Lord Charles Spencer Has a Part for Benedict Cumberbatch in His New Book
You likely know Lord Charles Spencer as Princess Diana’s brother, or uncle to Princes William and Harry, but he is, also, a quite accomplished historian, having written four books over the past few decades, including Sunday Times best-seller Blenheim: Battle for Europe. His latest, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, is a dark tale of the consequences faced by the 59 men who brought about the death of Charles I, in 1649, by signing his death warrant. When Charles II, Charles I’s son, took the reins in 1660, he sought vengeance against the 80 “killers” (including prosecutors and officers), a quest which comprises the meat of Spencer’s book. (There are “very few happy high points” in the story, Spencer reflected, during a talk at Christie’s Tuesday night.) The account was a best-seller in the U.K., and it is out in the U.S. this week.
Spencer—who worked as a NBC News on-air correspondent for nine years, and has also contributed to The Guardian, The Financial Times, and Vanity Fair—resides at Althorp, his family’s estate, which is where Diana is buried, on a small island in the middle of a lake.
We spoke with Spencer about what appealed to him about this tale, whom he would cast in a potential movie version, and the new generation of Diana-admirers.
What is it about this particular tale from England’s history that fascinated you so much?
I see history as an excuse to “people-watch”—I’ve always been fascinated by how little man, as a species, has changed, over the past few hundred years. Like the American Civil War, the English one was so full of drama, which led to human nature showing itself in its best and worst light. My story—dealing with the trial and execution of Charles the First, then the hunting down of those responsible for this unique moment in British History—has it all: from bravery, stoicism, and noble principles, through to extreme dishonesty, cowardice, and self-serving betrayal.
What are the most common reactions or responses you’ve heard from people who have read the book? Have you found that most people are familiar with the story?
Although people in England are aware that Charles the First lost the Civil War and his head, very few in America know about this strange period of British History—when there was 11 years without a king. People tell me how fascinating it is to learn about this forgotten period, immediately after the Civil War—when bloody vengeance was the overriding theme. Many of the “killers” from the book’s title were genuinely fascinating figures, and readers often tell me about the one they most identified with.
What modern parallels, if any, do you see in the events covered in your book?
We humans don’t change much! We still use religion as a shield for pushing forward our political aims. We still fight hard against those who threaten our systems—of power, belief, or simply survival. We are capable of great but also terrible things.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting this book together?
The publishers said the big problem would be the structure: there were 80 killers in all—how would I pick out the most interesting, and weave their tales into a coherent whole? I settled on seven or eight men who pretty much tell the whole tale, without their stories tripping up the main narrative flow.
The story is clearly a quite grisly and dark one. Was it ever unpleasant, or difficult, to live in that world during your research?
I find it appalling that people could treat one another in such a barbaric way, in the name of God and the law, as happened in this time. Men guilty of killing the king were mutilated terribly, before and after death. It did upset me—but I felt I had to be true to what happened, so reported the facts as necessary, without glorifying in the gore. What continued to trouble me—and still does—was the eyewitness accounts of the condemned men’s final farewell meetings with their children. Just so sad.
What would you say the key lesson, or “moral,” if there is one, would be from this tale?
I think the unpredictability of life is part of the message of the book. Most of the men responsible for Charles the First’s death came from humble backgrounds—the son of a butcher, a brewer, etc.—but rose to a dizzy position where they could judge and condemn the king. They then had a decade of supreme prominence and power—before the sudden and unexpected reappearance of the dead king’s son, determined to strike down all those responsible for slaying his father, rendered them the most untouchable of outlaws. It’s quite a roller-coaster ride.
I read that there is interest in adapting the book into a movie—is that right? If this book is turned into a movie, which actors would be your ideal, dream picks to play the “lead roles”?
I would love it to be a movie or mini-series, but am realistic about how few books make that leap. I’ve been sent by my agent to speak to some of the bigger Hollywood producers. I see the characters in my book quite clearly—there is a Colin Firth figure, intelligent and observant, who records all the goings on at this time, and who is a much sought after fugitive; there is a Benedict Cumberbatch figure, who is the key pursuer of the killers; Rosamund Pike would be perfect as the doomed king’s mistress who spies for him; and there are a couple of American characters, too—I could see them being played by Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp. You can see I am not unambitious . . .
Did working on the book change your feelings about the current monarchy, as it stands, in England?
It made me understand more how the British monarchy has survived so strongly into the 21st century. The English Civil War, 350 years ago, was a time of terrible bloodshed; but it was an era that began to cut the power of the Crown down to size—so it became part of the British way, and gradually stopped being the sole source of power. The current monarchy is very popular in Britain—polls traditionally say over 80 percent of the population support it—and part of that popularity is emotional, while some of it is a recognition that much of what it stands for today is ceremonial and historical, with limited actual power.
What do you think it is about the British royals that people in America find so intriguing?
I spend a lot of time in the States, and am constantly surprised by the obvious level of interest in our royals. If I have one of the network TV morning shows on, there is frequently a reference to the British royal family. I guess it’s intriguing for Americans to follow individuals from that family; while the whole idea of such a system still flourishing today, in a country that speaks the same language, must seem quaint and fascinating at the same time.
What are your favorite books (historical, or otherwise) that you find yourself returning to again and again?
I read less than I should for pleasure, since I spend quite a lot of time doing so for work—for research, in particular. Also, I tend not to read a book more than once, in fact, however much I have enjoyed it. My favorite novelist is Edward St. Aubyn—one of Britain’s very best, and a friend of mine, in fact.
Do you have a sense of what topics, or periods of history, you might be interested in tackling in future books of yours?
My three last history books cover a narrow span—essentially, the 17th century. I’m ready to break out from that period, but am not sure in which direction, yet. I do like the fact that this book [has been well received], and that’s given me confidence to write for a large audience. I don’t want to do an obscure but worthy work, in future.
Have you noticed a new generation of visitors at Althorp discovering Diana? What are your plans for the future of the estate?
It’s sobering to remember that for those who come who are under the age of 25, Diana is some figure from their parents’ past—a historical figure, essentially. I love it when I get letters from young people who’ve been to Althorp, have learnt about Diana’s humanitarian side, and say they’ve been inspired to do things for the less fortunate. I’m deeply proud that that is part of her legacy.