Hubris of the high born; Profile; Earl Spencer

Correct in public, cruel in private, an English aristocrat stands exposed.

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When the television channels relay reviews of the year in a few weeks' time, the same scenes will be played over and over again.

We will remember - as if we could ever forget - the flowers, the crowds, the dignified procession, silent except for the clatter of hooves and the mournful Abbey bell; the Princess of Wales's sons, brother, former husband and father-in-law walking straight-backed behind the coffin. We will be reminded of Elton John's song, and, of course, Earl Spencer's speech, and, after it, the rippling of applause from outside the Abbey door to the altar itself.

We will marvel at Spencer's audacity, his cheek, his sheer affrontery. For a few moments last September, Princess Diana's brother transcended barriers of wealth and class. In the year of "people's" this and "people's" that, he was the "people's champion", flaying the tabloid press and the royals in equal measure.

In front of their father and grandmother, the Queen, Spencer pledged to protect her sons, William and Harry, from the intrusions of the media, and, in a phrase destined to ring down the years, he went on: "I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men, so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned."

Spencer's newly won heroic status was confirmed when he rejected a church burial and took her body back to Althorp, the family home, to be buried on a small island in a lake. Spencer, lost in thought, was pictured walking on the island and bending down to examine the thousands of bouquets of flowers moved there from the gates of the estate.

NOW LOOK at him. He has been exposed in a South African divorce court as a hypocrite, a bully, an alleged "serial adulterer" who cheated on a wife who suffered similar eating and psychiatric disorders to Diana, and bore him four children. She wanted to attend Diana's funeral; he forbade her, ordering her to stay in South Africa and look after the children, while he took his mistress, Josie Borain, a former model for Obsession by Calvin Klein.

While Spencer made strenuous efforts to prevent the South African papers reporting every lurid detail of the proceedings for fear of upsetting his young children, he was powerless to act in Britain. The tabloid press exacted revenge, scarcely believing their luck at being able to report example upon example of his callous behaviour. (The Mirror devoted no fewer than seven pages to the story yesterday.) Quite what William and Harry, at their boarding schools, made of the head of their "blood family" is not known.

But the public's disenchantment was not shared by those who know Spencer well. Indeed, when at the funeral he described the press in pursuit of his sister as a case of "genuine goodness threatening those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum" his friends must have been astonished, not at his courage in taking the monarch and the press head-on, but at his brazen duplicity.

For Charles Edward Maurice, the ninth Earl Spencer, his sister's funeral was the culmination of years of training. After giving birth to two daughters, his mother had been sent to a Harley Street consultant to see why she produced only girls. Then came John, who died soon after birth, Diana, and finally Charles. While Diana was christened in the church at Sandringham with commoners for godparents, Charles had it all: a Westminster Abbey ceremony with the Queen as godmother.

At the Spencer family homes at Park House, Norfolk, and then Althorp, Northamptonshire, at school at Eton, then at Magdalen College, Oxford, he has been tutored in the aristocratic art of exhibiting elegance and correct manners in public while behaving quite appallingly in private. In this he was not unique. His hubris was a symptom of his class, of an inherited belief in a right to say, and do, exactly as he pleases. In that sense, Spencer is a victim of his birth. And he would have needed exceptional character to survive his upbringing.

He spent his early childhood with Diana in Park House, growing up among people who could be horribly direct and cruel. With the older sisters, Jane and Sarah, away at boarding school, the younger pair were left to their own devices, miles away from other children, with the company only of servants and parents who were locked in a loveless marriage. In her notes for her biographer Andrew Morton, Diana wrote: "It was a very unhappy childhood. Always seeing my mother crying. Daddy never spoke to us about it. We never asked questions. Too many changes over nannies, very unstable the whole thing. "

Charles was in one wing, she in another. She would lie awake at night hearing him crying, "I want my mummy, I want my mummy." Meals were taken on their own, away from their parents, with nannies who were sometimes cruel. One was sacked for forcing Diana to eat laxatives, another banged Charles and Diana's heads together. So appalling was this treatment that Spencer never employed nannies for his own children. It was not until Charles was seven that he was allowed to leave the upstairs nursery to share a meal with his father.

