Lady Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales, was one of the best-known women of the last century. Her death in 1997 has not diminished the curiosity, stories and pictures and she continues to live through her two children with Prince Charles, William and Harry.
The Spencer family lineage is an interesting one. Genealogists calculated she was her ex-husband's seventh cousin once removed and traced her bloodline to George Washington, Humphrey Bogart, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Rudolf Valentino. The family had five lines of descent, mostly through illegitimate children, from King Charles the Second, who reigned in the seventeenth century. This pedigree linked her to the Stuart dynasty, which, because of its Roman Catholic faith, lost the throne to the Protestant Hanoverians, the family of her former husband Prince Charles.
Althorp House, on over 6000 hectares of green Northamptonshire countryside, has been the Spencer family seat for 500 years and became known to the world only when Diana's engagement to Prince Charles was announced.
Diana's brother Lord Charles is the ninth Earl Spencer and caretaker of the magnificent home. There was a hue and cry when her family chose Althorp as Diana's final resting place, but even those who were against it now admit it is the perfect location.
A manmade lake, known as the Round Oval, sits at the edge of the grounds. At its centre is an island where Diana is buried. This is a place she loved. It is silent and peaceful and high trees give a cathedral-like atmosphere. Family can visit privately and visitors see it only from afar.
The Earl divides his time between London and Althorp. Like his father and grandfather, he is obligated under English tax laws to open his home to the public. Althorp is a tourist drawcard and during its open season in summer can attract up to 1500 people a day.
As a child Earl Spencer acted as a tour guide and today his own children work in the gift shop. Six rooms of the original stables have been converted to house Diana: A Celebration, an award-winning exhibition. When not at Althorp it travels the world, with all profits donated to the Princess's Memorial Fund. To date it has received more than two million dollars.
The display is quite intimate and includes Diana's bridal gown, childhood letters, family photographs, school reports, speech notes and, possibly the most moving exhibit, a draft of Lord Spencer's unforgettably eulogy to his sister.
There has been a house at Althorp since the beginning of the 16th century. The original was built of red brick, but the well-travelled Second Earl of Sunderland thought that unfashionable and without status. He introduced an Italian architect to classicise the façade. Weldon stone Corinthian and composite columns were added and a balustrade added to the elevation. The gardens and grounds are laid out in the geometric French style to plans by Andre le Notre, who designed the gardens at Versailles.
Inside there is an extensive literary and art collection, including works by Rubens, van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Althorp also has excellent examples of other fine arts from carpets to candelabra.
People can stay overnight. Not something they advertise, but it is possible.