IRONY

Princess Diana Saved the Royal Family

Princess Diana’s legacy was seen as a massive blow to the royal family, especially after her brother’s furious eulogy. Now Earl Spencer thinks his sister saved the monarchy.

02.02.15 10:55 AM ET

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and her brother’s powerful scorched-earth eulogy that followed, plunged the royal family into its deepest crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936. The queen and Prince Charles utterly failed to capture the mood of a nation in mourning; a crevasse had opened up between the monarchy and its subjects.

Her unhappy marriage, a public divorce from Charles, and the icy royal response to her death were said to have ensured that Diana’s lasting impact on the royal family would be a hammer blow to the monarchy’s reputation. But Earl Spencer, whose fiery eulogy was seen as a royal rebuke, now believes the monarchy has been saved for a generation by his sister’s legacy, which lives on through her boys, Prince William and Prince Harry.

“I think that they are unbelievable ambassadors for the country and also for their mother. So the legacy that she left, from fine mothering, is very evident in both of her sons,” he told The Daily Beast. “Given the popularity of William and Harry, and William’s family, I could see it going on for another hundred years.”

The warmth and good humor so effortlessly generated by William and Harry stands in stark contrast to their aloof and remote father. During that infamous speech at Diana’s funeral in 1997, Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer, said his sister had “needed no royal title to generate her particular brand of magic.”

How sorely the House of Windsor has needed some of her magic.

Spencer said it was impossible for Prince Charles to stand aside and allow the crown to be passed to William, Diana’s eldest son, but he refused to be drawn on whether that was a good idea. In fact, he refused to say anything at all about Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, and the man who cheated on his sister throughout their marriage, before casting her adrift from the protection of the royal family.

It is another King Charles that Spencer is here to talk about. His latest book, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, is published in the U.S. this month. It is a sympathetic telling of what happened after the English Civil War to the men who had ordered and taken part in the death of a king.

Charles I, who was executed in 1646, was the last British king to be put to death. After years of research, Spencer concluded that he was on the side of the killers. “They did it because they thought they were doing the right thing by their country,” he said. “I got where they were coming from.”

When I pointed out that it looked a little odd for Princess Diana’s brother to be celebrating the death of one of the royal family’s most prominent Charleses, he laughed. “Well, it is a very specific case I am dealing with,” he said. “There is no way that any current monarch is going to end up in this dilemma because, frankly, they don’t have the power to upset people like Charles I did 350 years ago.”

The book’s vivid prose details the excruciating retribution that was meted out to those regicides who were caught and punished once the throne was restored and Charles II was giving the orders. Thomas Harrison, for example, was hanged, revived, and castrated before a red-hot poker was driven into his stomach to burn his insides.

Once the first 14 of 80 wanted men had been executed in Charing Cross, Spencer notes that the locals begged for the site of the killings to be moved because they could no longer stand the “foul stench of burning bowels.”

Even though the killers were driven by a passionate belief that God was on their side against a doomed monarchy, it’s no surprise that one of them wrote in despair: “Where shall I hide my hated head?”

Spencer conceded that most historians before him had taken a more genteel route through the source material. “It is quite clear that people do have a stronger stomach for this than you would normally think. There are passages in my work that make your eyes water a bit,” he said. “This has changed and I do think actually Game of Thrones changed the way in which you can do it.”

And it’s not just fantasy shows where gruesome content is on the rise, the so-called Islamic State has produced its own resurgence of medieval behavior.

“Humans haven’t changed an enormous amount in the last few hundred years, and the constant through our history has been very powerful and political people wrapping up their cause in an intense religious cloak. That happens today and if you passionately believe that you are serving your God it allows you to behave in a very extreme way with a clear conscience,” he said.

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Earl Spencer has held talks with several movie studios and Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company about getting some more of that gore on our screens. “I called my agent in Hollywood two days ago and they were pretty sure that something will happen, but we will wait and see,” he said.

One of the stars of the book, and potential big-screen adaptation, is Lord Grey of Groby, the only aristocrat to sign Charles I’s death warrant. Spencer discovered his role during months of research for the book. The only image of him was a grainy black and white reproduction of a contemporary painting, its whereabouts were unknown. Then one day at Althorp, the stately home of the Spencers for the last 500 years, the earl was walking up the stairs and he craned to look at a painting above one of the doors. There it was: the missing painting of Lord Groby. “It was so high and I had never actually read the main plate underneath it,” he said. “That makes me sound so out of touch and ridiculous, but it’s true.”

Also ridiculous and true: Groby turns out to be a distant cousin of Spencer, “a great uncle to the power of eight or something,” but don’t worry if you thought that may have unduly influenced his historical accuracy. Spencer is also related to Charles I.

This well-connected aristocrat, now age 50, can still remember the nights he spent cowering on the imposing Althorp estate with Diana when the two of them were young children. He has made a concerted effort to make the grand building feel more homely. He says it helps that there is a constant stream of children running through the halls and playing on the bouncy castle in the state dining room.

The youngest of Spencer’s seven children, Lady Charlotte Diana Spencer, will be 3 in the summer. She was named after his beloved sister. “I really wanted to do that with one of my daughters. You know, the thing is, when you lose a sibling it is very unnatural thing at a young age. Unlike with grandparents, uncles and aunts, even parents, siblings are irreplaceable and they are not meant to die very young. And so it does tend to be a wound that stays quite fresh actually,” he said.

The “fun and feisty” toddler seems to have taken on some of Diana’s spirit. “She has certainly. I think it’s nature’s joke with being a fairly old father, the seventh child has more energy and drive than the other six put together… an absolute firecracker, which I have to say is fantastic fun. So, yeah, the girls in my family have tended to be much more sparky and interesting than the dull unworthy boys and she is certainly proving that point.”

Spencer, who is on his third marriage, can hardly be described as dull. The British newspapers used to track his every move as the playboy younger brother of the Princess of Wales, whom everyone expected to become Britain’s next queen.

He describes himself as a former “tabloid punchbag” who was followed by private detectives and had his phone hacked by the newspapers. “A couple of times I was in car chases with Diana in my car and it was pretty horrendous,” he said. “Of course, we all know where that ended. There are very poignant memories for me. I am aware of the horror of being pursued at high speed.”

It was understandable that Spencer’s most cutting remarks during the speech he gave at Diana’s funeral were directed at the media. Does he still hate the press? “No, that is not fair, that is too general,” he said. “I absolutely hate the worst form of tabloid journalism that deals in lies and viciousness; I think that has got no place in any civilized culture. But I am a great fan of a lot of the British press.”

He also says he has every sympathy for Pippa Middleton, who like him has been unwittingly married into the royal circus through a big sister. Like Pippa he was also employed by NBC, the “lucky sperm club,” as a correspondent for the Today show.

Spencer said he was mightily impressed by how well Pippa has adapted to a familiar situation. “It is sometimes tough,” he said. “It is quite similar—although I must say: I haven’t got such good buttocks.”