Earl Spencer: I'm a Norfolk boy at heart

JON WELCH His impassioned and controversial speech at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, brought him worldwide attention, but speaking engagements for Earl Spencer today are rather more low-key. He tells JON WELCH why he has no regrets over his famous speech, explains his interest in a swashbuckling 17th century prince, and reveals why he feels like a “Norfolk native”.

JON WELCH

Think of Earl Spencer and it's almost certainly his famous speech that comes to mind.

That eulogy, delivered at his sister Diana's funeral 10 years ago, with its pointed references to "the most hunted person of the modern age" and her "blood family" attacked both the press and the monarchy, drawing gasps and then applause from those inside Westminster Abbey and in the streets and parks beyond.

Recently it was named as one of the greatest speeches of all time by The Guardian, making the earl one of only three living people on the list.


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I meet him before a rather more low-key speaking engagement at Norwich's Assembly House, where he is preparing to give a talk to a group of history enthusiasts and, possibly, one or two curious members of the public.

Tall with a ruddy complexion, he's wearing a dark suit with an open-necked shirt, and looks every bit a member of the aristocracy. His handshake is firm, and when I introduce myself as from the EDP, the Norfolk-raised earl smiles and says: "I remember when you were 7p."

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He has been invited along by the East Anglian branch of the Battlefields Trust to talk about Prince Rupert of the Rhine, whose biography he has written and is currently promoting.

A Royalist general in the English Civil War, Prince Rupert was a cavalier in every sense and a hugely popular figure in his day.

He's also something of a boyhood hero for the earl, who graduated in modern history from Magdalen College, Oxford.

How did he first become interested in Prince Rupert? "It's from a very bad 1970 film called Cromwell, starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness," he says.

"Prince Rupert was played by Timothy Dalton before he lost all credibility by being the worst James Bond in history. As a young boy who was interested in history he seemed a very dramatic character," he said.

The earl's previous book was about the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, a battle won by the earl's ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough.

"When I proposed a book about a long-forgotten battle to my publisher, they did not think it was going to sell many. In the end it did very well, and was a Sunday Times bestseller, but they wanted something a bit sexier for a second book."

Prince Rupert was the ideal subject. "He was just a fascinating character.

"He was the best tennis player in England, according to Samuel Pepys. He was an all-round good guy. He was incredibly focused.

"Everything he did he did with a real passion and energy. He was one of the great characters of English history.

"He was a talented painter with works in the National Portrait Gallery and he invented one of the main forms of engraving,

"He opened up Canada by forming the Hudson Bay Company and he was a pirate in the Caribbean long before Johnny Depp. He also had a pretty interesting love life."

The prince had two illegitimate children, including a daughter, Ruperta.

"If he had married they would have been the future kings and queens of England."

Does the earl see any parallels between his own life and that of the 17th century prince?

"I do see parallels with myself - not with the glamorous bits, but he was vilified by the press," he says.

"He was even accused of sleeping with his dog.

"I have yet to have that."

The earl has had more than his fair share of negative stories from sections of the press keen to paint him as a cad and a ne'er do well toff.

"I'm a very private person," he says. "A lot of the tabloids are not interested in the truth and deal with caricatures."

What was his caricature? "Oh, some sort of brainless Hooray Henry."

There is less of that these days, he says. "I'm middle-aged now - not as interesting. I'm 43. I just get on with my life."

"Getting on with my life" includes running his family's Althorp estate, as well as writing his books. "I think people think I sit around with lots of butlers running around, eating cucumber sandwiches," he smiles.

"The writing is a passion. It's very time-consuming. I find I work best writing for four or five hours a day."

He also trains people in public speaking and presentational skills, something for which his credentials are impeccable.

How does he look back on his famous, not to mention controversial, speech of 10 years ago? "I feel lucky I was able to deliver it," he says.

"I was very nervous and worried that I couldn't because of the pressure and the emotion. Every word I said was true. I have no regrets about it at all."

When I broach the subject of the current inquest into his sister's death, however, I am politely rebuffed. "I'm sorry, I don't talk about that," he says.

Back on safer ground, he reveals his ultimate dream is for his Prince Rupert biography to be made into a film.

"Clive Owen would be perfect," he says. "He's got that restless energy and that slightly dark presence which I think Prince Rupert had."

The earl, who grew up on the Sandringham Estate, says: "I do feel I'm a Norfolk native. I come back here a lot - I have got a sister who lives near King's Lynn.

"I think it's an incredibly special place.

"I love the north Norfolk coast, which is where I grew up. I like the people very much. Norfolk is not on the way to anywhere so they have been able to keep their character more than in other places. I like their sense of humour and lack of pretension."

Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, price £20.

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