Spencer loathed Althorp: "It was like an old man's club with lots of clocks ticking away. For an impressionable child it was a nightmarish place." Harshness bred harshness - and a way with words which passes for wit inside his circle and for a form of brutishness outside. He was upbraided by his parents for repeatedly calling his slower and less academically gifted sister "Brian" after the snail in The Magic Roundabout.

They had everything they could wish for - except the stability and attention they craved. His parents were aloof and distant. At Christmas, for example, the children were given the Hamleys catalogue and told to choose the toys they wanted.

"Basically we couldn't wait to be independent, Charles and I, in order to spread our wings and do our own thing. We had become horribly different at school because we had divorced parents and nobody else did at that time..." wrote Diana.

Divorce was less common than it is now, but when his father married Raine Spencer, the stepmother Charles loathed and called Acid Raine, no one told him about it in advance: the news was broken to him by his prep school headmaster. According to Diana, her parents' divorce left a lasting scar. "Charles said to me the other day that he hadn't realised how much the divorce had affected him until he got married and started having a life of his own," wrote Diana.

At Eton he, like many other titled, rich boys, sporting a foppish haircut, was well-behaved in public, often boorish in private. Oxford coincided with Diana's engagement. Her brother, on a munificent allowance of pounds 1,000 per month - spent principally on alcohol and high-living - became a tabloid fixture. "Champagne Charlie" was his nickname and together with Darius Guppy, his smooth-talking dandy of an Etonian friend later convicted of fraud, Spencer was an instant media celebrity.

There was always the public side and the private side. As a joke presumably, he once told a TV interviewer he fantasised about Roman orgies - then railed against the press in private for depicting him as a hedonistic layabout. He toured London clubs with Guppy in a black Mercedes blasting out pop music. His 21st birthday party cost over pounds 60,000, paid for by himself from his inheritance. The guests consumed 1,000 bottles of champagne.

IN MANY respects Spencer was the same as his other aristocratic contemporaries. But he was the brother of the Princess of Wales and he was never allowed to forget it. He fancied women; they, in turn, fancied him. But there was more to him than a taste for champagne and sex. Spencer was sophisticated, well read, intelligent. In this he was a rarity, given to private rages when the press exposed him for some misdemeanour. Among his own set, he was treated reverentially. Until his wife and mistress exposed his private behaviour in Cape Town last week, he had grown accustomed to being surrounded by sycophants. When he made a funny remark, everyone laughed. When he behaved outrageously, nobody berated him.

He hated the press, but was on the payroll of an American network. He said he loved his wife, Victoria, but was also rude and condes- cending about her. He regaled friends with the story of how his father, the late Earl, had told him to look for a wife who would stick by him through thick and thin. "Those of you who know Victoria know that she's thick and she certainly is thin," he said. A tasteless remark was made worse by the fact of her anorexia. His Etonian cronies thought it was a hoot.

He loathed the tabloids but contacted the Daily Mail to confess to an adulterous affair. He said he did not negotiate a deal with Hello! magazine at a time when he was pressing for tougher privacy laws. But a letter produced in South Africa shows him encouraging his wife to extract "a huge fee" from the magazine. He expects our understanding, and appears genuinely hurt when we suspect he does not deserve it.

His friends insist he did his best to help his wife, but when he finally lost patience with her problems, he began the affairs in South Africa only after she had produced for him a son and heir. (The decline of his own parents' marriage can be dated from his own birth 33 years ago.)

Apparently, he rejected the advice of his lawyers not to contest the divorce in court because they had seen her affidavit, and knew that details of his behaviour would give the lie to his claim to uphold family values. Having ignored them, the frank testimonies of his wife and mistress have fuelled what is described as "the divorce of the decade".

Listening to her godson speaking last September in the Abbey in which he had been christened, the Queen remained stony-faced. Inside, she must have been burning with fury. We waited for some reaction and there was none. Had she shown anger, we would have condemned her. Knowing what we do now - and what she, presumably, knew already - nobody could blame her.

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