Charles Spencer on history, Jane Fonda and being ‘up to my **** in alligators’

Charles Spencer is leading the charge for the return of popular history. He spoke to Giles Kime.

Fifteen years ago, Charles Spencer was warned off his plan to write a book about the Battle of Blenheim.

‘I was told I’d be up to my arse in alligators. Apparently, the impending threat wasn’t just established historians protective of their patch, but also those who believed someone from my background was too stupid to talk, let alone write.’

He pushed on, nonetheless, and the result was a Sunday Times bestseller, followed by similarly successful books, including, most recently, Killers of the King (the second highest selling history book in the UK in 2014), which explores the fate of the 59 men who signed Charles I’s death warrant. One reinvented himself as a gardener in the Netherlands, but the less fortunate were pursued to gory deaths as far afield as Lausanne and New England.

Next week sees the publication of To Catch A King, his account of the six-week hunt for the 21-year-old Charles II after his Royalist army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. ‘It was the first time in his life that he wasn’t mollycoddled. Dressed as a woodman and with his long hair cropped, he saw another side of the world and always looked back on it with huge fondness.’

Many of the Royalist soldiers were Scottish and the restoration to the throne of Charles II – 6ft 2in, with his mother’s dark, Italianate complexion and Catholic sympathies – was their unlikely cause. ‘The Scots were suspicious of him – it was one of those uncomfortable DUP-style allegiances,’ Earl Spencer explains. ‘He really sold his soul to get their support.’

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Charles II

Earl Spencer believes that parallels between contemporary events and the past are one of the great benefits of studying history (which he read at Magdalen College, Oxford). He welcomes the description of his work as ‘popular history’, a genre that is a shadow of its former self. Long gone are the days of Sir Thomas Macaulay, E. P. Thompson and television hist-orians such as A. J. P. Taylor, who commanded vast audiences that today’s popularisers could only dream of. ‘History is seen as a luxury, but is full of ominous warnings of the ways things can go wrong.’

He views the demise of the subject as a peculiarly British problem, pointing out that the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in the American Civil War, attracts 1.5 million visitors a year but that of the Battle of Naseby, its British equivalent, lies largely forgotten. ‘Understanding events that were building blocks of the modern world is vital.’

The publication of To Catch A King coincides with the 14th Althorp Literary Festival at his ancestral home in Northamptonshire. Over the years, it has hosted a wide range of figures, from Lady Antonia Fraser, Boris Johnson and Bill Bryson to Jung Chang, Richard Coles and Michael Palin. This year’s line-up includes James Runcie, Kathy Lette and Jo Malone – plus the Earl.

‘The festival was inspired by my own experience of the lonely business involved in researching, writing and then promoting a book: you arrive in all sorts of far-flung places, hoping that you won’t be looking out over rows of empty seats. At the Hay Festival, I turned up to find that I was in the unenviable position of being scheduled against Jane Fonda.’

His vision was for an intimate event that offers a convivial welcome to authors who have just spent months, if not years, cloistered away working on their books. The role of the interviewer, he believes, is almost as important as the interviewee, however celebrated they might be. Althorp enlists the help of Suzi Feay and Paul Blezard, whom he describes as ‘cult interviewers’. Each year, he tries to conduct a couple himself, drawing on his experience as a broadcaster for NBC and Granada.

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Althorp Festival

Since succeeding his father as the 9th Earl Spencer in 1992, he has combined a writing and broadcasting career with the restoration of the exterior of Althorp (the first project of its type since the late 18th century), an overhaul of its interior and collaboration on a collection of designs based on items of furniture in the house.

He has also been involved in a number of charities, including the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Diana Award, set up after the death of his sister in 1997. His Canadian wife, Karen, is the CEO of Whole Child International, a charity she founded in 2004 to improve the quality of care for vulnerable children in developing countries, with particular emphasis on their emotional needs. Whole Child works with caregivers, governments and researchers to create a nurturing environment that will allow children, especially those in institutional care, to reach their potential and contribute to society. ‘It’s very scientific in its approach and aims to create more complete adults,’ he explains.

What next? The Stuarts, his pet subject, clearly offer a rich seam of material; a film based on one of his books would be a crowning glory for his career as a popular historian. When questioned by Vanity Fair on the prospect of a Hollywood adaptation of To Kill A King, he admitted to a fantasy cast that included no less than Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rosamund Pike, Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp. Perhaps for To Catch A King, he might fantasise about casting Russell Brand as the hunted Charles II? That would really get the alligators in a lather.