An Interview with Charles Spencer by Diane Clehane

The ninth Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother, talks about his new non-fiction book, The White Ship, and why it’s a tale he’s “always carried” in his heart.

I first met Charles Spencer in 1998, a few days shy of the one-year anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. I was visiting Althorp, the Spencer family seat since the sixteenth century. My pilgrimage to the grounds marked the end of my year-long odyssey researching and writing about Diana’s life for my first book, Diana The Secrets of Her Style, which was published on August 31st, the somber first anniversary of the tragic car accident in Paris that took her life.

It seemed only fitting to make the trip to the great estate in the British countryside where Diana had grown up and was interred on a small island. As I walked around the sprawling, verdant lawns of Althorp, I could feel the weight of history that fell over the estate and was overwhelmed by the realization that Diana was not the only Spencer who had played a significant role in British history.

The Spencers have a distinguished family tree. Charles Spencer, the third Earl of Sutherland, merged the Spencer and Churchill families through marriage in the seventeenth century. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a distant cousin of Charles and his sisters. The first Lady Diana Spencer was supposed to marry the Prince of Wales in the early 1700s, but King George II was advised it would be best for his son to find a less threatening wife. In 1774, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Princess Diana’s fourth great-aunt married a man ten years her senior who ignored his young wife and carried on a very public affair with a mistress. The duchess took comfort in her soaring popularity with the British people and became known for her great style. (Keira Knightley portrayed Georgiana brilliantly in the 2008 film, The Duchess.)

After spending three hours exploring Althorp, I made my way back up the pebbled drive to board the bus that would deliver visitors to the train back to London. I stopped in my tracks when I spotted a tall redheaded man, dressed in a white shirt and khakis in the distance. He was striding purposefully across the lawn and slipped inside a building that housed the estate’s gift shop.

Charles Spencer
Photo: (c)

It was there I found Charles Spencer moving about the room sprucing up displays of books, which upon closer inspection were stacks of Althorp: The Story of an English House written by the earl and published earlier that year. I dared not tell him I was a member of the media for fear he would banish me immediately. (Who would have blamed him at the time?) He was charming and said just enough to be polite before moving on to another display in need of attention.

While many of his ancestors made history, Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, prefers to write about it and does so quite skillfully. What struck me most about the book on Althorp he had written back then was that in his telling the story of his ancestral home through his own fascinating recollections sprinkled in liberally with historical facts, Spencer had turned a non-fiction coffee table book into a highly enjoyable read.

I had nearly forgotten about my brief encounter with Spencer when I had the opportunity years later to have lunch with him at Michael’s in New York City for my ‘Lunch’ column. He had just published Killers of the King, a non-fiction page-turner in which he robustly recounts how, in 1649, Parliament handed down a death sentence to a defeated King Charles. Spencer also writes about the bloody revenge exacted by King Charles II in unstinting detail on the men who dared to kill his father and their sovereign. I could see the movie unspool in my mind as I devoured its pages.

Photo courtesy HarperCollins

Last month, I interviewed Spencer about his new book, The White Ship. Once again, Spencer combines scrupulous research with an electrifying narrative. In his latest non-fiction tome, he tackles another pivotal historical event — a largely untold story that changed the course of British history and the line of succession of the monarchy. Already a best-seller in the UK, the book has been described as “Titanic meets Game of Thrones,” published by HarperCollins here in the states last month.

At 367 pages, The White Ship is the tragic, fateful, and true story of how the greatest maritime disaster ever to befall Britain (only one of the 300 onboard survived the wreck) in November 1120 ended the dynastic reign of William the Conqueror and gave rise to the Plantagenet age.

The White Ship was considered the fastest vessel afloat at the time, but sadly, not indestructible. When its drunken crew rammed the towering ship into the rocks one night during high tide and was unable to save King Henry I’s son, William (grandson of William the Conqueror), the worst shipwreck in British history touched off two decades of civil war, which became known as “The Anarchy.” After the shipwreck, King Henry I had only one legitimate child, daughter Matilda, but medieval England had never had a female ruler and would not allow Henry’s daughter to ascend the throne. The King remarried and hoped to produce another male heir, but he never had another child. As a result, the Norman dynasty that had ruled England since 1066 ended.

“This is a story from the distant past that I’ve always carried in my heart,” said Spencer. “I learned about it as a boy, and the human tragedy of the shipwreck moved me hugely – particularly the young prince, the tragic hero of the tale, only perishing because he went back to save his sister from drowning.” There was another reason Spencer felt the tale was timely. “I saw, a few years back, that the 900th anniversary of this unique maritime disaster was coming up, and I felt if there was ever a time to revisit it, to bring it alive once more, it was now.”

Growing up at Althorp surrounded by history “nourished a passion” Spencer had from birth. “My primary school teacher noted in my school report card [when I was five years old] that history was my thing,” he recalled. “Then I worked as a 13-year-old tour guide at Althorp, telling the tale of all the people in their portraits from long ago. I got three pounds [every] afternoon for doing that.”

Over the years, Spencer has combined his love of history with his skills as a communicator and writer. He was a reporter on the Today show for nearly a decade between the mid-eighties and nineties and is the author of seven books, including two Sunday Times best-sellers. One of his most successful books, Blenheim: Battle for Europe, was shortlisted for History Book of the Year at the 2005 National Book Awards.

While Spencer is a best-selling author, he does not consider himself a commercial writer. The earl sees himself as a storyteller. I asked if he felt non-fiction gave him more freedom because he is not tasked with creating characters and a story purely out of his own imagination. “That doesn’t give me more freedom; in fact, the non-fiction rules remain the same,” he said. “I have to get the facts correct as the framework. Where I then concentrate, as a narrative historian, is in firing the reader’s mind. I want to bring the story alive.”

For Spencer, getting both the widely known and most arcane historical facts straight is an integral part of writing all his books. As a narrative historian, he relied heavily on the work of historians from the period who documented the details of the White Ship shipwreck. “There were nine main primary sources for this tale,” said Spencer. “All churchmen, chronicling a disaster so huge, they seem hardly able to have comprehended it. My job was to compare versions and see what made sense, and what was, rather, religious bias.”

Spencer has a rigorous yet adjustable research process. “I always have an idea as to structure before I begin the research. This helps me be flexible,” he said. “I might be researching the life of Henry I, the King of England at the time, but come across something to do with the medieval attitude [towards] the sea (many people couldn’t swim back then). I can then add each piece of research to its correct place as I go, which helps enormously when I write.”

It took Spencer 18 months to research The White Ship and more than a year to write it. “I edit each page at least eight times to make it all as fine on the page as I can manage.” Rather than sequester himself in studied silence, the earl revealed he likes to play loud music while he writes 1000 words per day. “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provided many of the background noises to The White Ship manuscript.”

Given Spencer’s penchant for cinematic storytelling, it is no surprise that Hollywood has come calling. Spencer revealed he had just sold the rights to a previous book (but did not name the title). “And it looks set to be made. I realize I cannot rely on that until filming actually starts.” He’s already on to his next book, which he describes as “a true story from the mid-20th century. “[It’s] something completely different for me, but the story is kind of compulsive.”

Diane’s Review: The White Ship: a highly dramatic non-fiction retelling of an event that changed the course of British history. An engrossing and addicting read with the shocks and twists readers usually find only in the best historical fiction. Spencer’s fast-paced and incredibly detailed storytelling comes alive with all the violent encounters, deceit, plotting, and backstabbing details of the medieval age. Grade: A

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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