Set deep in the heart of rural Northamptonshire, Althorp House has been the ancestral home of the Spencer family for almost 500 years.
In 1508, Sir John Spencer acquired the 300 acre Althorp estate and began the construction of the first house built on the site, red-brick with a surrounding moat. His grandson, another Sir John Spencer, finally completed the original structure so that by his death in 1586, the house had acquiredthe basic shape that remains to us today - an enclosed courtyard with projecting wings on the south side. However, Althorp House is not the product of any one architectural era and has undergone changes over the years, its various re-modellings reflecting prevailing tastes of the time. For example, in 1650 Lady Dorothy Sydney had the attractive Tudor inner courtyard converted to a huge drawing room, adding the main staircase; in the late 1790's the moat was also filled-in. By and large, the surviving structure mostly reflects the 18th century taste of architect Henry Holland.
Althorp House contains artwork by some of the world's greatest painters, Van Dyke, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Rubens. In fact, it represents one of the finest private collections of portraiture anywhere, and as a record of an English titled family who have continually owned and occupied the one house for nearly 500 years, and of English portraiture per se, it is of outstanding significance. Althorp also houses an assortment of quite rare English and French furniture and some fascinating porcelain by Sevres, Bow and Chelsea. Also worth a mention is the elaborate 18th century entry hall, described by the noted architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as "the noblest Georgian Room in the country".
The house has brought world fame to the surrounding area as the girlhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales, and tragically, her final resting place. Unlike her stepmother, Raine Spencer, who considered Althorp a glamorous place in which to live, Diana and her siblings found the house ugly and melancholy, calling it 'Deadlock Hall'. Following the princess's untimely death in August 1997, Althorp became the centre of world attention when she was buried on an island in an artificial lake on the property; visitors do not have access to the island, but have a clear view of it from across the lake. Tickets to Althorp House are extremely difficult to obtain, it is only open to the public from July 1st, Diana's birthday, to August 30th, the day before the anniversary of her death.
Since the death of Lord Spencer, Diana's father, Althorp has been under the jurisdiction of Charles, the present Earl and Diana's older brother. He organised the much acclaimed exhibition devoted to his sister, celebrating her life and charitable work, all of which is housed in the recently converted 18th century stable complex, built originally to accommodate 100 horses and 40 grooms. The exhibition includes schoolgirl letters, her stunning silk wedding dress, a range of her haute couture clothes, poignant films of Diana as a carefree child dancing and as a mother riding with her sons William and Harry, plus video footage of
the funeral cortege.
Located on the west side of the rambling estate park is Great Brington, the neighbouring village that boasts the rather attractive church of St Mary the Virgin, wherein is the Spencer family crypt.