Charles Spencer, history author and the ninth Earl Spencer, reveals his family connections with Wimbledon and why he’s looking forward to Wimbledon BookFest this October
Have you always been interested in history?
Yes – it’s always been my passion. In the mid-’70s I represented my prep school in a history prize, coming third nationally in the one-word answer bit, before coming completely unstuck in the essay part, and disappearing from sight among the ‘also rans’ – hardly a good omen for somebody who now writes history books…! I read Modern History at MagdalenCollege, Oxford, specialising in the French Revolution. In my new book, Killers of the King, I focus on the English Revolution, of course.
What triggered your interest in the life, and death, of King Charles I?
We have a portrait of Charles I in the Picture Gallery at Althorp which has always intrigued me: despite being painted in his years of power, before the Civil War, in it he looks so very, very, sad. I believe strongly that he was temperamentally unsuited to kingship generally, and was particularly ill-suited to ruling at a time of such seismic shifts in society, politics and religion. His qualities lay in his gentle personality, which made him a fine father and a devout Christian. But he was no leader, tending always to absorb the advice of whoever had obtained his ear most recently, and most forcefully. The result was disastrous – for Britain (the Civil Wars brought about the greatest loss of life, per head of population, ever suffered by this country), and for him, through his prosecution, judgement and execution by the 80 or so men who are the subject of Killers of the King.
What are you most looking forward to at Wimbledon Bookfest?
I’ve written several books, but Killers of the King has excited me more than all the others put together. The story of how the men responsible for Charles I’s death reacted, when Charles II reclaimed the throne, is such an exciting one – and one that we can all relate to. We can all ponder what we might do, if we were suddenly on the list of the ‘Most Wanted’ in the land…. I can’t wait to share some of the extraordinary fates of these men, and their wives, with the Wimbledon Bookfest audience.
Can you tell us a bit about the Spencer family’s historic connection with Wimbledon?
My family inherited Wimbledon in 1744, and had a large house there – which was sadly destroyed by fire at the end of the 18th century: a house maid was airing some laundry in preparation for my ancestors’ arrival, and it caught light. Pretty much the entire house and its collection went up in smoke. The 5th Earl Spencer gave Wimbledon Common to the nation in the 1860s – there is a fabulous portrait at Althorp of him rifle-shooting on the Common, with other members of the precursors to the Home Guard. My family remained lords of the manor of Wimbledon till about 20 years ago. More recently, I have enjoyed riding on Wimbledon Common with one of my younger daughters – keeping the family link alive.
Why are literary festivals important in this digital age?
I’ve run the Althorp Literary Festival for the past 11 years, and think I understand the magic of such events: it lies in serving up a fun, informative, and varied collection of authors and poets to an appreciative and engaged audience. It’s probably even more important for writers, though. Writers are often working in great isolation. Literary festivals give them the opportunity to mix with diverse personalities – we have them to stay the night, at Althorp – so they leave with an appreciation of their fellow writers, whether they be a hard-working novelist, a celebrity promoting their memoirs, a debuting poet, or a national treasure.
Did you discover any parallels between you and Charles I during your research?
I appreciated Charles I as a man very much, but didn’t see many similarities between him and me – other than an enormous love of our children. There is a scene I record – where two of his younger children come to say a final goodbye, where they are of course distraught, while he is very brave, dispensing advice and love – that any parent will find incredibly sad. I hope I might have matched his great bravery at his execution, but very much doubt I would be able to approach his extraordinary composure then.
What are your favourite places in London?
I love Wimbledon. Both my parents had debenture tickets for the championship tennis, and I accompanied each of them to some memorable matches, when I was young – including the greatest of the Borg vs McEnroe finals. I used to cover the tennis for NBC – the American broadcaster that held the rights to Wimbledon in the mid-’80s to mid-’90s, when I worked full-time for them. Giving updates on the tournament’s roof, to the American breakfast audience, was quite a thrill. Outside of South–West London, my favourite spots are Primrose Hill, Little Venice, and pretty much anywhere along the Thames.
Are your children interested in history too?
My younger son, Ned, is a very handy historian, at the age of 10. He loves the Norman Conquest, and what followed. I’m not convinced the rest of them are particularly interested in it – yet! History is one of those subjects where, at school, an inspirational teacher can make it magical, whereas a dullard can render it about as palatable as cold porridge. But the fuse can be lit later in life – through a TV programme, a book, or an article that sets curiosity running. It’s never too late for history.
What is your favourite historical place in London?
The Tower of London is my unoriginal choice – but I make no apologies, for that. Although the modern displays are impressively done, and the guides there are excellent, it’s the brooding presence of the place that excites me. This is the centre of British history for nearly 1,000 years – just the register of the executed and imprisoned there is astonishing, from the two young princes, through Guy Fawkes, to World War II’s German spies. A lot of my main characters in Killers of the King spent a grim few months or even years here, before being sent for trial for high treason. They were kept in terrible conditions, with cruel shortages of food for some, without access to pen and paper, and they weren’t even allowed to consult with lawyers. One of the men I write about found imprisonment in the Tower so bleak, that he begged to be taken into a corner and be put out of his misery.
What is your ‘Desert Island’ book?
The complete works of F. Scott FitzGerald. I will always marvel at his elegant prose, the sheer brilliance of his story-telling, the bravery of his structure, and the panache with which he pulled it all off. The Last Tycoon is my favourite work of his. It is a tragic love story, set in the early glory years of Hollywood. FitzGerald died before editing it, but it still stands out as a work of astonishing ability.
What historical figure would you like to be?
I would like to have been somebody creative, and artistic. Sir Anthony Van Dyck flourished in the years leading up to the Civil War, and painted many of the leading Royalists, as well as some of the Parliamentarians. As such, he was an eyewitness to the build-up to the cataclysmic fighting; but in a civilised, pre-war, era, his perspective would have been different. Existing in that context – one that produced so many outstanding figures – and having that talent, would make Van Dyck my choice.
Wimbledon BookFest runs from 3 to 12 October. Charles Spencer will be in the Big Tent on Wimbledon Common on Monday 6 October at 6.30pm. Tickets: £12.50, wimbledonbookfest.org