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Tragedy Brings One Family's Long-Standing Frustration to the Fore

By Christine Spolar
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 6, 1997; Page A13

LONDON, Sept. 5 — For 500 years, the Spencer family stood on one belief: God Defend the Right. This week, the closest relatives of Princess Diana -- the former Lady Diana Spencer -- have been pursuing the family motto with a vengeance.

Earl Spencer, the pale-cheeked younger brother of Diana, has been a voice of righteousness from a family in mourning, and some are wondering how he will handle perhaps the most difficult day of his life. Saturday, he is to pay tribute to Diana during her funeral at Westminster Abbey. If this week lends any clue, the lord of Althorp -- the family estate and final resting place for Diana -- will put his own stamp on how history remembers the Princess of Wales.

Hours after her death Sunday in an auto accident in Paris, Spencer was pointed in laying blame for the crash. Diana, 36, died escaping paparazzi, he said, and he clearly saw "blood on [the] hands" of every newspaper editor and owner who paid for intrusive photos of her. Editors of tabloid newspapers had their invitations to the princess's funeral withdrawn at Spencer's demand. It would have been, he said bluntly, his sister's wish.

Today, on the eve of Diana's funeral, another sign of the Spencer ire surfaced. The family filed a lawsuit in Paris, according to the Reuter news service, that allows their lawyers access to police files dealing with the six photographers and one photo-agency motorcyclist who have been placed under investigation for "involuntary homicide" in connection with the fatal crash. The suit also allows them to seek damages if there is a trial.

Seen driving to and from the family estate, Spencer has been grim-faced.

"Earl Spencer's anger is understandable, but no one knows where it will lead," said one person from Northamptonshire, where the estate is located. "It looks like it's been a long time coming."

Spencer, who is three years younger than Diana and who for a time worked for NBC's "Today" show, has long hated the press that his sister generated -- and which splashed over on him. In 1994, he blamed the newspapers for the breakup of the marriage of Diana and Prince Charles. In the past year, he has struggled with press accounts of the breakup of his own marriage.

Spencer has taken legal action in the past -- winning undisclosed libel damages from tabloids -- to keep his private life out of the papers. But the events of this week indicate he -- and other members of the family -- are using the media to their to advantage.

In addition to Spencer's bitter remarks this week, other relatives' emotional approach to Diana's death -- in strong contrast with the restraint of the royal family -- also has played out in the daily press. Diana's mother, Frances Shand Kydd, spoke Wednesday to reporters about the "gift" of her daughter. Red-eyed and wan, she said she thanked God for "all her loving and giving. I give her back to Him with my love, pride and admiration."

The Spencer family hails from country north of London, on an estate established in the 16th century. Althorp House, as it is still called, was home to a sheep-grazing business that grew into a rich family business. Sir Robert Spencer -- great-great-great grandson of the original ancestral owner, John Spencer -- was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom in the 17th century.

The family split in the early 18th century. One branch became the Dukes of Marlborough. The other became the Earls Spencer, beginning in 1765. The family home remained a notable English estate, "a typical prestigious aristocratic seat, the very best really," as Charles Kidd, co-editor of Debrett's Peerage, said this week.

Diana was one of three daughters and a son born to the eighth Earl Spencer. Her father was not involved in politics but was close to the royal family. Her brother viewed Queen Elizabeth as his godmother. One of her older sisters married the queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes.

The Spencer family was never far from the limelight even before Diana's marriage into royalty. The divorce of Diana's parents -- the end of a 15-year-marriage -- was a bitterly contested and much publicized case recounted by daily newspapers in the late 1960s. In the mid '70s, Diana's father married the former Lady Dartmouth, known as Raine, who is the daughter of romance novelist Barbara Cartland.

With Diana's wedding in 1981, the Spencers were destined to remain fodder for the tabloids. The current Earl Spencer, a graduate of Eton and Oxford, became a particular favorite for gossip columnists. His marriage to model Victoria Lockwood, at the family estate, was hounded by the press, and the couple's subsequent rocky times were reported breathlessly.

In the past year, the young Earl and his family moved to South Africa in an attempt to brush off public scrutiny and press fascination.

The Spencer children's stepmother, Raine, also has come in for unpleasant press coverage. A family dispute over how she remodeled the Althorp estate in 1991 -- selling off 200 family treasures to cut costs -- became a running press saga.

When the children's father died in 1992, the Times of London reported his funeral as "determinedly directed at family unity, at thanksgiving rather than mourning, at brightness rather than gloom." His remains were placed in the family vault, along with those of 20 generations of Spencers, at St. Mary the Virgin Church in the village of Great Brington, near the estate.

A family friend said this week that many people expected the young generation of Spencers to find strength -- if not solace -- in yet another sad return to Althorp, the heart of their family history and their sense of community. Diana, initially destined for the family crypt, will be buried on a small island on the estate, which the family said will be opened to visitors for a few weeks each year.

"No one will be able to take her place," said one woman who had watched Diana grow up in Great Brington. "But history will help them all carry on."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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