Earl Spencer to tell tale of royal ancestor’s great escape to audience at Borders Book Festival

Charles Spencer.
Charles Spencer.

Charles Spencer might be a descendant of King Charles II, but when he appears at this week’s Borders Book Festival, he’ll admit to being far from unique in that regard.

The 9th Earl of Althorp is speaking at the Melrose festival to promote his recent biography of Charles, titled To Catch a King.

The 17th century monarch is known for his hedonism, mistresses and many illegitimate children.

However, it is the young Charles that fascinates Earl Spencer, the risk-taker involved in what the writer and broadcaster describes as the “greatest escape story in history”.

His debut appearance at the four-day festival takes place on its opening day, Thursday, June 14, when he will be interviewed by Richard Scott, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, another descendant of Charles II.

“The duke is, indeed, a descendant of Charles II, as am I, in fact, via three of his many mistresses,” Earl Spencer told the Southern Reporter.

“I suspect that, with Charles II having sired a dozen illegitimate children, there are many tens of thousands of people who carry his blood today.

“The Charles II of my book is not the one we commonly remember. He is not the decadent hedonist of middle age but a young man on the run for his life, with the world hunting for him.

“He has to shed the finery of royal life and use his wits to survive. This was the finest six-week period of his life – something he was well aware of.

“Throughout the escape, I see him in a heroic light, but I also cast a critical eye on him generally.

“That’s the job of a historian – to keep things balanced and honest. Charles II had great qualities, and shoddy ones – like all of us frankly.”

Earl Spencer, younger brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, is looking forward to his trip to the Borders and to exploring its “gorgeous scenery”.

The London-born 53-year-old added: “One of the privileges of being an author is travelling across Britain to talk about your book, finding beautiful corners of the country as you go.

“I have spoken at around 100 literary festivals and events, though this will be my first time doing so in the Scottish Borders.

“It’s not a part of Scotland I know well, though I used to drive through it regularly whilst en route to my late mother’s home in Argyll, so, I know the Borders’ gorgeous scenery and look forward to witnessing it once more.”

The earl stages his own book festival each October on his Althorp estate in Northamptonshire and will be comparing notes with festival organisers during his Melrose trip.

He said: “I started the Althorp Literary Festival because it is such an authentic setting for an event of this type. Althorp used to house one of the greatest private libraries in Europe, and I have a passion for books that has long run in my family, and, yes, I always look at how other festivals do things, to see how we might tweak things at Althorp. There are always things to learn.”

The earl describes himself as a “passionate speaker” who enjoys talking without notes, but he expects the duke to “keep me on track” during their face-to-face interview.

To Catch a King,the earl’s sixth published book, was described by novelist and Downton Abbey scriptwriter Julian Fellowes as “history with the pace of a thriller”.

That’s a description Earl Spencer agrees with, saying: “I only write about people or events that are genuinely thrilling. It is a major commitment of time and energy completing a book. I always think at the beginning will I still be passionate about this subject in 18 months’ time? If I’m not sure on that point, I don’t take on the subject.

“And I always have myself in mind as the reader. I am impatient and have very high standards. If, when I’m reading it, a book drags, I bin it, so, when writing my own books, I try to keep a really good pace going, and I love dropping in the quirky stuff to try to keep the reader hooked.

“In my view, it’s the greatest escape story in history – when Charles, the king of Scotland, and his Scottish army, were roundly defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, and he went on the run for six weeks, with 10,000 men hunting him down, and with an enormous price on his head.

“Given that Charles was 6ft 2in, when people were much smaller than they are today, it all adds up to a truly astonishing tale of survival against the odds.

“If it was fiction, people would dismiss it as ridiculous, but To Catch a King is 100% true.”

As for the future, Earl Spencer is already working on a new book.

“Writing is a very important part of my life – I’ve now had six books published – but I also have a lot of other things to juggle, so the writing side of things has to be extremely disciplined.

“I always set a fair deadline and do my very best to meet it. I don’t have time to let things drift.

“I am on to my next book. My last four have been on the Stuarts. This one is not.

“It’s extremely exciting to get to know an entirely new period, but I suspect I will return to the Stuarts before too long. They’re every bit as interesting as the Tudors, who seem to have been rather overdone, in my view.”

 Tickets for Earl Spencer’s appearance at the Baillie Gifford-sponsored book festival at 6pm on June 14 cost £15, £13 for concessions.

To Catch a King is published by Harper Collins.

The festival takes place in Melrose’s Harmony Garden from Thursday, June 14, to Sunday, June 17.

Tickets are available at www.bordersbookfestival.org or at 0131 473 2000.