In their own words: letters reveal plots of kings and queens

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The Independent Online

THey are extraordinary letters packed with royal revelations. There is intrigue and outrage and the painful details of divorce in the monarchy.

But these are not more documents from the memoirs of Paul Burrell, the former butler of Diana, Princess of Wales.

They are from the private collection of a New York gallery owner and they tell the stories of rulers down the centuries, from Richard the Lionheart to Winston Churchill.

The letters, amassed by Harry Spiro and his wife, Brigitte, over several decades, constitute one of the greatest collections of historical English documents ever assembled. After the death of Mr Spiro the letters - which include illuminating passages from Elizabeth I - are now to be sold at auction. Christie's anticipates the sale in London on 3 December will make at least £2m.

Tom Lamb, head of the auctioneer's book department, said yesterday: "The Spiro collection carries in itself part of the history of England and the whole panorama is there.

"It includes the major state documents of a whole series of kings and queens and the most famous British historical figures. Few collectors anywhere had the range, enthusiasm and discernment of the Spiros. It is most impressive."

One letter from Henry VIII appoints Sir Thomas Boleyn, the father of his mistress, to negotiate the divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon

Another document from the Catholic Queen Mary of England calls the nation to arms in response to the conspiracy to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne after the death of King Edward VI.

An important group of correspondence relates to Queen Elizabeth I. After Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned by the Scots, she sent an impassioned letter expressing her outrage at the treatment of Mary. A later letter indicates that, with the growing threat of French interference in Scotland, Elizabeth had begun to consider whether Mary should be executed. One rare letter is completely in her own hand - which is described as dreadful - to her fellow monarch, Henri de Navarre, later Henri IV of France.

Mr and Mrs Spiro began collecting in the late 1970s, a time when comparatively few other people were interested in such papers.

They began with the acquisition of American historical letters but picked up a catalogue of items relating to King Charles I and the Parliamentarians by accident one day and became hooked on English historical documents.

Jane Flowers, who became one of the couple's consultants at Christie's, said: "It was a revelation to both of them that manuscripts associated with the great historical figures of the past could be acquired so readily."

Over many years, manuscripts were bought on the strict principle that the document should illustrate an important event in the subject's life or cast light on an aspect of their character. All had to be in good condition.

Most of these were put on the market in London so the Spiros would sit up in bed before dawn in New York to place their bids by telephone when the sales began at 11am.

During the 1990s other serious collectors entered the field, prices rose, in some cases four times over, and eventually the Spiros bowed out. The decision to sell was taken after the death of Harry Spiro in 2001.

Surprisingly, Christie's does not expect to receive substantial bids from Britain's museums and galleries for the 160 lots, but the auctioneers do believe that the peculiarly British nature of the works means many of the items are likely to be bought by collectors at home rather than abroad.