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It is hard to think of Althorp without immediately connecting this beautiful Northamptonshire estate with Diana, Princess of Wales; whether it be her hunted life, her tragic death or the emotional time when crowds watched her funeral cortege winding through the gates to carry her body to a final resting place.

But there was a time before Diana.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Althorp; the Spencer family home first bought by wealthy sheep farmer Sir John Spencer and passed down to 18 further generations.

And today marks the launch of a new exhibition entitled The Spencers at Althorp: 500 years of family history, which includes a display of historic images and artefacts highlighting some of the most influential people in the house’s past.

The exhibition of eight display pods – each focusing on a different member of the Spencer family – was put together by project managers Anne Fletcher and Oriel Wilson.

Earl Spencer said: “It was difficult to know where to start, but we wanted to bring the house alive with the people who have passed through here.

“Getting it down to eight people was complicated as hundreds of people have lived here over the 500 years.

“But you have people like the first Duchess of Marlborough, who was incredibly important.

By leaving her personal wealth to my family she took us from being rich farmers to wealthy, important people.

“Then there is Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. There is about to be a big film coming out about her and we thought people would be able to connect with that in a straightforward way.”

The final display in the saloon area of the house brings the story of the Spencers up to date, with a family album displayed to the public for the first time.

It includes photographs of the present Earl Spencer as a boy at Althorp, together with his sisters.

Earl Spencer said: “My job for the future of Althorp is to keep it going and make sure it is in good condition.

“There is a lot of work to do to the house and it has great maintenance needs, but it has to be somewhere my family wants to come to, as a family home and not just historical rooms.

“By bringing alive some of my ancestors in this way, I hope that our visitors will get a better understanding of how their personal tastes, activities and interests have made this wonderful house what it is today and will be able to see the central role they have played in shaping our history.”

The exhibition can be seen throughout this summer season at Althorp, which runs until August 30. For more information log onto www.althorp.com

A lock of Nelson’s hair
This lock of Horatio Nelson’s hair is displayed as part of the exhibition relating to George John, the second Earl Spencer who had been First Lord of Admiralty in 1794.

As an influential man, George John had promoted Nelson to take command of the English fleet.

When Admiral Lord Nelson lost his life at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, a lock of his hair was sent to the Spencer family.

George John, who lived between 1758 and 1834, is also well known because of his obsession with collecting rare books.

During his lifetime he turned eight rooms at Althorp into a library of 43,000 books. His habit nearly bankrupted the family and eventually they had to sell the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Battersea and Putney to pay the debts.

Marie Antoinette’s chocolate set
Included in the exhibition section relating to Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, is a set of dainty cups and plates which once belonged to Marie Antoinette.

Georgiana (1757-1806), who is to be played by actress Keira Knightley in a film to be released this year, was notorious for gambling and ran up enormous debts.

She also had a series of affairs and, when she fell pregnant, she was sent to France to have the child secretly.

While there, she became friends with queen Marie Antoinette, who presented her with a chocolate set.

Family photo album
An album of photos, depicting the current Earl Spencer with his sisters Diana, Jane and Sarah, is also on display as part of the exhibition.

These never before seen photographs show this generation of Spencers during their childhood at Althorp between 1964 and 1969.

They were taken by the 8th Earl Spencer, their father, who was known to be a talented photographer.

Sedan chair, used by Georgiana, the first Countess Spencer
This chair, which dates from 1760, was once used by Georgiana to travel around London while staying at the family’s home in London, Spencer House.

Georgiana and the first Earl Spencer John married secretly in the Oak bedroom at Althorp.

As a love token to his wife, and to demonstrate his importance, he built Spencer House, which is still owned by the family today.  NorthHampton Chronicle and Echo – UK






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