Althorp has belonged to the Spencer family since 1508, and its design and interior reflect the house’s diverse past, taking you through Tudor and Georgian periods right to the present day.
This 13,000 acre estate started off life as a village of about 50 people in the 14th century. The land was bought in 1508 by John Spencer, with earnings from his sheep-rearing business, who built a castle that was once visited by Charles I. The current building comes from 1688, built by Robert Spencer, the 2nd Earl of Sunderland. It’s a brick and freestrone building which was then changed in 1788 under architect Henry Holland. He added mathematical tiles (which look like bricks but are a cheaper option) and four Corinthian pilasters at the front, as well as sash windows.
The interior of the house was redecorated in the 1980s but this hasn’t overwritten the house’s long history. There’s a nod to Althorp’s Tudor origins in the 115 foot-long Picture Gallery, where oak panelling runs along the entire length of the room. The Georgian feel of the South Drawing Room - lots of gilt, with duck egg-blue walls and peach sofas - is a reminder that Althorp was an important social hub during the eighteenth century. If you’d visited at Christmas-time, you’d have met actor David Garrick along with historian Edward Gibbon, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and painter Joshua Reynolds.
George John Spencer, the 2nd Earl, inherited Althorp in 1783 and had an obsession with book-collecting. He had one of the largest private libraries in Europe and tried to collect every volume of book in Britain. However, this meant that he got into a lot of debt, and his great-grandson, the 5th Earl Spencer, was forced to sell most of the collection in 1892. More painting sales followed into the 20th century as the family could not managed to keep afloat. Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer and the younger brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, now owns the house and founded the annual Althorp Literary Festival in 2003.
Althorp has a large collection of art, furniture and ceramics, including War and Peace by Anthony van Dyck and a Mary Beale portrait of Charles II. You can see some of these in the state rooms on your visit. In the grounds, which were updated by William Millford Teulon in the 1860s and Dan Pearson in the 1990s, you’ll find fruit and vegetable patches, wooded copses of trees, and a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales.