Charles Spencer belongs to one of Britain’s most illustrious royal families. He speaks to Swati Singh about his writing career, his history books and his 500-year-old family home.
Q. When did you realise that you were going to be a writer?
A. I used to write when I was a TV reporter. I used to write scripts. I started writing a book, The Spencers: A Personal History of an English Family, in 1998. It all started because I wrote to a literary agent to thank him for a book launch in his garden. He wrote back saying he wanted me to write a book. It started out of the blue really and now I have written six books. They all are history books, non-fiction. I am writing my seventh one now.
Q. Your area of interest as a writer is history. What draws you to historical nonfiction?
A.I have always loved history. I studied at Oxford University. I read history. What I love about history is watching people and the drama about the past. Also, I love the fact that really we haven’t changed much over the generations. So, you can recognise in history, the tragedies and triumphs of everyday life. What I try and do is almost write a biography of people through the most dramatic episode of their life.
Over the past 20 years, I have written six history books, starting with one on my family’s 500-year-old home (Althorp House), followed by one on the Spencer family. My fourth has been on the Battle of Blenheim and the last three on key royal figures during the 17th century—Prince Rupert of the Rhine, King Charles I and King Charles II. The most recent one, for instance, is To Catch A King .
Q. Tell us more about To Catch A King?
A. It’s the true story of Charles I on the run for six weeks in 1651, with people pursuing him for his life. It is such a dramatic part of history. Most people in England don’t know much about it. So I went back to the original sources, eyewitness accounts and the people who had helped him and put it all together.
Q. How long did it take you to research the lives King Charles I and King Charles II?
A. Killers of the Kingand To Catch A King are companion pieces; they cover the business end of the English Civil Wars in the mid-17th century and involve the execution of Charles I and the hopes of his heir, the future Charles II. They took me five years of research and writing—because much of the research material was the same, and I knew my way around it quicker by the time I embarked on the second book. Killers of the King took three years, while To Catch a King took two.
Q. What are the factors that a biographer ought to keep in mind while writing?
A. The biography I wrote of Prince Rupert of the Rhine was conventionally structured: it started with his birth and concluded with his death. But the biographies I have written of Charles I and Charles II were both different. While hopefully giving the reader the broad scope of their lives, I focused on the key moment in their lives for driving the narrative. I suspect that most readers these days prefer this approach to the more predictable and less dynamic biography.
It’s important for a biographer to take a point of view, and use that as the spine on which the book is constructed. Prince Rupert—to those familiar with his name—would be remembered as a glamorous and headstrong cavalry leader. I built him out to show he was also a scientist, artist, pirate, admiral and entrepreneur. Equally, with Charles II, people remember him as a lightweight—addicted to pleasure. I wanted to show he also had real qualities—cunning, adaptability, natural intelligence and a cruel streak. He was one for vengeance, however long it took. You need to give your reader the full picture of your subject.
Q. Your book Blenheim: Battle for Europe was a bestseller. In 2004, History Channel even made two documentaries on it. Tell us about it.
A. I realised in 2003, the 300th anniversary of a battle called Blenheim was coming up and people had forgotten about it. But it was an important battle in which the English were involved for 300 years. It was the moment when Louis XIV was stopped from becoming the emperor of Europe. An English-led army went down to Germany and beat the French just before they were about to take over the whole Roman Empire. So I wrote the story and it became a bestseller. Then History Channel wanted a documentary on it.
Q. You attended the Jaipur Literature Festival this year in January. How was your experience? And what are your views on literature festivals?
A. The only non-UK book festival I have spoken at before this [the JLF] was in Charleston, South Carolina, in October, which was fun. I’ve spoken at around 100 literary events in the UK, though (including my own—the Althorp Literary Festival is taking a sabbatical this year, but will be back in 2020).
I love literary festivals wherever they are because I love seeing people enjoying books. It’s also good for authors to get out on the road a bit, as writing can be a very isolating profession.
I’ve been to India twice before—once as a student tourist in the mid-’80s, when I particularly enjoyed my time in Kashmir; then when I was working for the American TV network NBC as an on-air presenter. I filmed an episode of the series Great Houses of the World in Jodhpur, in the mid-’90s, and loved every second of my time in Rajasthan.
Q. You have also written the history of your family house, Althorp. And now, the designer label Theodore Alexander is launching their new line of furniture inspired by Althorp. How does that feel?
A. Althorp is my 500-year-old family home. We have resided there since 1508. My children are the 19th generation to live there, so over that, they accumulated a large collection of art and furniture.
I was approached by Theodore Alexander about 16 years ago to reproduce pieces of furniture inspired by Althorp. They are doing a very fine line and it’s been very successful in the United States, China, Russia and Arab states. It was long overdue. Now it should come to India. It has been incredibly successful already. We were sold out even before the launch here. It’s the kind of market where people appreciate elegant, classical furniture. People also like contemporary furniture. You just need to give the designs a backbone. In London, the traditional furniture market is going up again after years of not being so popular. It’s done very well here and I believe it will continue to do so.
It has been a very happy relationship [with Theodore Alexander] so far. The furniture speaks for itself. They are renowned for unmatched craftsmanship, exquisite finishes and extraordinary design.