool trade, acquired the 300-acre estate, which was then called Oldthorpe, on which he built the Spencer family home. His grandson (Also Sir John) had made it the principal Spencer family home by the time he died in 1586.
In 1655, the 1st earl of Sunderland's widow added the grand staircase which is now the focal point of the house and between the years 1666-69, the 2nd Earl of Sunderland completely remodelled Althorpe. He refaced the existing brick house and decorated it with classical pilasters on both floors. Most of the present shape was built around 1688 and was originally encompassed on three sides by a moat, now filled in. But by 1783 the house had fallen into neglect. It was the 2nd Earl Spencer who rescued the house with the help of architect Henry Holland. According to the Blue Guide of Country Houses of England, "Althorpe is the best planned and best arrayed county seat in the kingdom." It houses an impressive collection of masterpieces by many of the worlds finest artists including works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds and Gains-borough, to name just a few. The house is also reputed to hold the largest private collection of books in England. Upwards of forty-five thousand volumes were said to have filled several apartments within the house as early as 1830.
The Earl of Sunderland's house at Althorpe, on the other hand, has within these few years changed its face to the other extreme, and had the late earl liv'd to make some new apartments, which, as we were told, were design'd as two large wings to the buildings, it would have been one of the most magnificent palaces in Europe. The gardens are exquisitely fine, and add, if it be possible, to the natural beauty of the situation.
Prince Henry and Anne of Denmark stayed at Althorpe in 1603 while traveling to James I's coronation. In 1695, William III slept at Althorpe in what is now called "The King William Room." The house has also been graced by the presence of Queen Mary and George V.
Twenty generations of Spencers have lived and died at Althorpe. Charles is the current and 9th earl. The Estate now covers 14,000 acres of beautiful countryside in Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Norfolk and encompasses cottages, farms, woodlands and villages.